My husband and I are on a budget. We're paying off school loans, saving for retirement, and saving for a house, so yes. Budget city. One of the biggest ways we save money by budgeting every month is with our food budget.
We plan for about $90 per week spent on food, which rounds out to $360 per month. To figure out a realistic amount to shoot for, we used a fantastic tool called the USDA cost of food plans. This tool estimates the average cost of food per week or per month based on household size. It’s updated every single month to account for inflation and rising food costs, so it's an awesome tool to use. I highly recommend checking it out! There are five price points listed: Thrifty (least expensive), Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal (most expensive). We follow the Thrifty plan for a household of two aged 19-50.
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In addition to being on a food budget, I’m also a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who strongly believes in the power of food as medicine. The diet we follow and which I believe has the strongest supporting evidence is a whole foods-based, Mediterranean diet, which is a highly anti-inflammatory diet. Many people think that following the Mediterranean diet would make a $90 per week food budget impossible. This blog exists primarily to show people that it is very possible and exactly how we do it - with some of the scientific evidence behind the Mediterranean diet thrown in as well.
There are 3 key strategies we use to stay within our $90-per-week food budget on a whole foods-based, Mediterranean diet:
We plan our meals for the whole week.
We don’t eat out except on special occasions or as part of our monthly "date budget".
We buy generic products and shop sales - Aldi is amazing!
To give you a feel for how this works, I want to give you a rundown of a week in the life of Jeremy (my husband) and Emily as far as our food budget goes. Here are the five dinners I planned for us to have this week.
This Budget Bytes recipe is one of our current favorite recipes. If you like Korean food, you'll love this. It tastes so authentic! We’ve made it twice in the last three weeks, and both times we said it was restaurant quality. From a nutrition standpoint, it has a full serving of vegetables when you combine the carrots, cucumbers, and spinach. It also has a serving of whole grains because we use brown rice, which is a 100% whole grain. We added a side salad to round out the meal. Bibimbap counts for our two servings of red meat this week since we have leftovers for lunch the next day. The rest of our meal proteins this week will be fish, chicken, kefir, eggs, and nuts.
2. Salmon Noodle Casserole
The classic recipe with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup is one of a few recipes I have in our regular canned salmon rotation. It's good, but I'm actually on the hunt for a different recipe that's easy to make but doesn't rely on canned cream of mushroom soup, which is ultra-processed and high in sodium. We use whole wheat egg noodles (I get these at Wal-Mart) because they are much less processed than regular noodles. Jeremy doesn’t particularly love peas, so we take out one cup from the casserole recipe and add two cups of green beans (frozen or fresh) for extra vegetables and fiber. We’re also having a side salad with this.
My master’s thesis was on the importance of omega 3 fatty acids, particularly a type of omega 3 fat found most abundantly in fatty fish (DHA). Let’s just say that after studying omega 3’s for a whole year and learning about their many wonderful properties, I make sure we consume them on a very regular basis. We eat salmon every single week (instead of just fish in general) because it has way more omega 3 fats per serving than almost about any other fish. Check out this nifty chart for the amounts of omega 3’s in different fish.
Salmon can get pretty pricey, however. Frozen fillets run about $8 per pound, even at Aldi or Sam’s. Canned salmon, on the other hand, is only $2.50 at Aldi for a 14-ounce can! This makes weekly salmon very possible even on our food budget.
3. Lemon Chicken Thighs with Olives
This is the meal we chose from our eMeals plan for the week. It looks so good! I love having a slow-cooker meal or two planned for the week. It makes cooking much easier on days Jeremy and I both work. We will pair it with green beans, a side salad, and brown rice.
4. BBQ Chicken Pizza
One of our favorite meals is pizza, and yes, it actually does fit the bill for being considered anti-inflammatory and dietitian-approved. Here’s how: We use Trader Joe’s 100% Whole Wheat Crust, which is a steal at about $1.20 per crust. It has four grams of fiber per slice if you cut your pizza into eight pieces. This goes a long way towards getting the recommended daily amount, which is 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men.
