Find out how Shannon kept a $170 grocery budget for a family of 4, and get tips for doing your own grocery budget challenge, plus a 1-week sample meal plan that shows what her family ate.
By Shannon, Contributing Writer
“I wan’ some B-nana.” My 2-year-old’s sweet voice rang out, throwing in, “Pleeease Mama.”
He must have sensed I was about to say no.
He tried again. “I wan’ some apple, Mama.”
I shook my head apologetically.
Finally, “I wan’ some peenubudder.” He was smiling and nodding enthusiastically now, sure he’d win me over, but the answer was no to that one, too.
A year ago, my family was in a much different place financially, and there was one month in particular when I found myself having to say no to my 2-year old a little too often.
Now, don’t be too concerned, he was still getting plenty of healthy foods to fill his little belly. It’s just that there wasn’t any extra in the budget to buy many of his usual favorites.
Our relative poverty was mostly self-induced. You see, we were three months into our laser-focused mission to get out of debt as fast as possible. To help us save even more than our usual tight budget allowed, we were in the midst of doing a “No Spend Month” to help us get even closer to our goal.
Those of you who also live on one income probably know, when the budget is already stretched to the max, the only place left to cut is usually the grocery budget.
I had already slashed our grocery budget by half, while still feeding my family mostly natural and organic foods. That January though, I was determined to do even more to save money.
$170 Grocery Budget Challenge
That January, I fed my little family of four for only $170.
Ever since I mentioned our experience in another blog post, I’ve had readers asking, “What did you eat for only $170?!”
Luckily, nerdy writer than I am, I took notes! Below, you’ll find suggestions to do your own grocery budget challenge along with a 1-week sample meal plan. For more grocery savings strategies, you can access my free 3-part video series, the Ultimate Grocery Savings Guide.
How to Do a Grocery Budget Challenge
1. Find out what’s back there.
Even when times are tough, the majority of us in the developed world are so richly blessed. Our homes are filled with an abundance of food. It’s easy to become so accustomed to it though, that we stop seeing the resources that are really there.
If you’d like to do your own grocery budget challenge, take a close look around your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer.
What are the foods that have gotten shoved to the back and forgotten? See that little half cup of barley in the back of the pantry? Did you notice that not-quite-empty bag of sweet potato fries in the freezer?
Not only will you save money by finally using up these foods, you’ll get a clean and organized pantry out of the deal, too!
2. Get Creative.
Once you’ve taken note of all the foods that you have available, get creative!
I must admit it is my husband, not I, that is the master at getting creative with the food we have on hand.
To help me with this challenge, over the years I’ve learned a handful of recipes that are flexible enough to allow me to use up whatever I have on hand.
These are a few foods I like to prepare that can’t go wrong, even if you need to use up a little of this and a little of that: easy fried rice, basic soups, simple smoothies, casseroles, and scrambles to name a few.
3. Eat the less-than-favorites.
As mamas, it’s so hard to say “no” to our sweet little punkins, but we all know there are times when it’s best for them and our families if we do.
If you’ve decided to do a grocery budget challenge to move your family toward your bigger financial goals, this is one of those times.
This is the time to fill their little bellies with the healthy foods you have available, even if they aren’t their favorites.
Eat the freezer meals that didn’t quite turn out. Use up the ingredients you bought for failed healthy living experiments. (Frozen fish head, anyone?)
Yes, even use the foods you bought in bulk and have since abandoned as “unhealthy.”
4. Plan Ahead.
Once you decide on a few creative meals and commit to eating a little differently this month, create a meal plan. It’s ok if it’s less than perfect.
Looking back on our meals from that month, I have to laugh. They were a downright weird mishmash of odds and ends.
One night, we actually had salmon salad and peach pie for dinner! Still, we didn’t go hungry, and over the course of the month, we probably got pretty good overall nutrition.
1-Week Sample Meal Plan
Here’s a sample 1-week meal plan from our $170 grocery budget. This was from the first week of our pantry challenge, so there was a bit more to choose from than there was by the end.
Breakfast: Eggs (We had a dozen chickens at the time, so we ate a lot of eggs this month!)
