30-Day Thrifty Challenge: The Food We Bought

This wasn't on our menu planning, but was too good a deal to pass up, one of the tricks you follow when shopping on a very limited budget

We’ve been getting a lot of interest in our 30-Day Whole Foods Thrifty Challenge, trying to feed a family of three for a month on a budget of $491.10 (the USDA’s “Thrifty” budget level) while shopping only at Whole Foods. And yes, this means NO eating meals outside the home; all our son’s school lunches have been brown-bagged.

Below is a tally of all the food that was purchased over the 30 days, including what we needed to buy for our celebratory “dinner party for eight” on the final day.

Some math to put all of this in perspective:

  • $491.10 breaks down to $16.38 per day
  • Which breaks down to $1.82 per person per meal
  • For comparison’s sake, the USDA “Liberal” budget level, the highest of the four, budgets $971.40 for food for our family; that’s $10 less than double what we spent this month.  Caviar, anyone?

Read ALL the 30-Day Whole Foods Thrifty Challenge posts.


MEAT

Chicken Breast                         61.07                        15.11 pounds

Ground beef                              35.17                          9.12 pounds

Chicken sausages                     7.46                          2.14 pounds

Beef shoulder                             7.12                           2.04 pounds

TOTAL: $110.82

FRESH PRODUCE

Apples, organic                        27.68                        32 apples

Cucumbers                                  9.90                        10 cukes

Pineapple                                  15.00                        6 pineapples

Garlic                                            0.56                        1 clove

Lemon                                          3.95                        5 lemons

Onions                                          9.55                        9.07 pounds

Potatoes                                     10.50                        11.4 pounds

Tangelos                                      5.44                         3.14 pounds

Butternut squash                        5.88                         4.56 pound squash

Bananas                                       6.79                        25 bananas

Celery, organic                            2.99                        1 bunch

Celery, regular                             2.49                        1 bunch

Broccoli crowns                           2.99                        1.2 pounds

Grape tomatoes                           4.99                        2 pints

Carrots                                        12.47                        12 pounds

Fresh spinach                            10.47                         3 9 oz. bags

Fresh basil                                    2.69                         2/3 oz. package

Grapefruit                                      1.86                         1.25 pounds

Orange                                           2.04                         2 oranges

TOTAL: $138.24

FROZEN & CANNED VEGETABLES

Frozen spinach                              2.69                        1 16 oz. bag

Frozen green beans                      6.47                        2 16 oz. bags & 1 32 oz. bag

Frozen broccoli                              8.46                         3 16oz. bags & 1 32 oz. bag

Frozen veggie medley                22.71                        9 16 oz. bags

Canned, diced tomatoes            17.91                        9 28 oz. cans

TOTAL: $58.24

DAIRY

Eggs                                               25.51                        9.5 dozen

Butter, organic                                4.99                        1 pound

Butter, regular                               14.47                        5 pounds

Milk                                                 13.96                        4 gallons

TOTAL: $58.93

PROCESSED FOOD

Mac & Cheese                               5.45                        5 boxes

Golden crackers                          14.75                        4 12 oz. boxes & 1 9 oz. box

Pasta                                                5.95                        5 16 oz. bags

Potato chips                                   1.99                         1 5 oz. bag

Oatmeal                                          1.34                         1 7.5 oz. box (5 pouches)

TOTAL: $29.48

BAKING

Flour                                               13.16                       20 pounds total (4 bags)

Flour, whole wheat                        3.29                        5 pounds total (1 bag)

Cane sugar                                   10.48                        6 pounds total (1 lg & 1 sm bag)

Chocolate chips                             4.98                        2 12 oz. bags

Cocoa powder                                5.99                        1 7 oz. container

Brown sugar                                   1.59                        1 16 oz. box

TOTAL: $39.49

MISCELLANEOUS

Orange Juice                                15.95                        5 half gallons

Ground coffee                                 4.99                        1 14-ounce container

Olive oil                                            5.99                        1 liter

Maple syrup                                    7.99                         1 12 fl. oz. bottle

Oats (for oatmeal)                           2.00                        1.26 pounds

Jasmine brown rice                        4.99                        5 pounds

Sliced almonds                               2.04                         5.5 ounces

Wine                                                  8.97                         3 bottles (dinner party)

TOTAL: $52.92

GRAND TOTAL FOR FOOD:
$488.12
($2.98 under budget!)

