12 Budget-Friendly Meals for Feeding a Crowd of Hungry Mouths

What is it like to feed a large family on a very tight budget? Here are some of my strategies.

First, let me give you a bit of my background. I am the mama to four grown children, all born within two years of each other. I was a stay-at-home-mama in the late seventies and through the eighties and nineties.

My wonderful husband worked very hard and often long hours so I could stay home with our kids. As a result, I felt it was essential that I cut expenses whenever and wherever I could.

As our kids grew and started eating regular food, and not just breast milk, it became more and more evident that I had to come up with some ways to cut those costs.

That made for some very creative cooking, especially at times when payday was a couple weeks away and I still needed to make meals for six people.

Here are some of my tips:

  1. Always buy fruit and veggies when they are in season. They are cheaper then and actually taste better. We looked forward to summer in the San Francisco Bay area because of all the peaches, plums and apricots you’d find in the market and on neighbors’ trees.
  2. Avoid the higher-priced, brand-named items in grocery stores. They are mostly not that different from the generic or store brands, and the prices are significantly lower.
  3. Avoid fast food at all costs. That meant cooking every night, so I began collecting recipes and cookbooks to keep the variety coming.
  4. Try very hard to stay away from processed foods. Cooking fresh can take longer, but making your spaghetti sauce is much cheaper (and yummier!) than buying jarred sauce.
  5. For us, sodas were rare, expensive sugary cereals were even rarer, and chips and salty snacks were hardly ever regular items on my grocery list. I made my own cookies and desserts and rarely bought Oreos or other processed snacks.
  6. I learned how to do home canning from my grandmother when I lived next door to her. I would pick berries, peaches, plums and apricots, make my own jam, or freeze the prepared fruit. I also canned peaches and plums to mix in with oatmeal. My kids started eating my canned plums when they first started on solid foods.

Speaking of solid food, when my babies started eating solid food, it was not Gerber Baby food in jars— that was way too pricey for us. Instead, I fed them whatever we were having for dinner ground in a baby food mill right at the table.

I would often alter it a bit by leaving out some spices or salt, but what I fed the rest of the family was what the babies ate.

I think that is one big reason I never had a child who would only eat one thing or turn their nose up at everything.

That isn’t to say we didn’t have picky eaters— my eldest son really didn’t like green veggies, my eldest daughter was not fond of peas (and still isn’t) and preferred her veggies raw. My two youngest were okay with just about everything.

To make it all workable with the kids as they got older, I had some rules regarding meals and snacks.

Growing kids are sometimes bottomless pits when it comes to food. My kids all played sports and were very active, so they could put away food faster than you can say, “let’s eat.”

To help keep costs down, I always had a big bowl of fruit on the counter, and they all were allowed to grab fruit any time.

No need to ask permission. If they wanted something else, they had to ask. Nine times out of ten, I would really have to say “no.”

I didn’t want my gang to go hungry, but I didn’t need them scarfing down the leftover pasta in the fridge when I had plans for it for another meal— more often than not, dinner that night.

Fresh veggies in the fridge were often available as well. It depended on my energy level, whether or not I had those. Cutting up carrots and celery was a bit time-consuming, and they didn’t last very long.

To give you an idea of what I was up against…

A typical breakfast for us was cereal, milk, and toast. Since cereal was so expensive, I limited everyone to just one bowl. If they were still hungry, they could have a piece of toast or a piece of fruit.

Lunch was a sandwich, a cookie, and fruit, and they bought milk at school.

A snack was often fruit and/or PB&J and milk.

This meant that we went through a box of cereal, a loaf of bread, and a gallon of milk just about every day. We also went through a couple of pounds of apples, a couple of pounds of bananas, and a couple of pounds of oranges a week. And you know that huge jar of peanut butter from Costco? That lasted about a week.

Now for the strategies I used to make dinner economical:

  1. Casseroles were my best friends. I could make a minimal amount of meat stretch to feed all of us by making it into a casserole. Adding veggies and a salad would satisfy all the nutritional needs of growing children. I had a great recipe that used thinly sliced chicken breast, poultry stuffing, and cream of chicken soup. It was great because I could use three big Costco chicken breasts to feed all six of us. The family loved it.
  2. When I did buy meat or fish, I bought in the large multi-trays and divided them into manageable packages to put in the freezer.
  3. I also have a killer red pasta sauce I make that is super easy and makes a lot. I would make that and use it to pour over pasta one night and into a pasta bake later in the week.
  4. I could use one can of tuna to feed the whole family by making a tuna noodle casserole. Some chopped veggies, crispy onions, and seasonings make it a lot yummier than the bland casserole of the fifties.
  5. Homemade mac-and-cheese was also a go-to meal when the end of the month arrived before the paycheck. I grated my own cheese rather than use the pre-grated stuff (cheaper).
  6. One of the kids’ favorite meals was when we did breakfast for dinner; sausage gravy or pancakes and bacon or waffles. I could make one small package of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage stretch for all of us if I made gravy, and we would have it over toast or, if we could persuade Dad, he would make the best biscuits in town. Another breakfast for dinner was creamed eggs over rice or biscuits; sliced, hard-boiled eggs in a béchamel sauce with black pepper and nutmeg. Again, a favorite with the kids, but I think that was one of my husband’s faves as well.

Oh, I forgot to mention we invested in a small chest freezer from Sears, which was a huge help. When meat, poultry or fish was on sale, I could stock up, and I had a place to put it.

On that same note, I would frequent the Oroweat bakery outlet and buy a few loaves of bread at a time half-priced and freeze them. It was good bread, and it was just a day old, so it couldn’t be sold in the supermarket.

Some of the strategies I used as my gang was growing up have now been dropped.

When you cook for just two, you don’t have to be quite as frugal, but some of the recipes are still on the to-do list. It has taken me a while, but I have finally learned to cut down on just how much I make.

I love it when my kids come over for dinner and ask for the old standbys. Funny how you remember how to make the old recipes without looking for the written recipe.

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