Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Food and Big Families

Photo from The Pioneer Woman Cooks
First of all, I realize that whether or not my family qualifies as "big" is a matter of perspective.  I think to a lot of folks, four kids make a big family.

And I'm feeling like we are a "big" family.  I no longer assume I can casually ask a friend if I can drop my kids off to play for an afternoon.  After all, there are four of them.  We can no longer have an inexpensive meal at Chik Fil A.  There are four of them now and no one wants a Kids Meal anymore.  So our inexpensive meal runs over $40.  When my parents come to visit, we can no longer all pile in the van for an outing.  We have to take two cars.

But we love children and hang out with lots of other adults who love children too, so compared to our friends who have five or six kids, we are small potatoes.

For the sake of this post, I'm going to just go with the fact that we are now a big family and big families eat a lot of food.  As the chief cook at our house, I'm struggling to keep up.

Recipe Book Makeover - I'm tired of cooking meals that no one (me included) is excited about.  I want my family to have good nutritious food so they'll be healthy.  But I'm also going for the shared memories of yummy tastes and smells, that come from eating a really good meal together.

So over Christmas, I began to clean out my recipe book.  I actually threw away cards that had meals with too much processed junk in them and meals that were just so-so in my family's opinion.  I hung out on the Pioneer Woman Cooks website and found a few new favorites.  After a test-run, if a recipe got rave reviews from most of my crew, I printed it and put it in my book.  Try these cinnamon rolls - they're the best I've ever tasted.  My kids went bananas.  You can't really call them "healthy," but for a splurge - they are definitely "memory makers."

One thing I've realized is my family doesn't particularly care for all the down home southern recipes that I grew up with as a child.  Sweet potato casserole with all the brown sugar and butter and pecans?  No thank you. 

But every one of my children loves Asian food.  Jasmine rice has become a staple at my house.  I tweaked a recipe for a Thai style soup that is full of roasted chicken, lime, red pepper flakes, coconut milk and stinky fish sauce.  When I say that we're having Thai soup for dinner, all four kids start doing the happy dance.  Pioneer Woman's Lettuce Wraps got rave reviews at my house as well.

Saving $$$ by couponing and stocking up - With four kids I understand the idiom "eating us out of house and home" in a new light.  Our family can put away the food.  If I just strolled through Publix and bought enough food for the week, the total at checkout would be scary!

For years I resisted using coupons.  Mike would bring it up, and I would rant about how much time it would take to go through the Sunday paper and find coupons we'd actually use.  Seemed like a lot of work to save 50 cents on a box of cereal.

But the big savings in couponing don't come from just using a random coupon now and then.  Big savings come from holding onto your coupons until your grocery store puts an item on sale, then combining the coupons with the sales for rock bottom prices.  And when you find a rock bottom price, you stock up.

Here's a real life example from last week.  Wenxin loves Campbell's Chunky Grilled Sausage Gumbo Soup.  He calls is "spicy rice."  He could eat it every day.  At Publix, it's $2. 39 a can.  But this week, it was Buy One Get One Free.  So, it was about $1.20 a can. 

But . . . I had a stack of coupons for 50 cents off two cans.  That got the price down to 95 cents a can. 
So.  . . drum roll please. . . I bought 20 cans.  Seriously, 20 cans.  Actually I bought 22 because I had an extra coupon for $1 off 2 cans and that brought the price down to 70 cents a can. 

You should've seen Wenxin's eyes as I stacked all those cans on my shelves in the garage.  "Mama bought lots, lots, lots spicy rice!"  I actually bought a few cans of other varieties for  everyone else, but there was enough "spicy rice" to wow Wenxin.  22 cans can be eaten by my family in 2-3 months and by that time Publix will run another sale on this soup.  I should never have to pay $2.39 a can.

Sometimes an item is even FREE if you combine coupons with a store sale.  When I come home with items that were FREE, Mike looks at me as if I held up a grocery store.

What makes this incredibly easy is that there are websites that post each grocery chain's weekly sales and tell you what manufacturer coupons are available to match with the sale.  My favorites are The Grocery Game (there's a small fee after a free trial) and Southern Savers (totally free.) 

So every week, I use the Publix Sales and coupons to stock up on  items we use regularly.  Then I drive down the road to buy everything else on my list at Walmart - because Walmart's everyday prices are way lower than Publix's if a sale is not involved.

So how about you other moms of big families?  What do you do to stretch your food budget?  I know I'm writing from a "city girl" perspective.  We don't have a garden or farm animals or even a deep freeze - although that's on the list for this year!