The one expense category where my wife and I have not cut back on is food.
The average cost for food, per household, was $7,023 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.
So, how do we spend so much?
- At least half of our food is organic.
- We eat a ton of produce (in and out of season).
- We have expensive tastes and preferences.
- We are blessed to have high metabolisms that haven’t slowed down.
- Our meals are complex, with lots of ingredients and seasonings.
- 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:
- I’d pare back the variety of foods we eat, and focus on 20 items or less.
- I’d limit portions a bit more than I currently do.
- I’d focus much more on seasonal produce.
- I’d avoid foods that have seen the largest price increases, and look for the best substitutes for them.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- olive oil: healthy fat and great for cooking and salads.
- 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?
#1 on my list, BACON! Talk about versatility, it goes with everything. :)
Need steak in there
Alright, I’ll bite. We have some overlap. I also think it is worthwhile to be flexible when at the grocery store based on what is cheap of mostly interchangeable items:
2. Tomatoes; fresh in summer, canned the other 9 months
3. Brown Rice
4. Whole Chicken (Eat the meat, use bones for stock/soup base. Organs get cooked then cut up for cat treats)
5. In-season Fruit: Grapes in spring, Berries, then stone fruit, then apples. Can normally find one of the above for $1.25/lb or less even in my expensive nyc supermarkets. Apple season started last night, so I am excited.
6. Olive Oil
8. Salad Green (whatever is cheapest of Romaine, Rocket, Spinach, Kale, Chard, etc.)
9. Lemons (the bottle of lemon juice from concentrate tastes like aluminum to me)
13. Peanuts: Easy to food processor into PB or just eat as a snack
14. Dark Chocolate- everyone has a weakness
15. Crunchy Green: whatever is cheapest of Broccoli, Green Beans, Brussels Sprouts, etc.
17. Black Tea- Iced overnight in the fridge or warm to end a meal.
Dark chocolate…. yeah…. The Trader Joe’s 73% cocoa bars would be very hard to leave off the list.
You need fish on your list..oatmeal..Zoom (wheat cereal)
Got to have some fish. My favorite are sardines and canned herring.
Ah damnit! I forgot to order bacon. I live in a big city without a car and pay outrageous amounts for delivery groceries. Granted I eat out mostly so it’s large things I don’t want to carry (milk, detergent, etc.).
To the post above, $350 for 3.5 people a month is great! I couldn’t do it. Even if I cooked all my meals I’d spend that much just for me.
I’m really surprised you are able to spend so much on a home cooked vegetarian diet. Are you including anything in your grocery budget that isn’t food? I spend $350 a month for a family of 3.5 and I don’t shy away from things like special ordering grass fed beef from a local ranch. However, I’m very sensitive to buying whatever fruit or veggie is on sale and working with that. I do buy organic for greens and a few other things, but not everything. Try some real Mexican food. It’s amazingly tasty and cheap, but it isn’t quick. There’s something magical about brown rice and black beans when cooked right.
Yes – I include all of my home/personal care items and pet supplies in that mix as well. Our dinners are pretty damn elaborate, by choice. Some meals go 10+ items deep, easily. We’ve spoiled our pallets.
I love Mexican, and we have it a few times per week. But it’s more of the TexMex variety – peppers, black beans, avocado, cheese, sour cream, corn tortilla, carrot, corn, Cholula, etc., etc.
By the way – $350 for 3.5? I’d love to see what that looks like from an item/meal standpoint. I’m sensing another guest post, Natalie…
On the organic front, keep in mind that organic does not mean without chemical (pesticide, herbicides, and other chemicals). Per acre, you need a lot more “approved organic” chemicals to provide a similar effect to ensure that the organic crop is not overgrown or eaten by bugs (and just because arsenic is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you). Weeds and bugs don’t discriminate, and synthetic chemicals are far more effective, so the non-organic farmers need to use less.
I agree that hormones shouldn’t be a normal part of someone’s diet.
Agreed! Organic labeling is not a bad place to start, but its not the same as knowing where the food came from. My wife and I raise rabbits for meat, chickens for eggs, and we just recently signed up for a CSA for fresh vegetables. We also occasionally order cow, pig and chicken from local farms.
I’m a big fan of visiting the farm where you get your food. It helps to bridge the urban/rural gap and it’s just fun. Family farms are really cool places and pretty rare these days. Point of interest, any farm that is willing to host people and share about their production methods is probably farming the right way and producing healthier products.
I’m a body builder in my mid 20’s. I take in about 3500 calories a day on an average of 80 bucks a week. Here’s the typical breakdown:
Frozen veggies (lots)
Cholula (relatively low sodium. only way to eat veggies haha)
Roasted, unsalted mixed nuts (always cheaper mixed)
Oatmeal (always the biggest container, will get about three weeks out of it)
Fat free, no salt added cottage cheese (4 containers)
Nonfat Greek yogurt plain (2 large containers)
Ezekiel bread (I love that raisin one)
Unsalted peanut butter
Sweet potatoes/whole wheat pasta/brown rice/black beans (usually keep these stocked up)
Whole milk (gallon or two a week)
Olive oil/coconut oil
Bigelow Green Tea (usually the mint but sometimes peach)
10 lbs of chicken (from local meat store. real cheap. $1.70/lb)
chicken parm is a cheap meal to bulk cook so some weeks I pick up low sodium marinara and panko/wheat germ
I use a lot of cinnamon and Mrs. Dash seasonings (a little steep but low sodium)
Most of shopping at Big Y. I bulk buy whatever I can. Usually store brand things
Lots of water
This doesn’t count my whey. I buy that in bulk too. Usually ten pound bag will last me about two months. Multivitamin and fish oil in bulk too. That’s it for supplements. I live as clean as I can.
If its all about low-cost, nutritional value, and not about the pure pleasure of eating beautiful foods, just go for the food replacement route. Cheap and everything you need. The New Yorker covered this a few months ago.
One thing to be careful of with canned food e.g. the canned beans is that most cans use BPA liners, so be careful to look for that or avoid canned food already. I found that I could never be sure so have cut down on canned garbanzo beans which we used to use frequently and instead opt for the dried version which I soak ahead of time and cook in my pressure cooker (an excellent tool if you cook beans and lentils often).
Fun fact: there’s no such thing as non-GMO foods. Every crop we grow has been modified from what is found in the wild to match our human tastes and desires.
Selective breeding and genetic engineering however, are very different.
Another fun fact: despite media hysteria, there’s no reliable evidence that GMOs are any worse to eat. In fact in some cases, they’re actually more nutritious!
This is what my grocery list looks like whenever I’m in the USA:
5-lb bag of carrots
5-lb bag of onions
5-lb bag of apples
10-lb bag of potatoes
bulk of brown rice, wheat berries, corn, whole oats, millet, etc and mill them into flours at home
bulk of dry beans, all sorts
leafy greens such as kale,collard greens
It costs very little if you eat this way, and it’s super healthy.
I almost always stay from processed foods: I want to process them myself and there’s lots of pleasure in it… it’s so much cheaper and healthier!
That’s a damn fine grocery list.