The registered dietitian is on a budget, but won't skimp on healthy, balanced meals.

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Stacey Krawczyk
Credit: Courtesy of Stacey Krawczyk

Stacey Krawczyk authentically knows the meaning of the farm-to-table process: She's a fifth-generation farmer and the consulting registered dietitian for the Grain Foods Foundation, a group that provides science-based information about grain foods and health.

She lives in East Central Indiana with her husband and two teenage boys. Two older boys moved into their own place last year but are local and still come over for the occasional meal. For the whole brood, she spends about $140 weekly on groceries.

"My husband is a pastor and I have my own consulting business, so we try to be as frugal as possible for our overall budget," she explains, "But I will set aside a bit more for our food budget to ensure we have healthy and balanced meals. As a registered dietitian, I feel this is an area I do not want to compromise."

Here's how she keeps the budget in check while providing healthy, inspired meals for her family.

Shopping Strategy

Krawczyk starts with the sale items offered in the store circulars and builds her weekly meal planning from there. "It is not a perfect system, but it keeps me focused most weeks, so we don't resort to carry-out because I am fresh out of inspiration!" she says.

And while COVID nudged many households' purchases online, Krawczyk prefers to do her shopping in person. "I enjoy going to the store and finding new foods to try," she says. She estimates that she does 95 percent of her family's shopping, and 95 percent of that shopping happens in person.

She primarily shops at Payless (a Kroger banner) and Meijer. Her favorite store is Trader Joe's, but that's an hour away from home, so she gets there rarely. Only occasionally does she purchase groceries online: She goes this route for specialty items (her husband has celiac) or more gourmet items like Penzeys spices and herbs. 

To stay organized, she keeps a standard grocery list on the fridge, arranging it by category and according to the typical layout of her primary store. The family uses this list as a living document, checking off items they need as they go. "So if one teen uses up the English muffins, they can tick the box [indicating] we need it on our next shopping trip," she explains. "Or if someone else needs a quick run to the store for something, they can check the list to see what else is needed." 

Krawczyk says she's "trained" her family to focus on sale items and cost per ounce or unit when comparing to get the best deal. When their staple items are on sale, Krawczyk stocks up. "This includes canned chicken breast and salmon because they are lean proteins with no waste," she says. "Both make quick meals when we are in a hurry."

Similarly, she knows when stores put out day-old items from the bakery and she'll go grab their favorites and freeze them for later use. "My deep freezer is a kitchen tool I could not live without!" she says.

Sorting Splurges

Krawczyk sorts her splurges into two categories. The first is junk foods: "I do not buy them routinely, or we'll eat them!" she says. "I [only] buy chips, soda, and the like when we have the kids' friends over."

She allows herself to buy foods from the second category more often: pricier items like fresh seafood ("hard to get in the land-locked Midwest"), fresh bakery items, and gourmet cheeses. "The most expensive item we buy routinely is salmon fillets," she says. "I try to purchase those at least two times each month. Once all the kids are out of the house, we probably will eat more fish and seafood." But she considers these worthy splurges whenever possible.

Produce in All Forms

Because Krawczyk is committed to balanced meals, she always makes sure the home is filled with fruits and veggies — but that doesn't mean they always have to be fresh. Canned, frozen, and dried also round out the mix. "It is not a meal at our house unless it is balanced," she says. "For the longest time, our kids thought fruit was dessert because that is how we served it — after the meal."

Inexpensive groceries that are staples in her house include sandwich bread, peanut butter, canned beans, eggs, cereal, oatmeal, milk, rice, pasta, bananas, and carrots.

Another major go-to? Chicken thighs, which are so versatile for many of Krawczyk's uses. She buys a family-size pack when it's on sale, roasting, shredding, and freezing it for future uses including quick casseroles, tacos, quesadillas, salads, soups, and more. Buffalo chicken flatbreads are among the favorite chicken recipes she developed.

"It is a very versatile and affordable protein," she says. "I sprinkle with our favorite chicken seasoning, roast at 400 for 45 minutes, and remove the skin and bones. Easy peasy!"

Planning — and Prepping — for Success

When things are especially busy in her life — such as around fall sports schedules — she spends an afternoon prepping and then loads up the freezer with freezer-to-slow-cooker meals. In fact, she even created her own personal cookbook, which has 16 meals and includes a shopping list. "I have it down to completing the process in 2.5 hours excluding shopping," she says.

Because it's lean and affordable, pork loin makes a great staple for this type of meal prepping. "I stock up when it is on sale, cube it, and use it in five different freezer-to-slow-cooker recipes that we love," she says. These include Greek pork, pork stew, Thai peanut pork, pork curry, and pork applesauce barbecue.

Anything left over after a meal? Well, in Krawczyk's house, don't call them leftovers: "My menu philosophy is reduce, reuse, and recycle bits and pieces from other meals into new reimagined meals," she says. "We don't call them leftovers. [Instead], I make it a personal challenge to find new ways to repurpose meal components in our clean-out-the-fridge-night meals."

Krawczyk's eldest sons don't like to cook, but she encourages them to develop their skills and self-reliance by coming up with 10 recipes they know they can make and start a meal plan there. "Having a plan helps you to save money and food waste," she says. "Any plan is better than no plan."