How Much Do You Spend on Food?

Maybe the question isn’t just “how much do you spend on food,” but “what value are you getting for what you spend in time and money for food?”

We all know food has become much more expensive, so it makes sense to pay attention to what we’re paying for in terms of value, nutrition and money.

One advantage of a low/sporadic self-employed income is it trains us to track expenses. Maintaining spreadsheets of income and expenses become second-nature because it’s required for tax filings.

It’s easier to cut spending than earn more net income, and the obvious way to save money is to manage expenses to be lower than net income. Like many others who chose self-employment at a young age, I’ve kept records of expenses for decades.

Out of curiosity, I prepared a spreadsheet of our total spending on food this year. This is all food, both food prepared at home and takeout and eating out. Alcohol and household supplies (detergent, etc.) are separate categories. (I’m mostly Irish-Scots, so Guinness has its own column.)

I have no idea what other households spend, or what’s considered “normal,” but we spend $40 per person per week, for 21 meals at home every week (no takeout or eating out), or about $2 per meal per person.

What works for us is pretty much the way most people lived a few generations ago:

1. We stick to real food, so no processed foods, chips, frozen pizzas, meals in a plastic bag, sugary drinks, sugary cold cereals, desserts, etc. Real food can be canned (tuna, sauerkraut, etc.) or frozen (edamame, etc.), but real food doesn’t have dozens of weird ingredients in fine print.

2. We eat a wide variety of foods prepared in a range of cuisines. We tend to eat what’s in season (i.e. what we’re harvesting from our yard and what’s on sale) and our default diet is mostly Asian staples: brown rice, tofu, natto, stir-fried vegetables with a bit of meat, etc. Other than the requirement that the food is real / unprocessed, our only other guideline is minimize oils, sugar and salt. We cook Italian, Thai, Indian, Chinese, French, Hawaiian, etc.

3. We have an urban yard with fruit trees and vegetable gardens. I’m attentive to the dirt and don’t use pesticides or herbicides but am otherwise a lazy gardener. There’s weeds and bugs. Sometimes what you harvest looks great, other times, not, so you trim off the bad bits.

Not everyone has the land for a garden. When I lived in an apartment, I signed up for a community garden plot. Going back a few generations, it was common to have a garden.

4. We don’t waste food. Again, this was once second nature to most people. Collectively, we toss out an astounding quantity of perfectly good food.

5. Preparing good food comes first, everything else comes second. According to surveys, many people complain that they don’t have time to prepare meals but they manage to find 4.5 to 8 hours a day for screentime on social media, TV, “news,” etc. We like to eat good food, so that’s our priority. Preparing food is enjoyable and rewarding. Watching deranging SOS (same old stuff)–it’s certainly addicting by design, but doesn’t offer much in the way of the joy and pleasure of preparing good food.

When you make your own pasta sauce from scratch, for example, you control the quality of the ingredients, and if you make a big pot, then you get the bonus of leftovers. Pasta sauce made from fresh tomatoes from a well-tended garden tastes so much better than the canned / bottled variety. It’s a revelation, like many other home-prepared foods: homemade pickles, etc.

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