Food is the second largest monthly budget item for nearly everyone. It comes in right behind housing. Food is also an important part of making life better in several ways. It can bring us a great deal of enjoyment, time together with family and friends and also contribute to health, energy and overall happiness. Let's take a look at budgeting first.

Estimating Your Food Budget

You have a lot of flexibility in how you budget for food. Food can easily consume 20-25% of the monthly income for a family of 4 with a modest income. Eating out costs 2.5 to 3 or more times what eating at home does, so limiting eating can easily stretch your food budget. It can also break your budget if you aren't taking care. A simple starting place for estimating your food budget is in the table below. It represents recommendations from Mint:

Family Size Budget
1 person $251
2 people $553
3 people $722
4 people $892
5 people $1,060
6 people $1,230

According to the table below shows how Americans have been spending monthly for food on average based on their family types. It doesn't give any indication of income levels, but it looks like higher couple income allows increased food spending. Notice that single guys eat at out a much higher rate then the other categories. If you are a single guy who eats out too much, learning more about cooking and getting more practice in the kitchen can make your food choices more interesting and varied as well as much healthier.

Who Groceries Eating Out Percentage Out Total
Single Woman $232 $142 38% $374
Single Man $250 $221 47% $471
Single + Kids $266 $190 42% $456
Couple $333 $233 41% $566
Couple + Kids $383 $277 42% $660
American Food Spending by Family Style According to (See: [](

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 the average American household spent about 10% of its total budget on food. The average food cost for a U.S. household was $6,602 in 2013. That's roughly $2,641 annually per person (based on the average 2.5 people in each household). The average cost of food per month for the typical American household is about $550.

How to Shop

Before you go to the store, look at what you already have available for meals. Plan ahead makes everything so much easier and saves you money. You also don't want to go to the store hungry, since this tends to encourage you to buy things that just look good, are not on your list, go off budget and end up with not enough food for healthy meals. You wind up needing to return to the store again when you might not have enough cash to get what you need.

Keep a white board or sheet of paper with the days of the week on your fridge and use this as you're looking through the cabinets and fridge making your shopping list. You can also use an app like Out of Milk on your phone.

It can help if you write down a menu for the week's dinners. It can also help to start it on the day you usually shop. Start with your meat/protein and then add side dishes as you work on your list. Plan at least one vegetable and one starchy food for your sides. Writing it down helps you remember what to take out the freezer in the morning (or the night before) and helps make your morning run faster and smoother. (After work, the last thing you want to do is think about what to cook and then have to figure out if you have it or just cop out and go out to eat.)


If you have a whole chicken in the fridge, potatoes and veggies, Sunday might be roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and salad. Then deciding what I need still for that meal, I start my list with: tomatoes, more carrots and onions. Then I go to Monday's meal.

I can use the leftover chicken in a chicken pot pie, so I check for pie crust in my freezer and since I have one I don't need to buy it, but let's say you need the cream of chicken soup, so that gets added to the list. This is a one dish meal, so you don't need sides unless you really want them.

If there is extra filling, I freeze it for the next chicken pot pie meal so that I have that to pull out. I will also boil the chicken leftovers down to make chicken stock to freeze for when I need that for something I am cooking later. This saves you money and speeds up a meal or two down the road.

Looking in the freezer I see stew meat. (You can buy this instead of hamburger because it is not that much more expensive and usually has lower fat content.) So, with the stew meat I am thinking I'll make redneck stroganoff for Tuesday. I then look in the pantry for the other ingredients and I see cream of mushroom soup and noodles but no Worcestershire, so I add that to my list and look in the fridge. In the fridge I see onion and sour cream but no mushrooms, so they get added to the list. I decide on a side of broccoli, don't have any and add it to the list.

For the rest of the week I do the same thing, adding the ingredients as I need them. I don't add anything else yet. I usually leave Friday and Saturday open for leftovers and whatever might pop up.

Once I know that the meals are complete; I will look in my drawers and cabinets and add paper goods, cleaning supplies, drinks, bread, crackers and everything else.

When I get to the store, I usually look at the meats and what is on sale, and if I figure out if it's a good deal, I'll get it for another week unless money is tight. I just get what's on the list and that's it, no impulse buying or foods that are not as healthy as I would like to feed my family.

Sample list from above:

  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Cream of chicken soup
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Mushrooms
  • Broccoli
  • Fruit (whatever looks good and my family will eat)

Pantry Stock

You should keep a supply of items you use regularly in your pantry or cabinets. These come in handy because you can make a last-minute meal with them, have them when you forget to add them to your list or buy some extra when they are on sale. Remember to store them so that you use the oldest ones first and periodically check your supply. (Some "pantry" items need to be refrigerated.)

