The cost of eating well

Nine times out of ten, if I say I’m stressed, it has to do with money.

My husband knows to give me some space during that time of the month — you know, bill-paying/checkbook-balancing time. My tells: snippy comments, straightened hair (from tugging), and frequent sighing, culminating in a freak-out conversation about anything from how much money we spent on beer last month to our 20-year financial plan. It’s a fun time.

And, yeah. Money is a stressful topic for most people, rich and poor alike — everyone has bills to pay, and is trying to get the most they can out of their paycheck. No matter how much money you have, chances are you’ve got at least an idea of a grocery budget — one of the more flexible line-items in the spreadsheet. We’ve had one since our first year of marriage, and my. How it’s grown.

But so have my ideas of eating. And while I think it’s an admirable feat to be able to feed a family of five on a grocery budget of less than $50/week, I don’t think our family can do that and still follow the principles we’ve decided will guide our home-cooking decisions.

But the question remains: how much is a good amount, for our grocery budget? How do we stick with it? We started with a cash-only system, and then wandered into the abyss known as the debit card, only to find ourselves recently back to cash. But  a cash system is very labor-intensive; I buy many items in bulk to save money, and put away each month for those occasional purchases — so I’m often pulling from a savings account to cover the $130 I just spent on chicken leg quarters from a local farm. It makes the cash system more difficult, since I’m left with a spreadsheet to update and a bank transfer to make.

Every month, at the end, when we’re over-budget or eating nothing but eggs for a week to avoid the red, I sigh. I know that the secret to saving money is in planning well; and as much energy as I spend in planning, I often feel maxed out with no reward. I’m out of ideas. But should this bother me? This gnawing question is making me rethink my goals for our budget.

Michael Pollan (my go-to source for quotes for the week) wrote that

“In 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food, and 5.2% of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped. Spending on food has fallen to 9.9% while spending on health care has climbed to 16% of national income. I have to think that by spending a little more on healthier food we could reduce the amount we have to spend on healthcare.” *

This begs the question: what are my expectations for our grocery budget? Is it in the best interest of my family for us to eat as cheaply as possible? It’s fair to say that we’ve already answered that question, and that answer is no. Our monthly food budget currently makes up 15% of our gross income, so we’re in between the averages of 1960 and today, leaning upward.

If I do see our grocery budget as an investment in our future health, why should this percentage bother me?

At the heart of the matter, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m a thrifty person, always searching for a deal. But I think we also live in a culture that praises thriftiness above food quality. Spending more on food is labeled as gourmet, and that label is pejoratively thought to be elitist or excessive. It’s difficult to defend food purchasing decisions to skeptics; it’s a long-term investment with short-term benefits. And the ways it helps us stay healthier right now? Difficult to scientifically prove.

I’ll be writing an article next week for the newsletter of the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market. It’s about “How to Feed a Family on Local Food.” As I think about the information I’d like to present, I feel the need to start the article with the same disclaimer I use when talking to friends about the subject: “You’re probably gonna need to spend a little more on groceries,” followed by the sentence, “And you’re gonna need to make a few more things from scratch.”

Talk about unpopular demands. No, these costs aren’t tax-deductible, nor will they be reimbursed from a flex spending account. Which has brought me to the realization that eating locally (as much as possible) must be about much more than a trendy fetish. There are costs involved, both monetary and otherwise. The decision to source as much food as possible from a 100-mile radius must be predicated on a belief that it’s better for your body and your environment. That the quality of food that goes into your body is more important, in the long run, than your bottom line.

Now, if I could just remember this during bill-paying time.

What are your thoughts on grocery budgets? Feel free to disagree with my analysis.


*Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. pp. 187-188.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted by GNOWFGLINS, A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, Sustainable Eats, and Culinary Bliss.

