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Frugal Whole Foods Challenge

October 19, 2011

I’ve run across a few folks lately who are talking about reducing their grocery bills, both for the health of a household budget and as a personal challenge: i.e., how frugal is it possible to be while maintaining a whole-foods diet? (Note: this is not a “Whole Foods” diet.  Whole Foods, while lovely, is not exactly the best place for frugal.)  I’m intrigued by this idea, and thought I’d create a challenge of my own.

My current habits regarding food spending and consumption are a little embarrassing.  I don’t have a food budget, or an accurate idea of what it costs for me to eat each month, though I’m vaguely aware that aside from rent, food is my largest expense.  As someone on a non-profit salary (Yes, there is such a thing.  Non-profit means my company makes no profit, not that I don’t.  Technically.), that ignorance is a luxury I can’t really afford.  I do plan my meals, and most weeks I’m pretty good about sticking to my plan.  But I don’t think twice about grabbing something (or lots of somethings) extra at the farmer’s market or in the cheese aisle, and there’s always food that goes bad in the fridge.  This rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons, and it’s a habit I’d like to train myself out of.

I’m also becoming more and more aware of just how much waste every take-out meal creates.  Don’t get me wrong – I love take-out.  But when I look to places in my habits where I can trim the most spending and waste, take-out is right at the top of the list.

All of this is a long way of saying that for now, I’ve set myself a grocery budget of $40 per week, to feed just me.  (Chris and I mostly eat our own meals – it’s a little complicated, but it works for us.)  My plan is to eat whole foods whenever possible, which is what makes me feel best in general.  I may reduce the budget as I get more acquainted with how much I actually spend and eat each week; $40 is a jumping-off point.  I live in the San Fransisco Bay Area, where food prices are among the highest in the country.  I’ve set my starting budget a little higher than others I’ve seen to accommodate that, but I do hope it’s unnecessary. I’d rather not set a timeline for this – I think I’d like to practice the grocery frugality indefinitely, though I of course recognize that some weeks will be more expensive than others.

The Rules
– $40 is for everything: 3 meals a day, including takeout, after-work drinks, and weekend coffee treats.

– If work travel necessitates eating out that the office will pay for, awesome.  Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?  Also, if Chris wants to take me to dinner, I’ll be shining my date-night shoes and leaving the budget at home.

– I will avoid processed food whenever possible.  The point of the challenge is too see how frugally I can eat according to what I feel is important.

– We’re at the end of prime food-preserving season; since it’s important to me to eat local foods year-round, I may buy the occasional flat of sauce tomatoes to can outside of this budget.

The Disclaimers
– I work outside the home, full-time.  Often a lot more than full-time.  This challenge isn’t something to fill idle hours; making it fit around my work and personal schedule will take some finesse.  Bear with me.

– I like to cook.  A lot.  Cooking from scratch can be quite time-consuming, but since it’s something I enjoy and find relaxing, I prioritize it.  I know many people don’t feel the same way; food is deeply personal, and it’s not my intent to demean anyone else’s needs or priorities.

– I have a well-stocked pantry already.  Too well-stocked, really, and I’m hoping to whittle it way down in the coming weeks.

– I’m mostly a vegetarian.  I know meats are expensive, and that’s one line item I can pretty much write out of my budget right from the start.

I’d like to check in here about my successes or challenges, maybe once a week on Fridays.  I’ll post my week’s menu, with recipe links when I have them, and let you know how things went.  Wish me luck!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben C permalink
    October 19, 2011 2:36 pm

    I think this is an excellent program you’ve developed and I look forward to seeing how it works. What definitions are you using for “whole foods” vs. “processed foods”?

    • Ashley permalink*
      October 19, 2011 2:49 pm

      Hi Ben! Thanks. 🙂 Re: whole foods vs. processed foods – it’s kind of a blurry line sometimes. Like, technically pasta is processed food (for that matter, so is flour), but I’m okay with buying pasta and flour. Mostly I mean no Pasta Roni Fettuccine Alfredo (though God I love it so). So I guess my definition of whole foods is: ingredients. Though I do think there’s a real continuum, and I’ll probably move up and down it as I experiment.

  2. connie permalink
    October 19, 2011 4:20 pm

    Good luck….this sounds great. I really need to do the same thing. Especially eating more whole foods and making more homemade things. Thanks for the inspiration and and I look forward to your next post to see how it is going.

    • Ashley permalink*
      October 20, 2011 4:20 pm

      Thanks, Connie! I vote for babysteps – just a little at a time, I think, is plenty. This week, for example, I discovered homemade tortillas – not much effort, and SO much better than store-bought. It’s the stuff that’s fun and tasty that makes the extra effort easier, I think.

  3. October 20, 2011 1:38 pm

    As much as I love take out as well, that gets ridiculously expensive. BUT, cooking everything from scratch becomes a huge pain as well 😦 (does it all of the time).
    I wish you luck though :D!

    • Ashley permalink*
      October 20, 2011 4:17 pm

      Thanks! It definitely can be a pain to cook from scratch; I do most of the time already, so I’m pretty used to it, but I’d love to have a system where I can set myself up with enough ready-to-go stuff that I’m not so tempted by the takeout.

  4. Geraldine permalink
    November 7, 2011 4:36 pm

    Hi Ashley,

    I’ve been mulling this idea over since I first read your post. I wanted to start my own challenge, but wasn’t sure what that would look like – two people on a tight student budget and no real income to speak of is not a pretty sight. My post about my own challenge is finally up and I wanted to say thanks for the inspiration! Your food always looks amazing – and you’ve got great time-saving tips. (Frozen individual servings of beans is brilliant.) I’m looking forward to reading more about your challenge as the weeks go by!


    • Ashley permalink*
      November 7, 2011 9:34 pm

      Thanks, Geraldine! I’m definitely having fun with my challenge, and I hope you enjoy yours, too. I’m looking forward to reading all about it. It’s somehow easier to stick to self-imposed rules when you’re in good company. 🙂 Good luck!


  1. A Week in My Kitchen « Life of a Little Woman
  2. {Frugal Kitchen: Student Edition} « Growing Simplicity
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