Specialty items cost more, but the family makes it work on one income.

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Jessica Roys
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Roys

Jessica Roys lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family of four — which includes two teens she describes as "voracious." It's not just the volume of food that seems to send the budget skyrocketing, but the family's specialized diet, too.

The brood has many food allergies and sensitivities to foods such as corn, corn syrup, gluten, beef, red dye, dairy, and MSG. Avoiding all of these common items pushes their budget higher. "Specialty foods are by nature going to run more expensively," she says. Given their specs, Roys aims to cap the family's food spend at $200 weekly.

"We chose to buy a house that had been neglected for over 10 years and needed a huge amount of TLC," Roys explains of her living situation — and the costs it chews up. "My husband is very handy so we were up to the task, but at the same time, we are a one-income family and home renovations cost quite a bit of money. That's why the pace is slow on our tight budget, and our food budget takes up more of our total monthly budget than is traditionally recommended." 

This means they do have to "give up some luxuries," she explains — but they make it work. Here's how Roys keeps up with home improvement and feeds a family with food allergies at the same time.

Shopping Strategy

While some shoppers might be able to pare down the budget by paying careful attention to coupons and store circulars, these are "not as helpful as they would normally be since most of the items on discount are not ones we can eat," she says. 

Roys typically shops for the groceries she needs a month at a time, hitting as few stores as possible. "Our town is very spread out and the time and gas to go to a variety of stores is not cost-efficient," she explains.

Her go-tos on shopping days include Winco, Costco, and a third store like Walmart or the local natural food store for a few additional items. "Winco is a must since it's the only store in our town with a large bulk section," she says. "We find that buying flours, oatmeal, nuts, and seeds in bulk is hugely less expensive than [buying] packaged."

Roys is devoted to her grocery list, which she says she has "practically memorized." She creates this list to work with the flow of the store as she travels through it. 

Here are some of the specialty items on the list:

Produce section

  • Tofu
  • Dairy-free sour cream and cheese

Bulk section

  • Gluten-free oatmeal
  • Brown rice flour and tapioca starch
  • Mixed nuts
  • Dates
  • Coffee

Meat

  • Chicken thighs
  • Ground pork or turkey
  • Lunchmeat
  • Seasonal specials like ham or chops

Canned food section

  • Beans
  • Rice
  • Coconut milk
  • Tamari
  • Condiments
  • Peanut butter
  • Gluten-free tortillas

Refrigerated section

  • Dairy-free yogurt
  • Butter alternatives
  • Berries
  • Dairy-free whipped cream 
  • Peas
  • Green beans
  • Edamame

At the specialty store, she pics up grey Celtic sea salt. "There is an unknown mineral in the grey salt that helps my husband," she explains.

Worthy Splurges

Roys knows the splurges that make sense for her budget — some are time-saving, and others are just plain fun. 

For instance, "I made the decision years ago that unless the budget is in severe lockdown, I will always buy pre-made gluten-free tortillas," she says. "Wraps and burritos would normally be time-saving and quick options for a meal but if you have to make the flour tortilla by hand first to avoid gluten, it becomes something entirely different timewise. With food allergies, time and effort can be pain points. Gluten-free tortillas are a must for me!"

Dairy-free chocolate chips are another splurge for Roys. They're an essential component to one of the family's favorite treats: dairy-free yogurt with chocolate chips mixed in. "The complement of textures is perfect!" she says.

Budget Picks

For all of the spendy items on the family's specialized grocery list, Roys has some go-to picks that help streamline the bottom line.

Among them? Tajin seasoning, a lime and chili powder mixture that can be found in Costco or any local food store with a Mexican food section. "Think of the mouth-watering umami flavor of ranch Doritos," Roys says. "Tajin adds a similar mouth-watering distinction to your meal without the unwanted additives. I sprinkle this on my chicken, salad, soup, mashed potatoes, and more. It's kind of an addiction for me!"

She also picks up a Costco rotisserie chicken on grocery shopping day — and makes it go far. First, they'll eat it for dinner with fries and salad. The next day, Roys pulls off any large leftover pieces of meat and turns them into chicken salad with almond slices, mayo with lime, and pineapple chunks. After that, she freezes the bones in the original container, pulling them out later in the month to make chicken noodle soup or chicken dumpling soup and salad.

Spiral Menu Planning

Roys uses a monthly spiral menu plan strategy. Using this method, she takes a moment each night after cleaning up dinner to add to the spiral, which she says saves a huge amount of effort over the long term. 

In her spiral notebook, she might schedule specific soups on Fridays, crepes on Sundays, and taco bowls on Wednesdays. She forwards family favorites to fill in other future days, and she then highlights the empty slots to fill with new meals to try.

"Several months out are already planned with an included shopping list in advance before shopping day — all I have to do is fill in a few deliberate days for variety and seasonality. It takes the headache out of what's for dinner, what to thaw out, and what to prepare ahead of time," she says. "One of the biggest budget bombs is having to run out to grab something for dinner because you forgot to pull something out to thaw or can't figure out what to cook and are so tired or home later than expected."

Delicious Cost-Saving Tips

If there's any rice leftover from a meal, Roys uses it for a mouth-watering breakfast the next day. She simply heats up some oil in a skillet, puts a cup of rice in the hot skillet, spreading it out a bit, and cracks an egg into a hollowed-out part of the rice. The rice will brown, crisp, and slightly caramelize in the oil. "Flip all of it over and crisp up the other side and finish letting the egg cook through. Slide onto a plate and eat with barbecue sauce. Yum!," she says. "We use short-grain brown rice; it seems to have a better texture than white rice."

She further recommends baking your own bread at home using a bread machine. "The amount of bread we go through in our home is huge," she says. "Ready-made gluten-free items are notoriously expensive, and the more you can make at home, the better on your wallet. Using a bread machine frees up your wallet and your time."

She includes bread making in her teens' chore list. "They are very adept at loading up the bread machine each night while we clear up dinner. They take turns and use our recipe laminated on a card — very easy to incorporate for pre-teens and teens," she says. "Anything that frees up my time helps to keep thoughts clear and pre-plan our next step. Being clear and purposeful lowers wasteful spending."