Grocery Revelations from 2016

Feb5 Food

I have been studying my grocery expenses for 2016 and I’ve decided on a plan of action.

You may remember that in 2015, Rom took over the grocery shopping and he did better than me the previous year. But, we didn’t have as much variety as I like. This year I took grocery shopping back, and Rom was to have organized our entertainment budget. That didn’t work. I didn’t realize the extent to which I had always kept an antenna up, looking for upcoming events and buying tickets, until Rom didn’t do it! Which also tipped me off that he generally prefers to stay home and splurge on meals out instead of entertainment. So, we attended two expensive events last year (the James Taylor concert and an overnight trip out of town to hear Jane Goodall) and spent the rest on dining out.

I have to say, it has not been our best healthy eating year. We are into our 5th year of eating a plant-based diet (no meat bought, prepared or served at home) and we have no plans to change that. Maybe the bloom has faded and we are no longer the new-vegetarian zealots we were. Feeding ourselves has felt like more of a chore this year. We successfully did meal planning by the month for a couple of years. In 2016, we meal-planned by the week. We made a grocery list each weekend and bought food for the upcoming week, exactly what we needed for our evening meals, plus pantry staples and fresh stuff for breakfasts and packed lunches for work. I wouldn’t say we descended into chaos, but there was a certain minimalism involved. A typical meal planning conversation would go: I’ll make sweet potato chili on Monday and that should last us until Wednesday. I work late Thursday night so we’ll just fend for ourselves. Do you want a pizza Friday night? Yeah, me too. Let’s have an omelette on Saturday. And that would be our week. Add cereal, oatmeal, popcorn, fruit, salads and yogurt, and that was about it. Interspersed with more meals out than we were accustomed to.

The biggest change was that we made low-effort meals and had a lot of frozen pizzas, and eggs. Over the past 3 years, we had tried scores of new recipes and were excited about cooking and trying new things. That went by the wayside this year. Rom and I share the cooking 50/50. After several years of doing this, I think it is wearing on him to get home from work after his long commute and make dinner. So he tries to cook ahead of time on the weekends, which cuts into his limited free time, or he makes things that are very simple.

Ultimately we have a difference in preferences. Rom likes food that is plain, while I like a lot of spice, seasonings and novel combinations. We both grew up in homes where the cooking was very plain, but my palate changed over time and I suppose Rom’s didn’t. So when Rom makes a pot of stew that lasts for 3 days, I really struggle. I think we need a sit-down meeting in which we decide which recipes are part of our regular rotation, which ones we both look forward to, which ones we should strike off because one of us is not a fan, which ones we can compromise on (or adjust to taste) and which ones require extra time on the weekends. Compromise is required too: I don’t expect Rom to cater to my tastes every day of the week.

There was a big shift in the grocery budget this year. So many of our meals have been quick and light that we are both filling up on snacks later in the evenings. My go-to is popcorn and Rom’s is cereal. We both have lots of fruit and yogurt. But I have a major sweet tooth I’ve been indulging – I buy and eat candy on a regular basis. When I finally stopped to think about it, I realized that I receive candy as gifts for lots of different holidays as well as my birthday, in five different months! The rest of the time, I buy my own. The worst part is, in a typical week, I will have birthday cake at work, pie for dessert at my parent’s place, and maybe a chocolate oat cake or an ice cream sundae when Rom and I are out doing errands. I am eating candy constantly, over and above all that! I don’t actually have a problem with cake, cookies, ice cream and desserts – we rarely have them at home and I don’t miss them. They just find me when I am away from home!

Grocery Spending 2016

Grocery Spending 2016

So, when I looked at grocery spending for the year, for the first time, I broke out how much was spent on actual junk food, not just prepared or packaged food. To my horror, I found I’d spent the same on junk food as I had on either fruit or vegetables! To the tune of about $14 a week! The stuff I classify as junk food is chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, kettle corn, items from the bakery section of the grocery store (such as cinnamon buns), protein and granola bars (high sugar), freezies (my summer addiction), candy, and juice.

