Preparing for the 30-Day “Thrifty Challenge”

I feel as green as this field of wheat ... I've got a lot to learn

My family is in the final days before our 30-Day Challenge begins.  Frankly, I’m scared … I’ll be feeding the three of us spending only $491.10 for the month of January and only from food bought at Whole Foods.  Can I actually do it?

(Here’s complete info on the Challenge.)

I’m not so sure, but everyone around me is confident.  My uncertainty comes from the math; there is going to be a lot of math!  How much will each serving cost?  The price of each meal needs to average $1.82 per person; that’s a total of $16.38 per day for three breakfasts, three lunches, and three dinners. Every ingredient I use must be considered and calculated for value.  Every morsel will be passed under scrutiny before being deemed worthy.

Eep.  Can I do that?

My family went on the “Whole Foods Value Tour” earlier this week.  It was pretty great actually; we got our tour from the very lovely David Remillard, a foodie who knows his stuff!  Anyone can request a Value Tour at any Whole Foods; just ask for one and you’ll get the same service I received.  (It’s best to call ahead so they know you’re coming.)

Some of David’s tips:

  1. Check online or at the door for the weekly flyer.  It will list a few dozen items on sale and comes out on Wednesdays.
  2. My local Whole Foods has over 35,000 items in stock and, during any given week, about 2,000 are on sale or specially priced, so check the flyers, but also check the shelves.  You’ll find lots of hidden gems.
  3. The “365 Label” (Whole Foods’ in-house brand) is almost always the cheapest option.  Check the 365 price first and see if it works for your budget.  I did a 2-hour reconnaissance mission on my own and found this to be true with only one exception (apple juice).
  4. If you buy more than three pounds of a meat, they’ll give you an additional 50 cents off per pound.  You can use some fresh and then freeze the rest for later.
  5. Whole Foods has weekend specials above and beyond the weekly flyer.  Check to see if there’s anything good available if you’re shopping on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
  6. Once a month the store has a Madness Sale, which features really, really good sales on items.  This is a great chance to look for things you can stock up on.
  7. Buying local and buying in season are always cheaper and (bonus!) better for the environment.
  8. Check online at the websites for brands that you like.  They will often have coupons you can print out and use in the store.

I also learned some interesting factoids that I wasn’t previously aware of.  For instance:

  • My local Whole Foods is located very near a Trader Joe’s (less than a quarter mile away) so they compete with them head-to-head.  Because of this, Whole Foods makes sure certain key items are priced the same as TJ’s.  David pointed out bagged spinach and coffee as examples.
  • The bins in front of the store with items like nuts, coffee, and grains aren’t always the cheapest.  For instance, nuts in the pre-sealed and measured plastic bags are less expensive than the nuts in the bins, because the loose nuts are considered better quality (honestly, I can’t tell the difference and I buy both).

Interesting, no?

Whole Foods Took My Bet, and You Get Something Too!

This is the cool part.  I asked Whole Foods to make a wager with me: if I can successfully feed my family for $491.10 or less over the 30 days, the store will reimburse me for all the groceries I buy.  I also asked if they would be willing to give away a $125 gift card each week to a reader.  They said yes to both!  On January 2nd, I’ll announce how you can enter to win one of the weekly gift cards, so come back after the new year to sign up.

And, full disclosure, Whole Foods is in NO way providing any editorial input on what I have or will be writing over the course of the challenge …

Here are the rules of our 30-Day Challenge.  They are entirely made up by me.

  1. Our family will “start” with only a few ingredients on hand: whatever spices I have, some maple syrup, and olive and canola oil.  Everything else I will buy.
  2. All meals (and snacks) will be prepared at home.  If food is purchased outside of the home, this will be factored into the total budget.  And since we totally can’t afford this, it ain’t happening!  This also means my son will be brown bagging it at school every day and not eating from the school cafeteria.
  3. No special favors from Whole Foods.  I’m not, for instance, going to ask David to put chicken on sale so I can buy a ton.  I will not receive the weekly flyer ahead of time to help me with menu planning.  I will be trying to accomplish shopping within my budget using the same resources that anyone else would have.
  4. I am allowed to cry if I get totally frustrated and am completely craving filet mignon or hit a roadblock trying to figure out how to stretch the budget to make it.  This also means no downing a bottle of wine, since that’s not in the budget either.
  5. Everyone in the family is allowed to whine, vociferously if needed, but they aren’t allowed to cheat.  This means I can’t sneak out for lunch during the workday, my husband can’t have a Dunkin Donuts coffee, and my son can’t demand after school snacks at the bagel shop.
  6. During the month, I will share all receipts and the breakdown of the meals so you can see exactly where my money is going.
  7. On day 30, we will host a dinner party for eight as the final meal of the Challenge, so I must be sure that I have enough money or food left over to feed my guests.
  8. We are so going out to dinner on January 31st!

