A few years ago, I was at a party eating some amazing food at the potluck buffet. In my area, there seems to be a friendly competition among the thirtysomething outdoorsy tech worker crowd, of trying to out-chef each other. It’s a contest I heartily approve of and I am happy to be both an underdog competitor and a judge.
Anyway, the topic turned to how good we have it in our lives, with such plentiful food that we can afford to spend hours combining exotic ingredients just for the sake of overfilling our bellies. “Yeah.. I know it’s a bit over the top”, I said, “but I probably spend 80 bucks a week on food. I think it’s worth it if you can afford it”.
“Eighty dollars a week on food for the three of you? That’s IT??”, said a friend, “We spend more than three times that amount!!”
“Whoa”, I replied, “I guess I’m not as spendy as I thought”.
Of course, the person telling me about her high food bill was more of a typical high-income spender in many ways. Her family also took out loans to buy new cars, had at least one $2500 road bike in the garage, and hired out the household chores to allow them to conveniently work a double-career-with-kids while still taking plenty of short vacations involving air travel. Looking back, I probably could have predicted a non-Mustachian grocery bill.
But the experience still reminded me of the amazing variety of spending levels we all have available to us here in the United States. It is simultaneously one of the cheapest industrialized countries in the world to live in, and the most expensive. It all depends on the choices you make in your shopping, because everything in the world is available right here for your buying convenience.
When you look it up, the average food cost for a family of four in the US is actually quite high, at $944 per month. But to call it “food cost” makes it sound like it’s out of your control. I would call this the average food spending. Just like the average family’s transportation cost is not some fixed punishment that the cruel world imposes on them.. it’s a measure of the amount of driving that they have designed into their lives, multiplied by the level of inefficiency of the vehicles they have chosen for themselves.
Instead of shooting for the average, you can design your own food cost. Let’s say a family of four wants to spend only $365 per month on groceries, saving them $579 per month over the USDA average family. Investing this savings would compound into about $102,483.00 every ten years, which would obviously make a pretty big improvement in the financial health of the average young family.
To hit a monthly grocery spending target like that, you first have to understand what you are buying. There are four mouths to feed, each consuming three meals a day or 91.25 meals per month. Let’s say they all need adult levels of calories, so about 2000 per day.
To meet this level of grocery spending, each meal needs average out to about $1.00 per person, and provide about 667 calories. Of course, there can be plenty of variation in the cost and calories, and you might eat 6 smaller meals and snacks instead of three big 667 calorie blasters. But these are the fundamental numbers we’d need to hit.
Can it be done? Coincidentally, this is about the level of my own grocery spending when I’m in semi-frugal mode (if you scale it down to 3 people and $273/month), and in the non-frugal mode mode we currently shop in, we spend closer to $365/month for three people, resulting in a cost per meal of $1.33. So the answer is a definite Yes.
All of us eat very well, with a fair amount of luxury spending thrown into that amount – the grocery spending includes gourmet coffee every day, a lot of organic and gluten-free specialties, food for parties, and other things that you buy when you’re not worried about cashflow at all. Plus I consume far more than my share of calories due to all-bike transportation and physical labor, my son is growing about six inches a year, and Mrs. Money Mustache does crossfit workouts three times a week, increasing her food needs as well.
“But damn, a buck for a whole meal? “, you might say. “That’s the price of a shitty Burger King dollar menu mini burger on a soggy white bun – BEFORE TAX!”.
Luckily, I don’t eat at Burger King, and neither should you. But let’s see how much it costs for 667 calories of some actual food staples that should be part of your diet:
Cost per 667 calorie “Meal” of common foods:
Basmati Rice: 25 cents
Spaghetti noodles: 28 cents
Black beans (uncooked): 49 cents
Natural (peanuts only) Peanut Butter: 53.36 cents
California Raw Almonds: 80 cents
Bananas: 92 cents
Potatoes: 57 cents
Canola Oil: 14.38 cents
Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: 57 cents
Cheddar cheese: $1.09
Organic cage-free eggs: $2.85
Organic boneless skinless chicken breast: $8.00
Aha.. now things are sounding much better. Although not all of the foods above cost less than $1 per meal, they certainly average out to less than that. And when planning your menu to meet a certain budget, averaging out is exactly your goal. You still want to be able to eat apples, organic chicken breast, or whatever your heart desires. You just have to not eat entirely those most expensive foods.
Canola oil is the ultimate example. It is packed with calories, costs 17 cents per 667 calories, and it is very good for you. If you’re one of those Canola Oil Conspiracy Theorists, move up to Olive oil. That’s a higher-end alternative for even fancier people, and yet you can still get one third of a day worth of calories for 57 cents. Every time you dump these oils into a frying pan, or mix them into a recipe or a salad dressing, you’re lowering your food cost – the oil provides calories that your body might otherwise get from cans of Coke, Filet Mignon, or Burger King dollar menu burgers.
And contrary to the 1990s low-fat-diet fad, the human body loves oil. It’s yummy, clean-burning, good for a giant range of body functions, and it is satisfying to eat too. I eat a fairly high-fat/low-carb diet these days, yet I’m leaner than ever, because the oily food doesn’t cause spikes of fake appetite like bread does. I’ve even been known to bring containers of pure olive oil in my backpack, taking spoonfuls straight from the jar to supplement calories on an extreme hike or high-energy work day.
