Many people have written about how to eat cheaply. Almost all of them talk about the idea of a "cheap meal" and brag about how little a meal costs. It is rare to see someone ask "But what am I getting for my money?" This blog post will delve into that topic and possibly the simplest means of budgeting for food.
The above calculator is central to the concept. Too many people look at the sticker price and only buy things with a low sticker price. This will get you ripped off. Occasionally people will buy the biggest package and assume it must be the best value. Sometimes smaller packages are a better value. Smarter people will look at the price per unit weight. But even then this will still lead to missing great deals because mass isn't what feeds you: calories feed you.
Plug in the cost of a food item and how many servings are in the package and the calories per serving. It will produce a number that represents "dollars per week." Specifically that is how much money it would cost if someone were to eat nothing but that item every day for an entire week. Or 14000 calories worth. I will abbreviate this as "$/week" throughout the post. This is the only number that I look at when buying food. If you are a fan of my other work and were hoping to find an interactive nutritional database then you should take a look at Outdoor Food Club. It isn't mine but it is excellent.
Of course I am not recommending you actually eat just 1 thing for a week at a time! That is a quick way to give yourself all kinds of horrible dietary imbalances. However the number is extremely useful for budgeting purposes:
Let's say you have a family of 4 and the goal is to keep your grocery bill under $100 per week. That is $25 per person per week. Pull up this webpage in the grocery store and start plugging stuff into the calculator. (It doesn't use any data and works offline too.) If something is under $25/week then it goes in the cart. It doesn't matter what specifically you buy. It doesn't even matter what you do with that food. If everything is less expensive than the target budget then basic math says the average total bill must be under the target budget.
I'm also not saying that you should only eat cheap calories. Keep track of what you spend each week. Money that is left over can go towards healthier or more interesting things. For example meat is too expensive by the standards of this budget: beef is around $200/week depending on the cut. Chicken is $70/week. Even fresh vegetarian options like apples and leafy greens are typically $150/week. Spices and seasonings have no calories and are no better than buying bottled water as far as the budget calculator is concerned. You will easily have a few dollars left over to purchase these niceties. When I initially started budgeting this way I had enough left over to get a nice steak every week.
If you only shop once per week then it is pretty easy to deal with "expensive" items. Whatever you buy that week is all you have and don't eat it too fast. Or binge all out for 1 day. It doesn't matter. Just don't go to the store early to buy more. Fruit is expensive and delicious and you'll probably want to pace yourself. Fruit becomes expensive because it is so easy to eat a lot of it. Fresh greens on the other hand take more work to eat. But 1 pound ($1.50 worth) of greens per person per week is reasonable and easy to fit in the budget. It is difficult to eat so many greens that you go over budget.
For a point of reference what do some common McDonalds items actually cost to live off of?
Now let's look at a few of the basics that can be found at any grocery store. These are all from reasonable sized (max 10 pounds) low priced generic brands and are averaged from several sources.
It is remarkable what can be done with flour and oil. The options for low priced meals are endless if you can be creative with a sack of flour.
Of course there are also a lot of interesting foods online. Often times for less than at the grocery store. The deals below are the best values on Amazon at the moment and are automatically computed from more than 1000 products. If you'd like me to add things to the table then please make a post about it.
By the way I recommend avoiding Amazon's "subscribe and save" feature. You are not locking in a price by signing up. The price may rise and you will still be automatically billed. It is smarter to check for the best deal whenever it is time to stock up and easy to find a price that beats the 5%-15% that subscribing would have provided.
You might have noticed that this is a lot more dried and preserved food than a person typically eats. There are several downsides to fresh foods that I don't like:
- They are often seasonal and location dependent.
- They are usually pretty expensive.
- They spoil and refrigeration isn't always an option.
- Buying them in bulk requires a chest freezer or canning setup.
Additionally many shelf stable foods save lots of time. Consider carrots. Normally you need to wash the carrots and peel the carrots and dice the carrots. And then wash the peeler and the knife and the cutting board. And they take up space in the fridge and might go bad if you don't use them fast enough. But with dried carrots.... toss a handful into whatever you are making. Done. No prep and no cleanup.
