The $21 Food Week: Is It Possible? Is It Healthy?

tomatoA while back, I read a fascinating article about the governor of Oregon and his attempt at eating for a week for just $21. This concept wormed around in my mind for months until recently, when I realized that this provided a pretty sharp frugality challenge.

Can I feed myself for one week on just $21? Since I have a wife at home and also a toddler (whose food costs would be roughly half of an adult), could I actually spend just $52.50 on food for the three of us for an entire week?

I didn’t want to just load up on carbs and fats, either – I wanted healthy stuff. So I headed over to the USDA’s interactive food pyramid to find out what I should be eating in a given day, along with what my wife and I should be eating.

My nutritional intake for a day should be:

Grains – 9 ounces
Vegetables – 3.5 cups
Fruits – 2 cups
Milk – 3 cups
Meat & Beans – 6.5 ounces

For my wife:

Grains – 7 ounces
Vegetables – 3 cups
Fruits – 2 cups
Milk – 3 cups
Meat & Beans – 6 ounces

For my son:

Grains – 3 ounces
Vegetables – 1 cup
Fruits – 1 cup
Milk – 2 cups
Meat & Beans – 2 ounces

I decided that over the course of a week, it was fine if I exceeded the recommended amount of food one day and dipped under it the next as long as it averaged out to the recommended amount.

Thus, over the course of a week, I need to serve my family:

Grains – 133 ounces
Vegetables – 52.5 cups
Fruits – 42 cups
Milk – 56 cups
Meat & Beans – 101.5 ounces

Can I buy all of that for $52.50? That’s what this challenge really boils down to. Let’s break it down piece by piece.

First, the milk. There are 16 cups in a gallon, so to get 56 cups of milk, I would need 3.5 gallons of milk. Three gallons of skim (for myself and my wife) and one half gallon of whole milk (for my son – whole milk is what is doc recommends). An average gallon of milk costs $3.79 and a half-gallon is $2.09, so we’re spending $13.46 on milk for the week, leaving us with $39.04 for the other stuff.

Next, the grains. You can buy three loaves of whole wheat bread for $0.99 a piece to get 48 ounces of the grains. The rest can be picked up by two containers of Quaker Old Fashioned Oats at 42 ounces at $5.39 each. Thus, we’re spending $13.75 on grains for the week, leaving us with $25.29 for the other stuff.

What about meat and beans? You can buy two pounds of hamburger at $1.99 a pound (80/20 beef, just fine for grilling), plus get two 32 ounce bags of mixed beans (for burritos and soup) for just $3.99 a bag. Thus, we’re spending $11.96 on meats and beans, leaving us just $13.13 to spend on fruits and vegetables.

The fruits and vegetables are the trickiest part. If you stick with what’s in season, you can get many different kinds of fruits and vegetables for well under a dollar a pound, and on average a pound of fruit or vegetable adds up to about three cups. The USDA recommends that our family eats 94.5 cups of fruits and vegetables in a week, which is roughly equal to 31 pounds of fruits and vegetables (remember, a family of three for a whole week). We have $13.13 to spend, but even if we found fruits and vegetables for $0.50 a pound, we wouldn’t quite make it.

Even given this, I don’t think the experiment is entirely a failure.

First of all, one can take advantage of sales, bulk buying, and comparison shopping. I used some average prices in these calculations – and I know from experience that the milk, at the very least, can be found cheaper, particularly in dairy-rich regions. I also didn’t factor in sales or smart shopping, both of which can trim more off of the cost. Also, you can buy some of the items in bulk, like the beans and oatmeal.

Secondly, I focused strongly on healthy options, since I prefer to put only healthy foods on the table. If you open the door to less healthy substitutes, it’s easy to drive the cost down much further than what’s presented here.

Those two factors alone could potentially drive down the cost of these meals in practice to below that magic $1 per meal number.

What can we really learn here? The biggest thing I learned is that one can eat healthy at a very inexpensive price, and thus it often leaves me with questionable feelings when I find that I’ve spent astonishing amounts on other meals. It also shows me that if you stick with the nutritional staples and basic ingredients, cooking at home can be incredibly cheap. If you’ve dropped $20 or more at a meal recently, recognize that you could have fed yourself for a week on that bill, including breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

Of course, you could just go for the “three $1 double cheeseburgers from McDonald’s a day” plan (which adds up to $21 in a week), but that might not be the best choice either.

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