Similarly, you can mix other foods from the under-$1.00 list into meals, freeing up space for expensive garnishes. Chicken and rice recipes with oils, spices, and vegetables are delicious and can be made in many different styles (Asian, Mediterranean, Indian, Mexican) while still coming in at under $1/meal.
For snacking, I usually eat handfuls of raw almonds combined with fresh fruits and vegetables. The almonds provide most of the calories, while the fruits provide the various nutrients and healthy stuff.
But What about Protein?
These days, the high-protein diet is back in style, especially among followers of the “Paleo” diet/religion. I am also a big fan of the nutrient, since it’s handy as part of strength training and exercise. Unfortunately, most people equate “protein” with “meat”, which is the most expensive way to get protein by any measure.
An average person might want to shoot for about 75 grams of protein per day, while an athlete might consume 150 grams. When you eat beans and rice in the same meal, you’re getting complete protein at virtually no cost. Nuts and especially peanut butter are also a good way to mix high calories with built-in protein. Eggs contain the highest quality complete protein of all (6 grams per egg), so I enjoy three of them every day.
Protein from high-quality meat and fish costs about 4 cents per gram, which would already put the Paleo-eating athlete over $6.00 per day just for his meat intake. Eggs come in around the same protein cost, although at lower environmental cost and with a lot of good calories and other nutrients as a side benefit. But plain old milk, or whey protein powder from Costco or an online source like Swanson Vitamins provides protein at about 2.5 cents/gram – cutting the bill by 40%. So to hit my own 150 grams during a period of heavier training, I include the eggs, nuts, cheese, a lunch or dinner that includes some meat or fish, and throw in a mid-morning protein shake (banana, milk, yogurt, whey protein powder, pure cocoa and maybe some ground flax or whatever is lying around) for an extra 40 grams of protein.
The key is to look at the protein content already in your basic staples before deciding how much you need to supplement it, and then do so intelligently based on your own activity level. The average American diet is actually quite oversupplied with protein, due to the fact that most people eat meat with every meal, even while most are not competitive weight-training athletes. The opportunity for savings is enormous.
Where to Get your Food
To research this article, I biked over to the health food store in my town, a place called Natural Grocers that attempts to imitate Whole Foods. It seemed like a friendly place, where the customers are unusually slim, the bike rack sees frequent use, and everyone brings their own cloth grocery bags.
But Holy Shit, were the prices ever ridiculous there! In one quick tour of the store, I observed a package of four “Bison hotdogs” priced at $11.85, a two-pound bag of plain Tilapia filets at $25.00, and jugs of organic milk at $11.00 per gallon.
All of these prices are more than double the levels of the nearest Costco, which is one of the best places to shop for your calories and protein, unless you have even better options in your area. The prices I quoted in my $1.00 meals table above were Costco prices, and unless you already have unlimited money, you should stay miles away from Whole Foods or any of its cousins.
At a more community-oriented level, there are also good deals to be had in Mexican, Indian and Chinese grocery stores, Community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs), farmer’s markets, your own vegetable garden, and other old-fashioned sources. When the parking lot is not full of hybrids, there are international phone cards on display in the window, and the cashiers also stock their own shelves and do not speak much English, you are probably onto something good.
What to Eat
Finally, the fun part! As the wise people of India have proven beyond all other cultures*, amazing food is all about preparation and spices, rather than starting with costly ingredients. Once you know which ingredients make good staples, you can easily poke around on the Internet or in any cookbook to find an infinite number of good recipes that use them.
At the simplest “bachelor” level, you’ve got recipes like:
Fancy home fries:
Slice up about five big potatoes into thick french fry shapes, mix them around in a giant bowl along with a huge amount of canola or olive oil (maybe 1/3 cup), garlic, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, and/or any spices you like (even curry!). Cook at 400F for 25 minutes on a metal tray.
Ding! You’ve got thousands of calories of deliciousness to use as a side dish, snack, or even combine with a salad to make a simple main meal.
At the next level, you can move up to something Mrs. M. has started making regularly:
Thai Curry and Coconut Butternut Squash Soup:
1 large butternut squash, about 2.5 pounds
1 tbsp oil
1/2 an onion, chopped up very small
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
4 cloves garlic
2-3 tsp Thai Red Curry paste
4 cups chicken broth
1 13-14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
Fancy optional things:
Some toasted coconut for garnish
A few kaffir lime leaves, chopped up a bit
Cut the squash in half, take out the seeds, brush it with oil, and bake it for an hour at 400°F. Then scoop out the soft squash with a spoon when it’s done.
Fry the onion, ginger and garlic in some oil for a few minutes. Add the curry paste and cook for a few more minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, coconut milk, salt, squash and shredded lime leaves. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice.
Finally, blend up the contents of the pan in a blender or a bowl with a hand mixer. Serve in colorful bowls with the garnishes.
This soup is extremely filling due to the deliciously high fat content of coconut milk, and so good you will not believe it came from your own kitchen. It also stores well in the fridge and freezer, and can be brought to work or on road trips and reheated anywhere.
Those are just two simple recipes. The key to frugal eating is to have at least ten good things you know how to make.
There are many chefs among the readers. Maybe we will get to hear some of their best low-cost and easy-to-make creations in the comments section below?
Grocery Shopping with your Middle Finger – an old MMM classic on this same topic, where I first started thinking about cost per calorie. But there I was dealing with food stockups and sales rather than thinking of it on a per-meal or per-month basis.
* According to the strong opinion of my own taste buds