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Eat Well, Spend Less: Has Our Real Food Budget Grown?

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I spent $469/month on food last year.

Yes, I do keep track that closely.

CSA vegetables
If you had asked me a few years back whether that was a decent figure, I would have caught my breath a bit. I used to try to stay under $300 a month on food…those days are no longer, for many reasons (all of them good, except the blasted economy and rising food prices!).

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Eat Well, Spend Less series, and it’s been a lovely ride thus far.

To celebrate, we’re doing what all happy teams do on an anniversary: looking back. All of us have made plenty of changes in our cooking and buying decisions over the past year, so the theme for this month is to share those with you.

Eat well, spend less

I’ve been inspired recently to make sure that the topics and writing here don’t stray too far from one of the four pillars of Kitchen Stewardship®: frugality.

This week, I’m going to share my 2011 real food budget with you, talk about changes my family has made in the past year, demonstrate what we really eat day to day, down to the snacks (although I’m not counting how many pieces of dark chocolate I snitch…), and finally, most importantly, break down real food and natural living habits into categories to demonstrate which will save money compared to a conventional diet, which will cost you more, and what’s the most important from each list to make sure you break even right down the middle of your budget.

Today, let’s look back at my real food budget that I share last year:

  • $318/month on food for two adults and a 3yo in 2008
  • $350/month for two adults, a 4yo, and a new toddler in 2009
  • $477/month (yikes!) for that same family in 2010, with a lot more real food and some new choices

To see more of the breakdown, check out the full post from last year.

2011 Real Food Budget

I ran the numbers from this year and was pleasantly surprised to learn that we spent about $469/mo. or $108/week, actually down slightly from last year.

Category breakdown:

  • health food store: 13 trips, $343
  • bread store: we hardly do bread at all!
  • Farmer’s Market: 22 trips, $560 (produce ONLY)
  • U-pick fruits: $260 (includes 2 strawberry picking, 1 blueberry picking plus a few 10 lb boxes at market, 2 apple picking)
  • raw milk and pastured eggs: $500 (1 gallon, 1 dozen per week)
  • cheese: $207.50 (including raw cheddar purchased by mail with friends and Farmer’s Market cheese, $12 for 3 blocks of 8 oz. – that was one of those “caution to the wind” purchases I mention below! I do buy regular store cheese often (no hormones), because the raw is simply not available all year round.)
  • butter, additional eggs or milk, some meat: $264 (includes Cedar Crest butter, eggs purchased at Farmer’s Market, and some meat and milk purchased at market with eggs. I also buy regular store butter most of the time, not in this category, and I bought regular whole milk for yogurt some of the year, not included here. I do not buy conventional eggs, but many eggs are included in the health food store trips in the winter because they are all that’s available.)
  • Country Life bulk foods: $321 (3 orders)
  • Quality meat: $360 (includes Grassfield’s, anything from Farmer’s Market, plus local butcher…and yes, we eat a lot of beans – The Everything Beans Book!)
  • Bulk Oils: $216
  • 2 gallons maple syrup: $80
  • 2 half bushels tomatoes for canning: $20
  • grocery shopping in Florida on spring break: $110
  • eating out for sustenance: $72 (maybe more, as opposed to for celebration, which goes in “entertainment” category – our entertainment fees were down about $400 from the year before)
  • $2312 left, spent at regular grocery stores like Meijer, Save-a-Lot, Aldi, Family Fare, Horrock’s, etc.

If you’re in the West Michigan area, check out my Grand Rapids local real food resources page. Also, HERE is last year’s post on food sources and prices in the Midwest and Michigan in general.

