The 17-Item Grocery Challenge: Creating A Low-Cost Food Plan

The one expense category where my wife and I have not cut back on is food. The average cost for food, per household, was $9,343 in the last full year of measured data. Despite rarely dining out, our total food expenses are just below that national average. Food represents roughly one-third of our total cost of living!

Our costs are a bit surprising when you consider that we have a Costco membership and try to buy bulk whenever possible, we compare prices between grocery stores on a volume basis to optimize where we purchase from, and the most processed item we buy is probably a whole grain loaf of bread.

low cost food plan


So, how do we spend so much?

  1. At least half of our food is organic.
  2. We eat a ton of produce (in and out of season).
  3. We have expensive tastes and preferences.
  4. We are blessed to have high metabolisms that haven’t slowed down.
  5. Our meals are complex, with lots of ingredients and seasonings.
  6. Our metabolisms are sped up via daily exercise and mental/physical energy from our jobs.

We are both at healthy weight levels (some might say too slim). We want to exercise more, not less. And we’re not quite ready to quit our jobs, just yet. Cutting food intake is not desired

We know what we like to eat and can afford it, so cutting favorite foods and healthy foods, like produce, is not desired.

We feel strongly about not putting pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotic-rich food and GMO’s back in to our diet, so cutting organic is not desired.

On one hand, you could say we are doing really good on our food costs, given the quality, quantity, and health benefits of the foods we eat. However, it still grinds me a bit that we aren’t killing this expense category, as we are others.

But, what if we had to develop a contingency plan? What if food prices skyrocketed in coming years due to peak oil, drought, famine, or a massive food shortage? Or what if we took a massive income hit and had to really focus on cutting back on this expense category? I think about this quite a bit.

My low cost food plan would look something like this:

  1. I’d pare back the variety of foods we eat, and focus on 20 items or less.
  2. I’d limit portions a bit more than I currently do.
  3. I’d focus much more on seasonal produce.
  4. I’d avoid foods that have seen the largest price increases, and look for the best substitutes for them.
  5. I’d simplify my meals dramatically (i.e. instead of a stir fry with 8 ingredients, I’d cut it back to the 3 or 4 with the highest taste/nutritional impact).
  6. I’d remove expensive herbs, spices, and other seasonings.

What would my grocery list look like? What items would make the cut? And why?

  • black and garbanzo beans (canned or dried, whatever was cheaper): plenty of protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. Good centerpiece to many meals.
  • oatmeal: the perfect cheap and filling breakfast ingredient, can be paired with other ingredients.
  • eggs: nutritionally dense, high protein, and very versatile.
  • butter: nutritionally dense and makes just about any meal better.
  • quinoa: very nutritionally dense and versatile. Seeing a theme here?
  • peanut butter (or almond butter, whichever is cheaper): high protein, versatile, good on its own for a snack, and irresistibly tasty.
  • berries (in-season): for calories, vitamins, and taste (can be added to PB sandwich or oatmeal to make it much tastier).
  • bananas: ridiculously cheap per volume, high carb, nutrient rich, and pairs well with oatmeal and peanut butter.
  • kale: gotta have some leafy greens in the nutritional mix – and kale is supposedly the most nutrient-rich
  • broccoli: nutritional value and versatility.
  • carrots: nutritional value, cheap, and versatile.
  • walnuts: lots of protein and healthy omega-3s.
  • sweet potatoes: good calories and quite possibly the most versatile food out there.
  • whole grain flour: to make bread for toast and PBB’s (peanut butter berry sandwiches) and other baked goods.
  • salt/pepper: to add flavor to meals.
  • lemon juice: great for stir fries, salads, and more. And cheaper than buying lemons.
  • Cholula: yep, it makes the cut. I put Cholula on just about everything.

17 items – that’s it.

The general theme here is simplicity and value. All but one (Cholula) is one-ingredient only. Outside of Kale, olive oil, Cholula (although it can be a great warehouse deal and is value-packed per volume use), and occasionally peanut butter (price spikes), these items are very low priced per volume. And they pair well with other foods.

No caffeine, no alcohol, no over-processed foods, no fad-diet foods, and no pricey meats or dairy (butter and eggs are cheap).

My protein needs are met through beans, eggs, and peanut butter. My fat needs are met through butter, olive oil, and eggs. My carbohydrate needs are met through everything but the seasonings, eggs, olive oil, and butter. My vitamin and mineral needs are met through everything but salt and pepper.

It’s all you really need, super healthy, cost efficient, and tasty. And you could make dozens of meals from just these items.

I was going to price out these items, but with geographic price differences, volume pricing, grocery store variety, and caloric need variances, I thought it would be a rather fruitless exercise. However, if you were to price it out for yourself, using a per volume grocery price list spreadsheet, it could prove to be a very fruitful exercise. In fact, doing something like this could become a necessity for you, if it hasn’t already. And it might even save you a few thousands dollars annually right now.

Here’s my challenge to you: If you had to stick to a grocery bounty of 17 items or less, what would be on it, and why? Are you going to give it a shot?

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