On tight budget? Food for thought

Mom of two offers tips to stretching your dollars, and eating a local, healthy diet

Vanessa Amsbury and her daughter Morgaine say their family's food budget is $4.36 per person per day.

Vanessa Amsbury and her daughter Morgaine say their family's food budget is $4.36 per person per day. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

Vanessa Amsbury and her two growing daughters live on a food budget of just $392 a month. It’s not a lot, the 47-year-old Peterborough woman says, but as a single mother holding down three part-time jobs, it’s what she can afford. And it’s not impossible to eat healthy, local food on such a modest budget either. Amsbury says it just takes discipline.

“It’s all about managing your choices,” she said last week, while sitting in the front yard of her Peterborough home. “We buy a lot of rice and beans. I don’t think you could do it if you ate meat.”

Amsbury and her daughters, Morgaine O’Connor, 14, and Katherine O’Connor, 12, have meat at most once a week, usually on Sundays.

“It’s usually mixed in with something, or as a stir fry. And we have some epic taco nights,” Amsbury said.

And seafood?

“Can’t afford it,” Amsbury said. “I love it. It might be a treat, about once a year.”

The key to meeting a tight budget is to rely on vegetables and eliminate prepared foods.

“You have to be willing to do your own cooking,” said Amsbury. “This is our life. I work full-time, but I still find time to cook everything from scratch.”

Amsbury bakes bread every weekend and usually makes cookies with her daughters on Sundays. She said Morgaine has a favorite cookie choice.

“We do make chocolate chip cookies. Food still has to be fun. It has to be something you want to eat.”

Morgaine says it wasn’t difficult to adjust when the family cut back on meat.

“It’s fine. I don’t feel deprived,” she said. “We rarely ate meat anyway. At parties, I will eat junk food. It tastes good.”

Morgaine and Katherine keep a close eye on the four laying hens that provide eggs for the family. The birds live next to the house in a fenced in area that’s covered with netting, since a hawk raided the yard last year.

The family drinks mostly water and juice. The girls like kefir, a fermented milk drink, and Amsbury is a tea drinker.

As for produce, for much of the year Amsbury buys once a week from Tim Winship of New Field Farm, an organic farm in Temple. She places her order online and the food is delivered for pickup to the Nature’s Green Grocer market in West Peterborough.

“I get vegetables — every kind you can possibly think of — blueberries, honey, all locally grown,” Amsbury said. “The prices are excellent, because the distance the food has to travel is so short.”

When the family does go shopping at one of the local grocery stores, they look for bulk items.

“We’re buying the way people did a long time ago when they went to town,” said Amsbury. “Everything in our shopping cart is a basic staple — flour, sugar, salt, grains.”

The girls take lunches to school every day and Amsbury packs a lunch that she eats at one of her two part-time jobs in downtown Peterborough. In the mornings, she works as administrator for the Unitarian Universalist Church, and in the afternoons as an administrative assistant for the town of Peterborough.

Amsbury, who also works as a bookkeeper for the Peterborough-based Cornucopia Project, said she loves to crunch numbers.

“I’ve been keeping track of my spending since time immemorial,” she said. “When you don’t have a large income, you have to track every dollar. Food is the one place where if you need to cut you’re spending, you can do it.”

She uses, and recommends, the free online budgeting software from

“It’s a great way to see where your money’s going,” she said. “It really shows you how you’re doing.”

Amsbury admits that she occasionally overspends on food.

“It’s hard not to, but we’re pretty good about staying on budget,” she says. “I have to.”

Legacy Comments1

Um, that would be Catharine O'Connor. And that budget includes feeding Casey, the family dog, too! Her diet is made in the crock pot to make it easy. Chicken feed actually comes out of another budget line: Pets. The eggs are just a bonus! ;)

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