Grocery Budget for a Whole-Foods loving family
May 23, 2013 5:51 PM   Subscribe

We're a family of four with two girls, ages 5 and almost 2. Need to keep grocery budget around 100/week. We like to buy organic fruits, veggies, and milk. How do you do it? Examples, lists, all helpful.

We've been averaging 250/week until recently, when it's been down to about 150. I am a full-time parent and do most of the cooking, usually cooking 3-4 times a week. I love cooking and trying new recipes, but one child is very picky and likes things like packaged yogurt and breakfast bars. I used to shop exclusively at Whole Foods, and would like to continue to buy fruits, veggies, and milk products there, but am open to traditional grocery stores for other items. We eat lots of veggie meals but also some chicken, fish, and occasional red meat.
posted by percor to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
If you have one, a CSA can be a great deal. Ours gives discounts for days worked on the farm.

Have you considered keeping chickens for eggs?
posted by Nickel Pickle at 5:53 PM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you considered raising (and freezing/preserving) vegetables, herbs and fruit that would grow well in your area?
posted by carmicha at 6:03 PM on May 23, 2013

Look into a local farmers' market. It's often significantly cheaper than Whole Foods, particularly at the end of the day when vendors are trying to get rid of stock they don't want to drag back home. Also, if you visit the same stands week after week, it's been my experience that extra produce will begin to make its way into your bag.
posted by justjess at 6:18 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in a Whole Foodsless part of the world and other respondents will be as well, so maybe flesh out why the love for a store I know is nicknamed "Whole Paycheque"? Can you buy from a co-op? There's the above-mentioned CSA option but there are other grocery-buying schemes out there too -- they can be hard to find; try asking around local social media networks.

Just stop buying the breakfast bars and junky yogurts without apology or fuss. The picky kid should be left to default to whatever he or she can pull out of the fruit bowl or produce drawer if the meal is rejected.

I buy large amounts of produce through a co-op (I am not a believer in "organic" but they do offer a local-n-organic box even though their slant is more non-profit than fancy) and have the day or two after that scheduled purchase set aside for cooking. I have whole meals in the freezer, I have "ingredients" for meals like mirepoix and sofrito, I have lots of kiddie-sized tubs of frequently requested soups and pastas and stuff. I make the produce co-op purchase at the same time as I make a Costco run for bulk dairy.

Will It Freeze? and Putting Food By are nice resources if you are new to preserving.

I make some of my own things that people don't always make; The Country Kitchen is a nice read for that -- I really recommend books, books that have been around for a while, for learning about food. Once you have a solid grounding, then go ahead and peruse blogs for ideas -- but it is just not worth wasting an afternoon and many dollars in ingredients making candy based on somebody's untested recipe that just happened to result in a pretty photo and thus became web-worthy. There are some economics that do not work well for DIY -- it is usually cheaper to buy mayonnaise, for example -- but there are some places where it does work out very well (vanilla extract, fancy chocolates/baked goods) to make your own.

Try mail order off the web for extracts/flavourings/couverture/spices/etc to perk up what you preserve; the price difference between on-line and supermarkets can be huge. When in a regular supermarket, don't overlook the discounted stuff -- some places sell dreadful stuff in their sale sections, and some places sell first-rate yoghurt not at all troubled by nearing its expiry for a fifth of the price (turn it into popsicles) and other useful dirt-cheap what-not.
posted by kmennie at 6:20 PM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

i was a picky eater as a child. nothing got me to eat something i didn't want to eat. but i think that i would have accepted, for example, plain yogurt with jam mixed in instead of individual packaged fruit yogurts. especially if i got to put in as much jam as i wanted. :)
posted by katieanne at 6:22 PM on May 23, 2013

Response by poster: We've got several CSAs and farmer's markets in the area (we're in Indianapolis), and those are good options for spring and summer. Most limit their runs to those times. Raising chickens isn't an option because of our HOA. I like Whole Foods because the produce quality is much better than the organics at Meijer or Kroger, the two major grocery chains near us. I'm fine purchasing canned goods and grains elsewhere.
The picky kid is good with things like plain yogurt mixed with jam, and used to love all fruit, but has become even more limited in her consumption.
posted by percor at 6:28 PM on May 23, 2013

What about making your own yogurt? It's apparently very easy. I first learned of it from The Frugal Girl's blog. But there are many 'recipes' out there.