29 thoughts on “The cost of eating well

  1. Great post, Katy. I was JUST thinking about these things as I ordered my Thanksgiving turkey from Goose! It’s definitely worth it to me, though. I also hear you on bulk items. Where do I find room in grocery budget for a $79 bag of sucanat? 🙂 It’s almost easier to buy it a few pounds at a time, even though it’s $1+/lb. more expensive.

    1. Oh, Nikki — do you ever go to Angelo’s Truck Salvage? Speaking of energy, and obsessing over getting deals: I went a couple months ago and they had a Whole Foods stock. I bought a 25# bag of sucanat for $12. (!!!)

      But see? This is part of the problem. I know those deals are to be had, and can make quality eating less expensive. But the obsessing… it zaps me of all joy and energy.

      I, too, will be roasting my first free-range, local bird this year. We ordered ours from Schacht — a splurge, but one I’ve been wanting to make for years. The time had come.

      1. It’s called Angelo’s Truck and Railroad Salvage — located at College and Georgia, downtown.

        They buy stocks of goods from trucking companies when a semi has been involved in any type of mishap (if even in a fender-bender, the goods cannot be sold at the store). They have some connection with Whole Foods, so frequently have 25# bags of bulk items (flour, beans, oats, etc) sold for a fraction of the regular cost. I bought 5-gallon buckets, and now have my own bulk department in my basement, with oats, coconut, sucanat, wheat berries, rice, etc.

  2. for us, food takes precedence over just about everything else in the monthly budget. meaning, i’d rather spend on food than any of the other myriad things that can come up at any given time. my mother-in-law is always asking, “but how can a family afford (fill-in-the-blank: local, grassfed milk, local eggs, high-quality meat, etc., etc.)” and she refuses to buy certain things just for this reason. my response has become that we have gotten too spoiled and accustomed to not spending enough on what goes in our bodies, that food isn’t just about eating, it’s about values, well-being, and what kind of world we want to live in, and that frankly, we can’t afford not to pony up for the good stuff. i do wish that quality local food were less expensive so that more people could afford access to it, and i look forward to the day when eating well isn’t a privilege, but i feel like those who can, with adjusting, are kind of obligated to trail blaze.

    1. I think there’s something with the previous 2 (or more) generations, that does value a sense of humility that comes with eating cheaply. It’s interesting though — that was how it was sold to them: eat cheap, eat quick — you deserve to, and you’ll end up with more money to spend on other things.

  3. Boy, you made me want to do the math….I know the dollar amount we usually spend, but I havent figured out the percentage of our income…hum….hold on, Im heading over to to figure this out!!


    I always feel weird when folks (mostly my family members) who are visiting make mention of all our “fancy organic food”. My sister recently said, “well, I cant afford the way you cook”. But she spends money on all sorts of things that arent a priority for me. So it comes down to that- priority. And I do realize that I am very fortunate to be at home for the most part. Im not sure how I would prepare the things I do if I was working full time. But the priority has to come first…and it usually follows conviction. I agree that our health costs would fall if only we went back to the basics.

    1. Jennie, I agree. I have no idea how I’d manage if I was working full-time. That’s a challenge I’ve not figured out how to tackle.

      1. Five words: slow cooker and bread machine. The three of us have a deep, meaningful relationship. With a husband and two boys, you’ve gotta have food ready all the time!

  4. What a great thought out post. I’ve come to the same conclusions as you. We do spend more than average on groceries, however, in order to save my family money I do grow and raise a lot of our food. It takes extra time, but the benefits are numerous. Thank you so much for sharing this and contributing to Simple Lives Thursday.


    1. Diana, I would love to grow more of our own food. We’re working on it (my thumb is historically less-than-green) ; )

      And animals… we’ve more than once envisioned chickens in our midtown backyard. We’ll see if and when that comes to fruition.

      1. We’re getting chicks this spring (fingers crossed). We’ll have a chicken wagon (portable coop) for our near-northeast indy backyard. I’ve been struggling for five summers to find one consistently sunny area for a successful garden, though. I’ve tried three locations, all with unique problems…

  5. I read In Defense of Food about 6 weeks ago. SO many great quotes and points made in that book. And yes, Michael and I calculated the %, on the spot, while I read him an excerpt from the book.

