Feeding a large family is a challenge. You need plenty to eat for plenty of hungry people, and you’d like to accomplish that without draining all of your free time and money. As the mother of four hungry kids, I’ve learned a few strategies that work well for our family. I also called in an expert: my friend Jeff Page, father of eight and founder of Hectic Meals.
Plan your meals
You need to plan your meals in advance. Winging it on meals, especially with a large family, will cost you. You’ll stress every day over that, “What’s for dinner?” question, and end up depending on fast food, takeout, or multiple grocery store trips to feed hungry people. It’s impractical and terrible for your budget. Jeff calls meal planning, “a matter of self-preservation.” (See also: How to Stop the Takeout Meal Cycle and Save)
Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated, though. It’s usually easiest to plan a week’s worth of meals at a time. Jeff recommends collecting your favorite recipes and using them on a regular rotation.
Get input from your family
You may be the meal planner, but you can get great ideas on favorite meals by polling the crowd. I’ve found that my kids are quite happy to eat the same basic thing for breakfast everyday, but they get tired of that kind of repetition for lunches.
Work with the seasons and the sales
If you pay attention to what’s in season for produce, and what’s on sale at your local grocery store, you can plan your menu around these items. You’ll not only get fresher, better produce with this approach, but you’ll also save money.
Combine new and old recipes
Depend on your tried-and-true favorites for the bulk of your meal planning, but add in some new and interesting recipes here and there. It’s a good way to expand your family’s eating repertoire without alienating your picky eaters. (See also: Save Money and Eat Better With These 6 Online Meal Planners)
Buy and prepare food in bulk
If your family eats in high volume, buying and prepping your food in correspondingly high volume makes sense. Meal planning will help you determine what you need in advance, and buying in bulk will help you get it at the best price.
What to buy in bulk
Basic pantry items, such as baking ingredients and canned goods, are almost always a good idea for bulk purchases. The savings might not be huge, but since you can go through high quantities of these staples, you want to keep them on hand and buy them in large quantities when they go on sale. (See also: How to Shop for Food Once a Month and Save Big)
Another smart bulk purchase is your main protein source: meat, eggs, beans, dairy, etc. For Jeff’s family, their biggest value has been in purchasing meat in the largest quantities possible, then freezing it for use as needed.
Fresh produce can be a great bulk purchase, as well, if you’re able to process or preserve it. Otherwise, you might watch it go to waste, which is the opposite of budget-friendly. (See also: 13 Food Items to Always Buy in Bulk)
How to prep your food in bulk
Whether you bring home 15 pounds of ground beef or a couple of overflowing boxes of ripe tomatoes, you need to do something with your bulk food to make it easily usable. Some bulk purchases are best treated with a partial prep. For example, if you bring home 10 pounds of fresh carrots, you can peel and slice them, divide into portions, freeze some for use in soups later and refrigerate the rest for easy snacking. You can buy chicken in bulk, chop and season it, then freeze.
For the most efficient bulk food prep, Jeff recommends a high-quality set of knives and a vacuum sealer. That way you can work your way quickly through a big pile of whatever’s in season and ensure that it won’t be frostbitten and gross by the time you eat it. Another great tool for bulk prep and preservation is a food dehydrator; couple it with that vacuum sealer for maximum prep and storage efficiency.
Check into your local grocery options for other bulk food purchases. You may find grocery co-ops, ethnic food stores, and local farmers markets can offer you great ingredients at a much better price than your regular grocery store.
Have a storage plan
Don’t bring home the bacon (or any other food in bulk), unless you have a plan for how you will store it. You need to have adequate pantry or cabinet space for dry and canned goods, and adequate freezer space for other items.
Implement a meal schedule
You need a healthy amount of organization to keep a big-family kitchen from falling into chaos. When multiple people access the food and food spaces, basic rules can keep things clean, organized, and usable.
The most important rule is to clean up after yourself. Even young children can learn to wash a dish after they use it. Yes, you will have to remind them of their ability to do so approximately 4,327 times before they will learn it, but stick with it. Eventually, they will remember. Or they’ll move out. Either way, fewer dishes for you!
For large families, it’s very helpful to have a secondary refrigerator and/or freezer, perhaps in the garage or on the patio, for food storage. You can designate the kitchen refrigerator for this week’s snacks and meal ingredients, and the other refrigerator can be used for less-often used items and ingredients you’re storing for later use.
A key part of food organization is finding a way to communicate it with the rest of your family. Use labels to mark where things should go, and bins or other storage items to keep things separated in the freezer or pantry. (See also: 9 Pantry Tricks That Save You Big)
How to schedule meals
A schedule and a list will help you get through the grocery shopping as quickly as possible. Jeff generates a list from his meal plan and, with that in hand, he’s usually able to keep his weekly shopping trip under an hour.
Share the information
Print out your meal plan, so all the hungry members of your family can see at a glance what’s for dinner. That might encourage them to quit asking you about it. In an alternate universe, it might encourage them to start making dinner. I have not found the entrance to this universe. If you do, let me know. Please.
In the pantry, Jeff recommends labeling shelves so there’s a designated area for particular items. This can make the putting away process faster for everyone after grocery shopping. We have a designated snack shelf, and when it’s snack time, the kids know what they can have and help themselves.
Keep it simple
An endless variety of food costs money. My kids would like to have a pantry that looks like the snack aisle at Costco. I would rather pay the bills — all of them — because having that much variety would cost a small fortune. I keep three to five snack options on hand, along with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and that’s enough for us.
Incorporate change every once in awhile
The same snacks or dishes over and over again can get boring for you and everyone in your family. You can rotate options, but you don’t have to have all the options at one time. So, choose a few snack options this month, and different ones for next month.