In my recent article about having a weekly cheap supper night, I made a simple statement without realizing what an uproar it would cause. Basically, I said that the average food bill for our family of four was around $770 per month. This works out to around $2.07 worth of food per person, per meal.
This simple statement elicited a lot of shocked reactions from readers. Here's a sample of some of the comments that post received:
$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. To make sure my numbers were correct, I went through my receipts again (and also added in my own estimates for fractional costs of things used, like spices and garden vegetables) only to come up with the same number again - just shy of $770 for the four of us for the month.
What is the Average Grocery Bill for a Family of 4?
After that, I did some research. The first place I looked was in the huge public data available from the federal government. According to the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the average expenditure for a low-cost meal plan for a family of four in the United States was $731.20 in late 2017. This is substantially less than the liberal food plan, which came out to $1,093 for a family of four for a month.
In other words, my estimate was pretty much in line with normal food spending in the United States for that specific year. This amount also seems reasonable to me. A lot of the staples we purchase are cheaper due to where we live, 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 "low-cost meal plan" are found in USDA publication CNPP-20, The Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal Food Plans. Needless to say, if you browse through it, it's extremely detailed.
But is it reasonable? I compared the food options in both the moderate and liberal food plan to what my family and I actually eat in a given week, and they're pretty comparable to be honest. 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.
I also think something else is at play here. I think it's fairly likely that readers of this website and people in general drastically underestimate how much they spend on food every month. Few people take the time to track their spending and their food purchases then tally them up for the month. If they did, however, they may find they're spending a lot more on food than they realize - especially if they dine out more than once or twice per month.
If you're curious how much your family spends on food every month, I challenge you to spend thirty days tracking every food purchase and adding it all up. You may find you're spending a lot more than you think.
Cheap vs. Healthy: How to Shop On a Budget
One of the reasons some people spend more on food than others could be the fact they're willing to splurge on high-quality ingredients and organic goods. If you're one of those people, you may be wondering what the return on investment is for buying better quality foods - and when to know where to draw the line. 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 I can feed my family with no regrets:
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. When it comes to most ingredients, my family tends to pay a premium for ingredients with fewer hormonal, herbicidal, and pesticide 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.
Check your grocery store circular and print online coupons
Planning your meals according to what is on sale that week is an effective way to save money and get creative with your meal planning. Figure out which grocery stores have the best prices and download their weekly flyer. Make note of which items are truly a deal that will save you money and satisfy your family. Also, don’t forget to check online for manufacturer's coupons on grocery items. Some weeks will be more successful but overall, you can save a significant amount of money by putting in a little bit of search effort. The important thing to remember here is to only use coupons that will actually save your family money, not purchase useless items just because they are on sale.
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.
The Bottom Line
What you think you spend on food and what you actually spend on food could be two entirely different things. Either way, it's important to find out how much you spend so you can see if it's too much or if it's just right.
I'm happy with my family's average spending of $770 per month. We could easily spend more if we wanted, but we could also spend a lot less if we skipped organic foods and dined out more often. It's up to you to decide the right level of spending for your family, so make sure your decision is an informed one.