Optimizing Vs. Minimizing Food Cost

by RJ

in Random

Two months ago, when my wife and I sat down to review our expenditures, we began discussing the amount we spent on food.
That month, we spent about $400, about average for us, on food (including eating out). Originally, I thought that was way too high.

My wife disagreed. Her argument was, if we were to lower our food budget, we would be comprising our health and some of our values.

Looking back, she was right and I think she hit on a great point. The goal should not be to minimize the amount spent on food. Instead, more attention should be paid to balancing between health, costs, and spending.

The Facts About Minimizing Food Costs

What happens when we try to minimize the costs of food? Here are a few facts:

  • “We (as in the U.S) spend less on our food than any people who have ever lived, than any people anywhere on earth—9.5% of our income.” – Michael Pollan
  • The U.S. Government spends more on health care per person then any other country. Including countries that provide public health care.
  • “10% of our health care costs go towards treating obesity. In ten years, that number is expected to double.” – Jamie Oliver’s TED Talk last Wednesday night, which inspired this post
  • From that same talk Oliver explained that, “The generation being born right now, is the first generation to be expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” – Jame Oliver

Spend A Little More Now Or A Lot Later

“$1 can buy you 1,250 calories worth of food in processed food aisles. Take the same dollar to the produce aisle? You will get only 250 calories of broccoli or carrots.” – Michael Pollen

Without getting into too much detail, our Government subsidizes the processed foods, making them extremely cheap. By doing so, they increase the costs of other, healthier foods.

A lot comes down to simple supply and demand. There are not as many farmers in the country growing healthy food, compared to farmers growing corn for uses such as high fructose corn syrup, ethanol, or animal consumption. This is why a store can sell organic tomatoes for $5 a pound. That organic tomato farmer has very little competition.

Unfortunately, for someone who wants to eat healthy, they might need to spend a little more each week at the grocery store. For someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, asking them to spend say $10-20 a week more on food than the currently do is hard.

However, instead of thinking of trips to the grocery store as a necessary evil, we need to be thinking as each trip as an investment in our health and a chance to support our values. The goal is to optimize between you health, values, and of course, cost.

How We Optimize My Food

Here’s a few ways we optimize our food spending based on our health, costs, and our values. Our values include supporting local independent farmers and trying to reduce the impact of what we eat has on the environment.

  1. We buy organic, only the items that traditionally have high pesticide counts. When we buy non-organic produce, we wash thoroughly or peel it depending on the type.
  2. We joined a CSA. We get a box of vegetables from a local farm 18 weeks out of the year.  The produce is always fresh and organic. Plus, we get the piece of mind of knowing where it comes from.
  3. We don’t buy cow’s milk, pop, or juice. We drink filtered tap water with every meal.
  4. We don’t buy prepared products. For example, instead of buying shredded carrots, we buy whole and do the chopping or shredding ourselves. Or we make our own pizza dough which costs less than a dollar, compared to prepared pizza crusts.
  5. We bought a couple of bushels of fresh tomatoes in the fall and took them to my grandma’s house to learn how to can. Now we have great tasting tomatoes for the winter. (Not to mention a memorable day with my grandparents.)
  6. We don’t buy salad dressing or go over board with the condiments.
  7. We don’t eat our frequently, but when we do it’s usually just as much for the experience and entertainment, as it is the food.
  8. We are constantly trying to learn more about food and our health.
  9. We frequently use sites like Supercook, that tells us what we can make with the ingredients we have on hand.
  10. We use dinner as entertainment. We have had meals that lasted a few hours between the two of us.
  11. We buy in bulk. Using stores like Costco or the bulk section in Whole Foods.

You might choose to support something entirely different every time you eat. What you eat might depend on…

  • Ethnic/Cultural beleifs
  • Religious beliefs
  • Fitness needs

How You Can Start Optimizing Your Food Budget

Start by:

  1. Evaluating what you typically buy. What foods do you get value from? Where do you get little value?
  2. Pay more attention. Learn about the food you’re eating. Know where it comes from.
  3. Think back to memorable experiences you had with food. Work backwards and recreate those meals. What was constant in them?
  4. If you have to spend more on food, what other areas could you cut back from.
  5. Commit to spending more time with what you eat. The more time you put into preparing foods, the less it costs.


I don’t consider myself an expert by any means on food and nutrition. The purpose of this article wasn’t to tell you how to eat, but to encourage you to spend time thinking about what you do eat and less time worrying about minimizing costs.

If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments. I would be interested in hearing…

  • How much do you spend on food a month? (include family size)
  • Where do you get your food from?
  • Do you make food decisions based upon values?
  • Any other thoughts

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{ 1 comment }

craigNo Gravatar February 17, 2010 at 4:40 pm

This is something I would have trouble with because I love food so much. I always make my own lunch and dinner and prob save in that sense but buy a ton of food because I eat it.

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