How to Feed a Family

There are so many different ways to feed your family. You can cook from scratch, from produce you grew in the backyard. You can go through the drive-through on the way from work, or stop by the prepared foods counter after soccer practice runs late. You can eat at a restaurant or cut coupons or hit the wholesalers. You can menu plan or wing it, serve up a rotation of kid-tested favorites or experiment with new tastes and flavors. You can get pre-prepped ingredients to show up at your door in a box, or dig into your deep freeze for that pot roast you made last spring.

None of these are right or wrong, and many of us do a little of each. But we all have to eat — and so we asked two Portland-area families to show us how they do it. We wanted to know how much they spend on groceries to feed their families, and what they do with all that food once they get it home.

Photographer Irene Hess started with a summertime visit with Amron Bevels-Wilson, M.D., a nutritionist/wellness coach who lives in Southeast Portland with her partner, Jeff Wilson, and their young sons, Theodore, 6, and Oliver, 3.

Q: Where do you like to shop in Portland?

A: I like to support local for a number of reasons — ecological, social, and actually, biological benefit as well — so I do almost all of my shopping at the sweet consortium of whole food purveyors housed within Providore Fine Foods Market. (2340 NE Sandy). There, I buy our fish, eggs and meats from Flying Fish/The Meat Monger and vegetables from Rubinette. More than half of decision-making when selecting food is guided by visual cues. Food that looks better should taste better.

Q: How do you keep costs down?

A: Because therapeutic nutrition is my profession (I am a non-practicing M.D.), I consider food my medicine. Every penny spent on quality food is a dollar saved on future health care expenses. So I make this monetary commitment to myself and my family. A grocery receipt totaling around $120 can definitely make five good meals with leftovers. So that’s food for about eight meals for two adults and two small kids.

Q: Do you meal plan ahead of time?

A: Have you heard the saying, the plumber’s house has leaky pipes? That’s me. Because I do food strategy for a living, my family meals at home are pretty spontaneous and off the cuff. I do get stuck in ruts, just like everyone else, and I generally create meals from a steady set of staples that I keep around all the time. I do a lot of getting the same basic ingredients and preparing variations of the same meals (current fall and winter staples include veggie-dense tacos, veggie-and-meat patties, cauliflower shepherd’s pie, beanless meaty chili and dairy-free, gluten-free lasagna). Because I don’t meal plan outright, I do have to make last-minute shopping runs every couple of days, but it’s a pleasure of mine, so I enjoy it.

Q: Do you have a “philosophy” when it comes to feeding your kids?

A: Absolutely. As little processed, prepackaged food as possible.

Q: Would you consider your kids picky eaters?

A: I do. But our friends do not, which is a good thing, I guess. The rule at home, which I stole from a scientific study on templating and taste preferences, is that you must try something three times on three different occasions before demoting a food to the “do not like” list.

Q: How much time do you spend in the kitchen prepping dinner, on an average night?

A: An hour or two. I know this is unusual.

Q: Are you the main cook in your house or do you share cooking duties?

A: I am the main cook. I am a bit territorial about it.

Q. Do you usually eat as a family, and if so, why is this important for you?

A: No. We often feed the kids first then eat as adults later. We are working on it. Fortunately, my kitchen is set up to be a social hub for the family so we can talk while I cook and the children eat.

 » Hess also photographed the blended family of Kristen Kingsbury and Pippin Beard, who live in Camas, Wash. with seven kids — Jake, 17, Milla, 15, and MJ, 12, from Kingsbury’s first marriage, Em, 15, and Phoenix, 15 (not pictured) from Beard’s previous marriage and Pascal, 9, and Leopold, 5. (Kingsbury adds that the two have been together for 11 years, and first met on that mid-2000s relic, Myspace. These days, she blogs about their blended family life at socalledmom.com; you can also follow along with their adventures at So Called Mom’s YouTube channel.)

Q: Where do you like to shop in Portland?

A: Because of our family size we easily burn through an entire loaf of bread or a box of cereal at a single sitting. So we do a lot of baking. We also like to eat as fresh as possible. Pippin does the shopping, and he buys fresh fruits and veggies at the farmers market, bulk flour for baking bread at Costco, cereal wherever it is organic and on sale (like at Fred Meyer or the Grocery Outlet in St. Johns). He is amazing at scouting out organic and wholesome foods to make sure we have the best to eat.