Our guts will thank us later for this fiber, for real. Recent research has shown that if we don't eat enough fiber, which is literally food for our healthy gut bacteria, these bacteria eat the lining of the colon instead, making it extremely vulnerable to pathogens and inflammation. Eat your fiber, folks!
We make a variety of different kinds of pizza with our whole wheat crust, but we always use a lean meat (usually boneless skinless chicken breast because it's lean and unprocessed) and lots of vegetables. This week, the winning combination was ⅓ cup Cowtown Night of the Livin’ Barbecue Sauce (one of my favorite barbecue sauces in Kansas City), 1 ½ cups of shredded mozzarella cheese, and most of a chopped yellow bell pepper. We had this with a side salad and apple slices. Even though our pizza is healthy because it is made with a whole grain crust, lean protein, and veggies on top, we never ever have pizza all by itself. A side of vegetables and fruit round out the meal nicely.
5. Spinach and Cheddar Quiche
This is our use-what-we-already-have meal for the week. Frozen pie crust is by no means healthy, but it was part of our 80/20 rule for the week and it was leftover in our freezer from making pumpkin pie over the holidays. We had a side salad and shared a pomegranate to balance out the meal. I looked in the Joy of Cooking for a basic quiche recipe, then pretty much filled in all the details myself. I used my frozen pie crust, 1 cup shredded Monterrey jack cheese, ½ cup frozen chopped spinach, 3 eggs, and 1 cup 1% milk.
In addition to these four meals, we had dinner with each set of parents one night. Yay for family time and not having to cook on two nights! Our favorite thing about living in Kansas City is being close to both of our families, so we make sure we see them every week.
Our breakfasts this week consisted of oatmeal cookie baked oatmeal and cinnamon date and walnut baked oatmeal with full-fat vanilla yogurt on top, a side of fruit, and 8 ounces of kefir from Aldi. This way we get a serving of whole grains, fermented dairy, and fruit every single morning. Kefir and other fermented dairy is a bioavailable (meaning highly absorbable) source of calcium as well as probiotics, which are live bacteria that boost our gut health. I consider this an essential component of our everyday diet.
We have leftovers for lunch almost every day, which works out nicely for us since most recipes serve four to six people. To top off our meals, we have ¼ cup of nuts, one or two fruits, and often a vegetable as well. Jeremy sometimes has a protein bar, too, which is part of his 80/20 rule each week.
Our Groceries for the Week
Now I’m going to pull back the curtain and show you what we spent on food this week at each store.
I always start here and buy as many of my groceries here as possible because it’s the cheapest and it has almost everything I need.
Sweet potatoes $1.29
Blueberries $1.69 x 2
Cream of mushroom soup $0.49 x 2
Red/Yellow/Orange peppers $2.49
Chicken bouillon cubes $1.49
Extra virgin olive oil $3.99
Vanilla yogurt (quart) $1.49
Caesar dressing $1.29
Red grapes $3.01
Green beans $0.99 x 2
Kefir $2.29 x 3
Monterey jack cheese (block) $1.79
Mozzarella cheese (block) $1.79
Pink canned salmon $2.49
Quick-cooking brown rice $2.99
Aldi total: $52.74
I almost never shop at Sprouts, but I saw an ad for boneless skinless chicken breast in the paper which was an unbeatable price and didn’t have any added sodium filler or injections. I bought about 6 pounds of chicken, which will last us a few weeks. So worth the extra trip!
Chicken breast tenders $1.99 per pound
Sprouts total: $14.17
I buy the odds and ends that I can’t find at Aldi either at Hy-Vee (my local "regular" grocery store) or Wal-Mart. This week's finds:
Black peppercorns $5.49
Black olives $1.29
Hy-Vee total: $7.18
Total Food Cost for the Week: $74.09
There you have it: the total amount we spent on food for the week. We actually came in $15 under our $90 per week food budget - yay!!
This is what it looks like for us to put our three key strategies for eating well on a budget into practice. It takes a little extra effort and planning, but it's incredibly worthwhile for the money we save and the benefits to our health!
As you can see, eating a whole foods-based, Mediterranean diet does not have to be expensive - in fact, it can actually be pretty cheap!
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Are you on a food budget? If so, what is it and what are some of your tricks for making it work for you?
Can’t wait til next time!