About Greg Wymer

Greg Wymer is a reformed fussy eater who used to eat his burgers plain (just beef and bun), no ketchup on his fries, and God forbid if the meat sauce touched the pasta on his plate. Now his palate is broad, his food choices are healthy, and his snark is evident on the True Food Movement.

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33 Responses to 30-Day Thrifty Challenge: The Food We Bought

  1. constancewakesho January 19, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Congratulations for your good work and effort.

  2. Kristen January 30, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    Lisa, this is amazing. I always think of Whole Foods as being an expensive option (though a very good one)but I guess you proved it otherwise. I have a lot to learn about thrifty shopping. ;)

  3. Ivan February 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    Nice work! Our family of 7 has a $600 a month food budget and we buy exclusively organic food. We do, however, buy quite a bit directly from the farm: eggs, milk, beef, and pork. The rest we buy from Whole Foods. One thing we realized is that the biggest difference in price between Whole Foods (or Organics in general) is in the processed food aisles. Since processed foods are essentially junk in any form, we cut them out, and significantly reduced our budget. I noticed that you’re items were very low in this category as well.

  4. Lisa February 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Yes Ivan, we had almost no processed food, generally it was only adding junky food and labor costs … better to do it at home. Totally impressed you’re doing it on $600 per month! That’s amazing … can I ask what part of the country you’re in? I’m not sure how much regional differences matter … but I’m jealous of anyone below the Mason/Dixon line these days. :)

  5. Lisa February 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Kristin, our posts can definitely be used as a primer. :)

  6. Ivan February 8, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    Yep, you’re right. We’re in South Carolina.

  7. Lisa February 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    Totally jealous! :) Enjoy your warmth … L–

  8. Kit Robertson February 22, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    I have been switching our kids from processed to whole foods now for about 7 months. (its taken this long!) We have seven kids (three of them athletic, competitive swimmers). After an astronomical food budget for January, my husband and I sat down and did a budget of $300 a week for our family of 9. I did the math on the USDA website you provided and we came in around the low-cost plan. We have not eaten out (a challenge, because that is my entertainment, lol) but we have had some really good food. The family is off the processed foods almost totally, and I have tons of options for fresh veggies. I, too, look for the ‘super deals’ for meat and will go on *that* day to *that* store (whichever store has the deal) to buy enough meat for the month. Sometimes its grass-fed or organic, but usually it is the next level down. Whole Foods calls this “level 1″. This is the only meat we buy now.

    This whole thing completely fascinates me and re-energizes me. It is a definite challenge to keep it all going!

  9. Lisa February 22, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    Kit, $300 a week for your family of 9 is amazing! I think it’s smart to visit different stores so you can get the best deals … something I would normally do … :) It is energizing isn’t it? And I would allow yourself some dinners out here and there, just put it under the entertainment budget ;-) L–

  10. Lenore DeLitizia February 22, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    I’d sure like to know where Ivan shops. I live in North Carolina, and I shop at Walmart and BJ’s. There’s only me and my son (27 yrs. old), and our food bill comes in around $400.00 a month.

  11. Lisa February 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Thanks Lenore, maybe Ivan will check back and tell you. :)

  12. Carla February 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Lisa, interesting challenge — good job! Lenore is right about higher food prices in NC. They are definitely higher than in Massachusetts where I spend several months of the year. In fact, I found them higher than in California as well, which surprised me. Don’t totally discount the use of coupons. We live on a ridiculously small income, and coupons are what keep us going. It is a difficult way to live long term. We actually don’t eat anything at all that we have not made ourselves. No entertainment budget, so no eating out for us!

  13. Lisa February 22, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    Carla, I was trying coupons but never quite got them off the ground. I use the Whole Foods flyer coupons on stuff I already buy and my Mom brought over a big pile for me which I didn’t use during the challenge but did afterwards … it helps a bit here and there. But most of the coupons are processed food based and our budget was too tight to afford most processed stuff. Thanks for the comment though! L–

  14. Lynne February 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Great job Lisa! It’s so good to hear from someone/folks in general, who have the same challenges/struggles as I do. I use a lot of the Whole Foods 365 line, which I find to be very good. I believe that our diet is our daily medicine, and finding hormone-free, chemical-free, organic food is certainly a challenge for anyone running a household. Me and my family feel so much better without that stuff. When we first went to eating this way, it took me about a month before I noticed any difference, and I didn’t get into it for that reason either. It was a surprising and delightful side effect of eating chemical-free. Like you, we eat in most of the time, and I’ve found that I really do love to cook. When I was younger and just starting my household, I didn’t like to cook or shop. Now I find it’s actually fun and there’s also fun in the challenge of finding ways to eat well without going broke. We already purchase most of the items you did, and those 1 day only fire sales at WFM (as I call them) are perfect for stocking up. Thanks again for bringing your story to light and good luck with everything!

