The blogger and cookbook author feeds four on $200 a week — but she splurges in the name of balance, too.

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Blogger and cookbook author Ramona Cruz-Peters lives in Round Rock, Texas (a suburb of Austin) with her husband and two sons, ages 8 and 10. With both parents self-employed, the family operates on a tight budget — which has become even tighter under the uncertain circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

But that doesn't mean that quality, creative cooking goes out the window in the name of cost savings — far from it. "I am a food and lifestyle blogger, so grocery shopping and cooking are not only part of my life, but also part of my work," she says. And that means she features what she cooks… and then her family devours it.

"Through meal planning, I can strategically plan my recipe developments in advance," she says. "This not only keeps my grocery expenses down, but the recipes I make for my blog are all meals my family will eat on a given day."

Cruz-Peters keeps the weekly food budget between $150 and $200 — with a goal to stay closer to the lower end. "For our food portion of the budget, we make sure to shop efficiently and make most of our meals at home, only going out to eat on special occasions," she says.

Here's a closer look at how she spins that sum into abundant, high-quality ingredients worthy of her blog — and delicious meals for her family of four.

Ramona Cruz-Peters
Credit: Allrecipes Magazine

Budget Staples as Food Foundations

Depending on ger grocery needs, Cruz-Peters shops in-person weekly at a combination of stores depending on what she needs — most frequently H-E-B, Walmart, and Randalls.

She sees generic items as a great way to save money without feeling like she's missing out. "We have found that our local grocery stores have great store-brand items, so there are many that we feel are a steal for their quality," she says.

There are two staples that she almost always keeps on hand in the kitchen: boneless, skinless chicken breasts and rice. "There is no shortage of recipes using chicken breasts, and some form of rice is a side dish in my house most nights," she says. "Coming from a family that includes both Puerto Rican and Japanese influences, rice is my number one comfort food."

Her meal planning rarely results in leftovers, she explains: "I try and shop for our family's portion needs." (But when there are leftovers, her crew will definitely eat those for lunch the next day.)

Making Room for Worthy Splurges 

Although Cruz-Peters sticks to a streamlined budget, she allows for splurges she considers essential to good cooking — and to a good quality of life, too. A key example: better wines.

"When wine is called for, whether for cooking or celebrating, we are willing to pay extra for quality," she says. "Not always top shelf, but at least moderate — I have found that the quality and flavor of the wine impacts the recipe results, so I try not to compromise there."

Cruz-Peters also credits her investment cookware in part for ultra-flavorful meals — even with budget-minded ingredients. And she considers these pieces well worth the splurge.

"I have a decent collection of Le Creuset cookware, and over time I have built a collection of pieces that receive everyday use. After my first piece of enameled cast iron cookware, I quickly saw the difference in cooking," she explains. "The fact that I use them so often, that the quality of my meals has improved using them, and that they are a lifetime investment that I can pass on to my children, make me feel better about the splurge."

Yes, she buys these pieces on sale from the outlet store. Still, she's aware of the apparent contradiction — and wholeheartedly defends the strategy. "I do recognize how funny it is that I budget my groceries so diligently yet have no qualms with these purchases," she says.

Creating Budget-Convenience Balance

Cruz-Peters is comfortable spending extra money for convenience in the name of making her life easier. And that's a strategy she espouses enthusiastically.

"I don't mind shortcuts in most areas when we are budgeting or need a shortcut to save some time on busy weeknights, as I firmly believe in balance," she says. "Want to save yourself time by getting pre-sliced mushrooms for a few cents more? That's up to you! Canned vegetables instead of fresh for ease or cost? Whatever reduces stress or cost is a personal decision."

For Cruz-Peters, chicken stock is one thing that's well worth the effort of homemade versus buying canned. "I try and make a huge batch every three months and freeze it in portions," she says. This helps keep down costs and waste, as well as minimizes the effort involved with the prep work.

Meal Planning as a Budgeting Tool

Cruz-Peters cites meal planning as her "number one money-saving grocery tip." She also credits her meticulous advance planning for making her grocery trips faster and more efficient. 

"Once a week, I plan all of the meals I intend to cook for the week ahead and create my grocery shopping list at the same time based on ingredients needed from those recipes," she explains. "Because of this, we only shop for what is needed that week and end up with very little food waste."

For instance, by making weekly meal plans, she knows when she needs to buy an ingredient that comes in a large quantity. And she'll use that as an opportunity to search for other recipes using the same ingredient. 

"For example, I know I can get two chicken meals out of the package of chicken breast I usually buy, so I plan my chicken dinners in pairs," she says. "I do the same with vegetables that come in larger quantities. Another reason I love meal planning is that it eliminates the daily what-should-I-cook-for-dinner dilemma."

For Cruz-Peters, the strategy is about cost savings, sure. But it's also about simplifying — and enjoying — life with her family.