I figured this is good to talk about since my post on The Omnivore’s Dilemma. One of the questions we get asked a lot is what in the world is our grocery bill like every month?! Usually this is asked after watching my children “snack” for an afternoon. Or after watching Greta consume an entire large container of fresh raspberries in a 10 minute period. Then her brothers realizing that she ate all of them and their immediate irritation that they didn’t get any. Also, we pack all 3 kids a lunch for school 5 days a week, along with one snack five days a week for Sawyer. Greta’s snack is provided at her preschool and Gunnar can’t be bothered to eat a snack at recess. We cook dinner 4-5 nights a week along with 7 breakfasts at home. After school snacks are daily as well. We are simple for breakfast, usually milk and cereal, protein bars, fresh grapefruit, kefir, yogurt, and any combination of them.
Before I start, since I figure this will be long, I’ll give you some background to my childhood. My mom was very health conscious at a time that it was not very common. I was the only kid in my class whose mom packed me carob, in fact, I didn’t know that carob WASN’T chocolate until I was in elementary school. I have a horrible memory, but I do remember our grocery trips to Mrs. Gooch’s. Back then there was no Trader Joe’s, no Whole Foods, no Wild Oats. So we drove to the nearest health food store for our groceries. A treat for us would maybe be licorice? I remember vividly those pandas on the red containers of the licorice boxes. So I grew up conscious of food when no one talked of things like organic or natural. We were a fairly healthy family when it came to food. It goes back even further than that though. Breastfeeding was very important to my mother and she nursed me for far longer than I like to say. Longer than I think she should have, but that was her deal. I think I was three years old when I was finally weaned. And then guess what, at three years old I went to school with a bottle! Yeah, a bottle. That was the deal, I would stop nursing only if I could have a bottle. This post is not about breastfeeding or for how long people do it, but there’s some background that may explain my insistence on healthy food choices for my family. My mom likes to refer to me when she talks to other people about me as her ‘mother earth daughter’. How insulting to our earth right?! But I have to say that I think what I am is partly from who she was, or a lot from who she was and how she raised me. Both she and I would probably have had as many babies as we could if it weren’t for our husbands. There was no question from her that I would be making my children’s baby food, she never questioned my determination to breastfeed them. She assumed this would be the case, and I appreciate that. Thanks mama. Just as I assume that my sister will do and is doing for my nephew. And just to put it out there in print, Tati, our boy will not be eating food from a labeled jar right?
Now onto budgeting. What we use and why.
I have tried the cash method in the past. So much $ in an envelope each week and when that runs out, that’s it. Didn’t work so well for us. A few years ago I started using Quicken to keep track of our spending since I really couldn’t figure out where it was going. That was very helpful because I could finally see what was going in and what was going out. Then we switched over to Mint about a year ago and use that exclusively now which is super easy and user friendly and I would recommend it to anyone. When I started to use Quicken years ago we created a budget. I couldn’t figure out why some months we were in the surplus and others in the negative. I wasn’t setting aside amounts for bills that came quarterly or yearly. But now that we use programs for our budget and finances all that has changed. I can anticipate which months will have higher bills than other. Our budget is always fluctuating but for the most part we know what we will spend unless we are doing a whole lot of entertaining in a particular month.
What do we buy?
When it comes to meat, eggs and dairy(milk/cheese/kefir) we only buy organic, along with most fruits and vegetables. While writing this post I went to the pantry and the fridge and saw that our apple juice is also organic as is most of our pasta. Canned goods are for the most part not organic and that’s because we rarely eat anything from a can. I don’t think canned goods are very healthy and I don’t like the preservatives that keep them good for so long. And since we try to eat whole foods, that means we don’t have very many boxes and cans in our kitchen.
Where do we shop?
We try to do most of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s and limit our Whole Foods trips to two times a month if we can. That place kills us. No matter how many items we are going in to buy, like TWO, we spend $150. Without a doubt. Every. time. The number of times we go to Trader Joe’s is insane. Since we go through fruit and milk fairly quickly between cereal breakfasts and fruit consumption, we may be at Trader Joe’s everyday some weeks. But every other day is typical for us. I have tried the meal plan thing where we only go once a week and make a huge grocery list but inevitably we run out of fruit and milk before the week is up. Also, I can’t plan when we run out of vitamins necessarily or other random items like honey (we drink a lot of tea in this house) or the very important dark chocolate covered almonds. Also the rotation of Monday night family dinner calls for an extra trip to the grocery store just in preparation to feed my family. Aaron repeatedly likes to comment that my family consumes more food than he ever imagined. We do eat a lot. So you have to cook for 30. Two Mondays ago was our night to cook, we couldn’t just make carne asada tacos, no way. That would be gone in 5 minutes. We needed shredded pork and chicken options as well, along with all the fixings, fresh guacamole, corn and flour tortillas, soft and hard as well.
So how much does this cost a family of 5 who try to eat healthy without shopping at Bristol Farms or Whole Foods every time?
