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So what the heck am I eating on only $60 a month?

August 27th, 2006 at 01:28 am

My monthly food/grocery bill comes to about $2/day, or $60/mo.

Apparently, this is highly unusual, even among frugalistas.

What's more is that I don't even particularly try very hard. I mean, I "try" to get my grocery bill to $50/mo, but even in the past, before I started watching my finances, I've never gone above $75.

(The only exception was when I was stocking up my kitchen/pantry from zilch when I first moved out on my own. I hit the neighborhood of $150 that first month due to my decision to buy all of my nonperishables in bulk. That cost me up-front, but won't in the long run.)

So how *do* I pull this off?

To answer this question, I'm going to carefully analyze my food buying and eating habits, and present my findings below.

All right, here goes.

I buy nonperishables in bulk.

I know this is pretty standard practice for frugalistas, but I'll describe it anyway.

After I first moved, my colleague (and now roommate) took me shopping at Costco. I used this opportunity to stock up on bulk nonperishables at wholesale prices.

I bought standard staples such as butter, sugar, oatmeal, canned tomato products (crushed and diced), cereal, pasta, rice, olive oil, soy sauce, ketchup, and others. I knew it'll be a hard initial hit on the wallet, but the favorable unit price is ultimately worth it, as I won't run out for months and months.

I mostly buy fresh, seasonal produce.

After that one-time stock-up of nonperishables, my regular shopping took over. I shop weekly, and I mostly buy fresh produce (fruits and vegetables). I buy small amounts of each produce so that it won't spoil before I eat it, and I shop often to ensure a constant influx of fresh produce.

I also make an effort to be aware of what produce is in season. I do this for two reasons. The first is that the quality of the produce is highest during its peak season. The second is that sales are very common when a produce is in season.

So, for instance, you will never catch me paying more than $1/lb for tomatoes during the summer, because I *know* that tomatoes are in season, and that each week, at least one grocery store *will* have them on sale.

I usually end up spending a little over $10 a week on produce, or about $40 to $50. The rest of my expenditure consists of items like dried/canned beans, eggs, sauces, and the like.

I do not buy junk food.

Going from what I do buy to what I don't buy, we come to junk food. This one is actually a tough one that requires discipline on my part, because I actually really like junk food.

I consider any food that is high in fat and/or sugar without being rich in nutrients to be junk food. So candies, chocolates, Doritos, cookies, and ice cream are all junk food, but sugary cereals are okay because they are vitamin fortified.

I avoid them because they are unhealthy and generally more expensive per unit price than the raw ingredient they are made out of (see the end of this post for a sample analysis of potato chips).

Occasionally, however, I do break down and get something. Usually ice cream, because I do have a weakness for it. I tell myself that at least it has calcium.

I do not buy processed foods.

I think this one is implied by what I've written above, but I'll say it explicitly. I stick with the rawest form an ingredient can get, and avoid processing whenever possible.

So, I get potatoes instead of frozen french fries or tater tots, strawberries instead of strawberry jam (I'll buy peanut butter, though; don't know how to make peanut butter), flour/sugar/butter/etc. instead of premade cake mix, and I've never bought those pre-made dinner package thingies before. Honestly, I've never even had them, because my family never shopped at American supermarkets, and I never ate pre-made food from a package.

Which brings me to...

I cook from scratch every single day.

And I don't give myself a choice in this matter, because I simply do not keep ready-to-eat foods around, with the exception of fruit.

For me, food is *made*, not unpacked and heated. Or maybe I'm just a snob. Smile But I stew all of my own soups, I mash my own mashed potatoes, and I bake my own my cakes, cookies, and muffins. Yes, it takes a lot of work, but I actually really enjoy cooking, and it doesn't have to take more than an hour.

I am a vegetarian.

I haven't mentioned meat or fish at all for a reason. I've been vegetarian for the past four years. It's probably another reason why I don't buy pre-made foods--most of them are meat-based, and I can't eat them. I don't think stores sell much in the way of pre-prepared vegetables.

I get my protein by eating a wide variety of grains, beans, and vegetables--and supplement with tofu for complete protein. I don't know really what meat costs, but tofu, at $1/lb, is probably much cheaper than most meats. Actually, picking up a circular, the only meat I see that's around $1/lb is raw chicken.

I base my meals around carbohydrates, and supplement with vegetables and tofu.

When I look back at my menus, the main course, so to speak, is almost always a starchy, carbohydrate-rich food, such as pasta, rice, or potatoes. Occasionally, I'll base a meal around beans. The remainder of the meal consists of vegetables and tofu.