    Honestly, every single month Michael and I marvel (not in a good way) how much we spend on food. (oh, and maybe beer too).

    But I always tell him. We do not eat out, I make 98% of our meals. We eat good food, not extravagant, but good. And we rarely ever throw anything away. (spoiled, uneaten food that is)

    I don’t know HOW a family of 5 could ever eat well off $50 a week. Our Green Bean delivery is always around $35 a week, and it’s just fruits, veggies and eggs!

    1. I think that’s the trick — being very aware of what food you have, and not wasting it. That’s been a challenge for me this summer — with our CSA, I sometimes forgot I had that bundle of swiss chard in the crisper, and it went bad. It would KILL me.

      We also spend about $35/week on local milk, eggs and produce. But it’s totally worth every penny.

  6. We are blessed to have a Whole Foods that we shop at…..I find a lot of Whole Foods name brand organic items to be comparable if not less at times to those that are in a “regular” store. Like organic pasta sauce is $2.09 a jar and on occasion there is Whole Foods $1.oo off coupon. I also find coupons online for products dairy and dry good products. I must say it would be nice to pay $3.50 for a whole gallon of organic milk vs. half gallon but we look at it like this the soda that we use to drink was $3.oo or more and we thought nothing of it now it has been replaced with a much better choice. Meats and fresh veggies tend to be the highest part of our bill but if you think about it’s not all that bad if you compare it to going out to eat. We have noticed a great change in how we feel eating organic and that alone is worth any price it takes to be healthy.

    1. Tami, that’s a great point, looking at what good food choices have replaced. I spend top-dollar on organic rolled oats and nuts, but the granola I make is far cheaper than storebought (and lower and sugar, and more digestible).

      As far as milk, we also spend about $6/gallon — but then I make our yogurt from it, so that saves us $2 on each quart of yogurt.

      Long story short, it’s more work. But in the end, I still believe the value far outweighs the cost.

  7. I’ve always said to Toby, when discussing budget, that my idea of having “made it” financially is being able to go to the grocery store (and by that I mean Whole Foods) and get everything I need and want and not even think about how much money I’ve spent. That being said, we DO have a grocery budget…which I often go over slightly…but it’s not a point of major stress or conflict because it is the place I’d rather spend any extra money than anywhere else. When reviewing bills, it would be a lot more stressful to see excessive spending on luxury items like clothing, furniture, etc. Luxury items like healthy foods have become a necessity to our family. Quality food does almost seem like a portion of what could be considered a “health care” budget–in other words–top priority.

  8. Oh man, Katy, this really hits home for me. You would be in la-la land out here in CA, there is SO MUCH good/local/organic food here. I’m curious how you buy bulk…do you operate with a monthly money allotment, or do you something like 3-month chunks? I haven’t figured out how to buy bulk and still have money for other things each month. And do you buy bulk locally or online?

    Sidenote: I JUST saw that you replied to my pizza dough comment from months ago! Have you seen pictures of my Noah on FB? I will email you some if not. We miss you guys 🙂

    1. Sarah, I put $100/month of our grocery budget into our savings account, in a subcategory on my spreadsheet labeled “bulk.” When I purchase bulk items — anything from a gallon of honey to a 25# bag of wheat — I reimburse myself from that account. That way it doesn’t throw off my entire grocery budget when I purchase those items.

      I haven’t seen pics. Please email!!!

      Sounds like SD is a fun place to live — hope you guys are enjoying every bit of it!

  9. It’s all about priorities and finding room for the things that are important to you. For us, it’s local grass-fed meat, and for others it might be HBO and cable or a new car.

    On my blog, I post recipes for cheap but healthy food in a section I call “the poverty cookbook”. We’re still able to eat well on a smaller budget, but it’s a neccessity these days (husband out of work, etc).