There you go.  If you have any super-cheap recipes to share, please do!  If you have any tips on meal planning, please, please share them with me.  I’d love to hear everything.

Wish me luck,

Lisa

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

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30 Responses to Preparing for the 30-Day “Thrifty Challenge”

  1. Gayle P December 28, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Great Idea! I will be checking back and very interested in the giveaway!

  2. Kristin Conroy December 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    GOOD LUCK! Wow, what a fabulous (and brave!) challenge. I know it’s possible to eat healthy food on a budget but accomplishing your goal would (I’m sorry, WILL) be amazing! I’ll be checking in to cheer you on:)

  3. Lisa Johnson December 28, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    Thanks guys, love the votes of confidence! L–

  4. Christopher Baccus December 28, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Curious how much fresh fruit and vegetables you buy. I find a large part of our family of 4 (wife and twin 5 yr olds) ~$150/wk whole foods bill is made up of mostly organic fresh vegetables and fruit and we do not buy any meat or alcohol since we don’t drink and buy our meats from a local ranch.

    Good luck and I look forward to reading how it goes. My tip on cheap meals is go more vegetarian since it has a lower cost per meal than meat dishes. Lentils, rice, and beans work well as I’m sure you already know.

  5. Lisa Johnson December 28, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

    Christopher thanks so much for the tip and yes, we’ll be looking at vegetarian options. Sadly my little guy is allergic to lentils and beans so it’ll severely limit those choices but we’ll be doing quinoa, wheat products and rice. The gluten-free folks won’t get much help from me this month! :)

  6. Miriam December 28, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    The website I attached has a great, inexpensive, healthy, and vegetarian with high-protein content recipe you should try for your challenge! Very filling. I eliminate the sour cream and cheese. Keeps well for leftovers.

    Good luck!

  7. Miriam December 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/tex-mex-rice-and-black-eyed-peas-recipe/index.html

    (it has black eyed peas– not beans– hope your little guy can eat those!)

  8. Lisa Johnson December 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    Miriam thank you! That’s so awesome! :-)

  9. Kristie December 28, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    This is fantastic! I will definitely keep watch during your journey and wish you the best of luck! You sound super determined and am looking forward to some great tips.

    A favorite recipe of ours is vegetarian tostadas. Tostada shells, refried beans, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese with spanish rice and don’t forget the salsa. Yum! Always a hit at my house. Good luck!

  10. Dean Ouellette December 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Good luck! my favorite cheap lunch is cheeseburger salad.

    Romaine/iceburg/kale (whatever i have that was on sale that week)
    Tiny but of ranch dressing, real ranch dressing no sweetners and just a tiny bit to make it last
    Cheeseburger on top (freshly shredded chs on top of burger that I stock up when on sale)
    Peppers and onions and sometimes mushrooms if on sale sauteed in coconut or oive oil and spread on the top.

    Pretty cheap, easy to make and fills you up!

    Good luck looking forward to watching this. We do about $200/week on our groceries and that is with 5 kids.

  11. Lisa Johnson December 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Wow Dean! That’s impressive and I think very close to what the Thrifty Budget would be … go you!

  12. christine December 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    If I can do it on $200 /mo food stamps (long-term unemployed, disabled and not getting any SSDI or unemploymet) for one person with gluten/grain/legume/meat intolerances-allergies you can make your budget work. Get ready to cook, particularly batch cook. Get a small chest freez.er

  13. christine December 28, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Buy less packaged, convenience foods. Focus on baragin meats, veggies, fruits. Use a slow-cooker, pressure cooker, rice cooker. Make your own broth, stock, soups, stews. Freeze left-overs including fresh herbs, tomato paste, pumpkin puree, applesauce, other ingredients in “ice cubes” to preserve for future use.

    You’ll get the hang of it quickly when you see how much food (and money) you can actually save AND how much healthier your family can eat when you cook from scratch and control what goes into your meals.

