Only a few bucks for groceries?

The other night while giving haircuts to my 5 guys, I watched the documentary Food, Inc. Have you watched it yet?  Very interesting.  Several times during the movie I found myself riled up and talking back to the commentators.

A low-income family was shown walking through the grocery store surveying choices, and declaring that things like broccoli are more expensive than  potato chips and coke.  The claim was that people on a limited budget have no real choice but to skip healthy food and buy junk.

I was more than a little peeved to realize that plenty of people buy that argument.  Sure, fresh blackberries are going to set you back more than generic potato chips, and the chips will provide you with more calories.  But there are so *many* good affordable foods to be found at the grocery store.

If I was needing to REALLY maximize my grocery dollars, here’s what I’d pick up at the store:

  • carrots, cabbage, onions, potatoes, garlic, spinach, apples and oranges– These produce items are versatile, vitamin-rich, and tend to be affordable year round
  • rice, beans, oatmeal, pasta– versatile, affordable, filling protein and carbs
  • flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, yeast, vanilla, cornmeal– basic baking supplies
  • a few basic seasonings such as chili powder, basil, cinnamon (most affordable in Mexican food section of the grocery store, or at dollar store)
  • tomato sauce, popcorn (not microwave), oil, vinegar
  • milk, butter or margarine, eggs
  • block cheddar, ground beef, peanut butter (use in small quantities)

Notice what these foods all have in common?  Except for the pasta they are almost all single-ingredient foods. The more items in your cart that consist of a single item, the more you’ll save (just don’t overdo the meat and cheese.)  Yes, that means you’ll need to cook a bit.   But you’ll also be saving money and eating well.

Here’s a partial list of what you could make with the above items:

BREAKFASTS:  oatmeal, scrambled eggs, french toast, pancakes, omelets

MAIN DISHES: pizza, spaghetti, mac and cheese, vegetable beef soup, potato chowder, biscuits and gravy, peanut butter sandwiches, spinach quiche

SIDE DISHES:  bread, rolls, biscuits, cabbage slaw, carrot sticks, spinach salad.

SNACKS: peanut butter cookies, yeast bread, cornbread, fruit, popcorn, pretzels, cinnamon rolls


Good eating, eh?  What items do you think are frugal-kitchen essentials?  If you’re interested in a more detailed discussion of affordable food, plus recipes, check out FAMILY FEASTS FOR $75 A WEEK.

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  1. Thanks for this. I bookmarked it as a reminder to intersperse those items into our diet more often. Healthy + inexpensive = great combo!

  2. You are absolutely right, Mary. However, I found myself thinking about a lot of the low-income families I knew in South Central LA, and I think one of the main reasons they did not follow the tips you give here is that they had NO time–they were almost never home. They needed all their food to be pre-made and portable. The children I worked with in the inner-city schools always ate two meals a day away from home and sometimes three.

    While you can be thrifty and still eat healthfully, it does cost to be healthy in our society–money and time–and the only way to spend less money and still eat healthfully is to spend the time planning, learning to cook, and then actually cooking. It’s time well-spent in my opinion, though.

    Btw… I did see Food, Inc, and I loved it!

  3. One of the most important things to remember is how important it is to make sure what you eat is good for your body and you get the daily recommended minimums of fruits, veg, calcium rich foods etc. I eat very healthily for about 25% of what friends spend on food and yet every day make sure I get 3 fruit, 3 veg, 2-3 sources of protein, 3 calcium rich foods. Cheap does not need to mean unhealthy but a lot of people still don’t really understand what it means to eat healthily!

  4. I agree with you fully. I loved that documentary. It changed our lives. Now I make everything from scratch. However, the part about the family eating junk because that was all they could afford really upset me, too. You are so right, just fill your pantry with the basic staples and watch what all you can make and fully enjoy.

  5. Though I enjoyed most of that movie, I too was irritated by the mentality that cheap food is only junk food. Completely agree with you!

  6. I FULLY agree with you.
    And if you spend a little time watching sale items, all the above could be even more affordable.
    We only buy full kernal popcorn when it is B1G1, same as tomato sauce. More bang for your buck!

  7. I absolutely agree with your sentiment, but please allow me to go one step further. In urban communities, there is often a lack of grocery stores with fresh produce — families without cars are often dependent on corner stores who only sell over-processed food. These families, however, do live on bus routes. I live in Baltimore and there are a few year-round farmers markets. Many vendors accept food stamps and nearly all prices are lower than regular grocery stores. What is missing is the attitude that it can be done with planning. I realize low income people are busy — WHO ISN’T?? We all have to make sacrifices and establish priorities. I am an urban teacher who works with high poverty kids — my families are resilient and resourceful. We need to empower them to take better care of their families, not accept the status quo for fear of insulting them. We’re not doing them any favors.