I also like farmers markets and farm stands. There's one near my house that is mostly 2nd's produce - not perfect supermarket variety, but still great (and awesomely cheap!)

Check out the bulk section of your supermarkets for possible savings on items you want to try, or when you only need a little.

I love freezing - I'll freeze extra meals when we're tired of the leftovers. Freeze bread when you can buy 2 loaves for a good deal. Freeze strawberries and blueberries - I love them in my yogurt (with honey) and cereal throughout the year. I'm just now finishing my stash in time for the 2013 crop.

My last money-saving groceries tip is simple - shop when you need to. Do you need to shop every week automatically? I'm currently living out of my pantry and freezer, challenging myself to use up everything before I go shopping (I might make a quick trip for fruit or milk, but not do a whole shopping trip). The longer you wait until you go grocery shopping, the money sits in your pocket (as long as you're not just subbing with eating out!)
posted by hydra77 at 6:41 PM on May 23, 2013

Honestly, if you can feed a family of 4 for $150 a week and that includes trips to Whole Foods, I'm impressed. That place really does deserve the nickname Whole Paycheck. I think the best way you'll be able to cut down on your budget is to try to grow as much as you can yourself. Look into square foot gardening if you want to learn a good way to grow things without a ton of space.
posted by markblasco at 6:42 PM on May 23, 2013

Do you have a Trader Joe's nearby? For years I just didn't get Trader Joe's but sometime last year I picked up a fearless flyer and it really helped me figure out what to look for and how to shop there.
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:42 PM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

This may be diametrically opposed to what you're trying to do, but I am on a fairly militaristic food budget, and I spend the first forty in the Walmart grocery section and the last ten on enjoyable frou-frou locally sourced things at Whole Foods. I would think carefully about what it is you want in terms of the outcome of stuff in your pantry and think about where you can most frugally achieve that outcome, ignoring the actual shopping experience. I say this because I often do the Walmart/Whole Foods shopping back to back and this makes it really become clear that a huge part of what you are paying for is the psychological experience of buying your food in a classy, nice herbal-smelling atmosphere where the employees are willing to kow-tow to you a bit and where your purchasing seems to have an ethical ambiance and all the other people around you are upper middle class. Don't get me wrong - I love it, but it is a big part of what you are paying for. You can find Nutella and Stoneybrook Farms Organic Baby stuff at lots of different places. Ditto for organic fruits and veggies.
posted by mermily at 6:43 PM on May 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

If you have the time and inclination there is value in shopping several different stores.

For example: Costco for organic frozen burritoes and goat cheese, organic milk, shrimp perhaps; Trader Joes for anything more prepared or processed, frozen veg, canned food without bpa plastic lining, nuts, chocolate; Aldi for organic: spinach, apples, potatoes, and non-organic Fage yogurt; local for what's in season though you may want to drive to a cheaper area as I notice here that the more affluent area "farm markets" are way more $ than the more rural farm markets; Asian Market for lower pesticide veg like turnips and radishes and anything Asian; maybe a local grocery store for sales; Whole Foods for bulk, organic bread (cheaper than Pepperidge Farm at Target), sale meats and bulk-price meats (over 3 lbs), non-nitrate bacon/pepperoni, organic celery, eggs, sales and special buys; Target for frozen items, packaged yogurt.
posted by RoadScholar at 6:44 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since you're already at $150 a week, it's a little bit hard to say where exactly to cut to get down to $100 a week.

