A few months ago, I answered a reader mailbag question from Randu about what constitutes a reasonable food budget for a family of four. Here's Randu's question and my response:
What is the minimal food budget for a family of four?
The USDA “thrifty” family cost of food estimation for a family of four is $558 per month with young children and $639.60 if you have older children. We have a family of five (two adults, two “older” children by the USDA standards, and one “younger” child) and my monthly food cost estimate for us is about $800, though I know we could cut it further than that with ease if we needed to.
I know that with some careful home economics, a family can definitely get below that “thrifty” number from the USDA. The more you cook at home – and the more you prepare meals from scratch using low cost ingredients like dried beans and dried rice – the lower you can make that number go. If you supplement that with a well-tended garden that can provide vegetables for you and you save the excess for future months via preservation (canning, drying, etc.), you can cut it even more. These things really depend on having someone at home who will do all of that work, though.
Many two-income American families end up relying at least somewhat on convenience-based shortcuts at least some of the time – things like prepackaged foods, takeout foods, delivery, and dining out – so that increases the cost simply out of necessity. Thus, I think the numbers from the USDA are reasonable in a two-income household that pays attention to the dollars and cents.
This question-and-answer led to a lengthy exchange between Ragu and myself about food expenses. Ragu was surprised that we spent about $800 a month on food for our family and felt that was pretty high, although it's honestly not out of line with the USDA "thrifty" standards, as mentioned above.
It turned out that Ragu was, unsurprisingly, one of the adults in a family of four - two adults and two children. His goal, as he described it, was to achieve a family food budget of $360 per month. That number comes from spending an average of $1 per meal per person on food for his household.
This seemed like an interesting target to me, so I sat down with our actual food expenses and did some math. It turns out that if I were to simply cut out about six family meals per month - three or four of them involving eating out and two or three involving "gourmet" meals we prepare at home - we actually come really close to that $1 per meal per person threshold in our home. (Remember, we have five family members, so eating out at a decent restaurant pretty quickly pushes our bill toward the $100 range.) In fact, many weeks go by in our home where we hit that $1 per meal per person threshold. If we did that all the time, we would spend less than $450 per month to feed our family.
That's a significant drop from the food spending of the average American family, which is somewhere around $700 a month. Since the average American family consists of roughly 2.5 people, that equates to the average American spending just shy of $3 per meal.
Think about that. The average American person - man, woman, or child - spends just below $3 per meal on food, assuming three meals per day for food consumption. If the average family can lower that cost to $1 per meal, that's literally hundreds of dollars a month in savings. In fact, even if the average family only uses some of the strategies needed to make that happen, it's still hundreds of dollars a month in savings.
So, what kinds of strategies are needed to reduce a family's food cost to $1 per meal? Although we don't subscribe to that strict cost limit for food, many of the strategies we use can really help ratchet down that cost per meal to a pretty low level, and those strategies could easily be used to hit that "$1 per meal" level. Here are some of the strategies we use for keeping our cost per meal very low.
Strategy #1 - Plan Ahead
The single most effective strategy there is for cutting your food spending is to make a meal plan, build your grocery list from that meal plan, and stick to that plan. If you do that, food cost management becomes far easier.
Here's the basic structure that we use.
Once a week, usually on Sunday, one of us downloads the latest flyer from our grocery store. We look through it and find some items that are on sale and then use them as the basis for a few meals during the week. We make a list of the days of the coming week and the meals we intend to have, then we make a grocery list from that list of meals. Naturally, the on-sale items make it right onto the grocery list.
We then take this list to the store and we trust it. If it's not on the list, we don't buy it. Then, when we get home, everything in our grocery sacks has a purpose. It either provides a portion of a meal or of a snack that we planned ahead for.
This is our routine, week after week. It doesn't really take any extra time because the time spent making the meal plan and grocery list is gained back by spending a lot less time at the grocery store. It's also very helpful to have meals sketched out for the entire week, so I don't really have to think about what meal we're having for dinner on Wednesday night.
Strategy #2 - Base More Meals Around Sale-Priced Produce (and Meats)
While planning ahead saves money by keeping us from wasting money on extra food purchases and unplanned food purchases, the fact that we're basing the meal plan around sale-priced produce and meats is an equally big money saver.
The simple act of starting the week's meal plan by looking at the grocery store flyer for on-sale ingredients ends up with each and every meal centering around at least one - but often several - very low cost staples. That means that when you're actually in the store with your grocery list, the items going into your cart are mostly on-sale items.