  8. Amen Mary. Thanks for this great post. I would add canned tomatoes, lentils and celery to your list. While celery isn’t that nutritious, I use it frequently with recipes that call for carrots. Plus, celery and pb is a great snack!

    BTW, with spring here, how about a new recipe for aspargus, strawberries or rhubarb? I’ve loved everything I’ve ever made of yours and am ready to greet spring. PLEASE? 🙂

  9. Excellent post!

    I’ve been eating healthy foods my entire adult life. My mother lived for junk food, and I guess I rebelled. We buy our veggies and fruits at a local (inexpensive) produce store. There’s plenty of bargains to be found.

    We’re not on a strict budget, but I still like to get the best value from my food dollars.
    And it does help if you like to cook. And I do.

    I hope your list helps out in at least a few kitchens.

  10. i enjoyed the movie & that section of it bothered me too! It just left a hopelessness that seemed unnecessary to me. one dish that came to my mind while watching the movie that is not only crazy cheap, but something you can cooking a crock pot or batch cook & eat all week is beans & rice. & using different beans & different seasonings & adding different veggies (i really like to toss in finely chopped greens right before serving, b/c my family doesn’t like greens & they don’t notice them so much like that) adds variety.

  11. This is a good post for people who have this argument. I remember in college (I was a home economics/food and nutrition major) talking about this very thing in one of my classes. If more people were educated about making better food choices, I think they would find their food costs going DOWN. 🙂

  12. I think it’s important, as Bethany points out, to look at the choices through the actual lived experience of the folks that are making them.

    First, one way to approach this access. I dare anyone to go and find even half of the ingredients that we’re advocating in the average “ghetto” grocery store. Remember, that most folks living in the hood do not have cars. They walk or ride the bus. I lived in such a neighborhood doing ministry for three years. We had to drive 1/2 hour to a grocery store to buy these type of items. A single block of cheddar at “Ghetto Vee” (the store we could walk or take the bus to) was $4. That same block of cheddar at the have-to-drive-to-it store? $2. The same held true for vegetables, fruits and other staples–though finding any vegetables or fruits was nearly impossible, anyhow.

    Another way to look at this is through the lens of class as culture. For example, I worked as a staff for InterVarsity for several years. We sent our students on Urban Projects almost every summer. In the early years of LA UP, students were living in apartments and were given a budget equivalent to working minimum wage jobs. The goal was to help them understand the struggles and tensions of living in an urban environment. But what did they do? Exactly what you recommend. They ate rice and beans, bought inexpensive single ingredients and cooked. If they really wanted to buy frozen pizza or ice cream, they waited for a sale or saved up two weeks of budgeting to do this.

    Simultaneously, the St. Louis UP director was visiting UP’s and making decisions about how to set up his project. In reflecting on his visit to LA UP he said, “They give students these budgets and it seems so hard core and the students really struggle with it, but the problem is that they make middle-class choices on a low-income budget. That’s not the way low-income culture is set up. In low income neighborhoods, on payday, you eat ribs, and if you have it, you share it with everyone around you.”

    Now we can say whatever we want, I suppose, about this set of cultural assumptions and values. But it’s important to remember that it is a _cultural_ value–emphasis on celebration and communal sharing.

    Sorry, more than my two-cents, I suppose.

    Thanks for such thought provoking stuff, Mary. I too, enjoyed Food, Inc.

    • That’s true about a lot of urban people not having cars…but in the scene in the movie, they were standing right by a bunch of broccoli, so access to good food was clearly not the issue at hand in that particular case.

      I think a big problem is lack of know-how…I’m fortunate enough to have learned how to cook and plan from my mom, so I know what to do with lots of single-ingredient foods. A lot of people don’t know how to cook, though.

