Over the course of a month, we buy an astronomical amount of food. It takes a lot of food to provide 450 meals per month for our family of five. I wanted to show what we put in our grocery cart in a typical month to produce those 450 meals.
The typical articles I see on grocery shopping tend to be either “high end” or “low end”. On the high end, you see a lot of buzz words like organic, free range, grass fed, or local. The low end articles focus on bulk buying, couponing, or stretching a grocery dollar as far as possible.
The Root of Good’s grocery spending comes in somewhere comfortably in the middle of those two extremes. We don’t try to buy the absolute cheapest foods, but rather focus on buying a variety of foods that taste good and prove fairly nutritious overall. It seems to be a good compromise of cost, nutrition, and intrigue for us.
If we chose to keep grocery expenses to a bare minimum, gustational boredom would quickly set in. Our stomachs would soon betray us and demand more dining out (where exciting meals can be found in abundance!) and more prepared foods (yummy microwaveable entrees and toaster cuisine).
Putting our grocery cart under the microscope
I’ll admit to never paying much attention to the details of our grocery shopping. We definitely pay attention to prices and what we buy on an item by item basis. But I never felt the need to break it down any further than a monthly total “grocery” expense.
Why not? It’s a lot of work and I’m not convinced that knowing exactly what we buy would change what we buy. Information has a cost to collect, and the benefit from having that information seemed of low value.
In spite of that, I decided to buckle down, get over my laziness, and keep all my receipts for one month. I also photographed everything we purchased at the grocery store. The end result is that we are now more mindful of what we buy and how much we spend on different categories.
This post might come off as painfully mundane to some of you, but for others I hope it serves as a starting point on your quest to diversify what’s on your plate and save some money while you are at it. I’d also welcome tips on how we can improve on what we are buying to get more bang for the buck or cut costs without giving up the variety of what we buy.
At the bare minimum, I hope this post is interesting as an anthropological record of daily life for our family of five in the southeastern United States. I read a couple of beautiful photo-filled books a while back called “What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets” and “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats“ (skip Amazon, get them from the library!). Both books are a great cross cultural sampling of what people eat around the world. These books made me think about how lucky we are in America to have access to a variety of inexpensive and healthy foods (if you know where to look and how to shop and cook).
The groceries we bought
I categorized our purchases into the “basics” (dairy, grains, produce, protein, and seasoning), “small luxuries” (drinks, alcohol, and junk), and “household goods” (which aren’t really food at all).
Aldi and Walmart are both within 1.5 miles of our house and we drive to these stores (and have lots to carry back home with us). Food Lion and Dollar Tree are in our neighborhood, and we usually walk to these stores (<0.5 miles).
Here is the summary of our basics, small luxuries, and household goods:
One Month Of Groceries
|"SMALL LUXURIES" SUBTOTAL||106.33|
|TOTAL GROCERIES FOR 1 MONTH||555.82|
After gathering all this data and categorizing everything, I’m not too surprised with the results. We spent roughly 60% of the grocery budget on basics, 20% on small luxuries, and 20% on household goods. At $556, we spent slightly more than our long term average of $520/month, but that might be because our long term average is inching up due to inflation (CPI and number of mouths to feed).
It’s hard to know for sure whether our grocery spending is higher for this month since our grocery spending fluctuates significantly month to month depending on what’s on sale and whether we are hosting any big parties or holiday gatherings. That is why we track all of our spending closely with Personal Capital so we can keep tabs on our general spending trends over time. Looking at just the last six months, we are averaging closer to $500 per month on groceries. Spending $556 on groceries in one month isn’t out of the ordinary.
Here is a summary of all the basics we bought during one month. It’s a looong list.
