Feeding a Crowd

by Rachel Muller

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My family of five recently expanded to include two temporary members: a 12-year-old Korean exchange student and the 10 year-old son of a friend (a single mother in need of an extended break). Our family budget was already stretched to the seams, so I was challenged to find a way to feed two extra mouths without increasing our grocery budget significantly. Here's how we're doing it:

Breakfast at our house usually consists of a few slices of homemade toast (homemade, whole wheat bread, made with ingredients bought on sale in bulk), butter, jam, and orange juice or milk. We make the juice from frozen concentrate, adding about half a can more water than directed. This gets us another small glass of juice for free, without watering down the juice too noticeably. I cook eggs sometimes as well, scrambling them and adding a little milk to make the eggs go farther. We don't eat much cold cereal normally, but I do find the occasional loss leader deal that makes it affordable. My kids aren't too fussy on oatmeal, but I eat it regularly, cooking a small portion for myself in the microwave. I make pancakes on weekends, from scratch, quadrupling the flour (half whole wheat and half white) in my Betty Crocker recipe, but only doubling the eggs and the oil. I add extra milk to make up the difference in the lost liquid. I make our pancake syrup from scratch using Mapleine extract (the directions are on the package).

The kids (currently ranging from ages 9 to 12) are responsible for making their own lunches. I provide bread that I bought on sale in bulk at a bakery warehouse outlet and froze until it was needed. My kids like the uniform slices of commercial bread for school sandwiches. I also provide peanut butter, jam, cheese, and lunchmeat (bought on sale from the deli section). They're allowed one snack from the snack bowl (a selection of commercial treats which I stock up on when they're on sale for the lowest possible price), a homemade cookie or two (made with significantly reduced sugar), and a piece of fruit. When buying fruit by the pound, I choose the smallest pieces if they're going to be going into children's lunches (cheaper per piece), and the largest pieces if I'm going to be cutting them up to serve as after school snacks or weekend lunches. Cut fruit goes farther; one large apple or banana can serve two children. For a beverage, the kids fill their refillable juice containers about two-thirds full with juice made from concentrate that once again has a little extra water. My husband and I eat the previous evening's leftovers for our lunches.

For affordable crowd-satisfying dinners, we eat a lot of pastas, soups and stews. I buy TVP in bulk at my local health food store (texturized vegetable protein is a dry, soy-based product) to make the ground meat in spaghetti, chili, and other meat sauces go farther. Needless to say, we buy the cheaper warehouse packages of meat, and repackage and freeze the surplus. I also stretch my protein-dollar by using meat more as a flavor enhancer than a main ingredient in soups and stews, using beans as the main protein source (cooked from scratch in a slow cooker, or bought on sale in cans). To make soup meals more fun and more filling, I bake homemade biscuits or cornbread from scratch, and serve them warm from the oven. I use peanut butter (a very affordable calorie dense food) as our dinner protein source once every few weeks, making groundnut stew (see recipe below) or Thai peanut sauce over rice. They're both rich and filling meals, and very tasty, washed down with a large glass of milk.

Improvisation is one of the biggest keys to saving money at dinnertime. I'm never tied to the specific ingredient list in a recipe, or the same menu plan week after week. I get creative with whatever's cheap or available.

For snacks we eat fruit, carrot sticks (cut ourselves as the pre-peeled ones are too expensive), homemade bread or toast, homemade cookies or muffins with reduced sugar, air-popped popcorn (bought in the bulk section of the grocery store), and leftovers from the previous meal. We avoid individually-packaged servings of anything, except for school lunches (a compromise on my part).

So far our food-stretching plan seems to be working. Our food budget hasn't gone up appreciably with the addition of two more kids, and no one's going to bed hungry.

Groundnut Stew:

Chop up one large onion, and saute in a little bit of oil. Add 3 or 4 sliced carrots, 3 or 4 peeled and diced potatoes, and enough water to just cover the vegetables. Add one large can of diced tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are almost tender. Add about a quarter cup of soy sauce, a few tablespoons of lemon juice, a minced or crushed clove of garlic, and a generous cup of peanut butter. Return to a boil, stirring constantly, until the peanut butter has been mixed in thoroughly and the stew thickens. Add a little more water if you want a thinner "soup" to serve with bread, or add a little extra peanut butter if you want a thicker stew to serve over rice. Adjust individual ingredients to taste.

A self-proclaimed frugal black belt, Rachel Muller writes from her home on Vancouver Island, off the West Coast of Canada. She is married and the mother of three daughters, twins who are eleven, and a nine-year-old.

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