Around the same time, my husband and I agreed to lose a big chunk of my income so that I could spend more time with our kids. Homing in on our family’s budget, I looked up the USDA’s numbers on national food intake and grocery prices, which features calculations of different costs for eating a healthy diet at home. The latest data is from August 2018: for a four person family with young kids, the numbers are $130 a week for a thrifty food plan, $166 for a low cost food plan, $205 for a moderate cost food plan, and $254 for a liberal plan.
I examined our previous years’ budgets. As I suspected, we’d been eating toward the “liberal” end of the range, and my goal was to move the needle closer to “moderate” or maybe even “low cost.” I considered myself a relatively savvy shopper — inspired by books like “Your Money or Your Life,” “Radical Homemakers,” and “Zero Waste Home,” my husband and I had been attempting to do it ourselves or buy used or in bulk in other areas for years.
But as I set our new grocery target and attempted to stick with it, I was startled to discover how alive the well-trained consumer in me was when it came to food shopping. The idea that going out for groceries must be a weekly, regular event has been so ingrained in me for so long that even armed with all this knowledge, I hardly knew how to question it. The me who could scoff at the “need” for cable — and really, who is this me fooling in the age of Amazon Prime Video and Netflix — had a harder time setting down the “need” to not run out of peanut butter.
Because we all need food, right?
Well, yes, of course. And also no: not nearly as often or as much as many of us think.
The United Nations published a study on food waste in 2011. Each year, they report, a third of all food produced in the world for human consumption never reaches the table, and on average, citizens of high-income countries produce about twice as much food waste per person as citizens of low-income nations. In low-income countries, lack of infrastructure favors food spoilage. In higher income countries, the culprits are more often arbitrary sell-by dates and aesthetic preferences.
In August I set a personal record for a grand month-long grocery bill of $419.59. That’s $13.50 per day for a family of four, less than $3.50 per day per person, and over a hundred dollars less than the “thrifty” USDA plan. This involved some eating from our garden — an opportunity I realize a full two-thirds of Americans lack — without which my calculations indicate we would have been just over the full “thrifty” figure of $563 for the month. But using either number, we cut our grocery spending by at least 50 percent.
How did we achieve this?
Mainly by tackling food waste.
When we made bacon, we saved the fat and used it sparingly (and deliciously) to fry eggs. When my mother-in-law was leaving her summer home to renters for two weeks and asked me if we would take what was left in the fridge, I said yes instead of no. When my girls didn’t finish their breakfast smoothies I poured the extra into popsicle molds for frozen treats. When my celery was wilting, I cut it up and stuck it in the freezer to use later for soups. After the farmers market hosted a corn roast and there were two pounds of leftover melted butter and a large container of already cut limes that no one wanted, I took them home and made granola and lime-juice ice cubes for cocktails (score!).
We ate our leftovers, often and until they were gone. We traded arugula from our garden for a neighbor’s cucumbers and carrots. We ate a few of the forgotten things in the cupboard. When we were low on everything but a few odds and ends, we had a “use-it-up” dinner party with friends.
To achieve these savings, I did not drastically lower my nutrition standards. I did decide it wouldn’t kill my kids to eat the four slices of bologna they were so excited about from my in-laws’ fridge, and the free lunches handed out at the playground once a week when they were at summer rec (Cheez-Its! Cookies!).
Otherwise, we ate according to the same standards I’ve always followed: nutritious, satisfying food cooked from scratch. I kept it simple, though, and stopped stressing about always serving “ideal” meals. Just a big salad with bread was OK, or protein with a vegetable. I bought groceries in smaller quantities, so we’d eat them while they were fresh. When dinnertime rolled around, I quelled the urge to run to the store and we ate leftovers or cooked whatever we had. One evening I served pan-fried potatoes with ketchup and a side of peas. “This is the best meal ever!” my older daughter announced. Frugal plan for the win.
Food waste generates 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions every year, costs billions of dollars, and is part of a bigger cultural push to endlessly spend. Frugal is defined as “sparing or economical with regard to money or food, or simple and plain and costing little.” Many people see frugality as a chore. This summer, it tasted more like freedom.