Groceries: The Basics
|asiago cheese (block)||1||8 oz||3.49||3.49|
|butter spread||1||45 oz||1.99||1.99|
|cheddar cheese (grated)||1||1 lb||3.49||3.49|
|half and half creamer||1||32 oz||1.69||1.69|
|milk, 2%||1||1 gallon||3.45||3.45|
|milk, 2%||1||1/2 gal.||2.09||2.09|
|milk, 1% *||1||1 gallon||0||0|
|red velvet cake yogurt||1||6 oz||0.39||0.39|
|ricotta cheese||2||16 oz||1.79||3.58|
|sour cream||3||16 oz||1.29||3.87|
|whole milk mozzarella cheese||6||1 lb||3.69||22.14|
|yogurt (plain)||2||32 oz||1.79||3.58|
|bagels, cinnamon and raisin||1||6||20 oz||1.69||1.69|
|bagels, everything||3||6||20 oz||1.69||5.07|
|bagels, plain||3||6||20 oz||1.69||5.07|
|cereal - Honey Bunches of Oats||1||15.5 oz||1||1.00|
|cereal - Kix *||1||12 oz||0||0|
|flour - self rising||1||5 lb||1.55||1.55|
|French bread (sliced, from bakery)||1||16 oz||1.11||1.11|
|Italian bread (sliced, from bakery)||1||16 oz||1.11||1.11|
|lasagna (dry noodle)||6||9 oz.||0.66||3.96|
|lasagna noodles||1||1 lb||1.49||1.49|
|oatmeal (quick 1 minute)||1||42 oz||2.29||2.29|
|pasta (ABC shaped)||1||7 oz||0.43||0.43|
|ramen noodles (beef, 12 pk)||1||12||3 oz each||2.09||2.09|
|ramen noodles (oriental)||5||3 oz||0.2||1.00|
|ramen noodles (shrimp)||6||3 oz||0.2||1.20|
|spaghetti noodles||4||2 lb||1.49||5.96|
|tortillas (flour)||3||10||17.5 oz||1.19||3.57|
|wheat bread *||1||16 oz||0||0|
|white bread *||4||20 oz||0||0|
|artichokes (canned)||3||14 oz||1||3|
|artisan lettuce||1||4 heads||1.69||1.69|
|baby carrots (bagged)||6||1 lb||0.69||4.14|
|basil pesto (jar)||1||8.1 oz||2.78||2.78|
|black olives (canned)||2||6 oz wt.||0.99||1.98|
|broccoli crowns||1||1 lb||1.29||1.29|
|chipotle salsa (can)||1||7 oz||0.72||0.72|
|colored sweet peppers (fresh, small)||1||1 lb||1.49||1.49|
|grape tomatoes||3||1 pint||0.99||2.97|
|green cabbage||1.85||1.85 lb||0.49||0.91|
|guava paste||1||14 oz||0.98||0.98|
|multi colored bell peppers||5||3||1.99||9.95|
|pasta sauce (tomato-based, canned)||17||24 oz||0.94||15.98|
|peas (frozen)||3||16 oz||0.95||2.85|
|pickled jalapeno peppers (jar)||1||16 oz||1.49||1.49|
|pickled jalapenos (sliced)||1||12 oz||1||1.00|
|pickled jalapenos (sliced, canned)||1||28.2 oz||1.54||1.54|
|roma tomatoes||1.12||1.12 lb||0.99||1.11|
|russet potatoes||1||10 lb||2.29||2.29|
|salsa (medium)||4||24 oz||1.69||6.76|
|spinach (fresh)||2||9 oz||0.99||1.98|
|white cap mushrooms||6||8 oz||0.79||4.74|
|bacon bits||2||2.5 oz||1.49||2.98|
|beef - top round steak||2.62||2.62 lb||2.965||7.77|
|chicken breast tenders||13.36||13.36 lb||1.42||18.97|
|chicken breasts (boneless, skinless)||5.47||5.47 lb||1.69||9.24|
|eggs (large)||7||12||30 oz||1.86||13.02|
|genoa salami (deli sliced)||0.48||.48 lb||5.99||2.88|
|ground beef (85% lean)||1||1 lb||2.79||2.79|
|ground turkey (85% lean)||1||1 lb||1.69||1.69|
|hot dogs||4||1 lb||0.99||3.96|
|pepperoni (deli sliced)||0.49||.49 lb||5.99||2.94|
|polska kielbasa||3||14 oz||1.99||5.97|
|salmon (skinless, wild caught)||2||1 lb||3.99||7.98|
|sausage links (maple flavor)||4||6.4 oz||0.59||2.36|
|sliced pepperoni||2||7 oz||1.99||3.98|
|smoked ham sandwich meat (sliced)||1||1 lb||3.29||3.29|
|chili seasoning mix (hot and mild)||4||1.25 oz||0.49||1.96|
|cream of chicken soup (condensed)||2||10.5 oz||0.59||1.18|
|cream of mushroom soup (condensed)||4||10.5 oz||0.59||2.36|
|french fried onions||1||6 oz||1.99||1.99|
|garlic powder||1||5.5 oz||0.99||0.99|
|italian seasoning||1||1.35 oz||0.99||0.99|
|taco mix||3||1.0 oz||0.35||1.05|
* Note: The milk, cereal, and bread with $0 cost were gifts from family that had extra food. We give food to others, they treat us kindly in return.
How about those 33.67 pounds of bananas we bought in one month? Kids love those things and they are a healthy breakfast, snack or dessert. We bought a bunch at a slight discount toward the end of the month to make banana bread birthday cake for our two year old’s birthday party. We later found some off the shelf chocolate cakes that looked tastier than banana bread, so we ended up with almost 15 pounds of very ripe bananas. We still made some banana bread and ate a lot of smoothies over the next week.