Well, I went back into my Mint account to look at the average. Our grocery budget excludes all restaurant dining, lunches out, takeout, toilet paper, paper towels, household supplies like cleaning products, paper plates, bottled water, etc. We are talking just food consumed at home or in packed lunches. We spend on average between $1200-1450 each month. I’m not sure if that’s outrageous for some of you or normal. But that is what we spend and that is us being conscious of what we spend. I should mention our budget was set at only $1000. But we have never in all the months spent that, so why should I look at a red line month after month telling me I am over budget? That’s depressing. So we upped it to $1200. I think once or twice we have come in at that, but usually it’s a little higher. I have talked to some families who think they spend a lot less than that to feed their families of 4, 5, or 6, but when they actually add up the receipts they are shocked it’s not what they thought. Some families have a weekly budgeted amount for groceries. We tried that a few months where we would try to only spend $250 each week, but some weeks we needed more and some less, so that didn’t work for us. Just to put it in perspective and how far removed people have become about knowing where their food comes from and willing to spend more for quality, in the 50s people spent a fifth of disposable income on groceries. Today? A tenth. If that doesn’t say something for how important the food we eat has fallen down the list of priorities I don’t know what does. I figure ours is right around a fifth, some months maybe more. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think it’s responsible.
How can we spend that much?
I should mention we are also careful what we buy. We are not the Trader Joe’s shoppers that try every new item. We definitely attempt to eat in season, which is usually cheaper. We use frozen fruit as much as possible for smoothies. When we do make a large batch of chili, split pea soup, or wild rice soup, we freeze batches for future meals. I tried to figure out one day exactly what an average dinner costs for the five of us when we eat at home. For instance, if we make meat/fish, vegetables, and a side of rice/bread/pasta, that’s a whole dinner. If I can make that for $20 that is great. But usually it is in the $20-30 range. If we try to eat the same meal out, even if we go somewhere quick and non-restaurant-y like Baja Bud’s or California Chicken Cafe, we never get out of there under $35. So it’s actually cheaper for us to make it at home, and healthier too because our groceries are organic, and what we eat when we are out it is not. I should mention I don’t do coupons. I do try to use coupons for Target when I buy toilet paper or sponges or plates, but that’s not groceries. Where we shop for groceries they don’t really offer coupons. On occasion Whole Foods will have one or two items that will have a coupon go along with them, but that’s rare. I should mention I do not feel that we are extravagant or that we spend a lot on groceries. In fact, I figure that if we were buying just regular, industrial made food filled with artificial ingredients, the money I would be saving on groceries would end up being spent at doctor offices, pharmacies, buying things like extra vitamins, cold medicine, kleenex, throat lozenges, etc. So I don’t think I am spending more, I just am spending it differently. We do not even have a budget for doctor, and our pharmacy budget is set at $15 a month, and we’re talking q-tips and lip balm here.
Do we intend to make any changes to the items we buy or where we buy them?
Yes. Aaron and I discussed last week that we are going to try to figure out farmers markets in our area. I know there are a few, but I have to find out their locations, days, times, and then factor that into our schedule, along with learning the ins and outs of the market, and how much we should set aside for those trips. Locally grown is our goal for buying fruits and vegetables whenever we can. We also are being more careful when it comes to even the organic items we shop for. We no longer purchase Horizon milk, which we rarely did in the past anyways. We are trying to read labels more which tells us if the dairy cows are pasture fed, or if they are deemed organic because the corn they are fed is organic. That’s a no go for me. Also, our meat is going to change from just organic meat to grass fed organic meat wherever possible. I’m not going to go crazy but when I have the option to purchase the healthier organic choice I will. For instance, Thursday night Aaron and I planned on grilling fish for dinner. Aaron went grocery shopping on his way home from work and when I unpacked the groceries I realized I forgot to be specific about the types of fish we are going to eat now. Through my research I have learned that farm raised fish are being engineered to feed on grains/corn. Yes, unbelievable, fish eating corn. So he thought he was doing great by bringing home antibiotic free farm raised fish, but why do we need antibiotic free fish? Aren’t they from the ocean? So, now we only will buy wild fish, as in caught in the ocean wild. As I was walking out the door to return the fish and buy wild fish, he yelled to me, “it’s going to be twice as expensive!” So I looked at the receipt and saw he spent $18 on fish to feed us that night. I went to the fish aisle and was able to purchase wild salmon and whitefish for actually less than what he spent, I believe it was $3 less. So it isn’t always true that healthier is more expensive.
What else is going to change for your family?
I would love to say that Aaron has agreed to let me have a few hens in our backyard, but he is unconvinced of my idea so far. I would also love to report that we have purchased a farm/ranch that we can move to and raise our family on, but that would be lying. I still have some goals that I hope within the year are met. Things as a wife and mom I think will make a difference for us. First, our garden is a learning lesson. I am hoping that one day we can rely on our own little garden for certain items. At the moment that list is quite short, as in rosemary, chives, cilantro and mint. But I hope that one day I can pick all our tomatoes from home along with a few other foods. I also would like to learn how to make my own yogurt at home, along with bread. If I can do those two things at home I know that will make me feel so much better as a mama. Better in that I know I am doing everything I can for their health and future, and better in that I am hopefully saving us some money by a little bit of hard work.
So there you have the nitty gritty of what it takes to feed my family. And that may give you insight also as to why we are gardening more and more. Sorry for the novel, but I think that maybe this will help someone out there as it has helped me.