The Connecticut mom, who traveled every week for her job until this spring, now has her sons all at home because of the pandemic, and her grocery budget has taken a hit as a result. She reveals how she's buying, shopping, and saving now.
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Nicole Frack
Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Frack

Nicole Frack, a regional VP for Christian Dior fragrances and cosmetics, lives in the New York City suburb of Redding, Connecticut with her family of five. Her husband takes care of the household — which has always included at least some type of homeschool component between the family's three sons.

It wouldn't be a full house these days if not for the COVID-19 pandemic: Her three boys are all at home now with their parents because of the circumstances. It's mom; dad; the youngest son who is a rising 10th grader; a middle son who generally travels to different high schools throughout the school year for his hockey career; and a college-aged son.

So to recap: That's five people, four of whom are growing boys or men — including a high-performing athlete. And that translates to a lot of hungry mouths and a lot of groceries.

Pre-pandemic, Frack traveled frequently for work and put her own meals on an expense account, but even her otherwise work-paid portion wouldn't have amounted to a very big fraction of the whole family's food spend.

"My food budget, outside of our mortgage, is our largest expenditure," Frack says. "We're all home, and they eat nonstop. We make every single meal here: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. We don't eat out at all." That all adds up to a grocery spend from around $200 to $360 per week, she says.

That money has to go far, and that means getting creative. "There are certain things that we buy every week," she says. "So when do those go on sale? How many more do I buy so that we can get a better deal?"

Make Room in the Budget for the Family's Staples

Among the family's must-haves? "Junk food," she says. They always have had to have their jalapeño chips, ramen noodles, peanut butter pretzels — "all that crap that boys eat!" And that stuff adds up. 

As for the real-food staples, Frack buys those in bulk as much as possible and uses them many different ways throughout the week. "If I'm buying ground beef or ground turkey, I can buy double," she says. "Then we can have like a ground taco meat on hand, or shredded chicken, or shredded beef, so that we can make tacos, or just even make sandwiches so that they can have something outside of all that processed crap." Having those meal starters on hand is both a matter of time savings and cost savings, too.

Another thing the family buys and uses so many different ways: flour. (Something that was hard to come by when the pandemic disrupted supply chains and sent people panic shopping.) 

"Before the pandemic, we would have pizza every Friday night. We'd order it from a local place. We'd get wings or french fries with it, and it was like $90. It was a lot!" she says. "Now with our flour, we make bread, we make cake. We load up on flour, and my husband now makes his own pizza dough every Friday."

Sure, it's not from a restaurant these days, but it tastes like it could be. "I'll tell you this trick, which I thought was brilliant," she shares. "My husband actually used to work in a pizza shop. Pizza ovens get to be super hot to get you a good crust. We don't have a pizza oven, but if you just get some untreated terracotta tiles from the floor store and lay them in your oven, you can make your own!"

Pick Your Splurges

Frack spends more to buy quality meats and dairy products — especially organic — because she finds it a worthy splurge. "When you crack open an egg that's cage free and organic, you can tell from the yolk it's a better-quality egg," she says. "I don't mind paying for that because I absolutely see the difference. Same thing with meat, and with milk — we always have it on hand for cereal, smoothies, so we always have organic on hand."

Her family's other splurge — especially in the pandemic summer — is ice cream. "We buy ice cream every week. It kills me to have to buy ice cream because I think it's so frivolous, but they insist on it. So it's two half gallons every week!"

Cut Out Unnecessary Shopping With Online Ordering

Frack prefers to shop in person, although it feels more like a chore than a pleasure these days given the stress of pandemic outings. "Prior to the pandemic, the grocery store was my ultimate favorite place," she says. "I loved going there because it was just so fun. I love to cook and I'd love to be able to see what's new. Now I still go, but it's super anxiety ridden. Like, why are you going down the aisles wrong way? That stuff drives me crazy."

Still, she says, "Every Saturday morning, I head out with my list and I do the majority of my shopping myself."

That said, when it comes to snack foods like cookies and chips, her strategy is mainly to shop Aldi by way of Instacart; even with the markups, fees, and tips, it still comes out to be a better price that way than she would find shopping the national chain in person. "You can get really good-quality stuff and it almost tastes exactly the same, if not even better," she says.

When she opts for Instacart, she makes sure to mark her staples as "do not replace." "Otherwise, the shopper will replace it with the next best thing. And if you're not paying attention, and you don't approve it, you end up with stuff you really don't want," she says. And those swaps can be spendy, too.

Save for the Future in the Freezer

One of Frack's cost-saving strategies is making leftovers with intention — not as an afterthought. "Anytime we make anything on the grill, there's always extra because someone's going to eat it later that night or the next day," she says. "We always have leftovers here and that's because I know that they're going to eat it. If it's something I make like a giant pot of chili or extra shredded beef, I put it in the freezer."

Indeed, she's not afraid to freeze, especially if it means saving money by buying in bulk and making leftovers last. "I put stuff in the freezer all the time when we have leftovers, and mark it," so she knows what it is and when it went on ice, she says. 

She also cites some surprisingly freezable items. 

For instance, even though her family consumes a ton of milk, Frack says, "Sometimes I don't pay attention, and I buy more than I need, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I have four gallons of milk in this refrigerator.' But you can freeze milk!"

Turns out you can also freeze packaged deli meats, which Frack likes doing when it goes on sale. "Sometimes it's buy-one-get-one-free, and I load up," she says. "When you pull it out and you put it in the refrigerator, it's totally fine."

There's another thing "that I found freezes great," she says — and that's cheese. "Giant blocks of cheese defrost beautifully."

Make an Old-Fashioned List

Another important facet of Frack's cost-saving strategy is that old-school method of list making — yes, an analog list, on an actual notepad, to which her family adds throughout the week. "Is there a snack that you love that I'm not paying attention to? Did we run out of ketchup? They have to write it on the list. It's very helpful because I do go in with my list and I cross it off, make sure that I stay on target with the stuff that I need, and try not to buy stuff that's not on it," she says. 

These days, with the whole family home, Frack's overall grocery strategy comes down to this: "I try to think about what can I get, for the amount of money that I have, that can last longer."