Sometimes, it almost feels like magic. As I go from item to item down my grocery list and pick them up off the shelf, it feels like they're all on sale. That means when I finally get to the checkout, the total bill is sometimes shockingly low, which is exactly what you want to see when you get to the checkout, isn't it?
Of course, planning meals this way means you need to be a little flexible. You can't demand particular brands - you have to be flexible with the brands that you buy. You can't insist on certain ingredients in your soup - you have to be flexible with what goes into your soups and stews and casseroles.
Let the grocery store flyer take the lead and find ways to integrate those ingredients into basic recipes that you know that you like and you'll end up with some very low cost and very interesting meal variants.
Strategy #3 - Base Meals Around Low-Cost Staples and Store Brands
Another valuable strategy for low cost grocery shopping is to base your meals around inexpensive staple foods and store brands so that even when you're paying full price in the store, the cost is still cheap.
There are a lot of foods in the grocery store that are always pretty inexpensive. Dried beans. Dried rice. Canned vegetables. Peanut butter. Eggs. Pasta. Chicken. Those things can always be found at a very reasonable price per pound.
That means it's worth your while to really know how to prepare these things efficiently and use them in your kitchen. Knowing how to prepare dry beans without skipping a beat is a great skill to have. Knowing how to use a box of pasta, a can of diced tomatoes, and whatever herbs you have on hand to make a decent meal is a great skill to have.
How do you get there? You get there by buying these staple items and actually using them. If you're intimidated by preparing a pasta meal, wait until boxes of pasta are on sale, buy some boxes, and give it a shot. Pair it with an inexpensive canned pasta sauce. If you do it two or three times, it's going to seem super easy. Then, move on to making your own pasta sauce from diced tomatoes and/or tomato sauce with a few spices in it, which makes the sauce really cheap.
If you're intimidated by cooking dried beans, just buy a pound and follow the directions on a lazy afternoon. See how they turn out when you follow the steps, then save the cooked beans to use in recipes over the next few days. We often have a tub of recently cooked beans in the fridge to use as ingredients for upcoming meals.
If you learn to base your meals around these inexpensive things - beans, rice, eggs, chicken, pasta, canned and flash-frozen veggies, and so on - and then accompany them with whatever meats and produce is on sale, your meals are going to be very cheap indeed.
Strategy #4 - Take Advantage of Less Busy Times
Many people fall into a routine of spending a lot on food because of their very busy lives. They buy a lot of convenience food and takeout because they don't have a lot of time in the evening to prep a meal.
A much better strategy is to do most of the prep work for a home-cooked meal well in advance, or to even complete a home-cooked meal and stow it in the freezer for use in the future or in the refrigerator for use later in the week.
For example, we'll often spend Sunday afternoon making most of the meals for the week and sometimes making double or triple batches and saving the extras. We'll make a huge batch of chili in a giant pot, put a quarter of it in a container to use on Tuesday night, then make three more containers of chili to put in the freezer. That chili's based on dried beans (which are super cheap) along with onions, green pepper, chili powder, and a few other ingredients (some of which were on sale that week). Because we're making four batches at once, we can really nail the on-sale ingredients if there are a lot of chili ingredients on sale.
You can do the same thing with pretty much any soup, stew, or casserole. We make lasagnas, pans of enchiladas, and all kinds of other things in advance like this, putting complete meals in the fridge and more copies of that same meal in the freezer.
You can also take partial steps for meal preparation. Are you going to need some chopped onions on Tuesday? Chop them on Saturday afternoon, put them in a container in the fridge, and pull them out on Tuesday when you need them. It's easy!
During the week, supper prep is really easy. Go home, turn on the oven (or the burner), take off your shoes, put the food in the oven (or on the burner), and relax for a while. Supper's done very quickly thereafter, and it's a dirt cheap supper.
Strategy #5 - Use a Slow Cooker
Another strategy for making cooking at home much more convenient is to use a slow cooker. Basically, you just toss the ingredients for the meal in the slow cooker before you leave in the morning, set it to cook slowly all day long with the push of just a few buttons, and you come home to a meal that's ready to eat.
You can cook pretty much any soup in the slow cooker very easily by just dumping in ingredients and liquid. You can also cook almost any casserole as well - we often make lasagna in the slow cooker. You can make a great filling for tacos in the slow cooker. You can cook a mean pot roast and vegetables in the slow cooker.
All of these things are so easy to make in the slow cooker. Just look up a slow cooker recipe for any of these items on Google and pick the variation that sounds good to you, then toss those ingredients in there in the morning before you leave for work. Turn the slow cooker on low, leave, then come home at dinnertime to find a completed meal ready for you to eat.