Snacks I don’t consider to be junk food, maybe because I am OK with portion control, are nuts, dried fruit, crackers, popcorn, yogurt, cheese, coffee and tea. I feel like they can be a legit part of my diet.

Now I am into New Year’s Resolution territory. I have gone through periods of time when I didn’t snack at night. I know it’s possible. It will mean making better and more filling meals. And choosing things from the healthier list when I need a little something. It’s not that I can’t afford the $14 a week. It’s impacting my health when I don’t get enough nutrition from meals and then I substitute junk food for the rest of the calories. I suppose I have a few options. I could give up candy entirely. I know from experience this usually causes me to crave salty snacks. I could look at sweets overall and maybe choose one treat a day, whether I am at home or not. I could put snacks into the meal plan so I know what I’m “supposed” to have. Meanwhile, since I have candy in the house from Christmas, and will undoubtedly get more as gifts for Valentines Day and Easter, I will put myself on a candy-buying ban until May. On days when I have treats at work or elsewhere, I won’t have any at home. But most of all, I want to improve the quality of our meals so I don’t feel hungry after dinner.

Our “grocery” budget includes real food (ingredients for meals), snacks, cleaning supplies, paper goods and personal care items. Over all, grocery spending was up from $481/month last year to $523/month this year, a difference of 8.7%. It would have been 6.4% if I hadn’t let the snack spending creep up. That’s quite a big increase for basic groceries and household goods. This year, however, I am going to try to keep my budget the same at $500/month, and spend more wisely.

There are two other areas to consider. My brother has moved and no longer has a garden, which used to supply us with a lot of seasonal food! And, I realized I don’t consider entertaining when I set the grocery budget. Every year I host a few meals for family celebrations, and I bring dishes to work and church potluck events and so on, and I have never considered the impact. I don’t plan to stop, but instead of setting an equal amount for the food budget every month, I should adjust up or down based on the food events I’m involved in.

I could rehash the same thing I’ve said for the past 3 years: that I should make yogurt and bake weekly. I figured out that for every week I make yogurt, I save about $3.50. But, I have to heat the milk and scrub the pan every Sunday night 😦  In a year, I could save $180. Similarly, a dozen store-bakery muffins would cost me about $10, and I can make them for pennies. I believe a little personal effort is called for. I could choose another budget area for cutbacks instead of food, but I’d rather not!

More grocery data and a comparison to last year is in this spreadsheet:

Compare 2016 to 2015 and 2014

Do you have anything different in the works for meal planning, grocery shopping or the way you eat this year?

30 comments

  1. Up until we moved over to Hawai’i, our food budget was always what was left over at the end of the month. So, some months it would be big, and other months not so big. The amount was never a surprise though, thank goodness, so I was able to menu plan based on that amount. I used to do menus for a month, and then shop for the menu (filling in with staples, etc.) but discovered that we often were running to the store for things we had forgotten to put on the the list, and once in the store we would find other things we “needed.” I don’t think we really overspent, but we could have done better.

    Fast forward to now – these days I’ve lowered our food budget by purchasing fairly basic items and then using them to create meals, and I’m going to try and lower the amount a bit more this year. Cooking out of the pantry/freezer/refrigerator requires a bit more creativity – I have to look at what we have and think what I could make, but it’s actually made me more creative, I think, when it comes to meal planning. Cooking can still be a bit of a chore here as well because of the temperature, but I’ve learned to work around that as well. We have one somewhat picky eater at home with us now, so I try to somewhat accommodate her but have also let her know she needs to accommodate us as well. I’m also better about asking for help with meal preparation these days.

    Nuts were our downfall when it came to snacks. We discovered we were spending more and more on them each month, but they never lasted the month so we finally went cold turkey and gave them up. They’re only a healthy snack if you don’t eat too many. I could happily eat candy every day though (and pie and cake and other treats)!