Lunch: Roasted Chicken with Leftover Pasta
Dinner: Steak, Sweet Potato, and Green Beans
Lunch: Leftover Steak, Sweet Potato, and Green Beans
Dinner: Leftover Chicken and Pasta, Carrots
Lunch: Chicken soup, leftover steak and carrots, toast
Dinner: Leftover chicken soup, eggs, potatoes, toast
Breakfast: Eggs, Gluten Free Waffles, Sausage
Dinner: Roasted chicken and Green Beans
Breakfast: Eggs and Gluten Free Pancakes
Lunch: Lunch with family.
Dinner: Leftover Hamburgers, fresh juice
Lunch: Leftover Hamburgers
Dinner: Tortilla Soup and Lasagna from the freezer
Lunch: Leftover Tortilla Soup
Dinner: Chicken soup (using leftover chicken and stock from Day 4) with Salad
Our grocery budget challenge helped us to get closer to our goals and we learned a lot along the way:
- As a direct result of the grocery budget challenge, we were able to put an extra $235 towards paying off our student loans that month.
- I had already slashed my grocery budget in half before the challenge. After finishing up our January grocery budget challenge though, I learned that there were a few more ways I could save. As a result, I cut the budget even more until we paid off all our loans.
- Right there in the midst of our shrunken budget and let’s be honest, feeling a little deprived, my eyes were opened to just how crazy blessed we are. I was so thankful to have that abundance of healthy food to feed my son, even if he didn’t get his favorites for a short time.
I now teach my simple, coupon-free method for saving money on groceries to other busy moms. Check to see if course registration is open or sign up for our waitlist. If you need some quick strategies, you can also grab my FREE guide on how to save $100 on groceries in under a minute.
Have you done a grocery budget challenge before? What was the weirdest meal you served your family?
jo ann garrell
I am interested in cutting down on food . I throw away tons of food,but it let it get old. I don’t like leftovers will occasionally eat some left overs next day then I throw it out.
When I start to see that my food won’t last much longer, I try to put it in the freezer. Things like bananas and other fruits can be used in smoothies when they get too ripe, and veggies, etc. can be added to soups!
We are doing a no spend January right now probably will end up being a no spend February! This year the extra money saved is going to help someone in need.
We have 3 adults living here and we are spending $30 a week. Today might be a little off the beaten path. Trying to make the pork chops last I going to make a depression era recipe my Mom used to make. Only problem is I have no recipe! What fun!
You are an inspiration, Vickie! I love that you are using the money you are saving to give to others!!
a good soup for left over chicken or pork chops is add a can of cream of chicken, cream of celery and cream of mushroom ( they have the cheaper cans and they work fine) and cut up some potatoes cubed, let it cook slow till potatoes done. for the next day if you need alittle more you can add other vegtables or rice, its very good
Thanks for sharing this great tip!
Would this pork chop recipe happen to be one with a thin red sauce and then you have it over rice?
Lisa @ This Pilgrim Life
I made a red beans and rice dish a few weeks ago that turned out surprisingly good. I sautéed a couple slices of bacon and diced onions, lots of spices, and then added the beans. Cheap and tasty. Definitely something to try again. Great job on sticking to your budget– nice that you have so many chickens! We could (and usually do) eat eggs at least in some form every day.
That sounds yummy! I love beans! We eat eggs almost every day as well–except for our firstborn. She used to not be able to eat them and now won’t even try them after 3 years of not eating them. 🙁
Heres my scenerio. I’m a wife and mom of 2, not a great cook so new things scare me. I am using what is in my pantry and freezer to save money but I have to have the traditional meal every night ie meat, veggie, starch.
How can I fool them with a no meat meal? I could never get away with toast, fruits, or breakfast foods for dinner. Thanks
Tonight my family is having Shepherds Pie except there is only the size of a golf ball chunk of left over roast . My family seams to think they need meat every night There is beef broth from the roast and if asked yes there is meat in there!!Good luck!!
Thanks for the great tip!
I also put very little meat in our shepherds pie. They don’t notice it!
What about pasta dishes
Great idea! Pasta is a great meal stretcher, and it’s very filling!