    Also, things are cheap for a reason – because they’re cheaply made with cheap ingredients. Sure, I can feed my family boxed meals for $1.99, but what am I actually feeding them? Am I supplying them the nutrients to go out each day in to this world and be productive? Or, am I simply “filling” them up with high-fructose corn syrup and MSG?

  10. Found you thru Simple Lives Thursday, and I really appreciate this post and the question you raise. I write a weekly local food column and struggle with the reality that local, organic food is often more expensive than food trucked in from 1000 miles away. For instance, I’m writing this week about Thanksgiving and was saddened to learn that organic turkeys from California (I’m in Colorado) are half as much as a nice cut of locally raised beef. How can I suggest people buy what I can’t afford?

    I think like most people who commented, it comes down to priorities. We don’t have TV and rarely buy new things. My kids get tons of hand-me-downs and so do I. I don’t feel deprived at all not buying new clothes, though I think if I couldn’t buy organic food and local milk, I would.
    Buying in bulk helps, making your own bread and yogurt helps. Obviously, reducing restaurant dining helps too.

    1. I agree. I think it’s significant that, in the 1960’s, there just wasn’t that much money to be spent on entertainment. No cable bills, no cell phone, no internet. So there weren’t as many bills competing for the monthly paycheck.

      I find it extremely frustrating that it’s more expensive — even though I fully understand why, and think it’s worth the money. It just makes it so difficult to persuade people to make changes when it directly effects the pocketbook, and demands behavioral change (i.e., redefining priorities).

  11. great posts, lately. LOVING the sugar posts and this one is good too. i have changed my thinking in terms of eating better and still spending the same amount of money as when i was feeding our family +father in law+two students.
    we are getting a turkey from the goose this year and thought for a minute about the cost. but we decided it would be worth it. i’ve also started shopping at trader joe’s more to get organic veggies (for us and the baby) and other stuff at such a great price. it’s tough not to have shopping self righteousness about what we get or from where it comes. but i think nathan and i are both on the same page: it’s worth it to us!

  12. I’m able to feed my family of four a green diet (whole grains, organics, natural, seasonal) for under $15/day. Sales and coupons. Stockpiling the best bargains so I never have to pay full price. It takes effort, and planning, and keeping a price list to know when to buy, but I’m saving a ton of money and I’m able to feed my family foods I’m proud to serve.

    It is NOT in your families best interest to eat cheaply! Yes, you’ll save a lot of $ but you put your well being in jeopardy. I know there are those out there spending under $50 a week in groceries. Take a look at the pictures of what they buy. I don’t call it food. Do you?

    1. Andrea, that’s a really great budget you’re keeping. I wish I was better at keeping up with coupons; I also feel like there aren’t many available at the places I usually shop.

      But bulk is great — and we have a wonderful discount grocery that can save tons when they get in a good stock.

      Thanks for sharing — I’m inspired by your bottom line ; )

  13. What’s your favorite CSA? I got some literature at the IWFM, but they didn’t return my email (had some questions). Also, what’s your favorite place to buy bulk? I usually go to Good Earth or Whole Foods, but I’d be open to a new option.

    1. Jenny, we did one last year that I can’t remember the name of — maybe Nature’s Harvest or something? And then this year we did Big City Farms. Both were good, and very comparable in price.

      This year the CSA was tougher, because of the drought. Since BCF is relatively new, and they use inner-city plots, they have no irrigation. I think they’re working to alleviate this problem for next summer, but starting in mid-summer our shares were sparse. It really helped me realize what families of yore had to go through during a drought!

      1. BCF is the one I’ve been trying to contact. I asked them to give me an idea of what would in a large share weekly allotment. I wish they had written me back! For a long time we subscribed to Farm Fresh (now Green Bean, I think), but I cancelled because I got tired of non-local produce. I mean, California strawberries in June? Come on!

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