We spent $18 on fruit bushes. I stuck this expense in the grocery category because we hope these bushes produce blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries in copious quantities in another year or two. One month after planting them, they are growing well and seem to be established nicely. Berries are ridiculously expensive at the store, so it won’t take more than a pint or two of each berry to pay for these bushes (which should produce for many years to come). If so, that will be a higher dividend yield than our stock portfolio!
Under the “dairy” category, you might notice we only drank 2.5 gallons of milk in one month (for a family of five). We get dairy in other forms like cheese, yogurt, and sour cream. No one in the family likes to drink glass after glass of milk.
Next up is our “small luxuries”. Fun stuff to eat or drink. Not always nutritious but generally delicious.
Groceries: "Small Luxuries"
|coconut juice (canned)||2||17.6 fl oz||1.08||2.16|
|cola (regular)||1||2 liter||0.69||0.69|
|juice boxes (100% juice)||2||8||4.3 oz||1.26||2.52|
|kiwi strawberry juice||1||64 oz||0.89||0.89|
|mango guava juice||1||64 oz||0.89||0.89|
|mango sparkling juice||2||750 ml||1.98||3.96|
|Liebfraumilch wine (castles are cool)||1||750 ml||3.99||3.99|
|sparkling rose wine (bubbly!)||1||750 ml||3.99||3.99|
|cake icing||2||16 oz||0.75||1.50|
|chocolate cookies (oreo style)||1||15.5 oz||1.79||1.79|
|chocolate crème cake||3||20 oz||2.99||8.97|
|donuts (bavarian crème filled)||1||6||1.5||1.50|
|donuts (from bakery)||1||13||29 oz||2.39||2.39|
|Easter chocolate figurines||1||8.8 oz||1.35||1.35|
|grape jelly||1||32 oz||1.59||1.59|
|Hershey's kisses||2||11 oz||1.43||2.86|
|jellybeans (Starburst)||3||14 oz||0.98||2.94|
|kettle style potato chips (barbeque)||1||8.5 oz||1.79||1.79|
|kettle style potato chips (jalapeno)||1||8.5 oz||1.79||1.79|
|lemon gelatin||1||3 oz||0.36||0.36|
|Lindt chocolate truffles (white choc.)||1||9 oz||2||2.00|
|M&Ms (plain)||1||11 oz||1.43||1.43|
|marshmallow "peeps"||2||10||3 oz||0.5||1.00|
|microwave popcorn||1||22||3.15 lb||5||5.00|
|mini chocolate eggs (Cadbury)||2||10 oz||1.43||2.86|
|orange gelatin||3||3 oz||0.35||1.05|
|peach gelatin||1||3 oz||0.36||0.36|
|peanut butter eggs (Reese's)||1||7.2 oz||1.43||1.43|
|potato chips (barbecue)||1||10 oz||1.49||1.49|
|potato chips (plain)||1||10.5 oz||1.49||1.49|
|potato chips (sour cream and onion)||1||10 oz||1.49||1.49|
|pretzel sticks||1||16 oz||1.29||1.29|
|strawberry preserves||1||12 oz||1||1.00|
|toffee ice cream bars||1||12||30 oz||1.99||1.99|
|tortilla chips - nacho cheese||2||11 oz||1.19||2.38|
|tortilla chips (plain)||1||13 oz||1.19||1.19|
|truffle chocolate eggs||1||5.29 oz||1.5||1.5|
|vanilla frosting||1||16 oz||1||1.00|
|vanilla ice cream||1||1.75 quart||1.99||1.99|
|veggie crisps (jalapeno)||1||4.5 oz||0.99||0.99|
|wheat thin crackers||1||10 oz||1.25||1.25|
|Whoppers robin eggs||3||10 oz||1||3.00|
|"SMALL LUXURIES" TOTAL||106.33|
We didn’t drink all nine bottles of wine in one month. There were still four or five left at month’s end. It’s easier to stock up at once and get a mix of different flavors. All wines were in the $3-4 range (here’s our take on wine). We like Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw “3 Buck Chuck” wines better than what we actually bought, but Trader Joe’s is so far away (almost three miles!). The wine with a castle on the front of it was pretty tasty at $4.
At $11, we didn’t spend a lot on drinks. We bought one soda for our son’s birthday party. We drink a few two liter sodas per month, and very infrequently drink juice. Most juice ends up as a mixer or in sangria.