    • i just watched food, inc. last night and have been thinking all morning about how to respond to this post 🙂 i really enjoyed the movie and, mary, this has been thought-provoking, as ali said.

      last year, my husband finished seminary — we both worked part-time for half the year — and we had our second child. i started staying home with our children and he was out of work, so we had no steady income for eight months; we actually qualified for WIC, though God provided for us in other ways. though we were technically living below the poverty level, we both grew up in upper-middle income families, so that’s our mentality. i worked hard to find good deals at the grocery, cooked more from scratch than ever before, and did my best to make our dollars stretch to provide healthy, nourishing food for our family. i also started staying home full-time, so i had the time to prepare all of our food. i’m really thankful for your book, mary! i received it as a gift and used a lot of your great ideas to help us make ends meet and still eat healthfully.

      i think ali hit the nail on the head: “in low income neighborhoods, on payday, you eat ribs, and if you have it, you share it with everyone around you.” many times, the mind-set of folks truly living in poverty is, “i have it now, i spend it now.” there’s not much thought of saving or preparing for tomorrow. nor is there time to do so.

      i’m not sure the issue is purely economic: we were poor last year, but our mind-set was not one of poverty. education and accessibility are HUGE. as a nation, we need to work hard to make sure that wholesome, nutritious food is indeed available (and affordable) to everyone. but, we also need to educate about finances, cooking, health, etc., so that once people have access, they are able to make wise decisions.

  13. I so agree with you. I am now saving a fortune on making my own bread and pizza. It costs me about 40 cents to make a good loaf of whole wheat bread.

    I would also encourage people to buy fruit and vegetables in season–they are much less expensive and taste a lot better.

  14. hi mary – i’m not your usual reader.. i’m a single, mid-30’s, peace activist / phd student in logan, utah.. i forget how i came across your blog.. but i did and i enjoy it. 🙂 plus my best friend’s sister is adopting 2 children from ghana (6 & 7, i think) and so i’ve passed on some resources you’ve posted to them (who just happen to live a few hours from you).

    i’ve not watched that movie.. i’m an activist who is trying to get a phd in something non-activisty and so i don’t need to get my activist juices stirring..

    anyhow.. a staple in my kitchen – quinoa. it’s not super frugal, but if you can find it in bulk foods sections at places like smiths it can be cheaper.. and it’s better for you than pasta. and at local farmers markets i talk to the produce sellers about seconds… you know, the stuff that they’ll sell for cheaper. the seconds & thirds tomatoes make for great saucing. i have a bunch of still frozen & vacuum packed produce from last year.. but i have time to do that preservation that others may not have the time to do..

    also, having now lived in northern utah for 4 years, through my mormon friends i’ve discovered the LDS storehouse. not sure if they are common.. anyhow, if there’s one nearby you can buy staples pretty cheap and tax free, even if you are a non-member (i’m a pcusa presbyterian).

  15. Wow!!! I see that everyday. I work for a State Medicaid and SNAP(new name for food stamp program). I hear it from my clients all the time that healthy food is expensive. I have to remind them that food stamps is a supplement to their food budget not meant to be their whole food budget. I have learned that many of the people in the program really do not know how to cook nutrious meals or what a nutrious meal looks like. Also when I have tried to give them suggestions on healthy food that is cheaper the answer I get is that would make me have to work at cooking a meal and it will take me longer than 5 minutes to do. So I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m going to pray about it. Thanks for sharing the movie.

    • It really bothers me when people don’t think they have enough to buy food but plenty for junk. At various times when our boys were smaller, we were on food stamps. We always had MORE than enough to keep our family fed. I did cook, but a good portion of what we ate was natural/organic, and still there was money left at the end of the month.

      I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the store and saw people with carts piled high of soda, chips, and candy proceed to pay with food stamps and whine about not having enough money for food.

      I think there needs to be a serious change on what constitutes “food”. We complain about the obesity rates for adults and children, but we supply them with poor quality foods and don’t provide them with the tools they need to make healthy choices.

      Very interesting discussion.

    • I find this very difficult as I often see people in line at the grocery store paying for chips, sweets, soda with their food stamps card and it makes me sad that they aren’t getting better nutrition and getting more for taxed money. I wish I knew how to help. My husband and I are on a very modest income (we qualify for food stamps but do not choose to use that) and yet we are able to feed our family of four whole, mostly organic foods for $300/month. As others have said I think it has a lot to do with understanding how to access (and prepare to some degree) healthy foods.

      I think many, including myself, who have the knowledge would be happy to teach/mentor others in how to afford those good foods. I also think (hope?) that if people understood how terrible the processed foods are for them and their families, they would want to make better choices.

  16. I love the discussion this is facilitating so I though I ought to add my 2cents.

    The students that I work with often come from single parent homes. And those parents are usually working wierd hours (night shifts pay more than days), 2 jobs, or far away from home. And lack of a car sometimes means a 90 minute communte to work (via public transit) both ways. That really cuts down on the amount of time available to:
    1. cook,
    2, shop,
    3. try to find a grocery store in the middle of the city (near where they live) to find fresh produce
    4. teach their 12-year-old how to use these ingredients to make “meals” so their little brothers and sisters can eat.

