In my recent article about having a weekly cheap supper night, I made the following fairly innocuous statement:
I looked into this question for my own family recently when calculating our estimated food costs for a month. Over the period of a month – and this includes the prorated costs of bulk food purchased earlier – I estimated our food costs for our family of four to be around $770. That comes out to be an average of $2.07 worth of food consumed on average per family member per meal.
This simple statement elicited a lot of shocked reactions from readers. Here’s a sample.
$770 per month on food for a family of 4? Is that a typo?
And- $770 a *month*? Really? That seems awfully high, especially since you garden.
Maybe I misunderstood, but $770/mo seems like an awful lot for 2 adults and 2 kids under 3.
I was thinking $770 was high as well, especially since Trent has a garden.
When I first saw this reaction, I thought perhaps something was off base, so I went through my receipts again (and also added in my own estimates for fractional costs of things used, like spices and garden vegetables) and I came up with the same number again – just shy of $770 for the four of us per month.
After that, I did some research. The first place I looked was in the huge public data available from the federal government, and it didn’t take long before I found the data I was looking for. According to the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the average cost for a moderate meal plan for a family of four in the United States is $771.10. This is substantially less than the liberal food plan, which comes in at $954.60 for a family of four for a month.
In other words, my estimate is pretty much in line with normal food spending in the United States. That seems reasonable to me – a lot of our staples are cheaper, but as I’ve mentioned many times, we spring for things like organic milk, free range chickens and eggs, some organic vegetables, fresh cheeses, and the fairly regular bottle of wine.
What Constitutes a “Moderate Meal Plan”?
The details of what exactly constitutes a “moderate meal plan” is found in USDA publication CNPP-20, The Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal Food Plans, 2007. Needless to say, if you browse through it, it’s extremely detailed.
But is it reasonable? I compared what’s in both the moderate and liberal food plan to what my family and I actually eats in a given week – and they’re pretty comparable, actually. The actual dietary content of the moderate meal plan and what my family eats is pretty similar.
I also looked at the low-cost and liberal food plans and found them only really different in specific food choices – choosing higher quality grains, for example. Is a loaf of twelve grain bread at the store better for you than a normal whole wheat loaf? Yes, but is it enough to make it worth that extra cost? Your answer to that question and countless others like it – and there is no right answer for everyone – will determine a big part of your food costs.
What Would Trent Do? The Healthy-Cheap Balance
The question then becomes what’s the right balance between healthy food choices and saving money? Here are a few principles I stick with in my own food purchases. Sometimes they don’t produce the cheapest purchase, but they do produce healthy food and they largely produce inexpensive food.
Stick with staple ingredients. Usually, buying components of an item is substantially cheaper than buying the prepared item. Stick with the items in the produce aisle and the fresh meats aisle and you’ll usually be just fine.
Buy healthy versions of those staple ingredients. However, I don’t encourage people to buy the least expensive version of the staple ingredients. This is a personal decision you’ll have to make up your own mind about – I’m not going to advise you whether a free range chicken is a better choice than a regular chicken, or grass-fed beef is the right choice for you. On most ingredients, my family tends to pay a premium for ingredients with fewer hormonal, herbicidal, and pesticidal treatments, but we’re lucky to be in a situation where this is a choice we can consider on merit rather than be pushed into by our pocketbook. Do your own research on this topic and make up your own mind.
Grow some of your own. Gardens not only produce very inexpensive produce, they give you a very cheap hobby to fill your time, too. It’s not as difficult as you might think, either, and you can grow whatever your heart desires in your own garden.
Look at a CSA. If you’re committed to buying healthy produce, look for a local community-supported agriculture group. Most CSAs are strongly committed to sustainable and healthy practices (meaning very healthy food), but it’s produced locally, meaning almost no transportation costs. Many CSAs require you to buy shares up front, which entitle you to regular allotments of food over the growing season – and the quantity of food you get is usually a solid bargain. The only catch? Finding a group with an open slot and paying the cost up front for that share.