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