Some of the junk food spending was for our son’s birthday party. A few bags of chips, the ice cream, some chocolate, and the three chocolate cakes were purchased for our guests. The large assortment of candy and chocolate was post-Easter clearance items that should last for many months to come (if we can keep it hidden from our kids and ourselves).
Next we have our household goods. This category catches everything that isn’t food like toiletries, personal hygiene and beauty supplies, medicine, diapers, paper products, and soaps, detergents and cleaning supplies.
Groceries: Household Goods
|air freshener (can)||2||8 oz||0.98||1.96|
|allergy med (Zyrtek generic)||3||14||0.88||2.64|
|chap stick (generic)||2||2||0.88||1.76|
|cough syrup||1||4 oz||1||1.00|
|dayquil tablets (generic)||1||8||0.88||0.88|
|diapers - size 5||3||62||11.83||35.49|
|dishwasher detergent (liquid)||2||75 oz||2.97||5.94|
|febreeze (generic)||1||33 oz||1||1.00|
|nasal decongestant tablets||1||24||0.88||0.88|
|nyquil/dayquil liquid (twin pack)||1||2||24 oz||9.42||9.42|
|nyquil-type softgel tabs (generic)||2||8||0.88||1.76|
|sensitive toothpaste (Colgate)||2||2 oz||0.94||1.88|
|teeth whitening treatment kit||1||7||14.97||14.97|
|toilet paper||1||9,216 sheets||10.76||10.76|
|ziplock freezer bags||1||40||1.99||1.99|
|ziplock sandwich bags||1||100||1.99||1.99|
These types of non-food items that we buy at the grocery store or Walmart seem to fit best in our budget as part of our grocery category. Some items are food related (coffee filters), others (like batteries) are not.
This list covers most of the stuff we buy routinely, plus our occasional shopping spree to restock the medicine cabinet after a particularly rough winter and spring cold and allergy season. Check out the generic Zyrtek we bought for $0.88 per box instead of $13 for the exact same thing in the name brand. Nice.
How did we do?
Compared to national averages, we did pretty awesome. The US Department of Agriculture reports average food costs for individuals and families. A family of five like ours is projected to spend between $700 per month for the “thrifty” food plan up to $1,400 per month for the “liberal” food plan.
At a total of $448 for food (ignoring the $108 spent on “household” goods), we spent only 64% of the “thrifty” food budget and a mere 32% of the liberal food budget. Take a look at all the fresh fruits and vegetables and stacks of meat and dairy goods we bought in one month. It’s hard to believe we are living on a fraction of what is considered “thrifty” by government standards.
We even loaded up on around six months worth of chocolate (thanks, post-Easter discounts!). That’s an example of buying non-perishable goods when the prices are low and consuming them over time. In any given month, we will find something at a steep discount and stock up. Finding things that we regularly consume in the clearance section is like winning the mini-lottery.
I pay close attention to prices, but rarely clip a coupon. In fact, zero coupons were clipped during the month of grocery shopping I’m showcasing in this article. I probably found a few attached to products in the grocery store and used those when the overall price of a given product was below what I normally pay. Otherwise I ignore coupons since they tend to take a ton of time to clip, sort, and use.
What types of meals do we make with all this food? Like many families, the same ten or fifteen meals make a routine appearance at our dinner table. In no particular order:
- spaghetti with marinara (and meat or meatballs and veggies)
- fettuccine with alfredo sauce (and salmon/shrimp and veggies)
- lasagna (homemade)
- pizza (homemade)
- roasted chicken or pork with rice and veggies
- seared beef or salmon with rice and veggies
- stir fry with rice and lo mein
- pad thai
- soup (chicken and veggie or pho)
- tacos, nachos, burritos, quesadillas
- honey ham
- chili (pork, beef, chicken)
- hot dogs
- philly steak, chicken, or sausage subs
- eggs and rice
- chicken, beef, pork, or fish curry
That’s what we typically have for lunches and dinners. There are a lot of variations within each of those recipes, so the diversity of meals is quite a bit larger. Reflecting back on the last five months, we also made spring rolls, egg rolls, empanadas, tamales, fried rice, and gumbo. Almost every meal includes meat, and purely vegetarian meals are rare.
Breakfasts are usually pretty simple and quick with bagels, toast, cereal and milk, fruit, yogurt or oatmeal. On the weekends we sometimes have a “good old fashioned” breakfast with waffles or pancakes, eggs, sausage or bacon. Or biscuits, gravy, ham or sausage, grits, and eggs.
I hope you enjoyed a snapshot of all the groceries we purchased in one month. In the next article, I share our frugal grocery shopping strategies.
Does your grocery cart look like my grocery cart? Anything we are doing wrong? How can I optimize my shopping even more?
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