2010 Category breakdown for comparison:

  • health food store: 9 trips, $293
  • bread store: making my own now
  • Farmer’s Market: 27 trips, $734.95 ($27/visit, but includes some meat/eggs)
  • U-pick fruits: $164.10, missing one strawberry picking, +$47.25 in frozen cherries
  • raw milk and pastured eggs: $483
  • cheese and butter, additional eggs: $179.75
  • Country Life: $228.10
  • Quality meat: $594.93
  • Oils: $262
DSC02204 (475x356)

We had so many unique circumstances that changed the budget one way or another:

  • We moved, which meant setting our house and looking at homes, which meant so many meals on the road, I hated it. I wrote about how we just had to splurge a little to obtain real food convenience foods and the quick and easy meals I made often.
  • Lived with in-laws for 5 months
    • Should have increased because I was doing my best to cook for an extra two adults
    • May have decreased slightly because I had no source for good chicken meat and simply bought grocery store birds and said a prayer
    • Should have increased because I couldn’t buy in bulk, although decreased because I was trying to eat from some previous food storage
    • Should have increased because I was throwing caution to the wind – it was tricky enough cooking in someone else’s kitchen 8 months pregnant and with a newborn, and we weren’t paying a mortgage, so we decided that whatever I wanted to spend on food, I could. A lot of habits didn’t change, but I bought more pints of fresh raspberries than I might have otherwise. Winking smile
    • May have decreased because my mother-in-law cooked for us for a few weeks after John was born (thanks, Mom, you’re the best!)
  • Some food I received as product review samples or bartered for advertising on KS, like soaked granola from JoshEWEa’s Garden and almond flour from Honeyville.
  • Some food I purchased from Amazon using Swagbucks – you earn points for searching the web and redeem them for gift cards.
  • I wonder how much of last year’s budget was eaten this year, in the form of bulk foods, 1/16 of a cow, and frozen produce and meals?
  • Our 2010 budget took a hit when we went grain-free, but we also went grain-free and gluten-free for Lent in 2011, plus we pretty much just didn’t eat bread products except for an occasional grain-free biscuit or something made from a bit of flour that I ground and brought along frozen.

I’m not exactly sure what I’ve learned from this, although I am surprised the numbers weren’t higher. I’ll still process the evaluation over the next few days. I guess we picked more fruit, ate less quality meats (partly because I moved out of my foodshed and had to find new), and ate more cheese! Mmmm….nothing wrong with more cheese…

I’m already curious to see this year’s budget breakdown now that we’re in our normal situation. We’re already spending more on raw milk, having upped our share, made a $400 bulk foods order, and am working on better butter…so I have a feeling the bottom line is going up again this year.

Tune in tomorrow for what all that money actually puts on the table and into our mouths…

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32 thoughts on “Eat Well, Spend Less: Has Our Real Food Budget Grown?”

  1. So glad others believe in splurging on good cheese! My budget is super tight, but I just cannot do without good quality cheese, it’s a staple in my daily diet. I really appreciate the breakdown you did here and learning about what foods you have learned are okay compromises and which are not- it saves me from a lot of trial and error. So a huge THANK YOU for that!
    I’m vowing that for the month of May I’m going to track my food spending to the cent to see where I can crack down on extraneous costs, it’s good to have some guidelines to start with here. Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: Eat Well, Spend Less: How We’ve Changed Over The Past Year

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  4. Just wanted to mention, for all of you who cringe at spending $600+/mo on groceries…what we were paying before real food was *not* a reasonable price! It was a price paid for “fake” food production methods, and wouldn’t provide cost of living for a family farmer. Real food, organic prices – they are the reasonable amount to be paying for food. If it seems like a stretch to our budget, I think we need to question if *we* are being paid enough for our time!

    I recently read “In the Absence of the Sacred” by Jerry Mander – an excellent read – and in it he quotes some calculations someone did of the value of food eaten by traditional hunter/gatherer peoples in Alaska. Their food would cost $3000/person/year, if bought conventionally (Mander’s book was published in 1991)! That works out to $1250/mo, for a family of five.

    Puts it in some perspective, doesn’t it?