    So yes, they often rely on prepared food (sandwiches, frozen pizza, frozen dinners, chips etc) so they know at least their kids are eating in their absence while they are off at work (or toting the laundry to the laundromat, or commuting to and from work).

    I think your ideas are great and would often work in 2 parent families that are just trying to make ends meet. But I highly doubt that would happen with the urban families in my school’s community.


  17. I grew up in a rural town, not a big city, but was raised with 2 siblings by a single mother. We ate out 1 time a year!
    I cannot recall my mother ever serving us anything other than meals she cooked, and that was after a long day at work.We were very low income, but she baked bread on weekends and we ate pinto at least 3 times a week in some formm (burritoes, navajo tacos, tostadas, etc) We enjoyed popped corn for snacks and homemade cookies. She always worked hard and fed us very well with what little income she made.
    I have not seen the documentary…yet.

  18. I haven’t had much money at all for groceries for awhile. We have been using up our dried bean stash. I did a menu this fortnight, then when things were worse than I thought I opted for a couple of swap recipes that I didn’t have to buy meat for.

  19. Mary, you rock!

  20. Hello
    I found you Blog from another one I read and agree with both sides of the argument. I live in Plymouth England and I come from a very social and economically deprived area where the housing is poor and life expectancy is reduce by about 10 years as opposed to other areas of my city.
    At present because of my partners disability we are on a very low income, but I agree with Mary and others YOU CAN feed yourself reasonably well for very little money you just have to think hard about it. Also here there are initiatives where you can buy a carrier bag of either in season fruit and in season veg for about £3.75p the quality is good and they have been DELIBERATLY calculated so an average family of 3-4people can get there 5 a day. there is no restriction as to how many bags of each you can perchase, to my understanding. I am curious to know do you not have initiatives like this in the states? I also choose to do a couple of meatless meals and through watching my grand mother learnt that if you buy the largest chicken/ joint of meat you can afford it will feed you for another 2-3 meals. Never ever do I but store bought pre prepared food apart from a few sauces and certain bread which I know I couldn’t afford to do otherwise.
    I am proud to say I feed 3 adults one dog and 8 cats on around £69-£70 per week. One thing that helps is we have fridge meals a periodically in order not to waste anything.
    Hope you don’t my someone chipping in from across the pond.
    All the best

  21. and another thing that bothers me, the reason these “ghetto” stores, whatever that means, have higher prices on healthier foods is because people don’t buy them. They increase their prices to make a profit/break even. If people choose to purchase these foods and created a demand for them, the prices would be lower.

    That said, urban areas have public transit. Yes, it may be an inconvenience to use. If so, shop less frequently. Go once a month and buy things that keep well like beans, rice, flour, onions, potatoes etc. Fill in at the higher price store as needed. Most urban areas also have ethnic stores. I’ve found these types of stores to have the best prices when it comes to food, especially healthy staples.

    It comes down to priorities, planning, and having the knowledge available to know how to make healthy choices.

  22. Rachel P. says:

    I just watched this documentary a few days ago and I spent most of it talking back to the narrator myself. What really made my mouth fall open was the fact that they show the poor family buying nearly twelve dollars worth of fast food and I know perfectly well I could feed my entire family for a whole day on twelve dollars! A peanut butter sandwich is more nutritious than what those folks were eating and cheaper too.
    I want to add that we find bulk foods to be pretty helpful. We have lived below the poverty line for nearly our entire eight year marriage. Mary, your list nearly matched my grocery essentials list item for item. I bake all our bread for my family and have taught myself to use single ingredients to make the things we run out of (for example, we had no mayo and burger night was coming up.) My other essential to help us save money is a Kitchenaid mixer. I have a hand-me-down given to me from my mother and I’ve been able to save my family so much money by cooking using that single tool. So I guess I would say investing in a few quality and key kitchen tools, like the mixer as well as a cast iron skillet, a baking sheet and a large pot for soups and pastas, make cooking much easier and more affordable in the long run.

