Anyone Can Spend Less for Food

By Philip Brewer on 7 June 2010 (Updated 6 June 2011) 11 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I can say without fear of contradiction that you're spending more than necessary for your food. That's a good thing — eating well is one of the great pleasures of life, and you can almost certainly afford to eat a more interesting and varied diet than the cheapest possible. But it's worth taking a minute to look at just how cheaply you could eat, if you had to.

If you want to check that a particular diet provides adequate nutrition, there are any number of nutrition calculators on line. I've previously linked to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Information Center. Their calculator seemed to have some problems today, so I ended up using a similar one at fitday.com.

You can drive yourself crazy trying to produce an optimal diet from scratch. It simplifies things a lot to start by drawing on some traditional diet. For example, the traditional diet of the Scots used to be oats and kale, so I've cranked up an example based on that.

According to fitday, 5 cups raw kale, 5 cups raw oats, and 3 cups of 1% milk comes in at just over 2000 calories. It provides 100 grams of protein, which is ample, and tops 100% of the US RDA for nearly every nutrient. (It's a little short of niacin and B12, which the Scots probably got from barley, fish, and small amounts of meat from the goats and sheep that they raised for milk and wool.)

There are as many alternatives as there are traditional peoples who have lived on the earth. I did much the same calculation for corn, beans and squash (Native Americans), rice and lentils (South Asians) and potatoes and dairy (Ireland). You have to throw in some vegetables — one carrot and one turnip, for example — but it's easy to make a balanced diet.

Any particular diet may be unsuitable for some people — people with celiac, for example, shouldn't eat a diet that's mostly oats, and people with irritable bowel syndrome might find a diet high in beans or lentils unsatisfactory — but there's an endless list of possible diets, and some of them are really, really cheap.

My point is not that you ought to eating mostly oats and kale (or rice and beans). My point is that an extreme frugal option like this ought to be out at the far end of your array of choices. By all means, spend more than this if you can afford to. A varied diet is not just a pleasure; it also provides protection against the possibility (the certainty, really) that we don't know everything about nutrition, and against the possibility that your nutritional needs are different in some way from those of an average person. Just understand that, if you're paying more than what a diet like this would cost, you're paying for wants rather than needs. Paying for wants is a good thing — it's what makes life worth living. But you ought to be thoughtful in your choices; part of being thoughtful is to include these extreme frugal choices in your thinking.

Of course, I'm not the first person to think about this. For example, Xin just reviewed a book by a couple of people who wrote about trying to eat for just $1 a day.

Start by figuring out what you really need and allocating enough resources to cover what that costs. Then take what's left over and cover some of your wants. But if you don't even consider really, really frugal eating as an option, you might be paying for food that doesn't provide as much satisfaction as something else you could have chosen instead.

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Guest's picture
David

Increment the savings. Our family of 6 is now under $300 per month for food. We eliminate or change one thing at a time such as grinding wheat, reducing cold cereal from 5 times a week to one.

Ice cream as a treat instead of a staple. Buy oats, wheat, and honey in bulk, etc.

Over a year or two, changing one thing at a time really adds up.

David

Guest's picture
Olivia

Thanks Philip, another fine article. We've been adding wild foods to our diet these last few years and have discovered purslane. A bit like lemony spinach, very nice in salads. Like David mentioned, gradual change is the way to go. I'd like it if we could get as low per person as he. Sounds good.

Guest's picture
Guest

I love the spinachy taste of lambs quarters -- especially on a year like this one where the plantings all seemed to go in late, but the weeds are still coming in on time.

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

Clearly some of the healthiest diets can be made from some of the cheapest foods, though if you go organic, some of the economy is lost. You can mix and match kale, oats, rice, beans, etc. and have quite a varied diet. The point is a good one that if you get most of your diet at low cost--though with the price of it being almost exclusively vegetarian-then the other things you eat ought to be things you really like. No sense in eating Twinkies for dessert unless you like them a lot better than high-quality dark chocolate or day-old white bread instead of a good bakery's whole grain.

Especially for people who live in small towns or rural areas, wild fish and game could make fairly low-cost additions of animal protein and accompanying vitamins for some people. I don't think I've seen much about that topic at Wise Bread.

