Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year, New Food Budget

Last year we started out the year with a sizeable chunk of debt, and ended the year having paid it all off. Yay! Last night we met with our CPA to report our success and make sure we're on track for building up our savings and retirement. As he looked over our budgets, he commented that our grocery budget was over triple the budget he keeps for his family of six. Since we are also a family of six, he suggested that we should be able to cut our grocery budget somewhat, though perhaps not quite as low as his since their children are a bit younger than ours and they don't have anyone with special dietary needs like we do. I will admit that I am a terrible meal planner and shopper. It's not something I really like to spend my time doing, and so we have a lot of last-minute, "what's for dinner?" moments and the resulting dash to the store or the Chinese restaurant nearby...well, more than we should have anyway. (If I could make the Chinese food as good as it comes from the restaurant, then I wouldn't need to do that!!!) I can't imagine being able to feed our family on their budget of only $300 a month. WHAT??!! Last year we tried to keep it to $600 and failed miserably, so this year I decided to figure out what I'm doing wrong.

So, I called his wife up and asked her how she does it.

Here is a partial list of foods they eat and don't eat. She does almost all of her shopping at WinCo. She does not use coupons, unless they are the kind that are taped to the product she grabs off the shelf. She rarely buys processed foods, preferring to know exactly what is going into her family's meals.

  • Oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon
  • Cheerios or other sugar-free/low-sugar cereal
  • Pancakes from scratch
  • Eggs

  • Leftovers from previous dinners
  • Quesadillas (we usually don''t have these, since I try not to make two meals and G. is allergic to cheese)
  • Tuna

  • Yogurt (she buys whatever is cheapest, and lowest sugar)
  • Fruit (she mentioned apples at Winco for $2.88/5lb bag)
  • Cheese and Saltines (one of the few processed foods she buys)
  • Dried fruit & Soy Nuts (I would probably substitute sunflower seeds. Wish I could buy nuts, but G. is also allergic to them.)
  • Non-microwave popcorn
  • Hot chocolate (another exception to the rule)
  • Applesauce
  • Homemade cookies (makes them 1x a week)
  • Mandarin oranges are a special treat
  • Homemade Pizza (she has a great, easy recipe for the crust that can also be used for breadsticks)
  • Quesadillas (corn/flour tortillas)
  • Soups/Stews
  • Tacos
  • Chicken Potpie (one-crust on top)
  • Pasta (only whole wheat)
  • Baked Potatoes
  • Chili
  • French Dip
  • Flautas
  • Yakisoba
  • Chinese stir fry
I asked her what canned or prepackaged items she uses as well. Here's the list:
  • tomatoes
  • tomato sauce
  • tuna
  • beans
  • some fruit, not much
  • salsa
  • condiments/spices, of course
  • graham crackers
  • saltines
She also said that she likes The Food Nanny's approach to meals and tends to plan "themes" for each night of the week so that it's easier to decide what's for dinner. If Monday night is "Italian night", then that limits the list of possibilities to something that is manageable.

A couple of her guilty pleasures are Costco's rotisserie chicken and a special yogurt called something like "Tivoli".

I keep asking myself if the few specialty items I buy to keep life sane in a house with a toddler who has food allergies are really what's breaking the bank for us. Is it the Dino Buddies that I buy because he will eat them? Is it the little portable fruit cups? Is it the Kashi cereal bars? He doesn't reliably love all of those things, but they are a pretty good bet most of the time, and I hate to leave the house for a long shopping trip or to go out to eat without having these things in the diaper bag since it's hard to really know what's going into restaurant-made meals. For instance, after a lengthy conversation about G's allergies with the manager at a "Noodles & Co." I was able to figure out what menu item would be appropriate for G. Just as I was about to give him his first bite, the manager ran over and grabbed the dish, telling me that it had inadvertently been prepared in a pan which previously had a cream-based sauce in it. Most cross-contaminations are accidents, and you can never be too careful.

Assuming I could shave $400 off our grocery budget, that would be an additional $4800 a year to go into a savings of some kind. So, it's worth a try.

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