I would start by writing down everything you purchase for a week and exactly what it costs; it will be annoying to do, but if you don't really have a sense of where you can cut a couple dollars here and there, it will really help; perhaps you are spending too much on produce and need to pick cheaper vegetables, perhaps you are spending too on breakfast bars and should try to make your own.

Spend some time calculating prices. What's the difference between a prepackaged yogurt and dividing up a large container of yogurt? Can you afford to get the prepackaged ones/ how often can you afford them?

Specific ideas - if you're already at $150 a week you probably know most of these, but just throwing them out there: a head of lettuce instead of pre-washed; dried beans instead of canned; frozen berries instead of fresh; no prepared food items at all.

You could also consider that some foods might be okay to buy non-organic - here's a list of the foods with the least amount of pesticide residue. And personally, I prefer to buy milk from hormone-free cows, but I don't need it to be organic - it's something to consider if your family drinks a lot of milk, given the very large price difference between organic / non-organic.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:48 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would say $150 for four beings is pretty good considering the shopping at WF.

I would focus on building your pantry up: beans, rice, other grains if you dig on them. Shop for these at Asian or other ethnic markets in your area. Buying rice in bulk at WF can run you like 1.00/lb or more, but we've found similar quality items for almost half that if we're willing to spring for a big bag of it.

Once every 3 months or so, we do a pretty big "pantry run" and load up on that. I've punched it out, and buying in bulk, and shopping at ethnic markets saves us about 20% on those items. Since they make their way into a million dishes we make, it works really well.

And who knows, you might find out your kids are fucking bananas for papusas, and you'll save a million dollars by makin them by hand with meal masa. Our picky eater lost. His. Shit. When we started making them. You never know with little ones.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:02 PM on May 23, 2013

Can we see a sample grocery list or receipt or something? That might help with specific suggestions.
posted by hishtafel at 7:07 PM on May 23, 2013

I am a version of you! I am working on these same issues, stay home, 2 preschoolers, trying to save all the money.

1. Buy a chest freezer. Find a local farm and buy bulk meat, fill freezer.
2. Garden, especially freezable veggies (or canning but kids don't seem to like canned stuff).
3. Find a pick your own farm to supplement fruits in season. Also freeze fruits and make lots of apple sauce for canning. Make your own jam this way too--I freeze mine.
4. Buy bulk staples from amazon or costco. I have 37 lb of organic flour coming from subscribe and save Amazon in a week. I bought a used bread maker. Now I save $ from all the fancy breads I used to purchase. And w bulk cheese I can make my own pizzas now too, etc. Bulk nuts, bulk popcorn, bulk butter, bulk organic tofu (costco), bulk granola bars. Subscribe and save is 20% off if you get 4 or more items at a time at amazon.
5. Find a local milk, egg, and yogurt vendor--mine delivers and is cheaper than my whole foods equivalent.
6. Our life savings goes to fage Greek yogurt. Dash brand is coming out w a Greek yogurt maker, in a week I think. I will be first in line at $50 and hope it saves me.
7. Less meat, more lentils and beans. Canned fish from trader joes, eg, salmon, make into salmon balls. Kids sometimes like ball-shaped food, I'm learning.
8. Dried beans, cook in large batches, and freeze in their own juices, eg, chickpeas, as others have said.
9. Generally, trader joes instead of whole foods.
10. Eventually picky eaters will come around if their favorites just don't exist at home anymore (at least this is what I keep telling myself)

Feel free to mail me, I am happy to go on in detail about the ways I'm finding to cut the grocery budget--it is definitely still a work in progress for me.
posted by rabidsegue at 7:09 PM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