If you combine that with the other strategies here - shopping effectively for ingredients and doing some prep work in advance - you can make these home-cooked meals super cheap.
Strategy #6 - Extract Maximum Value from Leftovers
Whenever anything is left over from a meal, we save it and eat it in the future.
First of all, my wife and I usually prepare meals in plastic containers for the two of us to eat for lunch the next day. This makes it easy to just pop those containers in the microwave for an easy, quick lunch. Sometimes, we'll pre-season it with some additional salt and pepper and maybe even a little cheese or spices to jazz it up a bit.
Second, we'll take the other leftovers and store them separately in other containers in the fridge.
Then, twice a week - usually on Thursdays and Sundays - we go through the fridge, pull out any and all leftover containers, and have a leftover buffet. We put everything out on the table and let people choose what they want to make a dinner plate and/or bowl. We take turns reheating those plates and/or bowls and eating together. (This is also very convenient if we're eating separately.)
That usually takes care of almost all the remaining leftovers. It also makes for a very, very inexpensive Thursday and Sunday dinner for our families. More than that, it means that we throw away very little food.
Strategy #7 - Extract Value from Scraps, Too
But what about the scraps of food that are edible or semi-edible but you don't really want to eat? The bits at the ends of carrots? The remnants of a bag of microwaved steamed vegetables? The bones from a chicken or a steak or a roast?
You might be tempted to throw those things away, but don't do it! There's a great deal of value still there, and that value is in making stock.
Stock is essentially a tasty liquid component of future soups, stews, and casseroles. You can make stock by taking a bunch of leftover items - a bunch of vegetables to make vegetable stock, leftover bones and perhaps a few vegetables to make a meat-specific stock - and cooking them slowly all day in a slow cooker. At the end of the day, you just strain the liquid and save that liquid in the freezer until the next time you make soup or a casserole.
Take a chicken carcass or some turkey bones, add a few bits of onion and a handful of peppercorns, put them in the slow cooker, add enough water to cover everything, cover it, and turn it on low to cook all day long. At the end of the day, strain it and save the liquid - chicken stock! Replace the chicken or turkey bones with some steak bones or a roast bone and you have beef stock! Use just a bunch of leftover vegetables with some seasonings and you have vegetable stock!
It's easy, it makes something useful from true scraps, and it makes homemade soups and casseroles way better, turning them from something mediocre into something amazing. Plus, it's very low effort as you can just let it cook slowly all day in a slow cooker.
Strategy #8 - Keep Breakfasts and Lunches Well Below $1 per Meal
Often, we spend more than $1 per person for our family dinners. In order to try to keep the average meal cost low, we strive to spend less than $1 per person for breakfasts and lunches.
In order to do that, our family breakfasts and lunches are very, very focused on highly inexpensive staple foods.
Breakfasts often revolve around a bowl of oatmeal or a hardboiled or poached egg or two or some toast or an English muffin with peanut butter, with any of those things paired with a piece of fruit. The cost for any of those breakfasts is below $0.50.
For lunch, I'm often happy with any of the breakfast options, but we'll also often have very simple grilled sandwiches with a low-cost or sale-priced wheat bread and something like sliced cucumbers on the side. We often eat extra leftovers for lunch as well, and we usually count a meal of leftovers as costing nothing (attributing the full cost to the original meal).
If you keep the first two meals of the day around $0.50 a pop, you can spend $2 a pop on ingredients for the evening meal and still keep the daily average at $1 a meal. Since you can actually make a pretty good breakfast for $0.50 (and a passable lunch, too), it ends up working out quite well.
The thing you'll really notice about all of these strategies is that they're all tightly interrelated and they all center on cooking meals at home.
Cooking at home is something that's often challenging for modern families. Families today are often very constrained when it comes to time, plus there are tons of options out there for convenient food on the go, so many families get into the routine of paying a big premium for their meals - and the truth is that even the cheapest fast food is a pretty significant premium.
If you want to move in the direction of $1 per meal for your family, you need to move the center of your food preparation to the home and away from takeout and other restaurant foods. That's really the biggest step.
The strategies above mostly serve to make cooking at home simpler and to keep the ingredient cost low, but, honestly, it's the "simpler" that's truly important. If you can simply make the shift to having most meals prepared at home, you're well on your way to $1 meals for your family, and that will make a huge difference in your family food costs. (That's $360 a month for food for a family of four, after all.)