Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Party of Five: Groceries at Costco & Trader Joe's

I inquired via Facebook a couple weeks ago about friends' monthly budgets for groceries and was somewhat encouraged and somewhat disappointed by the responses. Turns out, we are right on track money-wise ($600-700) for feeding a family of five but I knew there had to be a way to do more real food on a real budget. Here's how we made changes this past month.

Before: shopping weekly at Walmart (price matching & Savings Catcher), 3-4 times/month at Costco, and eating traditional American meals - casseroles, pastas, PBJs, and eating meat at every dinner. I "ran out of money" by the end of the third week and we struggled the last 4-6 days of our month (which runs according to our credit card, resetting on the 15th). 

After: one trip per week at Trader Joe's and about 3-4 trips per month to Costco, eating lots of produce, less meat, and salads twice per week. Kids' lunches are about the same and now the only place we do pasta or bread. (P.S. When the hubs is gluten-free, this helps me work in cheap pasta meals without having to complicate dinner when he's home.) 

First, I created boards on Pinterest that helped me place meals for three weeks. It was a good start, worth the extra time up front and now I just reference the meals that were successful.

Here is an image of my week of meals so I can write down exactly what I need for the week and buy nothing more. LISTS ARE REQUIRED if you're trying to stay on budget. I sit at my computer for a couple hours each week to write down exactly what I need and where I'm getting it from, then email a copy to myself so it's on my phone. This is an Excel file I change/update each week. 

Strawberry-Candied Pecan-Feta Salad
Chicken Fried Rice
Pulled Pork on tortillas (corn & flour)
Fish tacos (with fried tilapia from Trader Joe's)
Coconut Shrimp (our new favorite, plus I use the coconut in granola)

Sweet potatoes (baked, with brown sugar & butter available)
Roasted red potatoes (with olive oil, seasonings, and parmesan cheese)
Broccoli, green beans, mixed veggies, and corn

Breakfast (this is still heavy on the carbs):
Homemade granola (with milk or yogurt)
Toast or English muffins with peanut butter or cream cheese
Honey-nut Cheerios (bulk buy at Costco)

New Lunches (still working on making improvements):
Tortellini with oil & parmesan cheese (TJ's)
Homemade pizza (fresh dough from TJ's)

Once I had my menu planned, I wrote up the grocery list and figured out what needs to come from Costco and what needs to come from Trader Joe's. Easy peasy and also Excel.

- I don't buy convenience foods or snacks.
- I do buy lots of small apples, bananas, pretzels, and a bulk box of popcorn from Costco for snacks. My kids also like mini bell peppers, cucumbers, baby carrots & hummus, and we go through about two watermelons per week. Summertime is the best.
- We rarely have desserts or sweets in the house.
- My kids only drink water and occasionally milk. 
- My kids love salad because I let them use whatever dressing they want. It's worth it to me for the gallon of ranch to be smothering their plate of real food. Pick your battles. 
- If I buy food, I have to use it that month. For example, I don't buy a 10 pound bag of chicken a week before my month runs out just because the price is less per pound. I get just exactly what I need for the meals that week and ultimately save money.
- We have our church small group about once/week so that eliminates at least three meals per month.  

Lessons I learned:
- Beware fresh bulk produce. For example, I bought a huge bag of fresh broccoli from Costco but it looked funny before I used the second half. Learned to buy frozen instead.
- My fridge is more organized and my pantry is no longer holding hostage random canned food or boxes from a month ago. That's the thing I learned: when you buy boxes or cans of food, there is no urgency to use them. Fresh food requires a plan and use.
- We spoiled some of our budget on 4th of July weekend and wine. Plan ahead and plan carefully for events like this. A random trip to Kroger/Tom Thumb to grab food for a couple days of fun meals and snacks can cost you more than 10-15% of your monthly budget!
- The samples at Trader Joe's are wonderful. And terrible. I often add to my cart what they're sampling which adds an additional several dollars per trip. Careful!

Share your tips with me! What are your favorite items from Trader Joe's? What have you learned about buying in bulk from Costco? 