Can you do special nights once/week or so of “breakfast for dinner?” That way, it feels like something fun? Or, may a breakfast food that is still cheap but not your typical breakfast. I used to make a super easy quiche that was just eggs, salsa and cheese. It felt gourmet, but it was cheap! Does your husband like beans? That is another big one for no meat. Or, certain cuts of meats and dishes make meat stretch longer…ground beef, shredded chicken, soups and casseroles make things stretch. Hope that helps!
i usually save back $40 give or take, in an envelope in my purse, for when i find a good sale. recently i found 10lb bags of chicken leg quarters for $1.70. yes 17c a pound!! i bought as many bags as i could, and put them in the deep freezer. for “beef” type meals, my moms b/f deer hunts, and i process those myself. im still sure i couldnt get by on $170 a month.
One of our favorite no meat meals is white bean soup. I cook my beans, then add in sauteed onions, celery, and carrots, and I season with some salt and pepper. You can add in chicken stock or bouillon if you have it. Then I smash a few of the beans to make it thicker. We had it last night for dinner with a pan of cornbread. Super simple, super cheap, yet delicious. My husband is a meat & potatoes man, but he never complains when I make this.
This soup sounds delicious! My hubby is not a big fan of beans, but I make a similar one with white beans, a tiny bit of chicken and kale, and he actually loves it! I can make a whole pot of soup with just one chicken breast, which is super helpful!
my husband wants a meal like that and usually what i do is put a small piece of meat in a one-skillet dish like 1 chicken breast with pasta and veggies or 1-2 small pork chops with shredded hashbrown potates and make like a casserole. he gets his “meat” and i get a break on my budget.
Random thoughts from a penny pincher with 20 years in to the young mom I once was…Watch some videos on how to cut down a while pork tenderloin ($20 will make about 7-8 meals for a family of 4) Buy roasting chickens on sale ($5-6 dollars a piece) Roast the chicken in the over..make a meal of the breast and legs for your husband and kids…make a casserole with the thigh meat, make stock / chicken soup with the bones and scrap leavings.. Buy whole chuck roasts on sale ($7 per) and cut them up into 4 or 5 1 pound packages of cubed meat for stew..Always shop twice or three times at Thanksgiving to take advantage of the .29 cent a pound turkey if you send $25 dollars…buy two extra for $6 or $7 dollars a piece to ease the budget in December and January when most budgets are crazy tight. A whole turkey can make 10 meals. or more with a little pinterest, google, pre-planning. Same can be said for ham in spring..work the sale..buy the whole ham at below cost and spread it for 8 meals. Always ALWAYS check the mangers special section and either use that day or freeze. Your spaghetti will still be awesome with a 1/2 pound of meat instead of a full pound. Double the rest of the ingredients and get to meat for the price of one. Corned beef hash on sale makes breakfast a meat meal for $4..so does sale sausage in a quiche..Finally…there is no shame in a tomato soup grilled cheese dinner…teach this to you kids(and if you man gives you guff, give him the side eye, and just tell him you don’t want to be too full in an hour or two)
I love these ideas…. I am still laughing at the side eye / later….. LOL
I absolutely love this suggestion. It has some really great tips in it! Thank you!
The side eye?that’s hilarious!!??
well said I raised four Boys doing that and they always had friends over so always a lot of people at our table. noone ever went hungry and there was plenty for the next day(bonus)
I only use 1/2# of meat for spaghetti type meals. Today I did a baked pasta dish that called for a whole lb of meat….I sauteed 2 yellow squashes (I diced them first), and mashed them a bit, then added them to the spaghetti sauce with the meat. Extra veggies, less meat….though I was generous with the mozarella cheese, lol!
I do a meal with roasted veggies (cooked with some olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, s&p, thyme, basil, and another green herb that starts with an m….my mind is blank right now). The veggies are plentiful….carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, and some green pepper (or colored peppers…whatever is cheap….and the peppers are usually more expensive than the other veggies, so I use a bit less). After roasting, I spoon a generous serving of veggies over noodles, add a wee bit of chicken, and smother it in alfredo sauce. It’s amazing! Sometimes I will mix the chicken in with the veggies, esp if I don’t have alot of chicken! I normally just use 1/2# of pre-cooked chicken (I freeze half # portions of cooked chicken). But I’ll roast 3 onions, 4-6 zucchini/yellow squashes (or more), a lb of carrots+, and a pepper or two. We have enough veggies for 2 meals! My kids wouldn’t know if I left out the chicken!!!