It would be worth it to buy a deep freeze if you are able and stock up on organics from Costco. Even if you can not buy a deep freeze costco can save a disciplined shopper a lot of money. Generally speaking Costco organics cost 50% or LESS than Whole Foods for organics( the tradeoff being you generally have to buy giant sizes). I try to make a Costco run at least every other week, and I figure I save at least 150 a month (family of three) vs buying at Whole Foods, which is my other source of groceries. Best way to do it is to take a leisurely tour of Costco noting what they have that you regularly consume. Then, always buy it there in the future if you are able. We do waste a bit of food due to the quantities involved, but we could waste 20% of it and it would still represent significant savings.
posted by jcworth at 7:18 PM on May 23, 2013

If you are buying packaged things, be very aware of the price. Ex. Chobani yogurt is always 20-30 cents more expensive at WF than my local supermarket.
Also, I find that if one place is having a sale on Driscoll strawberries, the others are too, and the less froufrou of the store (eg Meijer) the better the deal.
posted by raccoon409 at 8:22 PM on May 23, 2013

Have you considered keeping chickens for eggs?

It will cost you about $600 to build a nice coop. Sure, you can get a bunch of eggs every day in the summer, but at $2 a dozen you will have to replace your coop by the time you make your money back.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:39 PM on May 23, 2013

Does your HOA say no gardens?
posted by brujita at 10:49 PM on May 23, 2013

If you're handy at all you can make a coop yourself out of scrap wood - just make sure the wood isn't treated with nasty chemicals.

Instead of buying breakfast bars and yoghurt make them yourself. You can make lovely flapjacks from oats and nuts that you buy in bulk. Make yogurt in a thermos and add whatever flavour jam you like to individual portions. This way with these types of foods you'll know what's in them and then contain a lot less junk than the store bought versions. Not everything from whole foods is actually very good for you, and picky kid will eventually adapt if you don't cave.

Change the meals you prepare to be based more around pulses and grains. If you eat meat use it as a flavouring rather than eating big chunks of it. A couple of great cookbooks for saving money are More with Less and The Pauper's Cookbook.
posted by hazyjane at 11:05 PM on May 23, 2013

Rabidsegue you can make Greek yoghurt at home without spending fifty bucks if you'd rather save the money. Just make regular yogurt through whatever method you prefer and then strain through something like cheesecloth or a coffee filter.
posted by hazyjane at 11:11 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some good advice I got once was:
- buy good quality products for the cheap, bulk stuff, like grains, pulses, pasta, canned tomatoes
- buy cheap cuts of meat and make stews rather than steaks and roasts
- always buy what's in season and on sale in the vegetable/fruit department
- serve three or four courses, mediterranean style, balanced so the weight is on the cheaper pasta, rice or soup, with smaller servings of meat/fish and something fruity (fresh or preserved for dessert)
- drink water or tea with all meals

Following this advice, I've been on a really low budget at times. We had a lot of hearty soups, with both pasta and beans in them. And soups with a base of potato and then some seasonal greens. Also I used leftovers for little appetizers which made us feel rich (four courses!). We had porridge for breakfast, with cinnamon on top for a little edge. Or home-made bread, if I was feeling very energetic.

nthing what everyone is saying about the breakfast bars and yogurt - they will take up far too much of your budget - they must go.
posted by mumimor at 12:19 AM on May 24, 2013

Not everything that is processed is so bad, and the trick is to steer pickier kids toward healthier alternatives.

My daughter is almost five and loves these organic veggie fruit mix things that have no added sugar (and who cares that they are "designed" for babies). We buy them at Target (Sprouts also sells them)!

It's crazy how much sugar is in most yogurts but some brands are better than others. You could look at Green Valley and Stonyfield, or just mix a little honey into any brand of plain yogurt that you like.
posted by Dansaman at 1:28 AM on May 24, 2013

These three posts on grocery shopping and meal planning by Cage Free Family may be of interest to you... pretty intense, but I have no doubt the process works!

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Meal Planning Steps 1 & 2, Meal Planning Step 3

At the bottom of the website are labels to filter the posts - food, nutrition, etc...
Mr. Money Mustache has lots to say about groceries (there's a couple posts), and I'm sure there's lots of advice in the forums too.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:35 AM on May 24, 2013

When you say you're 'cooking 3-4 times per week', what are you eating the rest of the time? Do you mean that you cook extra and eat leftovers or frozen meals (that you'd already cooked), or are you eating out?

