How We Do Food

Everyone’s got to eat, but deciding how much to spend on food is tricky. Food will eat up (ha!) pretty much any portion of your budget you allot for it. We are only in recent months getting our food budget relatively together, and we still have a ways to go. Our $300 per month grocery budget includes toiletries and household goods such as cleaners and paper products. It does not include food eaten out (to which we currently allot $100 per month). Breakfast and lunch on weekdays are provided by the daycare for Bean, and by the work cafeteria for Mr. Steward. He thinks roughly another pre-tax $100 per month comes out of his check for these meals.

What’s on the Menu?

Here’s what a typical workday meal looks like for me, Mrs. Steward:

banana or oatmeal
fair-trade coffee (made at home, sometimes with organic milk, sometimes black)

Mid-morning snack:
roasted peanuts
a candy (or two…) from the office candy bowl

leftovers from dinner, rice and beans, or an almond butter and strawberry jam sandwich
spinach salad (with extra seasonal produce)

Mid-day snack:
green tea or more coffee

either a protein (chicken breast, tilapia, salmon, chicken sausage) or pasta (with red sauce and Parmesan or butter, pepper, and parmesan), or a frozen pizza
seasonal produce (roasted or steamed) or a low-sodium canned vegetable
a can of fruit (usually lasts a few nights)

cheese square (usually pepperjack)
hot chocolate

On the weekends, we make more time-consuming but larger-portioned items. We usually have oatmeal or eggs for breakfast. We cook one big meal on Saturday and one on Sunday. Sunday features a crock-pot meal (although if we eat out, it’s generally after church on Sunday). Saturday tends to be a soup or casserole. Mr. Steward generally buys a $1 bag of some kind of hot chip for snacking each weekend, while Mrs. Steward eats popcorn with butter and sea salt.

What We’ve Learned about Food

  1. Use a price book to compare stores and stick to a couple with the best prices. The more times you enter a store, the more likely you are to impulse-buy additional items. Even if there is a good sale on an item across town, that’s only worthwhile if you succeed in buying nothing else in the store. I no longer look for sales, but simply shop at the discount grocer that I know to be very cheap (Aldi).
  2. Shop no more than once per week. I repeat: The more times you enter a store, the more likely you are to buy extra stuff.
  3. Ignore brands and buy the cheapest product. The generics really are just as good. This also obviates the need for coupons, since the generics are still cheaper unless you have the time and energy to be very diligent in your coupon use.
  4. Stick to the outer perimeter of the store. Or, stick to staple goods that require you to cook them, like fresh produce, meat, dairy, and bulk bins. The middle of the store (with the exception of the baking aisle) is mostly full of corn products that are bad for you and don’t save you much time.
  5. The freezer is your friend. The freezer preserves items purchased in bulk on a deal, or you can double a recipe and freeze a second portion for a go-to future meal. Bags of meat are usually the cheapest way to go. Moreover, they’re fresher than deli items. Seriously: read the signs on deli fish sometime; often they have been frozen, thawed, and are left to sit in a case. Yet, it costs more than buying it frozen yourself in the first place.
  6. Keep it simple. While special occasions or weekends might allow for a more involved recipe, most nights we are too tired and hungry to make something involved. A meal of a few freezer chicken cutlets and a salad takes about 20 minutes to get on the table and is healthy and filling. Moreover, by limiting your rotation of meals to the minimum needed to keep you from getting totally burned out on a food, you help to reduce waste. Speaking of which…
  7. Waste nothing. Use what you’ve got, before it goes bad. Eat your leftovers. Doing anything else is throwing money out in the trash.
  8. The less you eat out, the more special it is. Our wake-up call regarding eating out came at about year two of our marriage, when we realized we had spent the same amount on eating out one month as our rent (yikes!). Every night we would cave to laziness and poor planning, and it was to the point where eating out wasn’t even interesting anymore. As we have eaten out less over time, the meals are more enjoyable and special.

Still, There’s Always Room for Improvement

I think I can get our food budget down even lower. I’d like to trim back the eating out budget a bit more (down to maybe $50 per month). Additionally, in the name of good stewardship to the earth and our bodies, I’d also like to switch to some better versions of common food items in our house. We already buy organic milk, but I’d like to make a more concerted effort to make sure most of our meat is antibiotic-free. I’d also like to start purchasing organic apples and applesauce, since we eat them daily.

Tell me, friends, how do you do food? Do you use any of the strategies above? What other methods work for you?

4 Replies to “How We Do Food”

  1. youmeanme

    This is pretty much my life, except we’re awful at cooking ahead and freezing. Mainly because the few times we’ve done it we’ve forgotten and wasted.
    We tend to have a list if meals we’ll prepare that week on the fridge.

    • Mrs. Steward

      To be fair, we don’t cook ahead and freeze often unless we know we’re going to have crazy times afoot, particularly crazy times with visitors. The one exception is breakfast burritos, which we do semi-regularly just to have something to go to when all else fails.

      I haven’t done great with meal listing, just because our rotation of dinners is so small it doesn’t warrant one — it’s the same stuff all the time anyway. I’ve considered one periodically, though, to help Mr. Steward know exactly what the options are.

  2. ths117

    A few thoughts, in no particular order:

    — Your utilitarian approach to dinner is both commendable and healthy, but probably wouldn’t work for me. Food (both grocery store and eating out) is one of the places where we blow the most money, because I feel cranky and deprived when I feel like can’t have what I want to eat. I tend to follow a dual approach of keeping up staple foods from which we can put together a bunch of different dinners as the mood strikes us, and then each week buying whatever perishable/special ingredients we need to make whatever meals are on the docket for the week. (This dual plan also incorporates my tendency to plan and my partner’s tendency to play it by ear…) For us, I view this as money spent on self-care, money spent on happy partners, money exchanged for time and aggravation, essentially.

    — Definitely agree with you about shopping once a week, though, and sticking to one store. Running here and running here leads to wasted time as well as wasted money!

    — This was pretty much the first year that I had to depend on eating lunch away from home every day, with no ability to go elsewhere. I found that homemade soups were a total lifesaver. Not only did they provide one weeknight dinner, the leftovers then provided a central lunch item for at least three or four days afterwards, often with enough leftover then to freeze a couple extra portions, which came in handy when I hadn’t planned for any other lunch.

    • Mrs. Steward

      To respond to your first point, that’s the joy of personal finance being exactly that–personal. Mr. Steward and I found that, although we were eating out a lot and had “cravings,” we didn’t derive very much satisfaction from fulfilling those cravings. By the next meal, whatever we had at the previous meal didn’t matter. We began to hate being enslaved (dramatic, but what it felt like) to cravings that were holding us back from obtaining bigger goals but providing no lasting satisfaction and even harming our health. We basically quit eating old cold turkey for a month, then only slowly added it back in, and it has worked well. It took us about five years to really retrain our thinking on it, though, and get the skills/knowledge to arrive at a point to make it work. I’m going to write another post on that soon.

      I’m saying all of that not because I’d encourage you to change if your method works for you and you are not displeased with it, which it sounds like you aren’t. We were unhappy with our spending, so we changed. I don’t think anyone should feel guilt over, “I examined this, I found that it truly makes me happy, and so I want to do x.” That’s what money is for, and why we get to make these decisions as individuals! The problem is when people, without examination of what truly brings them joy, do x, y, and z on a whim and without satisfaction, at the expense of a great deal of future happiness (when they can’t afford to eat anything in retirement). Basically, I strive for happiness optimization and consistent fancy food didn’t make the cut. (Haircuts did.)

      As to your third point, YES FOR SOUP. Yum yum. 🙂

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