How This Mom of 2 Toddlers Finds the Fun in Grocery Shopping (With $150 Per Week)

She's realistic about spending and splurging.

Caroline Chambers holding plate of food and cup of beer
Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Chambers

A recipe developer, home cook, and Instagram creator, Caroline Chambers lives in Carmel Valley, Calif., with her husband and two boys, 3 years old and 18 months old. As a busy working mom, she's all about ease and making use of everything in the fridge and pantry without waste. She estimates her household's weekly food budget is about $150.

"We don't keep a super strict budget, but we are definitely in saving mode right now, as we're expanding our house to make room for baby number three!" Chambers says. Here's how she does it with simplicity, efficiency — and fun, too.

Grocery Shopping for Fun

Chambers casts a wide net when it comes to gathering her groceries, a way to shop strategically while getting inspired. She shops at Thrive Market for all pantry goods; ButcherBox for all meat; and local grocery stores to fill in the rest.

Rather than thinking of grocery shopping as a chore, she finds it inspiring and even fun. "I freaking love Trader Joe's," she says. "But it's honestly more for fun snacks than anything!"

She feels similarly giddy about Whole Foods, but she approaches shopping there with less abandon due to its reputation for high prices. "It's just a fun place to shop — so many new products to explore!" she says. "But I only buy specialty items that I can't find anywhere else here because of the prices."

Here's a sample grocery list for Chambers' family:

  • Berries
  • Oranges
  • Eggs
  • Cheese (always sharp Cheddar, plus other varieties that rotate week to week)
  • Canned tuna
  • Sliced turkey
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Jam (to mix into plain yogurt for the kids)
  • Milk
  • Packaged snacks (like Cheddar Bunnies, Skout Organic bars, and applesauce)
  • Tortillas
  • Rotisserie chicken
  • Kale
  • Lemons

Worthy Splurges

Chambers is willing to splash out on splurges that matter to her, such as fresh fish at the local market. "I'm trying to cook fish for my family at least once a week," she says. "It's a bit of a fun excursion to take my toddler to the fish market, and I know that I'm getting a really quality product, so it's worth the extra expense to me."

Further, she won't compromise when it comes to high-quality jams and olive oils. "Inexpensive jam doesn't even touch the good stuff," she says. "And I'm obsessed with Kosterina olive oil and I have a subscription so that I never run out. I find it really difficult to find high quality EVOO in a standard grocery store."

Affordable Staples

While quality groceries matter to her, Chambers knows that more expensive doesn't always mean better. Case in point? Skippy peanut butter. "It's just so much better than the fancy, expensive new nut butter brands. I buy the massive Costco jars," she says. "There's so much I can do with it!"

That means PB&J sandwiches or ants on a log (celery with peanut butter and raisins) for the kids. And for the whole family, Chambers frequently uses peanut butter to make peanut sauce. She tosses it with noodles for a quick and easy meal, or she serves it as a dipping sauce alongside grilled meat or frozen dumplings. "There's very little I can't do with a giant jar of Skippy," she says.

Chambers takes a similar approach to pork tenderloin. "I'll grill two, and we'll eat one just sliced up for dinner the first night," she says. "The next day I'll make my husband a sandwich, and I'll make myself pork fried rice. The kids love it, we love it, and it's so inexpensive!"

Batch Meals

For ease, convenience, and cost savings, Chambers is a big fan of batch meals. "I love making a big batch of either tuna or chicken salad that will last me several lunches," she says. "Bonus: my 18 month old loves it too, so we can eat a quick lunch together!"

While she doesn't characterize herself as a formal meal planner, Chambers says she loves making components that make it easy for her to throw together quick and healthy lunches. "Lunch is where I really struggle, and often wind up eating a bunch of snacks, versus a complete, balanced meal," she says. "So I'll roast a big tray of veggies, grill some chicken thighs, prep a salad dressing, wash and chop some romaine or kale, and make a big batch of some grain, usually quinoa or brown rice. That sets me up to make mix and match bowls all week long."

Intentional Leftovers and Bulk Buys

While some people dread leftovers, Chambers creates them on purpose as a way of simplifying meal prep and stretching the value of groceries. "I always try to make extra portions of whatever meat I'm cooking, for instance, to throw onto salads or sandwiches the next day," she says. "I always make an extra cup of rice so that the next day I can make a clean-out-the-fridge fried rice with bits of leftover meat and veggies."

In fact, she prefers not to think of them as leftovers but as "components that you can throw together in totally new ways," she says. "Leftover roasted veggies can become veggie tacos with the addition of a little sour cream and hot sauce. Leftover chicken can become leftover pesto chicken pasta."

She uses a similar philosophy to guide her bulk-buying strategy. She advises buying meat in bulk and freezing it as individual portions. For instance, she buys a massive piece of salmon at Costco and cuts it into portions: one to cook that night and the rest for later. She wraps the extras tightly in plastic and freezes them. This method, she says, "saves so much money, and ensures I always have high-quality protein on hand!"

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