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Additional bookkeeping

5 Feb

It’s now been a little over one month since our big grocery shopping trip and, though it looks like we are definitely going to get through the eight weeks I’d estimated our haul would last, we both are craving fresh vegetables. That is the major downfall to doing a giant shopping trip all at once: though it maximizes savings on store reward cards, it limits diet somewhat if you stick to it rigidly. Milk, bread, and fresh veggies only last so long and generally are things a family cannot do without.

This week we needed to make a run for staples — in our world that means a half gallon of milk, coffee creamer, a loaf of bread, a dozen yogurt cups, eggs, cereal and cereal bars, etc. — which ran us just about $40 without any store savings or coupons. I also splurged on a trip to Pittsburgh’s Strip District, stopping at a year-round, indoor/outdoor vegetable market for some winter veggie goodness. All in all I spent $15.31 at Stan’s, coming home with a shopping bag nearly bursting with:

  • one pound of kale
  • three stem tomatoes
  • one large red onion
  • two large garlic cloves
  • two 1.5lb acorn squash
  • one 3lb spaghetti squash
  • two pounds of turnips
  • two pounds of beets
  • a pint of blueberries

Between these two shopping trips, I’ve added $0.16 to each meal served over the course of an eight week period, meaning each meal is now costing me $1.25 per person. My yearly food expenditure currently totals $416.69 for a two month supply of food for two people, or $104.17 worth of food per person a month. According to the US government’s food stamp criteria data that I posted back in July of last year, we are still $0.25 under what is deemed a “low income” grocery budget — eating primarily whole ingredients in homemade meals, none of which have taken more than an hour to prepare.

Not too shabby.

Add It Up

9 Jan

January 2nd was big shopping day at our house, and I do mean BIG shopping day. The contents of the refrigerator were reduced to a quarter of a half gallon of milk, two pounds of butter (left over from Christmas baking), condiments, and a few sad and lonely onions floating around in the crisper. The freezer and cupboards were nearly as empty, except for the baking cupboard full of sugar and flour not used in the holiday cookie tray. So it seemed as good a time as any to start tallying up our food expenditures for the year.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that last year marked our first foray into a CSA, receiving a disbursement of farm-fresh veggies every other week during the summer. This year we plan to purchase a whole share from a different farm, meaning from late spring to mid-fall we’ll receive a weekly goodie box. However, being that Old Man Winter has settled into Pennsylvania for the next several months, I will be doing all of our food shopping at the grocers.

We are fortunate enough to live in a good-sized city with a plethora of grocery options — there are myriad specialty stores in addition to several big chain markets and the Super versions of one-stop big-box stores where you can throw your oranges and new underwear in the same cart. However, I tend to stick with my two favorites: Giant Eagle (Pittsburgh chain equivalent to Piggly Wiggly, FoodChopper, or Kroger) and Trader Joe’s. Every month I go to both — that is tip #1: Do your research, in both competitive pricing and nutritional content of the product.

You don’t need to be a nutritionist or an economist to figure this out, and it doesn’t require use of a calculator. I keep it simple with basic guidelines that can be answered with only a quick scan of the label:

  • Fewer ingredients are better than more
  • No preservatives is better than preservatives
  • Few or no unpronounceable words are in the ingredient list
  • Product is as minimally processed as possible
  • Product has nutritional content other than fat, carbs, sugar and fiber
  • Product is best nutritional value at best price per ounce/pound

I split my grocery shopping between two stores because some things are cheaper at one versus the other. Some things there is a large difference, some things the savings are only a few pennies. If the latter is the case, I estimate the savings gained with my perks card before I decide which place to purchase the item. Tip #2: Always, always, always participate in in-store card savings programs. Giant Eagle’s Advantage Card program allows shoppers to earn 1% off groceries for every 10 gallons of gas purchased at the chain’s Get Go gas stations, and in reverse awards $0.10 off per gallon for each $50 spent in the store. Thanks to this program, our gas expenditure for the last eight weeks earned us 11% off our total grocery bill, which then earned us $0.50 off per gallon on our next tank of gas.

Another great feature with Giant Eagle’s Advantage Card is the ability to virtually load coupons with an account on the store’s website. Tip #3: Clip coupons, but only for items on your list — which then rolls right into tip #4: Make a list and stick to it. I plan meals for an eight week period with each shopping trip, including three meals per day per person plus snacks that can be quickly grabbed on the go (we always brown bag lunch and rarely stop for fast food on the fly). It only takes 30 minutes to flip through some cookbooks and compile a list of recipes and their ingredients. I usually do this with that week’s store flier close at hand, which brings us to Tip #5: Plan meals using ingredients that are in-season, on sale, and flexible. For example, if you are going to spend the money on a bundle of fresh thyme but the recipe you want it for only calls for a small amount, load your list with other recipes using the remainder of the ingredient. If you don’t want to spend a week eating thyme-heavy dinners, choose a recipe that can be frozen and reheated later in the month. Throwing away food is throwing away money.