Some examples of meals are pasta with tomato sauce, topped with sauteed garlic, onion and bell pepper. Or fried rice with broccoli, celery, squash, and tofu in soy sauce. Or vegetarian chili with home-baked cornbread. Or avocado and cucumber sushi rolls with miso soup. Or mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy with steamed sweetcorn on the cob with butter.

This generalized meal structure ensures that I get the bulk of my daily caloric intake from very cheap sources (both pasta and rice have around 1700 calories per lb, and 1 lb of either rice or pasta can definitely be bought for under a dollar), while my nutrient intake is covered by my fruits and vegetables. And I've done nutritional analyses on my diet--I'm covered very well, with the possible exception of Vitamin B12.

I never eat out.

I stopped being able to justify it once I realized how cheaply I could eat on simple, raw ingredients. It's also hard to ensure that your food is vegetarian when you eat out. So I only eat out when I'm taken out.

So that's about all. I'm not familiar with how most Americans approach food, so I dont really know how I compare/differ.

Maybe you can enlighten?

14 Responses to “So what the heck am I eating on only $60 a month?”

  1. spendless Says:

    Very interesting reading. Sounds like you have a sound approach to your desired meals/diet. Certianly seems much healthier and cost effective than the average "american diet"...which is full of all the things you don't buy or eat. (much / most of my diet falls into junk and/or processed foods which are less healthy than your diet of choice).

    Best wishes for good health and prosperity.

  2. LuxLiving Says:

    Good info Mimi - keep sharing in this area! Can you talk more about what are probably your off the cuff (made up on the spot w/ingredients at hand)recipes?

  3. Dido Says:

    Thanks for the analysis. Definitely a healthy diet.

    I don't know that one can generalize about how "most Americans" approach food, but certainly given what's available on our grocery shelves, one might reasonably infer that we use a lot of processed foods, eat lots of meat and dairy, don't attend much to seasonality of produce, eat lots of junk food, and we certainly eat out a lot.

    I know that some of the things that contribute to me personally having a higher food bill than I would like include (a) eating a lot of processed meat, in particular, I go through about 2 pounds a week of sliced deli turkey (lunch almost everyday, plus I do give some to the "furkids"-1 dog, 2 cats-for treats); (b) eating a lot of organic dairy/dairy substitute (about 1.5 gallons/week of soy milk, which is more expensive than regular milk), and about 1.5 quarts of organic yogurt; (c) eating a fair amount of "light"/lower fat cheese; & (d) eating at least one meal per week of a fresh fish high in omega-3s. I'll pay about $140/month for just those four food items.

    I know that another thing I'll pay for is for someone else to do some of the "prep work." Most of my meals are ones that I prepare myself, but I'll get a headstart by buying things like boneless/skinless chicken breasts, packaged salads, and pre-cut veggies, not to mention that I usually buy my bread products prepared for me and rarely bother to bake them myself. But I've found that that seems to make the difference in my cooking at all, given time constraints (I work the equivalent of 1.3 jobs) and (lack of) enjoyment of cooking. (I only seem to like cooking when I have a lot of time; when my free time is limited, cooking is low priority).

  4. homebody Says:

    We rarely eat "prepared" foods, but do eat a lot of meat. Unfortunately we are still trying to get used to cooking for 2-3 instead of 5 so we tend to overbuy fresh fruit and veges and have some waste. (Two kids moved out at the same time, but then that was 7 years ago!!!) Our last child is moving in December and I think at that point it will be easier to not waste food for some reason....YD has a tendency to eat something like yogurt constantly and then stops, or drinks soy chocolate milk and then stops... in the meantime we have stocked up on it!!

    Her latest... Paul Newman lemonade. I just stocked up ($1.28 half gallon) and I bet she will quit drinking it!!! But then I will. Ha Ha.

    My DH loves to cook and we eat meat a lot and like Dido, expensive fish. I am kind of excited though to do a pantry/freezer clean out this fall. That is my tentative plan. (Dido I enjoyed your pantry posts.)

  5. amberfocus Says:

    spendless: Thanks for the kind words. Smile If you can only tell that to my mother, who still regularly calls me and tells me to "eat meat and drink milk again, and eat lots of butter and cookies, or else you'll die young from malnutrition" (the butter and cookies are an attempt to fatten me up, because I *am* underweight). Gaaah. Smile
    LuxLiving: One of my "tricks" to off-the-cuff cooking is keeping a good collection of sauces around. Soy sauce, teriyaki, BBQ/sparerib sauce (yes, this is vegetarian!), hoisin, black bean and garlic, vegetarian oyster sauce (this one is usually a mushroom-based sauce, but you can get the real thing)--I get all of these from my local Asian specialty store for a fraction of the price that American supermarkets charge. And when you're feeling uninspired, just make a stirfry with rice/pasta plus veggies, and add a sauce, any sauce. The same dish can taste different days in a row if you switch your sauces around. It's a good "cheat". Smile
    In many ways, cooking off-the-cuff is a state of mind. Recipes are merely a guide, a suggested route to arriving at a dish. If you need to follow it to the letter (with the possible exception of baking, where it actually does matter), then you've got the wrong attitude to cooking. Flexibility is key, and not fearing ingredient substitutions! As a vegetarian, I have had to gut meat from many a recipe, so I'm quite used to it now.