Q: How do you keep costs down, especially for such a large blended family?

A: We survive by incorporating meal prep as a part of our daily chores. For example, we bake a loaf of bread just about every day, popping the ingredients into a bread machine as the kids are waking up for school. Also, the kids pitch in. Food prep is part of family time — for dinner, for lunch. In the mornings during summer or weekends, Milla is usually flipping and serving up pancakes. In the afternoon Em is baking cookies for tomorrow’s school lunch. They have a hand in the kitchen. It is just as much theirs to explore as it is ours and we believe this is what has prevented us from having a bunch of picky eaters. I would say we spend on average about $500 per week on groceries — sometimes a little more in the summertime because of fruit.

Q. Do you meal plan ahead of time?

A: When we’re on the go, the kids are piled into our van eating bean and cheese burritos, otherwise we’ll be late. We put our foot down from time to time and slow down because a tabled dinner is important. Creating together is important. Sitting together is important. It’s like a double whammy: quality time and dinner in one sitting.

Q: Do you have a “philosophy” when it comes to feeding your kids?

A: Organic and fresh. We shop almost daily for fresh ingredients. Also we love to try something new as much as possible, like kohlrabi or padrón peppers. How can we incorporate something different and make meals interesting and experimental? What did we/didn’t we like and why? It can sometimes feel like Iron Chef except with children. Put that weird ingredient in the pan and let’s see what happens. Also, no waste. We rarely have leftovers and we try to keep our footprint down with regards to how much waste from packaged and processed foods gets into our home. You’d be surprised by the amount of garbage and recycling we actually don’t produce for a family our size.

Q: Would you consider your kids picky eaters?

A: The kids are more apt to eat if they’re involved in the process (either picking tomatoes from the garden they also helped plant or helping to roll out and dress up pizza dough, for example). Also, because our family is so big, there is no room for being picky. We’re either blazing a trail out the door and you’ll be hungry if you forget your burrito, or we can sit and linger around the table talking all night while you finish.

Q: How much time do you spend in the kitchen prepping dinner, on an average night?

A: On average an hour, unless there is a food fight. Then a little more plus cleanup.

Q. How much do your older kids help out on an average night? Would you consider yourself or your partner the primary meal-maker, or is it a truly shared job?

A: We are on the brink of assigning cooking nights. The kids have regular daily chores and we’re close to being able to add “pick recipe, make a list of what you need and cook it” to the list. Em is always in the kitchen, Pascal is involved. Milla likes to man the griddle or stovetop, depending on what’s being made. I often think that if only one of us did all the work, the food wouldn’t taste nearly as good. So it’s mostly a shared job.

Q. Do you usually eat as a family, and if so, why is this important for you?

A: Eight times out of ten, yes. The other times, we’re on the run — to gymnastics, school functions, skateboarding in the park until the sun goes down. If we can pack everything into a picnic, we do that. If you’re a regular on my blog, one of my repeat themes is how much time flies when you have so many kids. I have a high school senior ready to leave the nest and a brand new kindergartner. It all goes by so fast. Eating together buys us time. Also we have a tradition that we originally started 10 years ago as a way to keep our rapidly growing kids talking and hanging out at the table, instead of eating and running off. Whoever calls it out first goes first and picks the next person. All we do is talk about what we liked about today and what we didn’t like about today. It opens the kids up to continued communication and we always feel like we know them — we’re involved. Using the dinner table makes some of our conversations less awkward, especially if the topic gets uncomfortable. The kids see each other experiencing things like bullying and empathize with each other. Raising a family this size is a collective effort. Pippin and I don’t always like to have the answers. We aren’t always in charge. When they are out of the house, they will always be there for each other — and could it be these dinner table traditions that keep them tightly knit?

Julia Silverman

Julia Silverman

Julia is a former Associated Press Oregon education and politics reporter, who has also worked as a web editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She likes reading, cooking, hiking, swimming, and being left alone at the end of the day to watch some pretty bad TV. Her twins, Ben and Elly, like making trouble.
Julia Silverman

Latest posts by Julia Silverman (see all)