I make theme nights. Meatless or Meatball Monday. Waffle Wednesday. Tortilla Tuesday. Thrifty Thursday (leftovers). Fakeout Friday (fake take-out) If you put rolls and a salad. You just gotta open their minds. Red beans and rice and cornbread with a ham bone makes for a cheap meal.
A friend posted this on facebook – looking forward to following your blog! thank you for getting the word out and helping people! Cheers!
Thanks, Tauna! This post was from one of my contributing writers, Shannon. Glad to have you here!
There are so many recipes you can prepare from scratch that not only eliminate the “ingredient unknown” but also save you tons. And a peanut butter sandwich every now and then is perfectly fine, (we all ate them growing up).
Hi! I Love all the ideas you share here, But me, my hubby and my daughter all take lunches to work/school and we also have a freshman in College that is home every weekend. To us, we save by doing our own lunches, but we have to add that in our budget. Also, we cook much bigger meals on the weekend when our son is home.
It sounds like you are doing what you can and doing a great job, Linda! Yes, taking your own lunch saves a TON!!
Thank You, Erin, for the fried rice recipe. I am 65 years young 🙂 , enjoy the kitchen, but have never made fried rice. My husband and I also enjoy eggs and I find the quiches, as you mentioned, can make a nice dinner with the veggies and leftover meats. Thank you very much for the tips you share with us!
This was actually from Shannon, one of our contributing writers! I hope you love the rice!!
My life is a grocery budget challenge, lol. It seems like there’s always that little bit more you can do to stretch what you have.
*When I buy meats I always separate before freezing, and in small portions. Many recipes call for a pound, so mine are separated into 2/3 pound portions. Every third meal is a “free” meat portion.
*I often add cooked rice to ground meat portions (works amazingly for taco meat).
*If I get surprise guests, add water to the soup, and a little salt. (This also works when you just really need the soup to go two days.)
*Save veggie scraps in the freezer to be used for chicken or beef stock. (I refuse to pay for canned broth.)
*Catch the 10 lb bags of chicken leg quarters on sale. Buy extra. Then take them home and boil most of them. (Save some for frying.) Throw all of the veggie scraps in the pot while it boils. Once cooled, pick all of the meat off of the bones and package separately for the freezer. All the juice left in the pot? That’s the chicken broth that I refuse to pay for. I usually put some in with the cooked chicken, and bottle the rest in every spare jar I can find. This will last months in the freezer.
The absolute weirdest thing I’ve made in a tight moment? Fake sausage made out of oatmeal. (I got that recipe from perbain on YouTube.)
These are such GREAT tips! The oatmeal sausage is hilarious! Thanks for sharing!!
I agree with you many of us do this every month, there is no backup pantry to hit, or a stock of things in the freezer, I know many people do this as a way to eliminate waste, but that’s no big deal, the big deal is those of us who do this every single month year after year, I fed a family of 8 for less than $400 a month most teenage boys, they are grown now but I’m disabled and on a very limited fixed income and I do this every month, I wish I could chose one month, or even one month out of every quarter to do this and then go back to normal spending habits, to me this is nothing amazing there are so many of us who do this daily.
grew up myself on fake steaks and fake sausages my children still beg me to make them
Thanks for these tips! Because of our own journey learning to save money in hard times I started Frugal Living Mom to help people find things that they could get for free and put “frugal strategies” into their everyday lives, and I’m really happy when I discover blogs such as this! 🙂
Sounds like you have a great site! 🙂
I am very impressed by this article! A lot of people are not willing to make sacrifices for a specific goal. I am encouraged and inspired!
I agree–Shannon is an inspiration!
Great article! I was just thinking the other day I need to inventory my cupboards to know what I ACTUALLY have in there to make some meals with! It is a little more difficult as we are grain free, and citric acid free family(no tomatoes makes it difficult), but I am set to get it all straight!
I completely agree with the veggie scraps, bones to make broth. I ALSO save all jars to use for broth in the freezer! Trick* Leave 1 1/2inch head room and go for straight sided jars to prevent “surprise” cracking in the freezer!
Love that tip about the freezing! Thanks so much! I agree that food allergies make it a bit more challenging, but there are still things we can do!
Heather @ My Overflowing Cup
Thanks for sharing this post, Erin. I have had a lot of experience with “Pantry Challenges”. I like looking at it as a fun challenge. Saving money and cleaning out the freezer/pantry are also great benefits.
