It’s no secret that I’ve lamented about our spending on food here in California. Everything feels so very expensive (even more so recently with the inflation. I feel like I am adjusting our price sheet every other week). Even if we go to the store for “just a few things”, we always end up spending so much money! I’ve always been curious to hear about other people’s food spending, habits, priorities, and preferences.
My friend Lisa recently shared a glimpse into her family’s food habits and it was such an eye-opener. Not necessarily in the sense that her blog post “totally surprised” me, but if I have realized one thing over time, it’s that food spending depends on a lot of factors. More factors than I previously realized.
I thought it would be interesting to some of you (maybe) to share a similar breakdown. Most of you will know that we’re a childless, 2-person household which consists of my husband Jon and myself. I’ll say upfront that we’re both good eaters (from what I’ve gathered).
I don’t include dining out in our food budget, the expenses I talk about are strictly grocery items. I also don’t include any household or personal items in our spending. That’s a separate category.
We’ve significantly cut back on dining out during the pandemic. We have eaten at a restaurant (outdoors only) maybe three times during the pandemic (during a time when things were looking up!), but haven’t been inside a restaurant in about 2 years (except for my birthday recently, but I doubt we’ll go again any time soon). We’ve gotten take-out maybe 3-4 times/month during the pandemic, and we’ve mostly frequented a restaurant in our neighborhood that we wanted to support (and because it was conveniently located for contactless pick-up).
I do all the grocery shopping and since the pandemic started, I have adopted a bi-weekly shopping schedule to avoid having to go to the store any more often than necessary.
On my bi-weekly grocery runs, I usually stop at three stores – Target, Trader Joe’s, and Safeway (our local grocery chain) – to get the best deals. I’d say that we do 80% of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. Recently, we have delayed a couple of purchases and have done a separate run to the store in the off-week, just to get some fresh produce for the second week.
On my last bi-weekly grocery trip, I spent $30 at Target, $240 at Trader Joe’s, and $98 at Safeway, which comes to $370 for two weeks, plus another $80 for the stop at the store in-between. This seems just about right, as we averaged $900/month last year.
I’ve previously blogged about this topic and referenced the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Food Plans (thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal) that give a suggested grocery budget based on guidelines for a nutritious diet on different levels of income. I find this research highly fascinating but also: which regular person has time to break down their food budget like that?
These USDA food budgets also do not take into account your location and the specific food prices where you live. I wonder how carefully one really has to shop to meet the dietary requirements on a thrifty budget. For a family of 2 (one male, one female in our age group) the food budget should be around $530 for thrifty, $538 for low-cost, $679 for moderate-cost, and $850 for liberal spending (January 2022). So, as you can see, our spending is considered “liberal”, but we also live in a high-cost of living area.
(If you’re curious about inflation, here’s the numbers for September 2015: $390 for thrifty, $499 for low-cost, $621 for moderate-cost and $776 for liberal spending.)
Maybe you think we buy a lot of excess food, but no, we eat everything we buy. We haven’t produced any real food waste (except for scraps and the occasional tomato gone-bad) in years. We meal plan our meals every other week and I usually stick strictly to my shopping list and everything I buy will be eaten. (Yes, of course, we also have a few pantry staples, but it’s not like I build a huge stockpile that will spoil before we can eat it.)
Now, I will say that we don’t necessarily plan our meals around sales, but I do check stores, shop at three different grocers, and use (multiple) coupons and sales apps to get the best price. I’ve tracked all our grocery items last year and definitely made some interesting discoveries, e.g. which items went up in price over the course of the year (hint: meat and dairy), and another thing I noticed is that it really makes a difference where you shop. For example, Target will sometimes sell the exact same (brand!) item as Safeway for a fraction of the price. How? I don’t know, other than that I suspect that certain items get “subsidized” at each store and others do not.
To my great disappointment, we don’t have a discounter like Aldi or Lidl here in Northern California. Having grown up in Germany with an Aldi literally around the corner, it pains me to not have the option to shop there anymore. I know people rave about the prices.
But I digress. Let’s talk about our eating habits during the week.
Breakfast: I usually have overnight oats with frozen berries or apples, granola with yogurt and fruit, or a slice of bread with jam or cheese. Jon usually doesn’t eat breakfast.
Lunch: Jon usually has a sandwich and an apple, I don’t usually plan my lunches. Sometimes I have a slice of bread, sometimes I just have fruit and yogurt, sometimes I make a scrambled egg with extra veggies. When I still went to the office, I’d usually pack some lunch or kept some canned soup at my workplace as a quick lunch option. Now that I work from home, I’ll eat up whatever is around the house that needs to be eaten. I also usually have some snacks on hand which can “pose” as my lunch (fruit, nuts, nut butter, granola). Our biggest meal of the day is definitely dinner.
Dinner: We usually plan for 5-6 meals/week. I tend to cook 4 nights (and I don’t mind it at all) and two nights we’ll have German bread and cold cuts/cheeses (and yes, I got my husband to agree to that arrangement), because I bake a big loaf of sourdough rye bread every week, like the good German that I am. That loaf also yields a couple of breakfast or lunch servings for me.
We also plan for 1x takeout meal each week, although this is more for flexibility’s sake. Sometimes the takeout doesn’t happen if we’re not particularly hungry or have random things to eat up. Generally, we’re not a leftover house. Not because we don’t like leftovers (in fact, Jon loves them), but because we usually always finish what we cook. I am not sure if we’re just big eaters (I suspect we are – Jon definitely is, and I suspect that I eat more than the regular person as well?), but even if I make a big pot of soup (we’re talking a “large 6-qt Dutch oven”), it rarely yields enough servings for another dinner. Sometimes, there is a little bit left over and I will have that for lunch the next day, but most of the time Jon eats up the “leftovers” before they can become leftovers (making up for skipping breakfast, I guess.)
I suspect this fact alone is probably why our grocery runs are “bigger” than other people’s. We do like to make simple (as in, 30-minute cooking time or less), but semi-elaborate meals and our servings are probably bigger than yours.
We generally don’t mind eating the same things. Often our meal plan repeats for a couple of cycles and then we switch out a couple of meals, but since we’re on a two-week cycle, it does feel like we’re eating a variety of meals. I also tend to focus on making meals from scratch (as much as possible, within reason, of course) and we usually add some sort of protein (lean meat) and lots of veggies – so meals that could probably get away with one vegetable, usually have at least three or more thrown in for variety. We do have a couple of vegetarian meals as well, but generally Jon likes to have the extra protein.
I have completely switched to non-dairy milk (for my coffee) a couple of years ago, but we still eat quite a bit of dairy (yogurt, cheese). Overall, we do place value on organic produce (maybe half of what we buy) and meat (mostly poultry) and Jon definitely eats a lot of lunch meat with his sandwiches. I realize that all these things add up and I am not sure that we’d be willing to compromise much. I’ve also learned that I need to be okay with spending more on food, unless I am willing to make significant cuts somewhere.
So there you have it. Now it’s your turn to tell me how your family eats. Do you have similar habits and preferences? Totally different? Are groceries expensive where you live? Do you like to cook or do you keep things simple at home?
(I am especially curious to hear from other child-free households because kids, I am sure, throw a whole other layer of consideration into the mix, but everybody please chime in!)