That amount included $12 for one dinner of fresh, take-out grocery store pizza. The meals and snacks I planned provided even my 23-year old son with plenty of healthy food to eat, and I actually ended up freezing some leftovers.
I’m mentioning this because just recently someone questioned my budget and some of the prices I quote for my recipes.
That feedback from a reader made me realize that I need to do a better job of explaining my approach to grocery and food shopping so that people understand how I do what I do.
The budget I mentioned at the beginning of this post is a fairly typical one for my household, give or take a few dollars. I generally spend between $25 and $35 per person at the grocery store, with an average of about $30 per person over the course of a month.
I actually live the budget lifestyle I write about, and have done so for decades. Even though we are in a position where I could easily spend more on food, I just don't see the point at all.
After all, why would I change a formula for good eating that has worked so well for us over the years and has the doctor marveling at our medication-free good health? I attribute that status to our diet and lifestyle.
So I am really not making things up as I go along. I walk the walk, so to speak.
I also strive for accuracy, but there’s a reason I list recipe costs in approximate terms - I know that prices and product choice vary widely around the country.
Yes, I live in one of the most expensive regions of the country, but my budget is helped enormously by the number of grocery store options available nearby that help make food prices more competitive.
I cannot say for sure what others would pay for food in their geographic area, so there may well be differences.
That said, there are steps I take to stay within my budget that anyone can replicate.
Plan Your Meals Around What You Already Have on Hand
This week’s bill is one example. It was so low for a reason. I planned my menus for the week around the sales at the local store where I shop. In my planning, I also incorporated ingredients I already had at home that I previously stocked up on when they were on sale.
Develop a Repertoire of a Few Budget-Conscious Recipes
I have well over 70 recipes in my repertoire, but, truthfully, I fall back over and over again on about 10-15 of them. I know their ingredients well, so that when I'm planning meals and looking through the store flyers for deals, I know what to look for in terms of what I can use to put a meal together.
I recommend that you do the same by getting to know a few basic recipes that hit all the buttons for taste, cost and health. Don't think you need to be creating new, complicated, gourmet meals every week.
In fact, my whole approach is about keeping it simple, both in terms of prep and ingredients. I save any new ventures in cooking or the preparation of the more complicated recipes for when I have a bit more time than the typical week in our household.
Be Informed About Prices and Shop the Sales
I have a good idea of what constitutes a good price for most items I use regularly. So, last week, for example, when I sat with the store flyer to plan my menus for the week, I noticed the generic brand of mozzarella cheese was on sale for $1.99 a pound.
I know that’s two dollars off the usual lowest price of $3.99 per pound for the store brand. That’s an excellent buy in our neck of the woods. And the store brand of ricotta was also on sale for $1.60 a pound. That’s about $1 off the usual price per pound.
Then I noticed that large 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes were on sale for $1 each, or 57¢ a pound.
As soon as I saw those prices, and checked to see that I had lasagna noodles on hand (that I had bought on sale some time ago for 99¢), and frozen broccoli (that I had also stocked up on during a sale for 89¢ a pound), I knew it made sense to include lasagna as a menu item for the week.
Familiarity with the typical price structure of the products helps me recognize bargains.
And that’s the way I always plan all my regular weekly meals. When I see that the major ingredients of a recipe are on sale and a good buy, I make a point to incorporate that recipe into my meal schedule that week.
Conversely, I exclude any recipes in my planning that would use ingredients that are NOT on sale or a good price.
I save the fancy, expensive ingredients for special occasions. So you'll never see me plan a regular weekly meal using things like goat cheese, or sun dried tomatoes, or capers, or artichokes, or mangoes, or pomegranates - just to name a few pricey grocery items that pop up quite often on recipe sites.
I also rarely use boneless cuts of meat, but go for the much more budget-conscious bone-in variety. The same goes for anything pre-prepared, including salad greens where I buy the whole head greens, rather than the pre-washed type. I just see no point in paying for someone else's labor.
For the most part, I focus on simple, basic ingredients that go easy on the pocketbook.
Focus on Generic or Store Brands
The prices I quote in my recipes are also almost always based on the SALE prices I pay, and typically for a store or generic brand item.
I buy name brands ONLY when they are actually cheaper than the others.
I shop entirely for value and have just about zero brand loyalty for most of the most heavily advertised products.
And I rarely ever pay full price for any product, and NEVER pay it for meat, canned goods, or cheese, for example.
Set a Price Point for Yourself for Individual Products
But that’s just part of my approach. Besides targeting my shopping to sale items, there’s another tactic I employ to stay on track.
I have set ceiling prices in my head that I am willing to pay for certain products and I simply will not pay more than that.
So even if the item is on sale, if the price is still above that pre-determined one I have in mind, I will either skip that type of product for the week altogether, or find a substitute.
Over the years, due to inflation, that ceiling price sometimes changes for certain goods, but I usually wait quite a while to see if the price will come back down to my comfort zone before I put it on my list again at any kind of higher price.
To give just one example of this mindset, I buy yogurt regularly. But I will not pay more than $1.50 per pound, and I can regularly get it on sale for $1.00 per pound.
At those prices, I’m obviously not buying Greek-style yogurt because it is often 2-4X as much as regular yogurt. But that's okay with me. I am fine with the yogurt I've eaten for the past few decades.
Keep Your Tastes Simple
Which brings me to this point. I’ve never cultivated a taste for budget-blowing gourmet products, such as the aforementioned Greek yogurt. In fact, I deliberately avoid them unless they're on sale and the cheapest offering.
I honestly don’t need them for my recipes or my nutritional needs. The store brand of yogurt, or regular Dannon or Cabot yogurt, for example, are very good, and I don’t feel even remotely deprived using them.
That’s part of my mantra about keeping your needs simple and not developing expensive tastes for foods that will push your food budget beyond what you need to pay.
It's perfectly okay to include fancier food products in your recipes when they're on sale, but be very careful about developing a taste for them and making them a habit. That's very easy to do. It's lifestyle creep and an insidious threat to family budgets.
Using this approach of planning and shopping for value has served me very well over the years and has enabled me to get a lot of bang for my buck any time I spend money.
I highly recommend adopting this mindset yourself. It's truly a recipe for greater contentment.
Try These Strategies for Yourself
So, while the prices in other areas may differ somewhat from the ones I pay and mention in my recipes, I think you’ll find that by employing these tactics yourself, you’ll end up spending far less than you thought possible, too.
And maybe even beating my budget. I would be tickled pink if that were the case.