You are so right about how very blessed we are in this country. Often we focus on the fact that we “can’t” go to the grocery store, but the truth is that we already have more food than most of the world. What a wonderful perspective.
Shannon is such an inspiration! This is pretty much how we ate all of the time when we were low income. But when there is a will, there is a way!
Heather @ My Overflowing Cup
I do the very best I can with what I have and then I trust God with the rest.
You and Shannon have both been an inspiration to me – thank you!
Love all your ideas, we are on social security here, its two of us andI keep my grocery budget at $200.00 a month. Some examples of my savings bought a pork roast on sale this week for $1.99 a pound cut it in half and froze each half to cook at different times. Butter was $1.99 a pound I brought 20 pounds. I try to stock up on the things we like when they are on sale. I use coupons for my toothpaste and deodrant at the dollar store we also get bread at the dollar store, spices, snacks anything I can save on. Its my first stop! I go to Sams Club about once every 3 or 4 months for flour, yeast and toliet paper. I have also bought 50 rolls of toliet paper at a janitor supply for $48.00 for 1000 sheets per roll. Lasts forever! We have 10 cats and once every 6 months I go to a milling place and get 4 bags of excellent cat food for 23.00 a bag. I get 40 pound bags for less then I would pay for 20 pound bags at the store. I find saving money a challange that I love to do. It enables me to save some money each month and we are able to support our church also.
Thanks so much for sharing all of your tips, Carolyn!
Am I the only one that thinks fresh fruit should be a priority item not a sacrifice. Bananas are only at most 50 cents a pound and have so many health benefits. I think telling your son “no” to healthy foods like apples and bananas is sending the wrong idea. Fresh fruits and veggies should always be a part of all your meals. I see carrots and green beans a few times on your menu but that’s it.
I think it should be a priority, yes, but this was just a one month experiment. Sadly, though, many people simply do not have the choice to make it a priority if they are living on a low income.
I definitely agree, Rebecca. If he was asking for chips or other junk food I could understand. Sounds like he was hungry. 🙁
I completely agree! This made me so sad–especially since the author admitted that it was not out of financial necesssity. My husband and I made a commitment to pay off our debt (and we did so fairly quickly), but food is an area that I will not compromise on. We feed our family of 4 for around $200-$250/month, but we still have healthy, organic, whole foods. You just have to know how to shop. And if we couldn’t do it for that price, we would cut back elsewhere rather than denying our children healthy foods if we could afford to do so.
Last year, I participated in a pantry challenge (http://sewmona.com/tag/pantry-eating/). For one week, I had to use stuff I had on hand. It was a good experience and I realized that even when the cupboards seem bare, they really aren’t. I don’t know if it’s weird, but we ate corn, potatoes, and chocolate chip muffins for dinner one day. Can you say carb overload?!
That is so much fun–and that dinner makes me laugh! I love when you have to get creative like that! It’s worth it!
I have a “soup bag” in my freezer.. just a gallon freezer bag that I put that last spoonful of veggies or tiny sliver of meat that is never enough to fill a belly and always gets thrown away into the freezer bag.. when the bag is full, I throw it in the crock pot for any easy “leftover soup” …
Hmmm… My family seems allergic to leftovers, so I wonder how this would work for us!
That’s an excellent idea!
The freezer bag of veggies and meat tidbits is a good idea… and no one has to know the meal being made with this is leftovers… 😉
So true! No one ever has to know!
We cleaned out our pantry and freezers before we moved. Oh my goodness did we eat some creative meals during that month!! Healthy? yes. Tastey? not always. 🙂
A good leftover user is Mexican Pie. It’s tortillas layered w whatever meat and veggies you have and cheese. Pop it in the oven for about 20 min and you’ve got a quick meal (you could use no meat, and it would still be filling).
Another lunch leftover user is cook a potato in the microwave and top it w veggies, leftover chicken or taco meat. Yum!
I love the idea of slashing your food budget and do it also. I do use coupons and utilize them quite well. I have a day care in my home and strive to feed the little one’s a healthy balanced meal and snacks. I noticed in your 7 day menu there were no desserts. i’m big on desserts especially with a teen ager living with me. he is 16 and a bottomless pit. I have a neat way of using up left overs. I bought sectioned plates and make meals that can be microwaved. that way nothing is wasted and nothing is in the fridge that gets molded over time. I also make soups and put in two cup containers for reheating and use when i’m not here to fix for my son and his son. I love to hear how others keep the food budget down and still feed them healthy food. I also raise and can produce in the summer.
