Last year, without warning, our family lost half of our income. Cutting all but basic expenses, we still spent more than we made, until I ran across this obscure fact: We eat the same weight in food every day.
If that was true, I reasoned, I was going about grocery shopping wrong. Aiming for the best price per serving, or even per meal, wasn't the goal. Aiming for a good price per pound was. I decided to see how much thinking "price per pound" could save us.
During regular grocery shopping, I calculated the price per weight on everything I bought. The foods I bought (in Monterrey, Mexico) averaged $1 a pound. I decided that number was my new definition of cheap, and that the majority of my purchases had to beat that target price.
Mostly, I could meet my goal by choosing vegetables and meat that were either on sale or normally inexpensive. I was surprised that peanut butter and cheese, staple foods I'd bought to make more of our meals meatless, cost three times my target price. I saved 20% on groceries by replacing half the cheese with yogurt and most of the peanut butter with homemade hummus from dried chickpeas. To conserve oil, another expensive food, I bought two spray bottles from the dollar store and used one for cooking and one for salad dressing.
Processed foods, I discovered, usually cost twice as much as the raw ingredients, and in the case of convenience foods, they were four times as much or more. I could make my own bread, whole-wheat pasta, yogurt, and muesli for less than half the price of commercial versions.
I became obsessive about adding water to my food. (Your body considers water absorbed by or flavored by food during cooking as food, not liquid). I made soup daily and experimented with dried foods. I found that beans quadruple their weight when cooked, pasta and rice double their weight, and reconstituted TVP is almost all water. The end result was that I cut our grocery bill by more than half.
With all these savings, I had leeway in the budget to add in healthier foods. I started buying a few of the dirty dozen (high pesticide foods) organically. I bought leaner ground beef, as the amount of meat I was getting by weight (defined by the percentage on the packet) was about the same if I bought 80% or 90% ground beef. I also made it a habit to buy a fruit or vegetable in each of the colors of the rainbow to ensure a variety of nutrients. The budget barely noticed.
I found it's generally the most frugal to buy expensive items cheaply, and cheap items nutritiously. For example, let's say organic brown rice cost $1.50 a pound and white rice $.50. A 14-ounce organic whole-wheat pizza night cost $7.99 versus $6.79 for a non-organic, white flour version. (I'd normally make pizza, but this is an illustration.) Despite the brown rice being three times as expensive, it's only $1 more a pound versus $1.50 a pound for the pizza. And that's before the water weight, which makes the rice $1.50 for two pounds, only $.50 more per pound than cooked white rice.
Very easily, I was feeding our family healthier foods without straining our budget. Then, our family moved back to the States. I based our food budget on the USDA family of four food allowance, figuring that we'd easily be able to eat within budget if we just applied the same principles and ate similar foods. I was wrong.
When we moved countries, I lost the "shopper instinct." After a few weeks of failing to balance our food budget, despite applying all the tricks above, I realized I needed a more exact method to arrive at a target price per pound. So, I created one.
The average person eats 4.7 pounds per day. Two year olds eat 50% less; teenagers 50% more. Since pregnant women need about 300 more calories per day and lactating women need an additional 500, I assumed feeding a baby equaled about 1.3 pounds more, and pregnancy meant eating .8 pounds more daily. That meant our family, consisting of my husband, a nursing two year old, myself, and my unborn child would need 75 pounds of food a week. Dividing that by our weekly budget of $115 gave us a limit of $1.53 a pound on average.
With that type of precision, it is easy to keep the food budget balanced. It's clear if something is affordable or not. And I'm confident that if we ever go through hard times again, I'd be able to figure out what to do in order to cut our food budget by 50% or more.
Jacqueline Harris-Stone is a bass trombonist, writer, and the principal grocery shopper for her newly expanded family of four, residing in Hartford, Connecticut.
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