I found that the hardest part of meal planning was deciding on a budget. There are a lot of reasons to meal plan. My main motivator is to stay on a budget, but setting a grocery budget wasn’t easy. I had a general I idea of what I thought we could afford but had no frame of reference as to if that was too much or too little. I can sometimes have expensive tastes and wanting to buy the best food is a blessing and a curse.
Stumbling on the USDA food cost guidelines gave me a much-needed framework. Each month, the USDA produces this chart. They largely use it to track fluctuations in food pricing when then helps to determine how much food stamp recipients get. I used it to give myself a reference for setting my own budget. I am using the April 2017 numbers for this article, but you can get the newer reports at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion website.
The USDA breaks down the budgets in a lot of ways, monthly, weekly, by age and gender. They also break it out to 4 separate cost plans; thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, liberal. To get to these numbers they assume you are preparing all meals and snacks at home. So this doesn’t include dinner out. The breakdown of what quantities of food groups, which was based on the food pyramid is less helpful in my opinion. Diving into that is also a longer post about nutrition, how the special interests helped the government create the guidelines. We will save that for another day.
I have been using the budget guideline for months now and I can tell you that most diets are possible on almost any budget. As many of you know we are in the process of growing our family. This made keeping costs down important. I fall someplace between the low-cost and moderate plans, $120 for a family of 2. as my starting point. I am so interested in meeting this goal I made a meal planning sheet this helps keep myself in check. A little frame of reference about our diet so you have a better idea about what I am buying.
- we eat more than the recommended quantities of fruits and veggies
- we eat meat, though we have cut back
- we have enough food to pack our lunches (truth is that I can be lazy about this and we end up buying too many lunches)
- we eat dried fruit and nuts as our main snacks & dessert
I can’t tell you which budget is right for you. Only you and your family can decide what is right, but here are some things to think about as you start deciding on your budget.
how important are organic fruit & vegetables to you
Buying organic is a personal choice and it can cost more than buying conventionally grown produce. While it is true organic fruits & veggies do cost a little more in some cases it’s not enough to make an extreme difference. For example, I bought basil at Trader Joe’s the other day and conventional was only about .30 cents cheaper so I opted for organic. This can have an impact on your budget so if you feel strongly about organic you may need to start with a higher budget than you think you need and see how your first few weeks come out.
how much meat do you eat
Meat eats up a good portion of my budget. We eat more veggies than meat, but it still takes a chunk. The impact of meat on the budget gets even bigger when you consider buying local meat or organic meat. If you eat bacon for breakfast, chicken for lunch and meat at the center of your plate at dinner time you are going to spend a lot more money than the person that gets their protein from eggs, legumes and other foods.
if you can afford it are you doing it
If you have more money coming in than the average family you really should find ways to get local and organic food into your shopping cart. It is better for you, your local economy, and the environment. Every purchase you make is a vote. A vote for the kind of food you want to see grown and produced. Since you have more money to spend you have more votes and by making those choices you help encourage more organic food production which in turn brings the price down for those that can’t yet afford to make that choice. If you can handle that higher budget reach for it and get all the best stuff.
where are you shopping
Learning which store has the best price can take some time, but it will make all the difference on your budget. It took me a while to get used to the layout and learning how to release a grocery cart at Aldi was a whole other learning curve, but they have great prices. It makes my budget stretch so much further. Shopping at Whole Food’s is a feast for the eyes, but it will catch up to you at the checkout. Costco and Sam’s Club can offer some great deals, but only if you are eating items in that large of a quantity. Blowing $6 on a huge tub of greek yogurt might not be your best buy if you only eat it once a week and could buy a smaller quantity for less money. Sure the larger container is a better value, but if you don’t use it you aren’t actually saving yourself any money. Seasonal produce at the farmers markets should be a stop you work into your week. Seasonal fresh produce can often time offer great savings and if you are willing to go at the end of the market you might even find some really great deals. The selection may be smaller, but farmers will want to sell what they brought and might be willing to sell it cheaper if you ask nice.
are you willing to cut back something else
Maybe you feel strongly about organic food, but your budget is tight. Do you have a $5 a day coffee habit you could cut back on? Maybe start getting your books from the library instead of buying them. There are lots of ways to adjust household budgets that will help you bulk up your food budget. Since food is what fuels you and is a large factor in determining how healthy you are it can be one of the most important choices you make. Shouldn’t you put as much money towards that as you can?
Have you set a grocery budget? How did you decide what that budget should be?
feature photo by: Nicolas Barbier Garreau1