(I'm finding this thread intriguing because there is no way I could feed 4 people on that budget and still eat fresh food...not sure how much of that is a function of prices where I live, and how much of it is my lack of budgeting skills.)
posted by Salamander at 3:19 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

You should take a look at The Peaceful Mom's $125 Budget Weekly Menu blog series. It might give you some useful ideas. She feeds a family of 6 with that, so I'd imagine you could get even lower.
posted by belladonna at 6:07 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I work at a small grocery store in Portland, Oregon. I haven't worked there long enough to pick up all the tricks, but here's what I've noticed. The more processed or labor intensive the food is, the more expensive it tends to be.

So kombucha, for example, is expensive because it's a processed product (fermented beverage) made with labor-intensive ingredients (sugar and tea). Same for cookies. Meat and dairy are expensive because first you have to feed the animal and then you have to butcher it or wait for it to give birth and then milk it and keep the meat/dairy cold. Eggs, you have to feed the chicken. Oil is processed.

Carrots are one of the best deals we sell. An individual organic carrot at our store costs about twenty cents. A person can walk off with a huge basket full of vegetables and spend under $20. The mother who comes in with her two children and buys a week's worth of groceries for under $100 buys a LOT of fruits and vegetables.
posted by aniola at 10:49 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's some cheap foods I like:

Soup is genius. It's that thing I've discovered that I can do with all those cheap dried beans and grains etc. from the bulk section. And all the leftover vegetables. Poof! Food!


PB&J. If you *enjoy* cooking, you could get in the habit of baking bread. Or bake several at once and freeze the extras so they last a week or two. My partner keeps a sourdough and uses the leftovers to make things like crepes and crumpets, which are surprisingly easy as it turns out. It does require a bit of routine, but if you like cooking, it's well worth it once you get going. I fill a bucket with nine pounds of peanut butter once every couple months and keep a jar full of peanut butter in the fridge. This way we don't ever run out, which is good because PB is cheap. PB&Fruit when fruit is in season. Less processed = cheaper. PB&J is a really cheap way to keep him fed.
posted by aniola at 11:02 AM on May 24, 2013

If you're eating organic to avoid pesticides, it seems some fruits and vegetables don't incorporate pesticide residues into their flesh like others do, having skins or rinds that are natural barriers. You can save a bit of money by buying those in non-organic versions and washing and peeling them and saving your organic purchases for the ones that soak it up more. There seem to be plenty of lists out there of which foods to buy organic and non-organic that are accessible via Google, so I'll leave it to you to decide which of them come from sources you trust.

(Note: we merrily consume non-organic foods with gusto in our household; I'm merely passing on what I've heard as I haven't done the research to know which of those sources to trust.)
posted by telophase at 11:29 AM on May 24, 2013

I really just try to buy just bacon, fresh produce, and the occasional six pack or bulk spice from Whole Foods - I think that the majority of their options can be acquired from other grocery stores for much cheaper cost. Things like flour, aluminum foil, honey - get those at a Kroger, or better yet, at a farmers market. Trader Joes is good for things like cheese and yogurt and wine and flowers and frozen stuff, but can be more expensive and lower in quality for non-banana produce, spices and sauces. Buy meat as infrequently as you can stand, and only when it’s on sale.

Also, only buy organic stuff if it has a distinguishable difference in flavor. I’m talking about the difference between organic and non-organic grapes, which is much more distinguishable than the difference between organic and non-organic oranges.

Finally, buy more frozen fruit for the summer. Frozen fruit as a snack rules!
posted by oceanjesse at 11:55 AM on May 24, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone! I'm not marking favorites or best answers because they are all favorites and best answers. Great ideas and solutions.
posted by percor at 7:01 PM on May 24, 2013

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