  5. This series is timely for me. About a year ago, after perusing your website and reading the GAPS book, I seriously revamped my shopping style for our family of 9. I am the only one eating gluten-free, but many of my stand-bys didn’t seem so wonderful anymore. Budget really went up for a bit.

    Now we are in a different situation, less income, more expensive rent, and I have to change back to the old I think. It is discouraging, to say the least. My budget before I ever considered organic or anything, most everything from scratch, was 7-800 a month (2009). Went up to 1000-1100 a month, and now I am aiming for 800 a month, and it seems impossible. Many beans and rice meals, and Dosas from your Everything Beans book are a fun, new gluten-free addition.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      That would be a tough chapter to turn backward…do you make homemade yogurt? You could do 4-5 gallons a week and serve it all the time, made from regular store whole milk! 😉 I hope you can make the impossible, possible. 🙂 Katie

      1. Thanks for your encouragement. I have been trying to make yogurt. A week of testing last week kept me out of the kitchen, but the gallon I get made each time disappears quickly! Next batch will be at least 2! The matter of finding pans to fit all the jars into pans of water is what is limiting me 🙂

  6. i am curious katie how much of your produce and other things are organic, if they aren’t local? just wondering.
    almost all of our produce, probably 90% is organic if it is not local.
    most everything in my cabinets is also organic, probably 2/3 or more than half. i search high and low for a reasonable price, which means sometimes i just do not compare to conventional. conventionally grown food has lots of other factors not in the price tag, if you see aldi’s has pesticide laden apples for 25 cents a pound, it might be hard for the frugalista in you to walk away and get organic apples, even if they are $1.50/lb- a totally fair price. i just try to shop reasonably, because cheap food is sometimes not a bargain at all.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I’m glad you asked this question – organic is something that has slowly been increasing at our house, from zero six years ago to, I’m guessing here, probably about half now.

      I just bought apples at Aldi today, so I can’t believe you mentioned that! I consoled myself that they were from Michigan, so at least they didn’t travel far. 🙂

      This summer’s blueberries were about half organic, half not, apples are all conventional, sadly, but u-pick is such a great deal. When I buy potatoes, it’s about half and half. I’m struggling with that one…

      Produce in general is all over the place – organic mostly on greens and all carrots, but conventional on cucumbers, most broccoli unless org is on sale…even the peppers I’ve bought lately are conventional, b/c I don’t even see organic ones in the store. Almost all my summertime produce is farmer’s market, so mostly organic or close to it, peppers especially.

      Grains and legumes are increasingly organic just because that’s how to find them in bulk.

      Soooo…I know your standards remain quite high, and that’s so admirable, but sometimes I figure eating vegetables is better than not eating vegetables, and that’s what I’m left with when I shop at a normal store. We just got a tiny health food store near our house, so we’ll see if they can keep up a nice produce section…maybe that accessibility will change my buying habits…

      🙂 Katie

  7. *$600 a month total food budget, not just meat! we have 2 adults, a 4 year old and a 20 month old.

  8. thanks for sharing, katie!
    i know around here when i can’t get a local chicken or don’t want to pony up $12, i buy just bare chicken, which isn’t quite as good but they say they are free-range and thet are 3rd party humane certified. also can you get smart chicken (regular or organic?), at least it does’t have antibiotics and they are air chilled. i watch for the exp date and plan a grocery strip to catch them on mark-down!
    real meat takes a large chunk of our budget, spend around $600 a month which includes 3 1/2 gallos raw milk a week, 5 lbs local raw jersey cheese, and used to include eggs but we just got our chickens so those days are numbered!
    right now i barter extra produce for eggs from neighbors, maybe you can try that if you get a good deal in bulk?
    also my husband brings us a deer or two, which helps stretch the meat. i used to eat a lot of beans, but now i find i feel much better since i have replaced them with meat. real meat, not cafo meat. i just say a prayer and have faith that God will provide for us. His Creation IS abundant! it is good to be wise and be frugal, though we can’t forget that the Lord did create this world to provide for us and we don’t have to cut corners with lower quality food. it has taken me years to grasp this, i still struggle at times. that’s when i say a prayer. of course we must make sure to give thanks, and pass on the blessings!