Updated 07/17/14: Here's my favorite find at Trader Joe's. I eat them plain, as a great accompaniment to a lite salad, or I've heard they're amazing with honey goat cheese or a smear of brie. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014


My six-year-old, Colby, has been in a particular phase lately. By lately, I mean six months and it has been wearisome. He is typically and in his most honest state, a very silly and happy, sensitive and thoughtful little man who has come up against some challenges with his self-control. We have tried everything - we moved his bed upstairs to see if he needed space from his little brother. We planned our meals differently to see if he wasn't getting the nutrition he needed. We took him on more dates, engaged him a variety of ways when he burst out of control, and we seriously considered counseling or therapy. I shed many tears as I felt completely and utterly irrelevant to him and helpless in solving the problem.

Then, in the most casual of conversations, we discovered that he has been getting up as early as 4 o'clock in the morning to sneak upstairs and watch television. {insert face palm} For hours before the rest of us were up and certainly before the sun started peaking through curtains, my boy was watching Wishbone or PBSKids and sending his psyche into a spiraling hot mess. We unplugged that television immediately and told him to stay in his bed until the sun came up. Needless to say: problem solved. It's like we traded him in for a new model and we are now the happy owners of a very happy boy.

I'm obviously so grateful that we discovered the source of his angst but the reality is that this felt like just one of a handful of places that were crumbling at my feet. Our marriage is pulling out of a hard season, my heart has felt an unusual sadness about Olivia, and I'm just plain insecure about my roles as wife, mom, home schooler, and follower of Christ. I'm not used to be caught off-guard because I usually plan so thoroughly but these areas make me see that Jesus is again (and always) pursuing me. He's searching for deeper levels of commitment to Him and ravishing love on me in my brokenness and reminding me that He makes all things new.

I've been struck by a story in John 6 that I've heard and read many times. It's coming alive in me as I pause a little longer in the story. Jesus and His disciples have just gone up a mountain and He notices that a "large crowd" was following Him. There were 5000 men alone - can you imagine counting all the women and children, too? His first instinct, because He really saw them, was to feed them. Which makes me love Him - my Jesus loves to feed us. We probably all know the story from here - He feeds them to their fullest by making a handful of loaves of bread and two fish into food for thousands. He does the most sincere and relevant of miracles and leaves them satisfied by meeting their tangible, physical need. 

Here's the most amazing part of the story: they don't know it's a miracle until he tells them:

"Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost."
John 6:12

So sitting there, in twelve baskets, are these crumbs and broken pieces of bread with torn edges and tattered flakes. Jesus points to the crumbs and says, "See the miracle?" Jesus points to the fragments and calls it surplus and calls it His way. His way of nourishing and satisfying and filling the hearts and stomachs of men and women is displayed by broken leftovers. It's like He knows that our way, our nature is to find our stomachs and hearts full from His provision but it's not until He gently and strategically gathers the crumbs that He points to the miracle. The substance of the story is found in the crumbs and broken pieces of what God Himself gives to men. It seems to me that He likes bringing attention to the fragments and it's there that He shows His miracle. He places value on those bits and pieces, no matter how they've been handled, torn, and broken. 

I hope I'm always a person who can see the crumbs and leftovers in your life. I hope you're reminded today that while the character and goodness of Jesus always satisfies our longings and hopes, it's really the fragments of life that show off His glory.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

#WhereverYouAre Campaign

We are in the thick of summer: sno-cones, a hearty dose humid evenings, and awesome, prize-motivated reading programs. Kids are home for the cruelest months of the year and I'm watching as many moms are slowing melting under the pressure. Summer is not for the faint of heart.

Hidden somewhere in the hustle and bustle of VBS, swim lessons, camps, and deep grief that mommy's day out has hit the pause until late August, we complain on social media and to friends that we can't handle the extended time with our kids. It's more than unhealthy; it's created a culture where selfishness is our motivation.  

So enters the "#WhereverYouAre Campaign" and the challenge for moms to better engage with JOY during our time with kids. Over the next few weeks I'm going to have some of my mom friends (a.k.a. shero-moms) share with us their practical tips on how they find joy, sanity, and purpose in time with their kids.

Jim Elliott, a missionary to Ecuador in the 1950s, says it beautifully & thus provides our campaign title: 

"Wherever you are, be all there."

So for the next several weeks, I'd love to see you post on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter some practical ways that you find joy while being with your kids. Follow me and you'll hear from my favorite women, see their precious kiddos, and get a renewed sense of your purpose in being a mom.