Meet Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
My husband, Troy, will undoubtedly roll his eyes when he sees this post’s title. That’s because I’ve convinced this former national level bodybuilder that we need to buy “happy” chicken, organic produce, and fancy olive oil. He resisted this for a very long time, though (and still sometimes does), due to sticker shock. After all, “happy” chicken breasts that aren’t even organic (or very happy) from Whole Foods – one of the cheaper natural foods grocery store chains – cost $4.99 lb, which is about $3 lb more than unhappy chicken breasts purchased elsewhere.
People, of course, fall into several camps when it comes to prioritizing organically produced and/or compassionately sourced food. Some won’t touch a thing that isn’t USDA certified organic, while others think the whole organic movement is simply a means for the food industry to extract mega profits from dumb consumers.
I don’t currently fall into either extreme camp. In the event that you do, however, the following suggestions should still apply. Now, let’s reign in that food budget.
Suggestion #1 – define your priorities.
Let’s face it – most of us don’t have an unlimited grocery budget. As such, blowing a wad on exotic ingredients and organic everything probably isn’t a viable option. We must each individually identify what are our most pressing priorities are, as I can’t possibly know yours without knowing you. To help you get started, I’ve listed mine.
My priorities (in order):
- Animal products that are as humanely sourced as possible;
- Minimally processed foods;
- “Healthy” fats (in quotes, because what I view as healthy is often demonized by others);
- Organic produce when the non-organic version is known to have been exposed to high levels of pesticides and/or is likely to be genetically modified; AND
- To feel warm and fuzzy about where I choose to shop.
Suggestion #2 – identify the most cost-effective means for sourcing items.
Here are nine ideas for places to source food:
- Membership-based warehouses like Costco
- Chain grocery stores
- Local mom & pop grocery stores
- The Walmarts and Meijers
- Natural foods stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and local co-ops
- Online stores like Amazon
- Food delivery services like Peapod
- Farmers markets
- CSAs (community supported agriculture) & local farms
Suggestion #3 – map out what you’ll buy where.
Obviously, it’s exceptionally inefficient to source your groceries from a million different stores, as your time is undoubtedly worth something to you. That being said, if your priorities look anything like mine, you aren’t going to be able to pick up everything you need from one store. In my case, I am lucky enough to have easy access to nearly all of the above. However, most of what I buy comes from either Costco or Whole Foods, with ancillary items picked up at one of two local grocery stores I pass by on my way home from work.
Based on my priorities and with budgeting in mind, here is what I buy and where:
- Costco: meat, frozen shrimp, non-organic produce, olive and coconut oil, nuts, dried fruit, baking staples, Parmigiano-Reggiano and chèvre
- Whole Foods: coffee, wine, other cheeses, artisan bread, meat, organic produce, baking staples, dairy, eggs, tofu, condiments
- As needed:
- Sunset Foods: specialty foods, oh-shit-I’m-out-of-this! items, wine
- Heinen’s: wine, produce, artisan bread, heavy cream, orange juice, cheese
Obviously, these lists aren’t all-inclusive. The key point I’m trying to make is that by taking some time to consider what you plan to buy and where you will buy it can enormously affect your food budget. I don’t particularly enjoy shopping at warehouse stores, but I started doing so when I realized that I often saved more than 50% on staple items such as nuts, cheese, and frozen foods. But, Costco doesn’t carry everything that I need. Plus, I actually enjoy shopping at Whole Foods. Typically, I’ll begin my weekly shopping excursion at Costco, since if I can get it there I will because it will be cheaper, and then I’ll head down the road to Whole Foods. Really, the whole process – including driving – can take me about 1.5 hours when I do not allow myself to get distracted in the cosmetics aisle!
Suggestion #4 – get an app.
There are a multitude of grocery shopping apps available for smart phones. Find one that resonates with you – one that you’ll actually use – and then use it. I like to keep my list categorized by aisle, which takes some set-up but which is seriously worth it, and I maintain lists for each store I frequent. That way, my time spent shopping is far more efficient because I’m not having to criss-cross the store multiple times because I forgot something I needed in the baking aisle. I think I dropped a few bucks on my grocery shopping app back in the day, and those few bucks were well-spent.
Suggestion #5 – create a recipe binder & bring it with you shopping.
My old friends Donci and Chris Bardash managed to eat ridiculously well on $50/week. Granted, this was around 2003, but still! They even bought the bulk of their groceries from the local natural foods store where I worked. I always loved it when they’d invite me over for dinner, given the delish factor and great company.
Here are Chris & Donci’s secrets:
- Only buy produce that’s on sale
- Only buy ingredients required for the recipes you intend to make – e.g. no impulse buys
- Carry a binder full of favorite go-to recipes (theirs had maybe 50), create a tentative menu for the week, and be flexible as per #1
- Buy dried herbs and spices from bulk containers rather than individual jars, and only buy in small quantities
- Buy dairy and meat from cheaper stores, and be okay that it’s not organic or “happy”
In case you haven’t noticed, I could clearly cut my grocery bill further. For example, my coffee costs $11.99 lb, which I could get for less than half that price at Costco. But, I have an affinity for perfectly pulled espresso shots (I blame my 2010 trip to Italy for this), and they require very freshly roasted beans. Believe it or not I have already compromised in this area, as I used to order my beans online for around $17 lb (not including shipping).
Creating a grocery budget requires honoring your priorities. If you fail to do this, no matter how fabulous your goals are you will undoubtedly be miserable. Of course, if I literally had to reduce my family’s grocery bill to $100/week, there is simply no way I could buy “happy” chicken. But, I still could follow in Chris and Donci’s footsteps and still manage to eat ridiculously delish food. So can you.
I’d love to know what your tips are for staying within a food budget. Please do share them below!