    • Our recent weekly meal plans helped us use things up a lot better than the monthly plans. When buying for a whole month, we tended to stock up too much. I probably only have to worry about hot temperatures for about two weeks a year 🙂 I was a terribly picky eater until I was about 21. When I was on my own and visiting friends, etc, I got tired of asking everyone to accommodate me. As a child, though, I was forced to stay at the table and finish foods I hated. With my own child, I decided they could take or leave what was served, but not ask for something else to be prepared. I have nuts every day in salads and oatmeal, so don’t snack on them much. Candy is another story!

  2. Fiona

    I can really relate to the issues of finding the inspiration to cook well during a busy week and the contant issue of snacks ‘finding me’ at work!

    In France, there is such social disapproval of snacking that it has been funny to see incredulous looks and open comments when our school kids have pulled out snacks all day long on excursions! I have been exceptionally non-snacky while I’ve been here. In my dreams, I would love to continue this back home. But it is much harder when there is not an entire culture to support it!

    It is hard to know how to make it easier to find time/energy to cook more involved meals at night, especially when Rom has such long commutes. Our culture doesn’t easily support the time and effort needed to really eat well for health. I wonder if the European habit of eating later at night (up to 9pm) makes it easier to have time to prepare meals (and to avoid late-night snacks?)

    • I really like that in both France and England, there is so little fast food culture around snacking – instead of buying a take-out coffee in a paper cup, you go to a cafe and relax and have a proper sit-down cup of coffee! I wonder if students in France eat well enough at meal times that they don’t feel hungry in between, or if it’s just frowned upon? When Rom cooks a full meal in the evening, we eat at 8 – which means I end up snacking when I get home at 5:30 🙂 We have been nudging toward me cooking during the week because I get home much earlier, and Rom cooking more on weekends or preparing things ahead of time…except for the pizza nights!

    • I was going to say that perhaps you need to eat better (as in more interesting) and larger meals to avoid snacking. And include a light afternoon tea when you get home on days Rom cooks to avoid the snacking. Take the French approach?

      If Rom makes large meals that you find boring, could you freeze them and then swap and mix? Actually could you do big cookups and freeze meals for busy times?

      We menu plan and in that include what we will cook for busy nights. Boring is not allowed as a regular thing. We love food. I should share some of our menu plans!?! We mostly home cook.

      It may change though. We were empty nesters for a month and although we found it so much easier and faster cooking for two and not four with big eating boys who want there to be leftovers for the next day’s lunch, we were also amazed how much cheaper eating out becomes with only the two of us!!!

      • I think the key to our home dilemma is that Rom does not love food and I do. He likes eating the same things daily, and going to favourite restaurants often. He is good about eating the meals I make and going to restaurants I choose, but when he cooks, he likes to make large batches of food that I find on the plain side. I don’t mind that for a change (for me) but not daily. So yes, a good start would be for both of us to freeze some meals we like and switch them out during the week (or month). I hadn’t thought of planning an actual sit-down snack when I get home from work. I will do that! So your young one is back? Travel must have opened up his world.

      • I’m not so sure travel to California opened my son’s world. I think the lifestyle is very similar. The girls loved his accent. One he met is staying here now. My son was impressed by how cheap food and drink are and with some of the natural places he visited. He didn’t like how he couldn’t legally drink alcohol – which he’s been doing here for three years. He would like to go back again.

  3. Fiona

    Oops! Sorry that comment was so long! (It didn’t look that long on my phone!!)

  4. Joan

    I’m retired in the US and very worried about the future for my Social Security and Medicare. I’ve been looking at my spending for 2016 and know that in 2017, I’m facing increases in several areas (rent, health insurances, car) and I will have to deal with with some things I’ve been putting off (new glasses, dental work – not covered by insurance). My food spending is the best area for savings because it’s so totally out of control.
    When I worked, my hours were so long that toast and peanut butter for breakfast was the only meal I ate at home during the work week. I brown-bagged frozen dinners and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Now that I’m home all the time, I find myself eating the same way too often because I just don’t want to cook the meals I have planned and bought ingredients for.
    In November, I taped my grocery receipts up on the refrigerator door and circled in red all the items that spoiled. Just for fun, I circled all the pop (diet, of course) and sugary and salty snacks I bought as well.
    My challenge for 2017 is to do better and waste less.

