MyPlate on My Budget: We ate $1,300 in March

Throughout the month of March Jenny Bardsley of Teaching My Baby to Read took on the challenge of limiting her family’s food budget to only the USDA’s Thrifty Food Budget, about $560 for her family of four. That would have been challenge enough but she simultaneously attempted to feed them according to the USDA’s MyPlate daily nutritional guidelines. At the end of the month her results were mixed. A big part of the MyPlate guidelines had to be scrapped when her children flat out refused to eat a bite of any fish. Thus she abandoned the recommendation to eat fish twice per week. She also had to give up most of the gluten free cereal and snacks she personally enjoys. The family’s steady diet of nearly all organic foods shifted to mostly conventional and by the end of the month her refrigerator and freezer were nearly bare.

Jenny’s conclusion: “Could I follow the USDA thrifty food plan and feed my family the Choose MyPlate advised daily nutrients? The answer was yes, but it took a big toll on everyone.”

While Jenny was pinching every penny I supplied some of my own ideas for eating healthy on a budget including visiting the produce market and shopping in discount grocery stores. I didn’t commit to following the same limited spending allowance but I was curious about the specific breakdown of my family’s spending habits.

I track our spending using a free on-line software called Mint. It allows me separate expenses into many categories and even split individual transactions into multiple categories. For this investigation I split our regular Grocery category into Food and Non-Food. Anything edible was classified as Food, other items including those used for pet care, hygiene, household maintenance, or alcohol were classified as Non-Food. March was a little bit of a tricky month with two holidays and a television show to prepare for but every month seems to have a few extra events so I feel comfortable calling this a fair reflection of our normal spending pattern.

During March, in the Food category alone, we spent a grand total of $1,063.

Now let’s break the numbers down a little. $334.69 was spent to acquire a 1/8 share of a cow. I’ll tell you more about that adventure soon but I estimate this meat will last us 18 – 24 months. So far we have eaten only 1 of the 78 pounds of beef. For this exercise I am going to subtract all but $4.29 of the cost of the beef from our grand total.

The adjusted total for our March Grocery (Food) spending is $732.60. According to the USDA’s Cost of Food at Home for February 2013 our family’s spending lands between the Moderate and Liberal spending levels. I found this part of the exercise very encouraging. But there is more to our story…

We also ate out. A lot.

During the Month of March we logged 17 transactions in Mint that qualify as eating out. We managed to tick almost every box in the eating out category – we grabbed a couple quick lunches from the deli, ate an inexpensive dinner on nights I was “too tired” to cook, treated ourselves to a few family date nights, and treated friends and family to a few nicer meals. We also ended the month with a weekend away which included several meals in diners and restaurants.

In March we spent $581 eating away from home.

As encouraging as I view our grocery spending, I find our spending on meals away from home highly discouraging. We like to eat out a couple of times during the week but the hit to our bank account is a very real side effect.

Through our weight loss journey we have learned how to navigate a menu to make healthier choices and many of our meals out leave us with leftovers for lunch the day, or two, after we go out to eat. This does offset the cost per meal but it doesn’t reduce the total spending. AND even though we know how to make healthier choices we don’t always order the lightest option on the menu. Mr. Second Helpings has been juggling a lot of work stress. While eating out can be an immediate stress reliever, the frequency is taking a toll on his weight maintenance.

At the end of the month our pantry and freezer still had plenty of food which tells me we could have eaten several more full meals at home without much, if any, additional spending on groceries. I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy shopper. My frequent visits to the produce market and discount grocery store do reduce our grocery bill. After taking this more detailed look at where our food money is going I can see that it is time to make cooking meals at home most nights a higher priority, for the sake of our wallets and our waists.

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