How I inadvertently cut my food costs

In short:

  • Savings come from eating less processed everything. Besides saving money, it’s also more nutrient dense.
  • Cooking is effort. Eschewing processed foods has made food taste better with less effort. Also it’s my choice to be as lazy as our willingness to eat whatever I make. Boiled everything!
  • I acknowledge my privilege of not living in a food desert.

In tracking annual spending for the past four years I’ve observed that my lifestyle changes have led to a year over year trend of decreased food expenses.

2016201720182019
Dining Out$3,325.60$2,246.28$1,218.38$679.95
Grocery5,750.654,679.306,135.936,195.33
Total$9,076.25$6,925.58$7,354.31$6,875.28

Considerations:

  • Travel dining was counted as a travel expense rather than dining out or groceries. If I were to assume dining out and groceries at a conservative estimate of $100 a week, had we been home, below would be the adjusted totals.
    • 2016: 1 week on travel; total would have been around $9,200
    • 2017: 7 weeks on travel; total would have exceeded $7,600
    • 2018: 3 weeks on travel; total would have exceeded $7,700
    • 2019: no travel; no adjusted total
  • I counted everything as best as I could. A coffee at a gas station goes in the dining out category.
  • Big data fudge – I lost four months of 2019 data so I doubled the four prior months. Being creatures of habit, I don’t think it was far off. Dining out once a month and groceries are practically the same week after week.
  • Assuming three meals a day, our average per meal cost in 2019 was $3.15 a meal. This includes the grand total of all meals eaten out, in, takeout, and with friends.
  • For reference: USDA Food Nutrition Services Cost of Food at various Expense Tiers I fall in the Moderate Cost plan.

The biggest difference in reductions came from dining out. We spent over $3,000 in 2016 and this year, it was under $1,000. That’s an evening at French Laundry. Hopping off the hedonic treadmill of processed foods and generous servings of salt, oil, and sugar have made me enjoy food more. And I’ve slowly shifted my social activities to focus more on fun things to do rather than just sitting and eating.

Cooking does not have to be hard or time consuming. Devote as much or as little time as you’re willing to eat whatever you churn out. It is in your hands. I’ll admit, some of the stuff I make we don’t always like. Or I make it on repeat once too many times. We eat it anyway. I balance my willingness to cook with my willingness to eat. When I’m not willing to make multiple dishes that week for variety, we eat the same meal day after day. When I’m craving something akin to takeout Chinese, I’ll put in extra effort and make a few dishes. Example of minimal effort: I microwaved a whole head of cabbage and peeled the leaves and ate it. Food prep time was as much as microwaved popcorn. I highly don’t recommend this recipe.

I will acknowledge that if one lives in a food desert this is much more challenging. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by organic markets, farmers markets, international markets, you name it. Not a full on food desert, but I spent some time in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky years ago, where fresh produce was cabbage, carrots, celery, and onions week after never-ending week. One time, they had eggplant. I was over the moon. It’s do-able, but pretty sucky.

Finally, knowing there are a myriad of mixed messages about the connection between diet and health, I don’t want to get too into this, but I’m going to make two assumptions: processed food is less nutrient dense and it is detrimental to our gut microbiota. Given that, this is a healthier way to eat. Health is priceless.

Moral of the story: Outsourcing your food preparation is expensive. Eating whole foods like grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, is relatively affordable.

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