Darling Dollars: Taming Our Food Budget

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Five Common Sense

I wanted to write a series of posts about finances and give them a unified name. Is Darling Dollars to cutesy?

It is, isn’t it.

I don’t care. I’m going with it. 

Now let’s talk about food budgets. My husband and I have committed to buckling down and getting out of debt in the next ten years (I’m talking paying off the mortgage, student loans, ALL THE DEBT) and one place I know I can do better is our food budget, so I’m making a plan.

Step One: Set a Budget

This would seem to be obvious, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t really had a budget for the last year or so. I’ve just sort of…bought stuff. It turns out that financial experts frown upon this method. 

So our food budget is now $25 per person a week, or $100 a week for our family of four. 

To some of my readers this might seem like a lot of money to be able to spend on food. To others it might seem ridiculously restrictive. We’re all in different places financially, and for my family, this is what works.

Step Two: Shop the Pantry

I’m not going to speak for everyone, but *most* people I know have a lot of dry, canned and frozen food they forget to use. I’m totally guilty of this. I hoard beans. Canned beans, dry beans, black beans, pinto beans, I hoard them. 

So now before I go shopping, I’m seeing what I have on hand and being honest with myself about whether I even need to shop. 

Step Three: Flexible Menu Planning

I refused to menu plan before I went shopping for years because I tend to buy what’s on sale and then figure out what to do with it. The flaw in that system is that I was buying too many things on impulse. So now, I’m organizing a flexible meal plan based on what I already have on hand, and shop accordingly, but if I find something great on sale, then I change my plan accordingly. 

For example, I might plan to make pulled pork one day, but then I get to the store and find out I can get a hundred chicken thighs for a nickel. So pulled pork gets axed from that week’s menu and I’ll rotate in Chicken Adobo. 

However, what I’m experiencing is that my pre-planned menu is rarely being changed because for the most part, I know how much the stores I go to charge for things and “deals” are few and far between in 2016. 

Step Four: Prep Ahead of Time 

Another stumbling block in our food budget was eating out. Sometimes I’d get busy and the day would get away from me, and then poof, it’s dinner time and I don’t have enough time to cook the roast I’d planned to make that night, and my husband says the magic word “Taco” and then we spend $20 buying everyone tacos. So in order to ensure that we don’t end up spending almost a quarter of our food budget on emergency tacos, I’m doing some food prep in advance now.

A few things I do (or have done, it’s all very flexible) are:   immediately (right after we get home from the store) cook a pork shoulder roast in the crock pot, just to have shredded and ready in the refrigerator. Bake a whole bunch of potatoes or sweet potatoes. Get out my food processor and slice and shred vegetables and cheese I’ll be using during the week. Cook a large quantity of rice. Brown a couple pounds of ground beef.

Of course I don’t do all the same things every week, but when I have an “oops” day where suddenly it’s 7pm and I forgot to make dinner, being able to pull a prepared protein some veggies and a starch out of the refrigerator is a godsend for both my sanity and our budget. And I’m so prone to “oops” days that I’ve actually started planning my weekly dinner menu so I can prep most of it ahead of time. (I’ll share my exact menus in another post so you can see what I mean.)

Step Five: No Matter What, NO Shopping Once We’ve Spent Our Budget

We all do it. Run to the store for that one ingredient we forgot to get on shopping day. Text our partner to bring home a box of pasta on their way home from work. Change our mind about what we’d planned for dinner and go buy something we’re “in the mood” for. 

My family has a special talent for pretty much doubling what we spend on food this way. 

This is where necessity becomes the mother of invention. You don’t have noodles? Make something that doesn’t require noodles. No taco seasoning? Then I start googling diy taco seasoning, or use some salsa, or just deal with non-taco seasoned beef. Get creative. It saves us a fortune. The less time you spend at the store, the less money you will spend. 

Bonus Step: Buy in Bulk

Last of all, after getting out of the habit in the past couple years, I’ve resumed buying everything in bulk I can. Right now I get grass fed ground beef from Zaycon Fresh, and then get all my baking supplies and dried foods (so raisins, nuts, flours, pastas, rice, beans, chocolate chips, cocoa powder, cereal, etc, etc) from the bulk bins at WinCo. For us, that’s our local, affordable bulk food place. I try to add a few pantry staples to my grocery list every week so I can bake up a batch of cookies, bread or brownies spontaneously any time.  Look for an affordable place to buy in bulk where you live, not everyplace has WinCo, and not all bulk bins are affordable. We also place a big order of unsprayed blueberries from a local farm once a year and freeze half and make jam out of the rest. 

We are also experimenting with some micro-homesteading, so we have laying hens for eggs and just planted a small kitchen garden. We are hardly experienced in these areas though, so I’m not including these as money saving ideas until I have a better idea of whether we are actually saving money or not. 

What are your favorite ways to tame your food budget? Leave a comment below so everyone can learn!

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About Kelley

Hi! I'm Kelley. Real foodie and crunchy mom to a teenager and a toddler. My husband and I live in Southern California.