    i am wondering could you please give a break down of bulk oils? i buy coconut oil from vitacost and i am doing their refer a friend program which has given me EVCO in the range of $40 a gallon. we use about 3 lbs a month. i know it isn’t trop traditions, but it is organic and super coconutty 😉

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      The bulk oils are from Soaper’s Choice, both EVOO and EVCO, detailed here:

      $32 for 7 lbs of EVCO, and it’s good and tasty. 🙂 Katie

  9. Katie, thank you so much for posting about your food budget in such detail! This is something I’m really struggling with right now – I am utterly *dumb* when it comes to frugality. I’ve been learning from Millie at, and Adrienne from, but I have so much more to really incorporate into my shopping habits.

    I’m not sure what you’re paying per gallon of milk, but if you’re willing to drive to the Westphalia area, I can hook you up with $5/gallon raw milk – that’s the cheapest I’ve found within driving range thus far. There are often groups in geographic areas which do group runs, too, to lighten the driving load across multiple families.

    If I recall correctly, you should be within delivery range of, which is where we get all of our grass-fed, humanely raised and slaughtered meat. It’s not cheap, but it’s the best meat I’ve ever had.

    Thanks again for a great post – I’ll be rereading it and trying to apply your expertise to my shopping lists. 🙂

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Thanks, Erin! I’m 10 minutes from Woodbridge Dairy, and they’re starting raw milk in May, so I’m going to try there. I need to do more with Creswick, too, but WB also has great pork and beef, so I’m kind of spoiled. I just need that good chicken source now…

      Good luck with your frugality enhancing! 🙂 Katie

  10. I get a REALLY good deal on raw milk so I buy 2 gallons a week. I didn’t know what to do with the extra I have left over and since you’ve been e-prodding me to make yogurt, I began the journey. Now I’m absolutely in love and the kids see it as a snack…what a way to reduce costs via snacks.

  11. Okay, Katie. You just validated my $1000-1200 /month food budget, including meals out. I regularly beat myself up, saying I CAN do better. BUT–we are a family of 5. That includes 3 boys (13, 11, 7) The 13yo eats as much as 2 men, the 11yo eats as much as 1 man, and the 7yo tries to keep up with his brothers but can’t. We buy many of our dry goods in bulk (Azure Std), I do as much as I can from scratch, shop for seasonal produce, and serve plenty of “filler” foods, such as potatoes, bread, beans, and cabbage. In the Dallas/Ft Worth area, we pay $6 for organic, free range eggs, $6++ for grass fed beef, $8/gal for raw milk. Thankfully, I do have a vegetable garden, a mature peach orchard that we are transitioning to organic, and enough land to add a berry patch, chickens and maybe even a milk goat.

    I also need to add: Prior to eating healthy, I made at least 6-10 trips per year to the doctor for ear and sinus infections, plus numerous colds, flu, etc. We’ve been eating healthy for about 5 years now and I can’t remember the last time we went to a doctor because of illness. I think this past winter, our family had maybe 1 cold?

    1. My first reaction is that I spend way more than that ($700-800) and I still buy some conventional foods and also live in a low cost of living area. But when I remind myself that I have two growing boys (11 & 12) that eat much more than my husand and I do then I don’t feel so bad about it.

  12. Just wondering– as there’s no expenditure listed for seed, do you not grow a garden? Growing your own is a great way to get high quality produce for less. Gives kids a constructive reason to play in the dirt, too…

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I hope to this summer, but last year we moved, twice, so putting down roots, literally, was a bad idea. 😉 Katie

  13. Wow I’m impressed. We live in a pretty low cost of living area and with a family of 6 we spent twice this. I am very careful to shop sales and make food stretch but we can’t seem to get lower than that.