  23. Very interesting discussion. I guess I should watch this show because I’ve heard a lot of talk about it.
    I do get very frustrated when I seen people using food stamps to buy a bag of chips for $3.49 when they could buy a 10# bag of potatoes for $2.99. You could get so much more out of those potatoes!!
    I live in a small town and I am saddened when I see single moms who work way to hard filling their carts up with junk that cost twice as much as the healthy food all for the sake of convenience. If they planned carefully they could eat so much better and save their money. I’m thinking that crockpots are a great example of how to save time for busy moms. I can throw a crockpot meal together in a matter of minutes and get two meals out of it.
    I definitely feel education is the key here. In our MOPS group we have spent a lot of time educating young women on how to cook with the basics to save time and money. But we have barely dented the homes that need this education. It’s discouraging.

  24. I live in Mexico, and the basic food here is quite inexpensive. I know many who grew up strong and healthy on only beans and tortillas. Adding a strongly flavored meat to this spruces it up a bit, but you don’t use a whole lot of the meat.

    I’ve got a beautiful friend who is helping me learn how to make authentic Mexican food, and one thing I’m struck by is how very filling it is, with the bulk of the food being something more frugal.

    Oh, and people from many other countries don’t understand why so many Americans who believe they are poor struggle with their weight. To them, poverty=starving.

  25. Kate in NY says:

    What an interesting thread. I certainly agree that it is possible to feed one’s family both healthily and frugally. In fact, the lower my grocery budget it, the healthier we get – because I am cooking from scratch, buying more veggies and less meat, no prepackaged food, etc. But I come by this approach because of a number of factors in my favor: my mother is a great cook; I grew up eating meals at home with my family every day; I am an educated person who can research various trends in nutrition; I have the time to read blogs like Mary’s (!) and learn from them; I have a car and can get to places like Trader Joe’s.

    It is frustrating to think of poor people spending their food stamp money on junk – and so sad,because there is nothing like good health to inspire and encourage us in all areas of our lives. I would love to see courses like “home economics” make a huge comeback in high schools all across the country. Wouldn’t it be great for these topics to be required right along with math, English, history, etc. Certainly knowing how to budget, cook frugally and nutritiously ,and avoid debt would serve our kids just as well as anything else they might learn in school. Maybe more!

  26. Mary, I completely agree! I am the budget dietitian so I would have to! 🙂

    There are a few exceptions that have already been mentioned. People trapped in food deserts, single working parents, folks with adequate transportion. However, most people struggling to eat well on a budget don’t fall into these categories.

  27. Thanks for sharing some great money saving tips. I live in the south and we enjoy often enjoy meals of beans and greens.

  28. I don’t disagree with any argument here — either that it is usually cheaper to eat meals from scratch without meat, or that living in a particular area makes it much easier to eat healthily than others, or that cultural issues (sharing or splurging in times of plenty) influence choices, or even that education can make a difference. All I want to say is that we should guard against the assumption that because we can do something (or more often think that we could, without having tried it), anyone should be able to.

    I was always one of those people who said, “oh, yeah, eating healthily is really only a matter of choice. If it’s important to you, you’ll do it.” I lived for many years in Europe where I got by with a bike and cab rides from time to time and used trains and planes for longer journeys. Every night it was easy to stop, park my bike by a grocery, and pick up cheap, fresh ingredients for dinner (despite the fact that groceries were much more expensive in Germany than in the U.S., even for things that were part of the staple diet in both places). The last time I lived there it was for three years, and when I got back to the U.S., I decided to go it without a car. I live in a major urban area with public transportation that is considered average for the United States. I don’t even pay to use it, because a free yearly pass is one of the perks of my job. I had in my mind the idea that I would be able to integrate grocery shopping regularly on my bus route. That turned out to be an illusion. The housing I could afford that had a convenient bus route to my work turns out not to have one to a grocery store. It takes 45 min and two transfers in each direction to a supermarket (as opposed to a convenience store, or fast food outlet, which I could walk to in both cases, but where prices are higher; well after all, we are paying for the convenience) — that’s 90 min out of a day just to get groceries, and I can only carry a limited amount, even if I take a backpack and a rolling carrier, because I have to get on and off all of those buses. It’s easy to say “people who live in shopping deserts can take buses to supermarkets if they just want to” but it’s not always the case that that would be a rational, practical decision. I am sure that there are some people who’d be able to master the will power and determination to keep on grocery shopping at the supermarket despite being carless, but I was not one of them. Eating is one of the decisions I have to make in my day, and it has to be balanced with a number of other matters. In the end, after about three months of exhaustion and frustration, I bought a car. I could afford it so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but I think if I hadn’t been able to, my food shopping choices would have been different because I simply wouldn’t have been able to balance that journey with working. I say I because probably some people would have, but it would have worn me out.


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