A friend asked me if I thought her family of four could reduce their monthly food budget to $500 and eat more healthfully than they are now. Here is what I told her:
I think it's possible, but given the ages of your boys and your athletic husband you might need to give yourself grace to spend $550 or $600.
When we were tracking our groceries diligently, we were spending $700/month pretty consistently, for six of us. I'm going to start tracking again, especially now that we have Aldi, although I'm afraid that may make for an unfair comparison for people in areas who don't have one.
I've been asked how we can afford so much produce. I could reply, “Well, we can't afford to be sick!” or something along those lines that implies that I would be able to pull more money out of my back pocket if I thought my health were really a priority. I understand the question to be more literal. Because when you're not indulging in 1000 cable channels, weekly manicures, restaurants, movies, etc. and are literally trying to have enough money to feed everyone better food, the implication that it's just not important enough to you is frustrating, at best. Depending on the source, infuriating.
How can I afford to eat a lot of produce? I think it's because we have kept our menus very simple, and we don't eat meat. So my answer to everyone is not going to include “don't eat meat,” but I will suggest that if you're trying to reduce your food budget you include more meatless meals. And learn how to cook beans that taste good. There is a method, though it's not difficult.
Now, from where you are currently, how do you get to both more healthful AND $500/month at the same time?
First, it's going to take a plan. I know menus and meal plans have become a trend, and rightly so. But the reason I've never purchased a plan is that I know what my family is going to eat better than anyone, and if I'm making food that no one is going to eat, I'm going to either be riddled with guilt, buying extra snacks, or giving up entirely because I can't handle all the complaints. I get enough complaints in my life as it is.
Add on a few food sensitivities and vegetarianism, and there's no way a pre-fab, subscribed-to meal plan would work for our family. (If they work for yours- congratulations! Enjoy!)
Now, to get started on your project: a list of meals and corresponding grocery list that will feed you all for your desired budget.
1) Make a list of the things you normally fix for meals.
2) Figure out what the cost of the meals are.
You can use your boys for this: it's a great real-life math lesson. As a bonus, this helps them see the real cost of food and may lead to less complaining when you explain why you're now only having their favorite once a month. Be realistic about this: if the recipe card calls for 8 oz of cheese, but you know you reach into your 5 pound bag from Sam's club and generously dump 12 ounces in the pasta, account for that. There's no sense lying to yourself about what you use, you'll only mess up your budget. And no one is grading you on it, anyway!
3) Rank the meals by cost. Then you can decide what you can afford to make most often and what needs to take a back seat. Of course, you can also include other priorities. For example, I have found that home made pizza is one of our cheapest meals, so I decided to make it once a week, usually on Friday. The problem was that, start to cleanup, it took hours and hours for me to make! I think I gave up on home made pizza during my fourth pregnancy. Now I make it occasionally, and my boys have gotten old enough to help more.
At this point, you should have a good general picture of what you're eating and problems that need to be addressed. For example, if you have now realized that you only fix 5 different things for dinner, now is a good time to learn a few new dishes. (Unless you're all okay with just those five, because you're still better off than most of the world!) Or if you've noticed that too many of your meals are comprised of wheat and cheese, or imbalanced in some other way. You can also notice if you're relying too heavily on prepackaged foods, which are driving up your cost and driving down your health. For example, if you're making a boxed, pre-seasoned rice dish as a side with several meals, you should learn to make a good rice dish on your own. This will end up saving you money, and reducing things like MSG and hydrogenated oils in your diet.
4) Use the list to make your actual menu. For this step, I used to just scribble it down on scrap paper and stick it on the fridge, which worked just fine. I've tried making a rotating menu on the computer, but it got too complicated and was cumbersome to change. Now I use sticky notes, just the top part, on the calendar. Yes, an actual physical, paper calendar that I keep in the kitchen. I realize I could just put it on the calendar app on my phone, but I prefer the paper calendar. My kids can move around the sticky notes each month to make the menu if I'm busy. They know which nights we have activities and need a meal that is easier and quicker to make. Anyone can look at the calendar and know what we're having for dinner. I can even be working at the computer, or on the phone, signal to my eleven year old to check the calendar, and he can get out the appropriate pans and ingredients, put water on for pasta, etc. Plus, I don't like having to look at my phone for EVERYTHING. The bonus is if I've forgotten to do something ahead of time for dinner, or we've run out of time, or a crucial ingredient, I can simply move the sticky notes around and solve the problem faster than I can edit the calendar on my phone.
5) Adjust according to what is on sale, within reason. It doesn't take long to look at the sale ads for the major grocery chains since they're all online, and you can plan your menu accordingly. I don't recommend trying to look up recipes you've never made just because something is on sale unless you have time and are really good at that sort of thing. But if you find a great sale on something you will use, then work it into your menu as many times as you can.
Of course there will be times you realize that all your eggs were used with impromptu omelets someone else decided to make, or you forgot to soak beans, take meat out of the freezer, and so on. That's when you just throw up your hands and have oatmeal or sandwiches! It's real food, people get fed, and you move on.
I feel like that's a basic starting point for what you're trying to do. If you have any more questions, let me know and I'll try to answer the best I can, especially as you figure out what health changes you want to make as you plan.