  14. Kimberly December 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    Can I give you a few of my frugal grocery hints? One is rotisserie chicken, or roasting your own (costs and tastes about the same.)On night one, I make some sort of salad (usually spinach) with a breast of the chicken (we aren’t huge meat eaters.) The next day, DH eats the legs with something else for lunch. The next night, I pick off most of the remainder of the chicken and do a casserole, like a chicken noodle casserole. Finally, I put the carcass in the crock pot with bits and ends of veggies I have saved and make a broth. We use that for some sort of vegetarian soup (I do an Asian noodle with tofu, bok choy, ramen noodles, carrots, celery, onion, pea pods, dried mushrooms, rice vinegar, and soy sauce.) This soup makes dinner with leftovers for lunch the next day or dinner the next night.

    Another is Cuban black beans and rice. I make an entire bag of beans in the crockpot and season it, etc…. We eat the beans with brown rice, sour cream, salsa, sauteed corn (frozen)/onion/red bell, and a bit of cheese on night one. One of us may take some for leftovers the next day. A couple of days later, we do soft black bean and rice tacos with guacamole and all of the fixings. You could also use leftovers for black bean and chicken nachos (save a bit of chicken from the rotisserie.)

    Fried rice is another cheap gem. I feel like we are eating takeout when I make it. You have to make the rice the day before and put it in the refrigerator. I always add browned tofu, egg, edemmame, onion, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, and soy sauce. You can put whatever you have on hand in it though. It’s cheap and a nice dinner and movie meal.

    Also, allow yourself a treat meal every week. If you like filet, find a good, but less expensive cut and have a bit less of it than you normally would. Have 4oz per person(which is a serving anyway) and load up on sides/veggies.

    We shop at a gourmet fresh food type grocery for all of our food and for a family of three, with wine, coffee, nuts, sodas and sometimes flowers– we spend $125 a week or less. I find that focusing on foods where you can cook once and use the whole batch for several meals makes things really cheap. Also, we snack on popcorn from the bulk bin (we pop it in oil and season with some butter, Parmesan, garlic powder, salt and pepper)and I cut up inexpensive veggies and make a light Ranch dip with Greek yogurt and keep those in the fridge. I also buy whatever fruits are in season or on sale and keep that.

  15. Lisa Johnson December 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    Christine, I agree with you. I’m already a pretty good scratch cook and all the research I’ve been doing online at other sites say lots of batch cooking and scratch cooking. I’m planning on trying to make pasta from scratch again … (I’ve failed 3 times so far …). LOL … I’ll be buying very little packaged foods, we don’t buy that much to begin with, mostly for my son’s school lunches …

  16. Lisa Johnson December 28, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Kimberly, thanks so much for your ideas. I’ve done whole chickens too. Roast chicken dinner one night, chicken sandwiches (with scratch bread) for lunch the next day, then a big batch of chicken soup (lots of veggies, usually rice) and we can live off the soup for a couple of days … very economical. :-)

    My son is unfortunately allergic to beans, but I like the idea of doing a big batch of rice and using it different ways over several nights and I’ve done flour quesadillas before which worked great, you can use canned tomatoes to make a little salsa … if the fresh is too pricey. Appreciate the input!

    L–

  17. Miriam C December 28, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    Lisa, this is an awesome idea! And the funniest thing: I had the same idea 3 days ago and bought a yoghurt maker where I can make my own plain yoghurt with milk for some cents instead of $4 per pound. One of the cheapest recipes my kids, hubbie and I love: Whole potatoes cooked, after that peeled, served with spiced yoghurt or sour cream and salad. Might be $0.80 per serving…
    I will bring you some recipe from Germany, which are delicious, cheap and very traditional- my grandma made them and they had only little money as farmers…

  18. Joyce Cherrier December 29, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    So interested in this Lisa – great challenge and awesome Whole Foods is game! I’ll be checking in to see your progress!

  19. Lisa Johnson December 29, 2011 at 12:23 am #

    Miriam, I’ve got a lot of German genes in me! (Hubs too) so bring the recipes, would love them …

  20. Jenny December 29, 2011 at 3:28 am #

    Lisa, I found this on twitter because I too follow everything Whole Foods and I LOVE what you are doing. For just my husband and I we spend about $800-$1000 a month on groceries and I try to not buy any meats at Whole Foods (because the meat there is pricey).

    Here a few ideas of cheap and fast dinners I like to make.