Jessica @ Curious Chickadee
Wow! I am very impressed! I think I will try a $150 Grocery Budget Challenge. I use a few coupons sometimes. 🙂 It is possible to use coupons without being obsessed! I only use the coupons that come to me, I don’t even have to spend time looking for them! 😉
Great suggestions. Thank you. We too are now a family of four (used to be five), and have a budget of even less. Our extra little secret is that we try to only buy meat and fresh foods that are in the 50% reduced pile. We eat like kings, yet pay like commoners. We do not have a fixed menu, as we eat what’s on sale! 🙂
This is very inspiring! I’ve been struggling to slash my families grocery budget. I look forward to trying some of these recipes. 🙂
The other night I was looking through my freezer to clear room for the planned weeknight crock pot meals I make in the winter. I came across 2 small chicken breasts, 4 turkey burgers, half a package of cheese tortellini and a can of tomato soup that had some serious pantry dust build-up. I cooked the turkey and chicken in a can of chicken broth and water. After cooked I strained out meat to cut up and put family size can of tomato soup in and brought to boil. Then I added the cheese tortellini and brought to simmer. Ten minutes later I had 1 1/2 cup fresh spinach in fridge I didn’t want to go bad so I tore it up and dunked it in. Cooked for 5 more minutes and I can say it was a bigger hit than my homemade tomato soup. It was finished off by a half frozen loaf garlic bread I found under the turkey patties that made AWESOME croutons for topping the soup.
This sounds SO tastey! I’m going to have to try this one for sure.
this is amazing! I spend that much a week on groceries, usually more. My family is vegetarian too. I just don’t know how to make it work?!?
I love this blog! There are times when I need to make the money stretch, too! I appreciate the ideas.
I love this! I used to do this more often when we were on a tight budget. Now I’ll do it when I don’t want to go to the grocery store for only a few things. It really makes sense to use what is in the fridge or the pantry already.
So my wife and I have difficulty cutting back on this because my wife must snack all throughout the day! She doesn’t generally eat big meals. She snacks on things throughout the day. This can get really expensive. From pretzels and crackers to fruit strips, trail mix, and other things, I feel like there’s no way to cut our grocery expenses. Also, being that my wife has acid reflux, the choices of foods we can make is really limited. It gets tough! Any ideas?
I would try to get her to eat more higher-protein/high fat snacks that will keep her full longer. Pretzels, crackers, fruit strips, etc. will not keep you full very long and are pricey. I would try to pair a small piece of fruit or veggie with some cheese or nuts for snacks. These are not cheap either, but they will keep her full longer than the other snacks and be more affordable than the pre-packaged snacks in the long run (and healthier!).
When making meatloaf I’ll add oats and/or shredded cabbage. Your meatloaf will look fuller and you can hardly taste the difference.
I love all these recipes and ideas! I want to sign up for this blog!!
Hi Sarah! I would love to have you! You can sign up here: https://thehumbledhomemaker.leadpages.co/your-retreat/
First of all, I think it’s insane that people think there is anything wrong with teach in your children that budgets are important OR that they can have whatever they want whenever they want. It’s a great character building experience. Good job teaching him that it is important to try to eat what you get and to be thankful!
That being said, I am curious why people do the no spend January. I’m not finding fault in it and I understand that the sooner you pay off debts, the less you spend in interest. However, I have always found that when I clean out my pantry too much, I spend so much more the next month. We live in the middle of nowhere and it’s not the best idea to have less than a week’s worth of food- especially in winter. To be fair, we are kind of the “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” types to begin with, so we don’t usually have much in the pantry that we refuse to eat unless it’s something someone is allergic to that we just hang onto to give to people who aren’t. So, is there a reason people do no spend months and don’t buy groceries? Is it a psychological all or nothing thing? Or is it kind of more for people who maybe have different spending habits on groceries than my family does? Again, not trying to be completely dense, I just never really understood how it helps more than having a balanced budget throughout the year? Just curious.
Ps- that was supposed to be “teaching”. Ha.