  14. Hey Katie! It was so great meeting you at Nourished. I’m loving your budget post, I wish I kept track of everything the way you do. I, like you, find that we do spend a little more for real food, but we also spend way less for doctor visits or medicine. Plus we are preventing diseases, its a win win situation. I love Joel Salatin’s response when questioned about the cost of organic food, “Have you priced cancer lately?” That man is a genius.

  15. I can’t wait to see the day-to-day meal post! I’ve been looking for ways to lower our food spending, but I think we’ve just reached the point where we would have to change the way we eat in order to spend less. Since we’re not willing to do that I think our food budget is stuck where it is! I try to remind myself that it IS an investment in our overall health, and a couple hundred bucks a month to hopefully prevent disease is totally worth it:)

  16. Wow – you spend quite a bit on raw milk (per gallon). We spend $696 per year and get 2 – 3 gallons per week – which we then turn into butter and ice cream and cheese and yogurt! Raw milk cheese is very easy to make (not much active time at all), very rewarding and oh so much cheaper than store bought!!!! We get all of our supplies here in West Michigan too – at Siciliano’s – a beer and wine making store on the west side that carries lots of fun cheese stuff – lots of cultures and books, too. =)

  17. I am quite surprised at the expenditures on protein. Here in Northern CA, grassfed beef in bulk is $6.50/lb, raw milk is $24/gallon, and pastured eggs directly from the farm are $7/dozen. Raw cheese is a treat only for the toddler (at $30-50/lb). There is no way my family of 3 could spend under $500 per month on real food.

    Also, you must grow your own veggies perhaps? 22 trips a year to the farmers’ market means two trips per month on average. Or else, you have a way of keeping veggies fresh longer.

    I’d love it if you could share some prices for your area, because right now I am feeling quite lousy about our $1000/month food budget.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Definitely check out last year’s post, where I linked to an important article about not comparing b/c of things like location –

      I also wrote last year on food sources in Michigan:

      I spend $5-7/gallon on raw milk, get a 5-lb block of raw cheese from Wisconsin for $22-24, and spend $2.79-4/dz on eggs, depending on whether the best ones are available or not. And, I buy conventional cheese and butter *shrug*. Our Farmer’s Market is only open May-Oct, so I buy a lot of produce at the grocery store otherwise but do not (yet) garden.

      Your budget fits your area, I’m sure! We have some lucky pricing in Michigan on many things…

      🙂 Katie

  18. I’m really surprised by how little you spend on meat ($360?)–especially being grain free part of the time. Do you eat a lot of beans? Or am I missing something?

    Thanks for sharing! Always interesting to see other people’s real food budgets. 🙂

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I was actually surprised about that, too!!

      We bought 1/16 of a cow in December 2010 though, so that fed us for a few months. I buy whole chickens and make 3-4 meals out of them. We DO eat a lot of beans (The Everything Beans Book – and we go through 4 dz eggs or so a week. I buy good eggs at $4/dz but the farmer usually doesn’t have enough, so I have to settle for “ok” eggs, meaning antibiotic/hormone free, pastured, local, but no nearly organic, for $2.79/dz. Also, some of the meat was lumped in that other category when I bought it together with eggs because I didn’t separate the line items, and we had some grocery store meat in the summer with my inlaws…I’m deadly curious to see how this year will shake out now that we’re back to “normal”!
      🙂 Katie

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  20. Lisa @ A Little Slice of Life

    Great job on your budget! People always think eating real food means you have to spend tons of money. I’m sure I’ll be linking back to this post in the future.

  21. Lora via Facebook

    My problem is that I lump everything together in my grocery budget, household supplies, paper supplies, dog food etc…I need to break it down to see how much I actually spend on food.

  22. Beth via Facebook

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I can’t believe how organized you are. I’ve tried to keep track, but it just falls apart.

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