Philip Brewer's picture

Andrea had a pretty good post a while back on the topic called Is hunting/fishing a good way to feed your family?. Her take on it (mine too) is that it can be very effective for people who already have the skills and equipment. If hunting and fishing isn't a family tradition, though, it's pretty hard to bootstrap yourself up to a level of proficiency where it's an effective use of your time and money.

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

I checked out Andrea's post and the numerous comments. The only thing I'd add to the overall picture is that if one's idea is to add diversity in the form of animal protein rather than needing a daily source of calories in the form of meat, the task is easier. I've never been very interested in hunting or fishing but have known a lot of talkative practitioners. A few obvious things, some of which are mentioned in the comments to Andrea's piece: Always choose the low-hanging fruit--what's common and what's easy. Getting some protein by fishing will usually be cheaper and easier than most kinds of hunting. In many relatively rural or at least non-industrial areas, bluegill and other sunfish are abundant in lakes and relatively uncontaminated. It's probably best to learn and follow the fish and game laws. Rabbits are common some places but successful rabbit hunting usually takes an experienced dog. With widespread feeding of birds, squirrels are abundant many places, if you can find a legal place to shoot. If you see a grouse or pheasant killed by the car ahead of you, stop and pick it up. In much of eastern North America, the giant Canada goose is abundant and unwanted, but I'm not sure what a cheap and legal way of acquiring an occasional one might be.

Guest's picture
Guest

But, of course, none of those people lived on just that diet. An Irish smallholder had access to fresh or saltwater fish and shellfish, seaweeds, berries, eggs, nuts - all necessary, all pricey at market - and both the dairy (pastured on some of the lushest grass in the world and drunk raw) and the potatoes (grown in well-fertilized, mineral-rich soil) were of a nutritional quality that is difficult and expensive to find here.

Pus-filled commercial Holstein milk is not the same. Sorry.

Guest's picture
Guest

The foods that American Blacks ate in the south was a topic of derision and disparagement not so long ago. Now without reference to this cultural bigotry; kale, collards, watermelon, sweet potatoes, turnips, and the like are being hailed as some of the healthiest food around. It is loaded with vitamins, micro-nutrients, calcium, anti-oxidants, disease fighting elements, and so on. The mention of Scots eating kale was never included in any discussion of nutrition or cultural habits. The way you cook it is important, but this is so no matter who is cooking and the underlying nutrition is still there. Pot liquor, the juice remaining after boiling greens was imbibed on a regular basis and would probably be an excellent fertilizer for plants and a healthy drink for babies instead of the liquid sugars and constant use of cow's milk. We are the only animals that suckle the teat of another species. Cow's milk has been questioned as actually causing calcium deficiency not curing it.

Guest's picture
whitewolf

a good place to go and get cheap food is a food market in the city closes to you they usually have one there and everything is cheap.

http://whitewolfinvestigations.org/

Guest's picture
Guest

Hi
Sorry I am joining in the conversation on the late end.
But in reference to the Irish diet by Guest a couple of comments ago.
My family is Irish and I spent my childhood in Ireland.
First up all this fresh fish or seafood, occasionally not regular.
Berries?? Seasonal for impoverished peasants NOT landowners, about 98% of the population in the mid 1800's to early 1900's.
Eggs? For those who could afford a few chickens and feed them.
Nuts?? There were Chestnuts but again seasonal.
These things were the treats not add on's. These people were very poor and then came the potato famine. Thus the Irish moved overseas (some of them).
And some peopel carrying on about rights etc. There is very few countries on Earth not effected by Colonialism/Empirialistic influence.

In reality to get an idea of what people ate in the great depression, some 80 years after the potato famine watch Clara's Depression Cooking video's on you tube.

Do not over romanticise the poverty in the 19th century most people didn't even own a donkey it was a 40 mile round-trip walk to market or maybe a lake.

If you don't believe me find the 19th century book on The Frugal American Housewife on american libraries, copyright free. We eat like kings and I do think this story is relevant.

Guest's picture
Calum

Hi Philip,

This is a great article. I believe you are right in what you are saying. Our food choices can seem really complicated and the number of fad diets and conflicting advice floating about makes things even more complicated.

Keep it simple, rice and beans, oats and Kale. I like it.

I have been trying to keep my vegetarian diet as simple as possible. It certainly helps save money!

Well I'm off to read the book review mentioned in your article.

Kind regards,