    Take fried rice, for instance. The vegetables and sauce that you add can be completely up to you. If you have squash, then add squash. If you don't have squash but have spinach instead, add that! Toss in your extra frozen green beans and baby corn, if you feel like--or don't. Add meat--or tofuk eggs, tempeh, or seitan--for protein. Pick the sauce that you are feeling that day, and you're good to go.

    Another one of my favorite dishes to make are tortilla pizzas, where you take a large tortilla, add crushed tomatoes, and top with whatever veggies you want, plus mozzarella (one of the only cheeses I can tolerate). Think about how many different kinds of pizza there are. You can make plain pizzas, broccoli and mushroom pizzas, onion and bell peppers, fresh sliced tomatoes with basil and pesto, pepperoni (when I still had ten billion excess meal points, I'd get lots of expensive fake meats and have fun with them), mashed potatoes and bacon, pineapple and ham--you name it, you can do it.

    Of course, it helps that I'm only cooking for myself, and not for kids or a family. So not only do I only buy foods that I like so I'll like them to begin with, if I screw a meal up, I don't really care, I'll eat it anyway and try it differently next time. I understand that this is different for families, but there are still plenty of "safe" ways to spice up a menu.

    Finally, I search the internet for recipe ideas a lot. Don't know what to do with leftover beans? Have a hankering for homemade hummus? Google it! And then adjust the recipe and substitute ingredients with what you have on hand--or make a mental note to pick up item X the next time you shop.

    I hope that helps. Let me know if there's anything else you want me to write about!

    Dido: It's not just the grocery shelves that give an idea. It's also Americana restaurants. I learned very quickly to never go back.

    I'm not sure how relevant my advice is due to the fact that it's not from personal experience, but from I've heard that if you go through a lot of sliced deli meats, it might be worth it to invest in a deli meat slicer, and do your own slicing. I know that for myself, hummus is considered an expensive "specialty/ethnic" item, but all the ingredients are very cheap, so if I've got a blender...

    As for soymilk, that's what I use, too (because I have had a lifelong taste aversion to milk). Try to find an Asian specialty store. Soymilk, like tofu, is so cheap and common in Asia that it amuses me to no end that American supermarkets try to charge an arm and a leg for it. It might taste slightly different than an American make, but it's just as good.

    Can't really help with the cheeses, but I know that there is seasonality for fresh fish, as well. I don't know the details, but try looking it up. Certain fish is better/more fresh during certain seasons due to migratory or spawning patterns. You never know what you can learn with a quick google.

    One of the sacrifices I make to cooking all of my food is the time it takes to do it. I've gotten pretty good with the knife, so I can usually chop and cook simultaneously, and I know the little tricks like "put the water on to boil, or the oven to preheat, first", which saves time. But yeah, by the time I get home (usually at 7 or 7:30 because no one leaves the lab on time Stick Out Tongue), cook, eat, and then clean, I'm too exhausted to do much except log on and blog. Smile It would help immensely to have a spouse/SO which whom you can switch off the cooking, but no such luck here--the roommie won't touch cooking with a ten foot pole.

    homebody: Is it cheaper to make your own lemonade? I have no idea, I've never tried it, but if I wanted lemonade, I'd definitely make my own when lemons are on sale! I usually make my own drinks, as well. Iced tea, usually. I don't really buy any drinks besides soymilk and tea.

    I don't blame everyone for eating lots of meat. I loved it too back when I wasn't a vegetarian, and I bought meat substitutes all the time in college with my meal points. But meal points are worth less than real money, so I've stopped buying those. My (ex-?)bf loves fake meats, as well, and he eats the real thing!

    best regards,

  6. baselle Says:

    Sounds like your real, real secret is flexibility. You are not tied down to a brand, or a craving, or tradition.

    The last secret that I can add is that you are willing to eat leftovers. Moving leftovers through your digestive tract is far, far, far (did I say far?) cheaper than sticking 'em in the fridge and leaving them there.

  7. pjmama Says:

    Thanks! It's nice to see someone who can relate! My financial aide also gets based off of my parents' salaries... which are too high to obtain anything outside of loans. Not to mention, they write my tuition payments off on thier taxes! It drives me up a wall...