    • Hi Joan, I wish you all the best with your benefits and health care coverage this year. Like you, I would rather play with the grocery budget than some other areas. I used to waste a lot of food before I did meal planning. Now if a meal is planned, it may not be made on the original day, but it will definitely get made before the ingredients spoil. That has been a big change. I also circle the snack foods I buy on my grocery receipts and track them separately. Which means I should have realized they were increasing and reined them in sooner!

  5. EcoCatLady

    You must have much more willpower than I do because I can’t even have sweets in the house or I just succumb to gluttony. I’ve read that when it comes to dealing with unhealthy food choices there are 2 types of people: moderators and abstainers. I am very clearly an abstainer. If I don’t have it around I’m good, other wise – DOOM!

    I think it must be really challenging to deal with differing tastes where food is concerned. CatMan and I have some difficulty in this area primarily because he’s a vegetarian, and I’m a challenge! Seriously, with my crazy list of food allergies and intolerances it’s difficult to find things that conform to our conflicting sets of dietary restrictions. Then there’s the fact that I like variety and he thrives on predictability where food is concerned.

    Anyhow, we usually only eat together once a week so it’s not an insurmountable issue, but if we had to meal plan together every day, I think I’d be tempted to let go of the idea that we both had to eat the same thing each night and look at it more like feeding two single people in the same household. Maybe batch cooking a variety of meals or even just making a habit of cooking way more than you need and freezing leftovers in meal-sized portions so it would be easy for each person to have their own entree.

    • That is a good idea, Cat. Rom likes to eat the same things all the time, and go for restaurant meals for variety. I would rather cook a wider variety of things at home. Having more than one entree prepared (or in the freezer) to choose from at dinner time would work!

  6. I recommend starting with muffins. Bake 3-4 batches in a few hours, and then freeze. You can warm them up when you are ready for them. Yogurt is more intimidating to me. 😉

    You inspired me with my tracking in 2016, and I’m so impressed you continue! Mine wasn’t something I can commit to regularly, but will likely revisit again as the boys get a bit older. My 10 year old is going through a huge growth spurt, and I can barely keep him fed. Making healthy snacks takes time!

    • Making 3 or 4 batches of muffins at once is a great idea. I would usually only think to make one batch, and it seems like a lot of effort for a small result. So I will do that! I have a yogurt maker. My record on making yogurt is only 50/50, though. I think I have narrowed down the problem to the fact that I carry yogurt in a container when I walk to work, and it gets so shaken, it turns out like Yop!

  7. Dar, I love your “rehashing” of your spending. It makes us all think. Well done. Good luck in 2017. Keith

  8. Ugh. Cooking and meal planning is a problem for us and is something I’d like to improve on in the new year. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips as I’m struggling quite a bit. First there’s the issue that my boyfriend no longer wants to help cook. He has a physically active job and says when he gets home he too tired to do anything. He also works 5.5 days a week, which sucks. As an office worker, I don’t have a physically demanding job but still lack motivation to do much but relaxing/stuff I wanna do after work and I resent it if too much of my precious time is taken up with cooking and cleaning up. But I’m also tired of subsisting on salad, pita and hummus and want to eat better overall. The other issue is that the boyfriend is an über picky meat and potato kinda guy, whereas I’m a less-picky, wants lots of veggies and easy variety kind of girl. It’s a challenge!

    And I also have a voracious sweet tooth. My goal is to limit myself to one sweet treat a day. In December I let my inner sugar monster eat its heart out and now I’m not liking the consequences. So something has gotta change!

    • Hi Candi, We are so in the same boat! I think I will take the suggestion of preparing a couple of extra meals for the freezer, and maybe not always eating the same thing as Rom, who would be happy to eat the same thing every day (in fact, he does, except for our dinners). I might also volunteer to do the cooking Tuesday-Friday, and Rom could do weekends, and prepare something ahead of time for Monday nights. Good luck for working out a new system at your house!

