This month, my family is doing the MyPlate on My Budget challenge. Can my family of four follow the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines and also stick to their thrifty budget as defined by the USDA Food Plan: Cost of Food Report?
For my family of two adults and two children, this means spending $158.30 on food. To help simplify things, I’m using a two-week sample menu plan available on ChooseMyPlate.gov.
Last week, I shared the story of my epic shopping trip at the grocery store, purchasing the 109 items needed to make the first week of food. The final total was $182.45, which amounted to $24.15 over budget. When my family saw the wide assortment of groceries I brought home, they had questions. Would we really be able to drink four gallons of milk in one week? Just how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would we have to eat?
As the primary chef in the house, my concern was the amount of labor involved in preparing 21 meals from scratch, without conveniences like baby carrots or skinless chicken thighs to help me out. I was also worried about nutrition. Would we eat enough fruits and vegetables? Theoretically MyPlate is based on the concept that every meal should be made up of half fruits and vegetables. But the USDA considers potatoes, corn and frozen juice concentrate as produce. Luckily none of us are diabetic.
The first night of cooking, the meal plan had me bake four pounds of chicken that would be used for three different meals. Along with a portion of the honey-lemon chicken, I served frozen peas and corn, and brown rice pilaf for dinner, plus a homemade chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk for dessert. Everything was surprisingly tasty, and our challenge was off to a great start.
My fears about the plan requiring too much time in the kitchen were unfounded because the recipes were easy and we sometimes ate leftovers for lunch. Frozen vegetables are in their own way a convenience food, and I learned a delicious new way to cook them. Lay out the vegetables on a foil-lined sheet plan, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast in a 500-degree oven for 26 minutes.
But not everything about the meal plan made sense. The fish dinner, for example, called for couscous with peas and onions plus a white dinner roll. Two starches in one meal? It felt like a time warp to the 1950s. A few days later, when it was time to serve lentil stew, we hit a mountain of starch. The menu called for lentils, brown rice and a slice of whole wheat bread.
My teenage son loved the plan because almost every meal included a glass of milk. The rest of us hit milk overload pretty fast. By day seven, we’d only drunk two of the four gallons of milk. We also had a dozen eggs left, a package of tofu and two bags of frozen vegetables, but had run out of fresh produce.
At the end of week one, my family agreed that so far, our challenge was a success — except the part about being $24.15 over budget. By that measure, we’d already failed.