  15. Michelle February 23, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Interesting info, and I really appreciate it although I would like to see this done on a gluten free, dairy free diet, since that is one of the reasons I shop at W.F. I also didn’t see much in the way of breakfast food, other than oatmeal. Did you have oatmeal every day? I have school age children that only want sandwiches in their school lunch, that means lots of loaves of gluten free bread (at$5.99 a loaf) and lots of sandwich meats, we buy the Applegate Farms for the nitrate free and hormone free meat. As you can see, this is a big part of my food budget! I am looking for ways to cut back quickly since my husband just lost his job and looks like food stamps may be our food budget for a while. Any suggestions for eating gluten free and dairy free on that budget?

  16. Michele February 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    @Michelle, funny you should request ideas about doing the same thing on a gluten-free diet. Our family is also gluten-free currently jobless, and working within a similar budget, which is what drew me to the article. We’re also beef-free. I’m heading out to Whole Foods for our shopping this evening and I was thinking, though mostly in jest, about asking Whole Foods to do the same thing with a family on a gluten-free diet. Regarding lunches and bread: We actually bake most of our own bread (I have a recipe that we like from Gluten-Free Mommy), as well as other baked goods. We eat a lot of peanut butter and rice and beans for lunch, in addition to leftovers, though we’re a homeschooling family and I realize this is more difficult when sending kids out to school. To save money on lunch meats, I would probably buy extra portions of dinner meats that I could slice or shred to put on sandwiches.

  17. Lisa February 23, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Hi Michelle, we don’t need to worry about gluten free or dairy free in my family but we do need to eat nut, corn and legume (even soy) free because of allergies. I guess we all have to carve our own path … :) L–

  18. Lisa February 23, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    Lynne, I have to say the folks at my local Whole Foods know me well and I get to visit and chit chat with the check out guys, the butcher and the baggers. :-) We swap recipes and ideas and they’ll tip me off to a good sale item too. I too have found a ton of stuff in the 365 line to be really great and I was told by a manager that their goal is to get the entire 365 line to be organic, they’re working with supplier now to switch stuff over. Not sure how long that will take though … thanks for stopping by. L–

  19. Michele February 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    @Michelle – I came up with a couple lunch ideas for you while shopping. Have you ever thought of using eggs, tofu, or hummus for sandwiches? You could cook up eggs once a week, flat omlette-style and use them just like cold cuts. Similarly, tofu you could bake or fry and use in sandwiches the same way. All are good proteins, and with some veggies added could work really well for lunch time sandwiches. Hope this helps.

  20. Heather February 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    You’re right, it’s really hard to live day in and day out at this level, while trying to provide healthy meals for a busy family. Now imagine doing it with food allergies. In our family two of us have Celiac Disease, meaning we can’t have gluten. The flour you bought averaged roughly $0.65/pound. Unless you buy it in bulk at Bob’s Red Mill (only safe bulk place for GF flour), it costs us several dollars a pound for flour, and it takes several types of flour to make GF baking work. Next look at pasta. Yours cost about $1.19 for a one pound package. At most stores, the good brand of GF pasta (one of the only ones that isn’t nasty, this one is really good) costs about $3.99 for a 12 ounce package. Now let’s add to this. There are also two people in our house who are lactose-intolerant. Your milk cost you approximately $3.50/gallon, but lactose-free milk costs us about $8/gallon, more than twice as much! For added fun, our house is totally peanut and tree nut free due to my niece’s SEVERE nut allergy (i.e. must carry an epipen because it could be life threatening). This means we can’t even use the Bob’s Red Mill products any more, which we can get cheaper, as they are produced on shared lines, and we have to check all other products for this as well. Often the typical ‘replacement’ items for one of the food allergies we are dealing with contains one of the other allergies someone in the family has, meaning many of our products are much more specialized and expensive, and all of this must be done on the food stamps we get each month.