So, back to our family’s grocery shopping. I work 42-48 hours each week, with multiple 12-hour shifts, and I’m starting back to school full-time as well. Steven is a full-time student in a program requiring rigorous study, and also works part-time (and is less than a whiz in the kitchen unless it involves pancakes and bacon). Since we’re both a bit pressed for time I shopped for two months instead of one, with an eye toward fast meals that can self-maintain in a crockpot or be thrown together hastily — while still steering clear of preprepared/prepackaged dinners, which are ridiculously overpriced and always full of salt and preservatives. Cost breakdown is:

  • Giant Eagle $206.20 after saving $32 even between Advantage Card discount, in-store specials and coupons. Items included: 5 large cans diced tomatoes, 8 pounds of hormone and antibiotic-free skinless/boneless chicken breast, 3 pounds skinless/boneless chicken thighs, one pound local organic stew lamb, 4 semi-boneless strip steaks, one pound thinly sliced sandwich steak, 2 pounds shrimp, thick-cut peppered bacon, 2 pounds hot sausage, 7 pound whole fryer chicken, 2 ham steaks, one dozen organic/cage-free eggs, 4 pounds shredded cheese, 5 pounds red potatoes, parsnips, carrots, celery, onions, half-gallon milk, 5 6oz cartons of Greek yogurt, 5 packages assorted frozen vegetables, 3 bags dried beans, grits, jar of pickled beets, ranch dressing, jarred spices, etc.
  • Trader Joe’s $155.19 with no savings (Trader Joe’s sells everything at lowest possible prices). Items included: 4 pounds 80/20 ground beef, 3 pounds ground turkey, 2 pounds mahi mahi, 2 tuna steaks, 2 pounds individually frozen chicken breasts, extra-firm tofu, 2 boxes of cereal, 4 pounds frozen veggies, 3 boxes fruit cereal bars, 2 packages dried fruit, couscous, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, 2 cheese wedges (Jarlsburg and espresso Toscano), crackers, 2 boxes frozen blueberry waffles, 2 pounds organic chicken sausages, bananas, fresh broccoli, broccoli slaw mix, one bag mixed green salad, one bag baby spinach, 2 packages lobster ravioli, 2 bags frozen cioppino, panko bread crumbs, 3 bags chips/snack foods, one package organic popcorn kernels, large container grated parmesan, 2 six packs of 4 oz yogurt cups, heavy cream, coffee creamer, guacamole kit, locally made bread, peanut butter, 3 pounds sweet potatoes, five cans albacore tuna packed in water, etc.

Luckily everything fit into our apartment sized freezer, though it took our combined Tetris skills to make it happen. In the end, our total for eight weeks of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, came to $361.39. That is $22.59 per week per person at three meals a day, which breaks down to approximately $1.09 per meal per person. Can you even buy a McDonald’s sandwich for $1.09 these days?

The Cost of Eating Well

12 Jul

According to the USDA’s Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotions May 2011 analysis of cost of food at home (on which food stamp allotments are based), a household of two adults 19-50 years of age is expected to consume $84.60 worth of food each week on the “thrifty” food plan — a plan that covers the recommended daily allowances of each food group as determined by the USDA. This factors out to an average of $6.04 per adult, per day. In short, this is what the USDA expects a “healthy” diet to cost if the household is eating according to MyPlate guidelines. By comparison, a 2008 New York Times blog posting (the most recent daily breakdown data I could find) quotes a research study completed at the University of Washington that reports the average American eating a mix of “healthy” and “junk” foods spends approximately $7 per day on food — $4 per day for those classified as low-income.

This week was BIG grocery shopping, a trip requiring the purchase of essentials — ketchup, mayo, flour, sugar, coffee and such — so I figured it would be a good week to do the math and see where exactly we fall in the numbers. The results actually ended up being quite suprising — even to me, knowing our pattern of spending in the past. Here’s the breakdown, after a quick stroll through our shopping habits.

Generally, I grocery shop at three locations: Trader Joe’s, our local Chain Grocer, and farmers markets. Most often I buy enough to food to fill our (apartment sized) freezer and cupboards with the intention of it lasting 6-8 weeks for 3 meals per day per person. (We never buy lunches out; we always brown bag it — money saving tip #1!) In that time period I make, on average, two more small trips for perishables like yogurt, milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I try to focus on ingredients that can be assembled into meals as opposed to stocking up on convenience foods, though we do usually have some things like boxed macaroni and cheese, cans of tuna, and snack items like cookies and cheese crunchies on hand for when we’re in a pinch. We do not drink soda unless using it as a mixer, so rarely do I buy any (this is strictly a water, coffee, tea household by taste preferences). During that 6-8 weeks between grocery trips, we eat out in restaurants approximately once a week so, for statistical purposes, all calculations will be based on a 7 week time period though most likely this grocery trip will feed us for slightly longer. (I’m not an economist, so this is bound to be less than scientific).

First, the cost of fresh fruits and veggies for the next 7 weeks will total $100.89 for three CSA disbursements and three farmers market visits (estimated at $10 each).

My trip to Trader Joe’s (for items such as ground turkey, ground beef, crabmeat, Fair Trade organic coffee, cereals, blocks of Manchego, parmesan, and Havarti cheese, canned/dry goods, and nuts/dried fruits/mini chocolates for trail mix) cost me $144.37.

My trip to the Chain Grocer (for items such as ground lamb, salmon fillets, 2 lbs of raw shell-on shrimp, 6 large steaks, just over a pound of olive bar olives for tapas snack platters, 5lbs of all natural chicken breasts and a dozen containers of Greek yogurt) came to $173.09 but was reduced after applying card member savings, doubling a few coupons on name-brand condiments, and the 10% discount earned through their gas/food perks program. My total cost after a combined $20.59 in savings amounted to $152.50.

I expect that in the next 7 weeks I’ll spend approximately $50 more, $25 for each of those small trips for perishables.

This brings our food cost total to $447.76, or $63.97 per week for two adults. Breaking that down further, that’s $31.99 per week each, or $4.57 per person per day — right around the estimated low income expenditure, according to the NYT article, and $1.47 less than the number quoted by the USDA.

Not too shabby. The question now is: is it possible to increase our consumption of farm to table items (reducing the grocery store’s role even further), maintain our current healthy food philosophy, and continue to save money?