How Living on One Income Forced Me to Cook, Budget, and Eat Healthier
This is not a post about being a stay-at-home mom. Could anyone make these same changes in a different set of circumstances? Absolutely. Would I have done it? I think not.
When Tim and I married, I did not know how to cook. I knew how to bake desserts, and I did that so much that we both gained about 15 pounds each, then spent our first summer together at the local YMCA working it all off. My cooking skills were nonexistent; my shopping skills were worse, and it’s safe to say that we wasted a lot of money, food, and time back then. But we were DINKs (dual income, no kids) and we had time, money, and food to waste. Oh how the times have changed!
We had our fourth baby last November, and we moved shortly after she was born. I had just hit a groove in meal-planning and cooking for our family of five before Susanna arrived, and to say I lost my groove with her birth would be an understatement. She was highly intolerant to dairy in my diet, so I had to toss several of our favorite recipes and try to find new, dairy-free options. Then we moved, and our old budget for living on one income became obsolete as we adjusted to the new job, city, expenses. Our kids were growing and getting bigger (7,5,and 2) and meals that had fed us all before were starting to come up short.
I was so overwhelmed after the move by the challenges of feeding a family of six on our budget, dairy free, inexpensive and still healthy, that for months I just avoided the task. We just “got by” which is another way of saying we wasted money, ate out a lot (read “unhealthy”) and didn’t even really enjoy doing so because… well, eating out with four young children (no matter how well-behaved) is anything but relaxing.
It wasn’t until recently, when I weaned Susanna and the older two kids went back to school, that I had the emotional energy to tackle the monumental task of meal planning on a budget. Even then, one of my first trips to the grocery store, armed with a long list and grim determination to buy nothing off-course was extremely emotionally exhausting. Telling yourself “no” is wholesome, tiring work, whether you are trying to exercise, eat healthy, or stay on a budget. I had prayed for God to help me be a good steward of our money, but when I put feet to that prayer, I lost my breath pretty quickly. Good exercise takes energy, and this was a workout for my character and my spirit. It’s pretty easy and fun to walk around the store tossing all manner of processed goodies into your cart. It takes considerably more presence of mind to compile produce, grains, meats, and legumes to make up the components to 21 dairy-free meals on a tight budget.
But here’s the thing: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Our struggle against our limitations creates friction and energy that can be funneled into creativity and innovation. Our frustrations fuel change. A tree in the desert gets little rain, but it grows a deep root system.
But this is key: you can’t determine that your limitations are a result of something wrong with you. We live on one income because I have chosen to be home with my kids. That choice is dear to me, as dear as another’s choice to work in a beloved career, or to support their family financially. Because I love my choice and the life it gives me, I will fight to align our finances accordingly. I don’t think I am less than others because we live on one income, even though the world values money as a status symbol. Is it hard to feed six people healthy food on a budget? Yes. But anything worth doing is hard, and this is my one brief, glorious life, and I want to do hard things for the glory of God.
Because of my limitations, I have been forced to grow out of my culinary comfort zones. I love processed food. I love easy, cheap, cardboard meals with long, indecipherable ingredient lists. If I were a single with no one else to feed but me, I’d probably live on Hot Pockets and Diet Coke. I can try to get whipped up about the fact that I don’t know what “carbomenthalate” is, but I’d probably just be pretending (and I made that word up). The world contains all kind of vocabulary I don’t know, and that’s just fine with me because I operate on a strict need-to-know basis. Not only that, but I don’t love cleaning or washing dishes. I used to call myself lazy, but now I think that those who enjoy cleaning are rarer than those of us who don’t, so I think I’m pretty normal. I’d rather pop a frozen lasagna in the oven and spend my time around the table with my family, talking, laughing and playing games than spending an hour in the kitchen before and after dinner in prep and cleanup.
But those tasty, easy, processed meals no longer work for our family because they aren’t big enough and we can’t afford to eat that way all the time.
Here are some things I’ve learned:
- Soda and desserts fill absolutely no nutritional needs and therefore got moved to the bottom of the priority list. Water is our default and we all drink more of it than before. Our kids expect to see water in their glasses for every meal, unless it’s almond milk. Almond milk is pricey and since they are getting plenty of calcium from other sources, too, they get one cup a day. On Fridays, we all get to have a “special drink” to mark the beginning of the weekend.
- Homemade salad dressings are so delicious, I am ruined on the bottled ones. Same for salsa.
- The lettuce you prepare yourself is so much fresher, tastier, and longer-lasting than the bagged salad mixes that I can keep it in my fridge for two weeks or more. I used to throw out a lot of salad mixes because they expired so quickly.
- Homemade croutons are awesome. We eat more salads, now. I toast, grill, and bake big batches of pecans, chicken, and bacon to have on hand to put in our salads for lunch, then mix up some homemade dressing to go on top, with fruit or veggies.
- Homemade soups. I have yet to find a restaurant that makes a better broccoli cheese soup than I do (may it rest in peace with all my other dairy-licious recipes).
- Homemade granola. I made some for a friend who has having a baby and she liked it so much that she asked if she could BUY some off of me the next time I made a big batch.
- I would rather eat my own homemade chicken pot pie, sweet and sour chicken, lettuce wraps, pasta primavera, and fried rice (with grilled chicken) than to eat it out anywhere else. I can control the salt, fat, and dairy content and it just tastes better.
- I’ve learned about the health benefits of coconut oil, brown rice, beans, milled flax seed, and kale. (I tried quinoa, but it didn’t float my boat. Sorry quinoa, maybe next time.)
- Our tastes have changed and we notice a difference in how we feel after a home-cooked meal versus a restaurant meal. The kids are starting to notice, too.
- We can have family conversations about healthy food without constantly feeling like hypocrites. Ie, you wouldn’t say: “No, hot dogs are very healthy, sweetie. Or fries, either. Now, let me get you some ketchup…”
- More time in the kitchen means I had to ask my husband to step it up with the dish-washing. He was already very helpful with this, but for me to put in more hours (literally) doing more cooking, I needed him to follow behind me with the dish-washing. It takes both of us staying on top of the dishes day and night to keep our sink under control.
Later, I began to see lots of buzz about “clean eating” and “real food” on social media. When I figured out what these phrases meant, I had to laugh. We had jumped on that bandwagon unwittingly. I feel certain I would never have made these changes if our budget and dairy limitations hadn’t forced my hand.
It comes down to this: God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose. Even our limitations can be the conduit of great blessings in His perfect providence. Often, as we plod through our lives, we are inwardly asking the question, “Do you see me, God?” “Do you really care about what is happening to me down here?”
He does care. He really, really does. No matter what limitations you are facing, God is ready and willing to help you funnel your frustration into innovation so you can run in such a way as to get the prize.
Let’s run the race, friends. And if you see me at the grocery store and I seem stressed out, it’s not you. I’m probably just doing battle with my desire for Oatmeal Cream Pies.
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14
We made a major change like this about 35 years ago. My wife was a good cook, now a great cook. Our Korean sons were also allergic to milk.