This Illinois Mother Feeds Her Family of 6 on $130 a Week — Here's How

She stays on budget with a mix of farm-to-table proteins and grocery store bulk buys.

emily ackerman
Photo: Courtesy of Emily Ackerman

Midwest-raised Lebanese-American home cook Emily Ackerman lives in a small town in Illinois with her husband and four children. Farms and cornfields surround their village of Dunlap (which comprises just 16 blocks and few businesses), but it's also close to the city of Peoria. The location offers access to agricultural bounty for farm-to-table ingredients as well as grocery stores for family-favorite snacks — and that's a mix Ackerman relies on to put varied, lively, and cost-effective meals on her family's table.

As the founder of the everyday family cooking blog A Pinch of Adventure, Ackerman prioritizes wholesome, nutritious, and photo-worthy meals. But she also focuses on budget choices, allotting about $130 weekly for groceries for the family of six. The children range in age from 3 to 10, "and they eat so much food!" she says.

"Our budget is overall pretty tight, especially with four children and only one main income in our household," Ackerman says. "There is some leeway in our food budget, but not much." Here's how she stretches the family budget as far as it needs to go.

Buy Staples in Bulk – and From a Variety of Places

Ackerman does most of her grocery shopping at Aldi, with visits to Kroger as well. Every week, her grocery list includes large quantities of staples for her big family. Consider this sample weekly list:

  • 4 dozen eggs ("We eat so many!")
  • 3 gallons of milk
  • 2 pounds of cheese
  • 4 loaves of sandwich bread
  • 1 or 2 bulk bags of tortilla chips
  • "Loads" of bananas and fresh fruit
  • Either chicken or pork

That last line item doesn't represent the only meat the family eats, however. "We set aside money for beef and order a quarter of a cow one or two times a year," Ackerman explains. "So we save money on meat, and have quality cuts of meat on hand."

She makes the purchase from a local farmer. The meat is processed locally and "is such good quality, but it is at a much lower cost," she says. "Buying beef like this requires a deep freezer, but it is worth it in the amount of money that is saved, and with the quality and choice of cuts of meat that you get."

Stick to a Snack Strategy

Ackerman says she never buys single-serve or prepackaged individual-size snacks; those are convenient but spendy, especially for a large family. Instead, she puts her budget toward buying the food in bulk and adds a little extra legwork to get more bang for that buck.

"I always make or buy snacks for the kids and individually package them myself," she says. "When buying prepackaged, single-serve items at the store, you are paying for the packaging of that item and getting much less of the actual thing you are consuming."

For instance, they stock up on affordably priced store-brand potato chips and create their own snack sizes. "We actually really love Kroger brand kettle-cooked chips and their other potato chips as well," she says. "The jalapeno kettle chips are our favorite!"

Still, she's willing to splurge on a few items that are family favorites — even if they're not the most cost-effective picks. One such splurge? Cereal. "Although it may be unnecessary, it is the kid's favorite afternoon or bedtime snack," she says.

She also splurges on fresh, high-quality salmon from time to time, and invests in good-quality olive oil and dairy items she considers to be essentials in a tasty diet. "I will not compromise on butter, olive oil, and cheese," she says. "I hate pre-shredded cheese, so I buy it all in bulk and either slice it up for sandwiches or shred it for toppings and recipes that call for it. Freshly grated cheese is so much better than prepackaged shredded cheese!"

One Ingredient, Many Ways

Ackerman keeps her budget under control by purchasing ordinary ingredients and transforming them into extraordinary meals through ambitious variety and careful planning. Her best tip for leftovers is to "be creative" and let nothing go to waste, and that's the method she practices at home.

For instance, she buys whole fryer chickens and roasts them two at a time. Then, she turns them into days of meals, each with its own distinct flavor profile. Here's what that looks like:

  • The first night, the family eats dinner of roasted chicken with vegetables and potato side dishes.
  • Ackerman saves all of the bones and drippings from the chickens, and the next day simmers them for several hours to make 12 to 14 jars of chicken stock to put in the freezer for later use.
  • She repurposes the rest of the leftover shredded chicken into something easy like her favorite Lebanese chicken and rice or a soup like Mexican chicken verde soup.
  • If there is still leftover chicken, she freezes it for easy use later on.

Just as she does with chicken, she takes a similar approach to beef roasts and other meats as well. Like this:

  • On the first night, Ackerman might make Mexican shredded beef, and the family will eat it over rice.
  • The next night, they'll eat it on nachos with homemade queso.
  • And if there is any left after that, she'll make flautas with it as well. So that's "three completely different meals from one cut of beef," she says.

"I hate letting leftovers go to waste, so I try to use my leftovers throughout the week in a way that is totally different from the first night I prepared it," she says. "That way it never seems redundant, and I'm not letting anything go to waste!"

And that's a win-win — for the family's taste buds and its budget.

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