Of course if you have local vegetable stands in the area you should absolutely buy stuff from them! But overall they are difficult for me to asses on a webpage and provide useful advice.
You might be scratching your head about the "refrigeration isn't always an option" part of that list. I had originally started thinking about this because of backpacking. People getting into backpacking and camping always seem to gravitate towards expensive food that isn't very good. Traditionally MREs or freeze dried. Recently some people have even been asking about taking meal drinks like Soylent out on the trail. These can easily end up costing $30/person for a single weekend trip! I felt there had to be a better way so I started looking into designing affordable backpacking menus.
In the process of experimenting with menus I had to cook and eat them. Backpacking also requires food that is easy to prepare and has minimal clean up. I worked those factors into the recipes along with the affordable ingredients. Now I had economic food that was quick and easy. Why would I want to eat difficult and expensive food normally? It didn't taste any better. So I began buying in bulk (saving more!) and cooking these types of meals every day.
And finally I came across a number of communities on reddit who had a different background as me but had the same problems. The many backpacking communities of course. Less obvious was /r/preppers. People talked about having a 3 month supply of food as a serious financial burden. I did it by accident with bulk purchases. Or /r/32dollars. If I have a vegetarian week I am usually spending under $10. Food desert? USPS delivers everywhere. Lack of refrigeration is a concern when prepping for power outages or for /r/overlanding.
Even though I came at this from the background of backpacking I have never really worried about food weight. Most of these food are dry or dehydrated. Most of them are very calorically dense. For example a diet of nuts weighs half as much as typical "ultralight" freeze dried meals. The weight of pure carbs/protein/fat is unbeatable. When actually backpacking I will pre-measure dry ingredients into ziplocks. DIY soup mixes will be dumped into a pot of water. Doughs/batters will have a little water added and be kneaded inside the bag. More about these in an upcoming post about recipes however.
In the prepping community a frequent concern is all the space food takes up. This really depends on the food. Food can use hardly any space but you need to avoid the "standard prep" of canned goods and MREs and freeze dried. Stick with dry goods and 1 month of food for a person can easily fit inside a small rolling suitcase.
While dry goods are very calorically dense they do tend to be bland. Spices and seasonings are essential. However the spices at the grocery store are all massive ripoffs. It is vastly more economical to buy seasonings in bulk. "Spend $20 to save $200" levels of economical. The best value for seasonings is typically 1 pound bags meant for restaurants. At first this seems like an absurd amount of seasoning. But they will last forever when stored in a cool dry place and you can use them liberally. Save your empty spice containers and refill them from the bulk bags. You'll find that some of the bulk bags are not made to be resealed. For that I recommend purchasing an impulse sealer but that is a topic for another post.
Dehydrated foods retain most of their nutrition. The macronutrients (carbs/protein/fat) are preserved. Minerals are preserved. Iron or calcium or potassium isn't going anywhere. Most vitamins survive but some are damaged. Vitamins A and C are probably the most easily lost. You can examine nutrition labels and scale the vitamins to the calories. Different preservation methods will cause different nutrients to be lost. Adding a daily multivitamin is an inexpensive safeguard. Here are some good articles on the topic: How Dehydrated Food Works, Nutrient loss in dried foods, Dehydrated Food vs. Canned Food vs. Frozen Food.
Be wary of the claims that dried produce is more nutritionally dense than fresh produce. It is absolutely true but misleading. Pound for pound it is in fact more nutritionally dense. But pounds don't feed people. Calories feed people and only so many calories can be eaten. After eating your fill you will have roughly the same nutrition from dried or fresh. But do be aware that the concentrating effects of drying can lead to surprising situations. For example common raisins have more potassium than fresh bananas.
Personally I don't worry about it. I eat a variety of things and get fresh produce when I can. Humans are omnivores because there is no balanced and complete natural food.
This post will be part of a series. Future posts will cover what I feel is the most essential cooking equipment as well as how to get it. And finally there will be some recipes to help you get started.