  9. Margie in Toronto

    I actually enjoy cooking and have always cooked and froze leftovers and when I was working I took my lunch in about 4 days per week – so not doing too badly there. The main thing I concentrated on last year was reducing food waste – I’d say that I did a pretty good job overall – but not as good as I’d like. With just me at home I’d better make sure to keep an eye on those salad greens before they turn to mush!
    I don’t bother with formal meal planning as there is just me. I keep a stocked pantry and try to rotate meals between fresh, frozen and items from the pantry – still needs improving. I do check the flyers each week and stock up on sale items along with the usual fresh foods – but I am trying to cut back on purchases in general this year. I have deliberately not gone into the shops for a week or more at a time over the past few months and I’ve been quite surprised to find that I could still manage some decent meals from what’s on hand – I think I was doing a lot of grocery shopping just out of habit or as something to do. I am now going to list all purchases – FOOD and NON-FOOD items each month and see where I end up – should be interesting.
    Since I’ve not been working I’ve found that breakfast around 8:30am – followed by my main meal around 2pm seems to work best for me. I then have soup or fruit & yogurt later in the evening. I’m not really a salt snacker but do have to watch the sweet tooth. I had been doing really well in not having those evening cakes and cookies but have fallen off the wagon this past month – trying to wean myself off again now. The problem is – snacking has suddenly become a habit again – and I’m not even hungry! It’s amazing how addictive sugar is!

    • I am nowhere close to retirement, but I dream of the day when I will be able to have my main meal at mid-day! I took quite a few days off fitness activities in the past two weeks. Now that I’ve returned, I’m more motivated to stop snacking, because I don’t want to feel sluggish. There are times when I truly enjoy cooking and make new recipes often. I don’t get into slumps easily, so I trust myself to deal with it soon. I actually really like meal planning and grocery shopping, probably also to the point of it being just something to do. Meanwhile, I have sooo much holiday candy and snacks in the house…

  10. jollyhollybanolly111

    I would love to try making yoghurt – do you have a recipe?

    • You know what, Holly? My yogurt doesn’t always turn out. I am quite frustrated about it. It always sets, but sometimes it is quite thin. I had best leave you to find a recipe elsewhere!

  11. Lisa

    Hi Dar, I make yogurt on a monthly basis and eat it daily. It is lovely yogurt, in my humble opinion, and I don’t use a yogurt maker. It takes about 1 hour to make and 3-4 hours to incubate in a cooler, and then we have yogurt for a month. If you wish the recipe, let me know how I can share it.

    • Hi Lisa, Would it work to type out the recipe in a comment here? I would love to try it, and maybe Holly (above) will too! You never know, maybe one of the problems with my yogurt is the yogurt maker I use. Trying the cooler method might work for me.

      • Lisa

        Homemade Yogurt

        Ingredients:
        • 4L of milk (2% or whole/homogenized )
        • 1 cup of yogurt (this is starter from your previous batch of yogurt or a small container (~170g) of store-bought plain Balkan yogurt with active bacteria cultures e.g., I use Astro Balkan)
        • ½ cup of skim milk powder if you are using 2% milk

        Equipment:
        • 4·1L (quart) glass canning jars and 1·500 ml jar
        • Stock pot (large enough to hold 4L of milk)
        • Thermometer
        • Measuring cups – 1 cup and 2 cup size
        • Stainless steel spoon or spatula (to stir milk with)
        • Whisk
        • Cooler