Popular Items

  • Italian dressing (both dry mix and bottled) is useful for seasoning/marinating meat, pasta salad, salads, potatoes and rice. This on sale bottled can be as low as $0.89 and $2 otherwise. The dry packets don't usually go on sale and is about $2 for a box of 4 (making it about $0.50 cents a meal).
  • Creamed soups (chicken, celery and mushroom) is useful for chicken casserole, chicken pot pie, redneck stroganoff, smothered burgers, and soup bases or starters. When these are on sale you can find them for $0.59, and $1.49ish otherwise.
  • Boxed Stuffing is useful primarily as a side and a topping for casseroles. On sale it's about $0.89 cents and about $2 otherwise.
  • Canned Corn and Green Beans are also primarily sides, but also get used in casseroles, pot pies, soups, pasta salads and stews. On sale they are usually about $0.49 cents and about $0.79 otherwise.
  • Yellow, Red or White Onions are less expensive bagged, but can be bought individually if you tend to not use them up. Onions are used in just about every recipe or meal for something.
  • Herbs and Spices are best to buy on sale. You can find them in cellophane bags in the Hispanic/Ethnic foods area for much less than the little jars or bottles. I most commonly use thyme, basil, oregano, chili powder, garlic powder and dried minced onion.
  • Sauces like BBQ, Ranch, Catsup, Mustard, Mayo, Worcestershire, hot sauce, vinegar and oil, teriyaki and soy sauce. I save the sauces from different places and restaurant take out for use when I don't have them on hand. I also use the packets for making lunches. Instead of fully making a complete sandwich, you can pack the bread and meat with packets of mayo and mustard. You can add ranch or salad dressing packets with veggies or salads. (Buddig meats are fairly inexpensive and can be less than $1 a pack of sandwich size slices. Individually packaged slices of sandwich size cheese then make it easy to have a sandwich kit so that you have a fresh not soggy sandwich.)
  • 5 or 10 pound bags of potatoes make it easy to economically have a quick starchy side dish. You can have them as breakfast potatoes, French fries, baked potatoes. You can also broil or mash them and make homemade potato chips.
  • Rice, noodles, beans, nuts and cereals can be bought in bulk or large packages for much less than buying them boxed.
  • Tomato sauce, tomato paste and other tomato products get used in many dishes and are easy to stock up on when on sale.
  • Canned olives, mushrooms and green chiles can dress up many dishes and go nicely in salads, too.
  • Canned tuna for making quick tuna salad, casserole or in salad.
  • Parmesan cheese add a lot of flavor to main and side dishes as well as salads.

(Major contributions to How to Shop and Pantry Stock from Helen Parker)

A Healthy Eating Plan

Below is a diagram for planning what kind of foods to have at each meal. Please remember many fruits are high in carbohydrates (mostly as sugars), so you may need to reduce your grain portions when eating more fruit.

A protein portion is about 3 ounces which is a piece of meat roughly the size of a deck of cards, a pack of cigarettes or the palm of your hand.

What Counts as a Side Dish?

Side dishes can be grouped as either "starchy" or "vegetable". Here are a few simple rules to get yours into the right category.

"Starchy" Sides

Starchy sides include: Bread, rolls, potatoes, rice, pasta and macaroni. Corn counts as a starch not a vegetable. Beans, peas, lentils and quinoa should also be counted as starches even though they are fairly high in protein. For things you aren't sure about, look at the food label. If the carbohydrate calories per serving are a good bit more than the protein calories, or are similar to other starches you know, it's a starch.

If you use fruit as a side, it probably counts as a starch. Check its nutrition information.

Starches are important because they provide most of the energy your body uses.

"Vegetable" Sides

If it's green and leafy, has stalks, comes from the produce department and it's not a fruit or one of the "starchy" vegetables mentioned above, it's probably a vegetable. If you're not sure, check the nutrition information. Vegetables should be low in carbohydrates per serving. They are also usually low in protein and fat (if they don't have other stuff mixed with them).

Vegetables are important for vitamins, minerals, fiber and other "micronutrients". Ideally vegetables should be most of your plate.

Questions to Journal

  1. How do you budget and shop for food?
  2. How much do you eat out? How much does it depend on how your day went or whether or not there’s really any food in the house you want to eat?
  3. How picky are the eaters in your house? How much flexibility do you have in trying new foods or getting out of your routine?
  4. How healthy are your eating habits?
  5. What’s something you could start doing this week to handle your eating, food planning and food spending better?


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Quotes for the Week

Observe due measure. Moderation is best in all things
– Hesiod (c.700BC)

Moderation in all things is the best policy.
– Plautus (c.250-184BC)

Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
– Michael Pollan

If you keep good food in your fridge, you will eat good food.
– Errick McAdams

Verses for the Week

[D]o you not know that your body is a temple…
– 1 Corinthians 6:19a

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
– 1 Corinthians 10:31

Prayer for the Week

Help me pay attention to way I'm thinking about food and meals for me and my family this week. I want to be a better steward of what I have and start making our diet healthier, too. Amen.