Food is the #1 variable expense in budgets I've seen... and I've seen quite a few.
Obviously, you need to eat. (Mhmm. Thanks for that.) What's not so obvious is how to eat well without spending your future retirement on food now. Let me help you with that.
Let's say you decide that $500 per month for a family of 4 is a reasonable target food budget. You have two young children, one adult that eats a normal amount, and another adult that eats like a ravenous beast. Cool. We can work with that. It'll be tight, but let's see what we can do.
1. Meal Plan the Heck Out of that Budget
First things first. You're going to need a solid plan to stick to that $500 budget for 4.5 people. Think through what your family likes to eat and write it down.
My family loves fresh fruits and vegetables. We dip carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, and sometimes broccoli in hummus. To cut down on that cost, I make our hummus from scratch using dried chickpeas and other ingredients. We buy only the vegetables that are low cost or on sale (and low cost). We plan out what's available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and calculate how much each meal per person cost us.
We also plan out dinners as our "big meal" of the day.
That might seem like a lot of work, but you can work it into your weekly ritual pretty easily using the next few tips.
2. Pick a Food Philosophy and Stick to It
I've read about gluten-free, dairy-free, low carb, high protein, vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, Blue Zone, Atkins, Keto, and many other diet types or food philosophies. Different things work for different people. I get it. That's fine.
Here's the sitch. You need to pick one and stick to it or your budget is going to yo-yo as much as your waistline.
Do you know how much it costs to dump all the gluten in your house and replace it with all gluten-free flours and products? Hundreds of dollars! What about going keto when your pantry is full of cereal and cookies? That's a lot of waste.
If you're constantly trying new diets, your wallet is going to pay as much as your mental health. Pick one and stick to it. If your diet is
Any new skill will take a little while to learn. Learning to eat your healthy food philosophy on a budget will take some time. Stick to it and be patient. You'll get it.
3. Pick a Better Grocery Store
"You're not allowed to shop at Whole Paycheck anymore."
Clever marketing gets us to spend much more than we planned. A store might make you feel better about shopping there, but it's not better for your financial goals.
Look, I'm all for voting with your wallet. It's great to support local businesses and vote for business practices or food options that you appreciate more. That said, if you're in debt, you're voting to stay in financial indentured servitude.
You can vote with your wallet when you're not living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Find lower-cost grocery stores in your area. Market Basket, Aldi, Lidl, and others offer great value every day and also great sales.
Warehouse stores like Costco, Sam's Club, and BJs can also save you money (on some items). They can also cost more money. Shopping at a warehouse store is not automatically going to save you money. Price them out. Make sure you're really getting a good deal on something you're going to use.
Ethnic grocery stores can have some of the very best deals. Ten years ago, I was single and living on $30-40 per week for food right outside of Boston. Those Indian grocery stores in Waltham saved my budget more than once. I learned to love naan and cook with vegetables I hadn't previously considered. Try out an ethnic grocery store. You could be surprised at the deals you find.
4. Shop the Bottom Row
Did you know that food manufacturers pay to place their food products at eye-level and at aisle ends in the grocery store? "Eye-level is buy-level," they say. And it works. Eye-level products sell more than bottom row products.
Let's use that knowledge to our advantage.
Who doesn't pay for premium placement? Food producers that can't afford it because they don't have the margin. Why don't they have the margin? Because their prices are less than the premium brand prices. Many times, their products are just as good as those brands you recognize.
Look down. Look up. Look around and compare prices. Look for the smaller price-per-something in a corner of the price sticker. It'll have a price-per-unit or -pound or -ounce or something similar. Compare those smaller prices (make sure the units are the same!) and pick the lower price-per-something option.
In the example above, you're comparing two Kikkoman soy sauce bottles. Most people would pick the larger bottle, as bulk is usually a better deal, but this time that's not the case. The smaller 10 oz bottle is a better price-per-ounce. You'd be better off getting two 10 oz bottles than one 20 oz bottle.
That said, Kikkoman is a premium brand of soy sauce. Your wallet will be better off if you look up and look down to find a cheaper brand of soy sauce. We get ours at Costco for about half the cost per ounce and it's better quality.
5. Cook Easy Dishes from Scratch
Gee. Thanks for that! We all know or at least suspect that cooking at home will save money.
