This Baltimore Mom Feeds Her Family — and Her Business — on $200 a Week

The food photographer makes her own sauces and minimizes waste.

A white woman with blonde hair leans against a kitchen counter that's got a basket of fruit sitting on i
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Formicola

Jessica Formicola lives near Baltimore with her husband and two toddlers. The family's food budget is about $150 to $200 per week, inclusive of the groceries she needs for testing as a recipe developer, food photographer, cookbook author, and owner at Savory Experiments.

The grocery requirements for this food-focused job can certainly add up. In a given week, for instance, she might make five batches of the same cookie — or three different recipes with beef tenderloin.

She banishes waste and makes DIY sauces to keep her costs down. "We eat everything I photograph, even the stuff that I need to tweak and make again," she says. "It is very rare that I will totally trash a recipe I am working on. For baking, these items get sent to my kids' school or given to friends and family. I try not to waste anything."

Here's how she gets what she needs for family and work without breaking the bank.

Shopping Strategy

Formicola's family lives "a little further out in the country," so there isn't an option for food delivery services — but that works out just fine for her.

"I actually prefer to shop in person," she says. "Being able to pick produce based on when I need it for meal planning, seeing items on sale that I can stock up on or for creative reasons... I actually enjoy the shopping aspect."

Plus, she is the only one who knows just what she's looking for.

"As for produce, if I know I'm making nachos at the end of the week, I'll get an avocado that is nowhere near ripe and that accounts for less food waste versus if I got food delivery, the person picking the foods might not pay as much attention to where it was in the ripening phases," she says.

Aldi is a favorite grocery store: "I am not usually able to get everything on my list [there], but school snacks, seafood, and other everyday items, especially cheese, are super cheap there," she says. "I keep frozen pizzas stocked at all times, and theirs are always way cheap."

She also shops Walmart for its "surprisingly good meat department and basic produce," as well as Wegmans or Giant for specialty items.

Here's what a typical grocery list looks like for Formicola:

  • fresh vegetables
  • salad
  • fresh fruit
  • salmon
  • yogurt
  • string cheese
  • milk
  • eggs
  • bacon
  • cereal
  • sparkling water
  • meats ("This depends on what I am testing that week.")
  • shredded cheeses

Minimizing Waste

Formicola plans her menus for the week ahead, complete with one swing meal.

"A swing meal is a meal that uses all or almost all shelf-stable or pantry items so I don't have to worry about them going bad, and it can be rolled over to next week, if necessary," she explains. "Frito Pie is a good example: It is a versatile recipe and uses only fresh onions, which we always have on hand."

If she has something she needs to use up, Formicola plans a recipe that uses that specific ingredient.

"It is a small, mindless way to help people reduce food waste," she says.

Formicola says her biggest grocery splurge is a matter of convenience: bagged salads. "Listen, I know how much money I could save by chopping my own veggies for salad, but let's face it: Pouring it out of a bag is so much easier," she says.

Importantly, this grocery item cuts down on food waste, too. "I found that there is actually less food waste using a bagged salad than if I buy all the ingredients separately and have to chop it all," she says. "I also buy frozen vegetables, and again they are more expensive, but I have less food waste. If our plans change and I don't get around to using the broccoli, then it doesn't go bad."

Beyond the efficiency of buying frozen veggies, Formicola also acknowledges the nutritional advantage.

"Frozen veggies are often flash-frozen, so sometimes they actually have better nutrition than fresh," she says. "Veggies and fruits start to deteriorate nutritionally the moment they are harvested. Freezing them also freezes this process to preserve those nutrients."

Stocking up on Staples

Pasta is a cheap grocery store staple that carries Formicola's family — and her work — far. "I respect and love a good-quality semolina pasta — even fresh pasta," she says. "But for everyday meals and after saucing it up, I can make the cheapest $0.89 box of pasta taste darn good!"

She also considers whole chicken — both raw and cooked — an excellent value for meal prep.

"I buy a cooked rotisserie chicken at the store or make one quick in the Instant Pot and shred it," she says. "It can be used for salads, pasta, sandwiches, and a million other things like dips and one-dish rice meals."

For other recipes, she buys whole raw chicken in favor of pieces. "Chicken breasts cost an arm and a leg, but buying a whole chicken gives you more meat for less — you just need to break it down," she says. "I also swear by skinless, boneless chicken thighs: so much cheaper and after you take off the skin, not a huge difference nutritionally from breasts."

DIY-ing to Save Money

Formicola's biggest advice for grocery cost savings is to make seasonings and salad dressings from scratch if possible.

"They are so expensive at the store, and at least for me, I usually have the ingredients on hand in my pantry to make my own in literally two minutes or less," she says.

These DIY sauces are a key strategy in her tasty — and photo-worthy — home cooking: "I really love creating restaurant-quality meals at home, and I do this by using salt, seasonings, and sauces," she says. "Balsamic reduction sauce and Maldon sea salt are my go-to's, but I do keep a large variety of sauces around. Adding these or additional seasoning can dramatically change or elevate nearly any dish."

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