  8. drew1980 Says:

    $50 a month on groceries? That is phenomenal!

  9. Dido Says:

    I never thought about Asian groceries stocking soymilk--I know soy-based foods are Asian but I think tofu. I'll have to try a couple of ones from an Asian grocery and see if I like it (I hate the sweetened ones that are the staple of most American grocery stores and the only one I drink is Silk Unsweetened).

    Do you get your tofu from an Asian grocery, too? The price you cite is cheaper than I think I pay (though tofu hasn't gotten into my price book yet, so I'm not sure).

    Thanks for the ideas about the deli slicer and seasonal fish. I'll have to look into those!

  10. amberfocus Says:

    baselle: I suppose flexibility is one way to look at it, although I'd just say that I love food and playing with food, and I'll eat just about anything. Big Grin I used to be such a picky eater, but now, I get so excited when I learn the name of a new vegetable/food that I didn't know before. I even like learning about meats, even though I don't eat them. I'm an oddball, I know.

    I'm a big fan of leftovers, because it means I get a free snack, or I don't have to cook again. I usually cook with the aim of generating leftovers, but these days, I'm having trouble due to overly small kitchenware in my new apartment, and a roommate who keeps eating my cooked food. Oh well.

    Dido: Oh, Asian cuisine does so much more with soy than just tofu! If you ever go to a vegetarian Asian restaurant, you'll see what I mean.

    Beware that Asian soymilks may also be sweetened, so read the labels/ingredient list. It may a little difficult to decipher the containers at first because oftentimes, they're mostly in Chinese with very badly translated English. But at least you know, if you're in that situation, that the products you're looking at are genuine. Smile
    And yes, I do get my tofu from an Asian grocery. (If you look at my grocery posts, I cite exactly where I shopped to get my food, and HK market = Hong Kong market = Asian grocery Smile.) I buy my tofu there because 1) it's within walking distance of my house, and 2) I pay less than half of what I'd pay at an American supermarket. Tofu is NOT a "specialty" "vegetarian" item in Asia. So I won't stand being swindled. Especially on a food that I eat all the time!

    Keep us posted on the deli slicer/seasonal fish! I'm curious to know whether my randomly remembered factoids are true/useful or not. Sorry for sending you out on a wild goose chase if they're not, though; I would have checked them out myself beforehand if they were relevant to me.


  11. Anony Mouse Says:

    See what amberfocus failed to mention to y'all in this is that she is 80lbs. That's right - 80lbs. As in, I believe some of the products she can buy are Costco are HEAVIER THAN SHE. As in 8 10lbs bags of rise == her.

    Yet, despite this, she eats (arguably) more than people around her, including someone who is 180lbs. That's right, despite weighing less than half the same amount of weight, she eats more.. and maintains her "more light weight than my TV" form.

    Those of us who are 180lbs call this talent... $#!@ing annoying.

  12. amberfocus Says:

    Hi, 'Anony mouse'!

    Yes, be jealous of my talent. Be very jealous. Big Grin
    But you know what this means? You can spend the same amount as I do on groceries and still be PERFECTLY FINE!

    BTW, you *are* going to feed me properly when I visit you this weekend, right? I expect oatmeal pancakes, roasted portobello mushrooms, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. And if you provide the ingredients, I'll even make chocolate mousse.

    Because I can't make that here because I lack a mixer.

    Did I mention that I find people with professional KitchenAids that they got for $150 $#!@ing annoying?


  13. Kristy Says:

    $60 a month?? Wow! That's one person... and hell, I wouldn't mind being 80 lbs. Well, I'm a 5'7" woman. Maybe like, 115 lbs. Yeah. No junk food.... um. Yah. That's gonna be a toughie. I'll have to stick it out though. My one year old might only be $30 or less if I make all her food fresh. Cool. So with 2 adults and one infant, it would be like $150 a month to feed us! Coolness. I could live with that. $150 kitchen aids? WTF??? No way!!!!! I only have a $20 mixer. mwwahhahahhha!!!!!!

    Yay to that person that spends so little! Smile

  14. amberfocus Says:

    Kristy: I can't tell if you're impressed or horrified by the $150 KitchenAid, but in case it's the latter, let me set the record straight. KitchenAid standing mixers are invaluable if you're a baker, and they normally retail for over $300. I'd love to get my hands on one of those buggers! Someday...

    (FYI, I do have a tendency to lust over high-end kitchen products because I'd love to take up cooking as a more serious hobby.)

    As for junk food, you can make your own. Homemade cookies taste ten times better than store-bought, anyway. *And* they're not full of preservatives and other junk. And you might not *want* to eat as many once you realize how much sugar and butter *really* go into them. Wink

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