        Instructions:
        1. Take yogurt starter out of the refrigerator to warm to room temperature.
        2. Sterilize the jars if you wish (see a canning recipe). I don’t properly sterilize the jars. I wash the jars in the dishwasher, and then as I am making the yogurt I fill the jars with boiling water and let them sit on the counter for at least 5 minutes. I put the lids into hot water. I also fill the measuring cups with boiling water and put the whisk and spatula into some boiling water for a quick 5 minutes. The water from the jars can go into your cooler for the water bath. Water in the cooler should be at 49ºC (120ºF). Heat more water if needed. Jars should stay warm until needed for filling.
        3. Pour 4L of milk into the stock pot. Clip the thermometer to the side of the pot. Warm the milk over medium-low heat to 85ºC (185ºF) stirring frequently to prevent sticking. [Note: Heating the milk to 85ºC helps to partially denature the proteins in the milk so they coagulate into a thicker matrix as the bacteria from the starter uses it].
        4. Remove from heat and place the pot into a sink filled with cold water and let the milk cool to 49ºC (120ºF) or pour the heated milk into another pot already sitting in the sink with cold water. Gently stir occasionally.
        5. While the pot of milk is cooling: pour the yogurt you are using as the starter into a 2 cup measuring cup and drain the jars of the hot water into the cooler. If using (see below) measure out the skim milk powder.
        6. Once the temperature drops to 49ºC (120ºF), remove the pot from the sink. Scoop out about 1 cup of the warm milk and gently whisk it into the 2 cup measuring cup containing the starter.
        7. Pour the combined starter and milk back into the pot of warm milk. To ensure thick yogurt, whisk the skim milk powder into the pot of milk, only if you used 2% milk. Whisk mixture gently to ensure that the starter is thoroughly incorporated into the milk. [The active bacteria in the starter are very important to this fermentation process.]
        8. Pour the milk into jars leaving a bit of headspace. Skim off the milk bubbles. Put the lids and bands on and place the jars into a cooler. The 49ºC (120ºF) water in the cooler should reach half way to two thirds up the jars.
        9. Shut cooler lid and leave in a warm place to incubate for 3-4 hours. If you like a ‘stronger’ yogurt flavour (e.g., tart) you can leave longer. When the time is up, place the yogurt in the refrigerator. Let the yogurt set overnight in the refrigerator.
        Makes: ~4.5L (4.5 quarts)

        Note: I have only ever used 2% milk, but the original recipe said that whole milk could be used.

      • Hi Lisa, Thank you for your excellent and precise instructions. Right away I can see a difference from what I do. My yogurt maker recipe states I should use 1/4 cup of starter! I have tried 1/3 and 1/2 with not much difference in the results. I also was not sure when to put the skim milk powder in. I will definitely give this a go and will tell you how it went.

  12. Hi Dar Very interesting post about your meal planning. It certainly looks like your snacks are a problem. It is so easy to fill up quickly on sugar and carbs as they are cheap to buy easy to carry around and very quick.
    At work I usually lunch at twelve o’clock so that I do’nt become too hungry. I often have an apple for elevenses and only drink green tea in a morning or water as ordinary tea with milk seems to bump up my blood sugar very quickly then I do feel hungry. After lunch I am often hungry about 3.30-4.00pm so I choose a plain yoghurt. This usualy keeps me going until I get home when I will have oatcakes and cheese as we eat quite late. Once a week I go to Sainsbury’s shopping after work – in their cafe I treat myself to a plain hot chocolate with semi skimmed milk and a scone and butter or egg custard. After tea we have started having 2 squares of very dark chocolate both as a treat and also because it has been found to have health benefits.
    Like you we get heaps of buns at work some months are worse than others. This is a good month as no-one has a birthday in January! However a lot of my colleagues have been off loading their unwanted Christmas sweets and biscuits and leaving them in the kitchens for anyone to help themselves and it is very tempting!
    Good luck with your new plans – making and eating nutricious meals does take more time and effort.

    • Hi Viv, Thanks for the inspiration. I take lunch at 12 too. I get hungry by 3. I usually have an apple and a yogurt to tide me over. We eat at about 7, so as you and Lucinda both noted, I should really have a sit-down, planned snack after work. When I go out and stop at a cafe, my favourite treat is a skim latte and an oatcake. My workplace has a gap in birthdays for the next 3 months (!) so that is a help.

  13. Pingback: Accounting for: January | An Exacting Life

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