At first, with regular meal planning and just kind of doing the same things I always did but with different types of meals, it basically stayed the same. A little higher than I'd like but still under the budget number Aaron had given me, just like always.
And then came October. I don't know if it was because we were moving and meal planning was hard or because I was in a food storage frame of mind or what but we (...ok, I) spent an embarrassingly huge amount of money on groceries. I did a lot of stocking up, which was nice, but there was some serious sticker shock going on around here. Like, whoa.
So for the month of November I decided to see if we could eat whole foods on $50 a week. I did this knowing that October left me with a well-stocked pantry. We had plenty of maple syrup, chicken broth, canned pumpkin, peanut butter, etc. so grocery shopping every week was pretty much going to be the perishable stuff that you always end up getting every week- milk, eggs, produce. I don't know if this is something you could do every week forever, but I was able to do it for a month and it was a really valuable learning experience.
Here's what I learned:
1. Plan meals around produce
Here's where I have to admit to being completely spoiled. There's a local business that provides (non FDA-certified) organic produce. They're a group of people who are passionate about healthy, organic foods and want to share. Each week they send out an order form via email. You fill it out and send it back and on Wednesdays they drop off a box full of fresh, local, seasonal produce at your house. Including farm fresh eggs, if you want. It's cheaper than the grocery store organic section and their produce is amazing.
But even without your own personal local produce source it's still cheaper to plan meals around fruits and veggies than meat. I go through the order form each week, pick out what sounds good, then plan meals around that stuff. I use the AllRecipes.com ingredients function to find recipes for new veggies. I try to plan simple meals that involve things that I can make cheaply like pasta and tortillas. I make kitchen-sink fried rice or pasta dishes to use up whatever is left at the end of the week so nothing goes to waste.
2. Know when to buy organic
It can really help your grocery bill to know what you should buy organic and when it doesn't really matter. Go here to download a pocket guide .pdf (or the iPhone app) of fruits and veggies listed in order of pesticide concentration. Or go here for the full list of 49. For me, if it's in the top 15 (the "clean 15") I buy conventionally grown. For 15-20 I buy organic if it's an option but if it's not then I just go with conventionally grown. Anything below 20 I buy organic. If it's not available then I do without.
For the first couple months of doing whole foods I was selling kidneys to pay for organic maple syrup. It was amazingly delicious, which meant Aaron DOUSED his pancakes with it. Every morning we had pancakes (which was like 4 mornings a week) I watched in horror as Aaron gulped down dollar bills. I usually topped my pancakes with yogurt, but when I did use maple syrup I kept myself to a very conservative drizzle.
Finally, I decided to see if organic really mattered when it came to maple syrup. In my very scientific and extensive research (meaning like 4 minutes of Googling) it appears that the difference is fairly minimal and the reason a lot of growers choose to get organic certification is because they can charge a lot more for the same product. So I bid adieu to the fancy expensive organic maple syrup and got the large 2-pack from Costco. The taste is pretty much the same but the monetary savings are ridiculous.
A little bit of research can go a long way and the nice thing about living in the information age is that you have easy access to a lot of the kind of information you need to make good decisions about what you eat.
3. Distinguish between needs and wants and bring your calculator with you.
I don't do it quite this way now that I'm not on such a strict budget, but it worked really well for November.
Once upon a time my grocery list was organized according to the store layout because it always had so many items I had to plan my route so as not to miss anything. Whole foods is a rather simpler way of eating so (after produce), my list is usually pretty short and I divided it into two columns: Need and Want.
The Need column always had milk in it and then a few things for specific meals for the week. Fresh mozzarella for some pizza and a salad. Bread, because I can't make a decent whole wheat loaf to safe my life.
In the want column I put things that would be nice but weren't necessary if they didn't fit in the budget. Graham crackers for the kids. Triscuits for snacking. Steel cut oats (we had tons of regular oatmeal on hand so we weren't going oatmeal-less if we couldn't fit in the steel cut kind).
I made a quick round of the store and got the things from my "Need" list (if I had to buy my produce at the grocery store I would have started there). As I put them in the cart I wrote the price next to the item on my list and kept a running total on my calculator. And then I made another round and started picking up things from my want list. This sometimes required a little juggling as I ended up prioritizing and deciding what I really wanted and what we could live without.
This was an incredibly effective method of keeping to my budget. The most I went over was 75 cents. One week I was under by a couple dollars.
4. Make friends with your freezer
Some weeks my budgetary saving grace was that I had a frozen meal that I could use. Freezer meals are awesome for when you don't feel like cooking AND that's one less meal you have to plan and buy ingredients for. Win win.
Thing that can bust your budget:
- Meat. I made these pan-seared steak rolls once with organic grass-fed beef. It was amazing. And the beef was $15 a pound. Fortunately, the recipe only calls for half a pound, but still. That right there is a special occasion splurge.
- Packed snacks. Just steer clear of packaged foods. Even if it's "organic" it may not be a "whole food" (they are not synonymous!) and you just end up paying a premium for fancy junk food.
- If a recipe calls for meat I usually halve the meat and double the veggies. We very rarely eat red meat anymore. A bag of frozen chicken from Costco (far from the best option but definitely the most affordable) lasts us for ages.
- Sadly, we don't like beans. BUT! They are a really cheap source of protein, so if you DO like them then have at it. I'm not sure how I feel about lentils but they're a really affordable healthy filler type food as well.
- Kitchen sink meals. I've learned that a lot of veggies are interchangeable in a lot of recipes. At the end of the week I take whatever we've got left and throw it all together and serve it over rice or tortillas or pasta. You squeeze an extra meal out of what you've got and nothing goes to waste.
- Snack on Triscuits, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, sliced veggies, and string cheese.
These days I'm comfortably feeding our family a modified whole foods type diet on an average of $75-$100 a week. That number includes non-grocery items like diapers and plastic wrap, so I'm pretty happy with it.
Next: I'll share my favorite resources to make it easier for you to FIND whole foods!