Cooking easy dishes from scratch instead of relying on premade frozen or fresh foods also saves you tons of money.
Let's price it out. I could easily buy an 8 oz container of quinoa salad or tabbouleh salad from the deli section for $4. For that same price and with some very simple prep, I could make 48 oz (that's 6 cups!) of the same salad to serve with lunches or dinners for a few days.
Let's do another one. I love chicken tenders. Who doesn't, right? In my frozen food section, chicken tenders regularly sell for around $3-4 per pound. That's not great. Boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs can be found for $1 per pound on sale. That's when I stock up my freezer. Take those bad boys, dip them in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs and you've got yourself chicken tenders for about $1.20 per pound. Beat that!
How about rice? Many grocery stores offer frozen prepared white or brown rice for an easy side. With very little effort and nearly no dishes, you can prepare your own for 1/10th the price.
Okay, I think I've made this point clear. It takes a little bit of effort in the right direction to make a tasty, delicious dinner without much hassle. Pick simple foods, prepare them in a tasty way, and then eat your nutritious meal. You can do it!
6. Stop Your Meal Subscriptions
Recently, I've noticed an uptick in weekly meal subscriptions in the budgets I see. Even the budget-friendly meal subscription services can't compare to doing the legwork yourself.
Let's take the cheapest promotional meal plan offer I've seen: $1.92 per meal. That sounds like a dream, right? WRONG. Let's do the math.
Meal subscription boxes generally send food and recipes for dinner. Let's take a regular dinner with 6 oz. of chicken, enough sauce to satisfy, a starch, and some vegetables. You're going to be cooking it at home anyway, so let's price all of that out at my current local grocery store in Massachusetts (a high cost of living area). I won't count on any sales.
Boneless, skinless chicken breast, 6 oz: $0.75
Homemade alfredo sauce, 4 oz: $0.16
Oven-roasted potatoes, 8 oz: $0.28
Oven-roasted Brussel sprouts, 4 oz: $0.25
That simple dinner works out to $1.44 per plate without any sales. With sales, that cost goes down to about $0.80 per plate. Also, if you cook large amounts like me, you'll have leftovers to eat for lunch or dinner the next day. I love me some leftovers.
A normal meal subscription box charges anywhere from $5 per plate to $20 per plate for specialty diet boxes. It's a complete rip-off. You have to cook your own meals anyway! Do you know what else can tell you how to cook your own meal? A recipe you find online.
7. Repurpose and Eat Your Leftovers
Okay. This one's a no brainer. You need to eat the food you have. Stop wasting it. But how??
Leftovers don't always rock my socks. Eating the same food every day for a few days gets pretty old. We're not robots. We need some variation in our diets because we have first world problems.
No problem there. Repurpose those leftovers. Get creative.
Have leftover veggies? Pop them into an omelet or pasta dish.
Need to use up some baked meat? Chop it up and mix it up with some celery and mayo for a nice sandwich.
Have leftover chili? Make chili dogs!
Try to think outside the box, so you can use up your leftovers. My husband and I repurpose leftovers like it's a game. We have one spot in the fridge for "eat this today" food. If lots of food accumulates over the week, I'll either make pizza, a casserole (a good one!), or omelets to use up the odds and ends. Ever had orange chicken pizza? It's pretty good!
The trick to using up your leftovers is to think through how each piece of food would best be eaten later. If you have leftover meat, I like to eat it cold, sauteed, or oven-heated. Microwaved meat is no bueno. If you have leftover roasted veggies, those can be good microwaved and tossed on a burrito bowl, salad, or sandwich. Almost anything is good in a sandwich.
Adding different sauces also helps. If you have leftover rotisserie chicken, toss it in a pan with some noodles, pad thai sauce, and some veggies and you've got yourself a whole new meal!
Okay, point driven home. You get the idea. Waste not, want not. Use your leftovers to keep costs down.
I'm thinking about launching a video-based course to teach people how to cut their food costs down. My family of four (two adults, two children 5 and 3) regularly eats for less than $500 per month. We can eat for less than $400 per month if I concentrate.
Would you be interested in that kind of course? I'm thinking 5 videos and a meal plan submission that would be graded by me.
Let me know what you think using our contact form (scroll down down down). I get those emails directly. The course would walk you through all of these principles (and a few more) to help you lower your grocery budget.