US News recently published an article of tips for “Eating Healthy on Minimum Wage.” It includes suggestions like: plan your meals for the week, calculate the relative value of one option over the other, and cook your own meals (i.e. dispense with prepackaged foods and dining out).
That’s all well and good if you’re single and can spend the time outside your 40 hour work week strategizing your purchases and mimicking Martha Stewart. But if you’re a working mom, spending the day on your feet in a food service or retail environment, you’re probably doing good to fling something edible on the table before your kids start complaining that they’re hungry.
I was a single working parent when my kids were young, and my relatives were amazed when they saw how I fed my kids. I could put a healthy, balanced meal on the table in ten minutes any day of the week, and here’s how I did it.
Keep it Simple
Raw fruits and vegetables are a quick and easy dinner option. Most kids don’t like anything too fussy anyway. I always kept carrots, grapes, apples, pears and nuts on hand.
Even on a strict budget (mine was $100 or less per week for a family of three), peeled and cut baby carrots at $1-2 per bag are a good value.
Stock Up and Save
When you’re on a strict budget, it’s difficult to find the funds for anything extra, but this is a practice that can put extra money in your pocket for weeks to come. Non perishable foods, like canned or frozen fruits and vegetables tend to go on sale in predictable cycles. If your favorites are discounted this week, try to grab at least one or two extra packages.
You can eat them next week and use the savings to buy something else that’s on sale. Before you know it you’ll have a solid back stock of your go to items. It’s like starting a food savings account.
If You Won’t Eat It, It’s Not a Bargain
It’s easy to be seduced by the $1 a pound chicken thighs or the 50% off clearance bin. These can be good options provided you can eat them before their expiration dates, and they are items you and your family like.
I always look at these kinds of deals, but I’ve thrown out enough bargain basement duds to approach food clearance sales with caution. My rule of thumb is: if you’re not sure about it, pass and get something else you know will be eaten.
Get a Crock Pot
If you do manage to carve out a little time for cooking and planning, a crock pot can be an invaluable tool for making the most of your time and money. One dish meals like stew, soup or chicken and dumplings can be a nice mid week treat, if you can find the time to prep the night before. You can also use a smaller crock pot for vegetables.
Don’t Skimp on the Seasonings
Again, if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not a good deal. You’ll just end up throwing it out. Fresh is best, but dried is more practical for most busy moms. I’ve gotten spices for as little as $1 at places like Big Lots and the dollar store. Lemons, limes and salsa also add a lot of flavor in a healthy way.
Give Yourself a Break
Did I mention that when my kids were little, I also knew where to get a free kid’s meal any night of the week? Even the most basic meal prep takes a certain amount of time and energy, and some days you just may not have it to give. Don’t sweat it. You’re doing the best you can, and that’ll just have to be enough. The earth will keep revolving on its axis. I promise.
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