  21. Lisa February 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    Wow Heather, that is really tough, we have nut allergies in my family to so we do have to be careful as well (there are epi-pens all over my house, purse, work, etc.). I can imagine the sacrifices you have to make to get it all in. Good luck for all that you’re doing to keep your family healthy. It sounds like you’re safest with a lot of fruits, veggies and proteins … which, as we both know, can get pricey. ((hugs))

  22. Elvy February 24, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    $491.10 a month is very impressive. We are spending $1200 a month on food. (family of 5, gluten free, dairy free except goat yogurt). The only way I actually managed to save on food was to buy a 1/4 of beef and 12 fresh chickens from the farm and veggie CSA in the summer. I was very surprised to find out that the meat from the farm tasted much different that USDA organic meat from the stores and it is much harder to cook.
    I cook almost everything from scratch, make lunches for the kids.
    We do not eat bread at all, gluten free bread without yeast tastes quite bad in my opinion and it is not worth the money. I just skip all ‘replacement’ gluten free items. I am left with fruits, meats, grains, veggies, nuts, goat yogurt and nothing else. Every month I am trying to spend less the $1200 and I haven’t managed to do this yet.

  23. angela February 25, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    You can score good deals in the bulk bins as well. I bought organic sugar @ 1.19$ a pound! I too love their madness sales, good time to stock up!

  24. Lisa February 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Elvy, I can imagine the frustration you have with budget planning given the diet needs of your family. You definitely found one good option though, buying protein in quantity and freezing it. There are some sites about cooking farm-raised meats, it is different than the USDA guidelines. Actually that’ll make a great blog post … I’ll put it in my ed calendar! Thanks L–

  25. Lisa February 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Thanks Angela, You really do have to keep your eyes open and the Madness Sales are really fun! L–

  26. Brenda July 26, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    Our family also is gluten,casein, & soy free. We do not eat anything processed,except tinkyada pasta once a year.mostly just eat whole fruits, veg, & meats.a good replacement for milk is hemp,potato,rice,or coconut if u can. So Delicious makes some wonderful coconut milk products. Anyway, really wanted to let remind everyone that all of this is tax itemizable. must have letter of medical neccessity & don’t expect ur local h&r block to know how to do this-they don’t. you may need to school a cpa in it but once u get it down its not hard & def worth the effort. I have two kids with autism & anxiety & we must buy everything specialized right down to toothpaste. whole foods is unfortunately not close to my house, but i have other options; however,the mileage to WF is also tax itemizeable. Hope some of this is helpful.

  27. Lisa Johnson July 26, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Hi Brenda, I would definitely check with accountants about the food deductions. I’m assuming you’re claiming you can take it for medical reasons? You also need to meet a certain threshold of % of income before you can deduct medical expenses I believe. So make sure you’ve got a good accountant if you’re going that route. (I’m saying this for others, more than for you.) Thanks so much for bringing it up. L–

  28. Brenda July 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Hi Lisa, i think its 7&1/2% of your income.There r so many people who have no idea about this. A friend of mine has been doing this for yrs…its the only way she is able to continue feeding her kids as well as supplements/vitamins,laundry detergent,soap,shampoo,conditioner,lotion,toothpaste,clothing,wool rug,& even bedding. Also mileage to specialists,conferences,etc…its a whole other world when you have special needs children. Anyway,thanks for this blog its wonderful to be able to share with others going through similar circumstances.I definitely want to stress one last time to tax itemize food & the like you must have a letter of medical neccessity.thanks again.

  29. kathrynd December 1, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Someone wondered if they ate oatmeal everyday. With the ingredient list, I saw the makings for pancakes, waffles, french toast,omelets,eggs,and of course oatmeal.Oatmeal with chopped fruit and spices, of all sorts.
    To me, this budget was extremely generous.

  30. Greenwicj April 13, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    I assume you went with $500 because of the food stamp allotment for North Carolina? I see that currently the maximum allotment for a family of three is $526. It might help to make that clearer.

  31. admin April 14, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Hi Greenwicj, no we went with the monthly updates from the Federal Government on the USDA site … it’s linked several times throughout the posts. :-) L–

  32. Aaron November 2, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Its nice to see that Whole Foods can provide for a family on a budget. I recently started going to Whole Foods. I am quite amazed by the place and great service.

  33. mamaroz January 22, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    You can’t buy wine with food stamps !! The whole article was great until you added that !

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