    Mushroom Barley

    Ingredients

    8 oz mushroom
    1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
    4 garlic cloves, finaly chopped
    1 cup pearled barley
    2 cups chicken stock
    1 tablespoon dried thyme
    2 tablespoons canola oil
    Salt, to taste
    Pepper to taste

    Directions

    In a pan with a tight fitting lid, add oil and when hot, add onion, garlic and mushroom. Seasonw with black pepper and dried thyme. Once veggies have softened and mushrooms have browned, add salt. Add barley and toast until barley is fragrant (about 2 minutes or so). Add chicken stock and combine. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer. Barley should be ready in about 20-25 minutes.

    French Bread Pizza

    Ingredients

    1 loaf of French bread
    4 cups of mozzarella cheese
    1 jar of pizza sauce
    Pepperoni, to taste (optional)
    Italian sausage, to taste (optional)

    Directions

    Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

    Slice loaf across and pull out some of the insides of the bread. Put loaves in oven and bake until the top begins to toast lightly. Spread sauce and top with pepperoni and/or sausage. Top meat with cheese and bake in oven until cheese has browned.

    Chickpea Stew

    Ingredients

    1 15 oz can of chickpeas
    1 onion, finaly chopped
    4 garlic cloves, minced or finely chopped
    3 celery stalks, chopped
    3-4 carrots, chopped
    1 or 2 cans of tomato sauce
    Italian seasoning, to taste
    Salt, to taste
    Pepper to taste

    Directions

    In a dutch oven or pan with a tight fitting lid, add onion, celery, carrots and seasoning to taste. Once veggies are softened, add chickpeas and combine. Add tomato sauce and cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes.

    For a bonus, you can add some some chicken breast, if you can spare some meat.

    Here’s a link to stuffed acorn squash by Iron Chef Mario Batali. I personally don’t like collards so I used swiss chard and it was very tasty. Here’s the link: http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/the-chew/recipes/Thanksgiving-Mario-Batali-Stuffed-Acorn-Squash

    I would also recommend watching “The Chew”. Iron Chef Michael Symon has a segment where he makes a meal in 5 minutes for under $5 a serving. And its not all pasta, which is good.

    Please keep me posted on how you do with this challenge. I truly wish you the best! I will bookmark this page so I can follow up.

  21. Bonnie Sayers December 29, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Wow – this sounds cool – I will be following along and learning as you go. I have a Whole foods and TJs close by, WF has better parking and Ive been going there longer but I get good deals at TJs as well.

  22. Jessica December 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    I’m interested in where the ‘$491.10 ‘ number came from. Is that the USDA ‘thrifty plan’ amount for a family of 3?

    I’m looking foward to following this challenge!

  23. Lisa Johnson December 30, 2011 at 1:12 am #

    Jenny, wow thanks so much for all the recipes!! L–

  24. Lisa Johnson December 30, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    Jessica, yes the number came from the USDA Thrifty plan based on the genetic and age composition of my family calculated for the month of October 2011 … Here’s the link you can do it yourself … http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/usdafoodcost-home.htm

    Bonnie, thanks for stopping by and if you’re up for it do a little comparison shopping and see. TJs does have really good sales … L–

  25. Amy @ A Little Nosh February 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    This is so awesome. I’m new to your blog and I’m starting at the beginning of this challenge and reading my way through. Love the idea!

  26. admin February 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Thanks for reading through Amy, I’m loving your comments :-) L–

  27. Karen February 28, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    The Madness Sale is fine if you can make it to the store in time to get the item. Last time was organic chicken @ 1.99/lb. I was so excited that I took off early for lunch just to find out that they had been sold out for hours. Some of us actually have jobs in order to shop at Whole Foods so they should consider this when having these types of promos. To be sold out by lunchtime? what were people buying whole cart loads? Then maybe limit the quantities per shopper so we all can shop thrifty.

  28. Lisa February 28, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    Karen, in my area they limit how many you can buy. I wonder if you spoke to a store manager if they’d give you a “rain check” worth asking next time you go in. L–

  29. pam December 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    i love that you are doing this Lisa!! You rock and are inspiring to all of us.
    How could i figure that usda thrifty for 6-7 kids ages 2-5 here for am snack pm snack and lunch M-F otherwise it’s just me. I don’t know how to try to figure it and get a thrifty goal for my budget

  30. admin December 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    Pam, you’ll find that a bag carrots is a lot cheaper than the baby carrots, of course you’ll have to peel and slice yourself. Same for all prepared fruits & veggies over doing your own labor. As for starches, making a loaf of bread will go a long way and is dirt, dirt cheap. Hope those help. L–

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