Groceries for $1: Shopping and Meal planning strategies to save you time and money

Where and what to buy if you want healthy delicious food for $1 a meal

(That’s about $100/person/month based on cooking whole foods for 2 people)

When many people think of wholesome ingredients what comes to mind are the pricey, attractively packaged items at chains like Whole Foods, the “All Natural” aisles at supermarkets, or boutique health food stores. Then there are the restaurants/cafés marketing to a health-minded clientele where a lunch salad or sandwich will run you over $12 and twice that for dinner. Unfortunately, if you get most of your groceries from expensive stores, and eat out several times a week, your monthly food costs can easily run over $400 (or $1000 in major cities!) per person, especially for singles. According to 2011 figures from the U.S. Census and, even budget-conscious families doing lots of cooking at home lament that their food bills are out of control at $275/person (and over $400 if you’re single).

But it is quite possible to get that food bill to under $100 per month ($150 for singles) while eating meals 3 times a day that will be the envy of all your friends (well, except maybe the dedicated carnivores). You may not care about impressing your friends with how deliciously and inexpensively you eat, or you may be comfortably enough off so that the high food bill does not trouble you much from a financial perspective, still there are plenty of health and environmental reasons to approach food consumption a bit more frugally. Even if you personally don’t need the extra $2000-$5000 in annual after-tax savings per person, imagine, for example, how many less well-off people that money could feed or educate. But if you’re not so well off that you simply don’t need the money, it may be fun to imagine the really wonderful experiences you can now afford, or cutting back on work hours, or paying off debt, or having enough for a child’s education, or being able to retire several years earlier. Whatever your reasons for wanting to tame your food bill, it’s not hard and can be done in way that will increase the abundance of good food in your life!

So let’s gets started… 
While it’s entirely possible to get nutritious and inexpensive food by shopping only in mainstream supermarkets (as long as you avoid the premium chains), you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the whole range of options available at ethnic stores. Groceries - especially fruits, veggies, spices, sauces, grains and beans – can often be had for a fraction of the cost at ethnic stores. Most large or mid-size cities or populous regions have several Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Latin American grocery stores (these usually don’t spend money on advertizing and often go un-noticed by a typical consumer, but can be found by searching online). Usually the larger stores have better prices and selection; look at online reviews to get a sense of how a particular store compares to others in the area. The target clientele at most of these are first generation immigrants who, like my mother, still have a strong tradition of making complete meals at home, both because they love their regional foods and because they are appalled by the idea of having to pay 3 to 5 times more for the same thing and, worse yet, not being able to find many ingredients at mainstream grocery stores. These are people who know how to feed an extended family with substantial, intricately-spiced, varied meals for just several dollars a day while working long hours (i.e. without necessarily having a ton of time to spend in the kitchen).

A large assortment of veggies, greens, fruits, and legumes can be found any time of year at these stores in the U.S. and Canada for around $0.99/pound. Lots of varieties of rice and flours can be had for $0.50/lb or less. Spices, sauces, nuts and snacks are also available there for 20 cents on the dollar compared to a limited assortment packaged in small containers at regular grocery stores. Keep in mind also that there’s usually a faster turnover in spices and legumes at these places, so in addition to getting a much greater selection of both, they are also fresher. Shopping in smaller store is also a much quicker process – if following a weekly shopping list and not getting distracted by browsing, you could be in and out in 15 minutes, compared to 40 minutes or more in a regular supermarket or warehouse club.

Alright, I’ve sufficiently extolled the virtues of ethnic grocery stores. What about the downsides? For someone going in for the first times the assortment may seem puzzling, the isles tight and at times less than spotless, the staff sometimes very helpful and sometimes not fluent in English. In an attempt to sell as much produce as possible, some store managers will keep veggies on display or on sale racks longer than a mainstream store (i.e. you may occasionally need to turn over several apples before finding ones in perfect condition). But personally I actually love their $1/bag or 50% off bins offering slightly over-ripe fruits and veggies – you can walk out with a huge bag of delicious ripe mangoes for $1 that you don’t have to wait a week on to start eating. Then there’s the question of organic stuff. Since the clientele is largely very budget conscious there may not be a lot of organic options.

For reasonably priced organic/free-range dairy, eggs, tofu or chicken and for “western” foods like pasta, canned tomatoes, chocolate or granola, a co-op or a regular supermarket are probably better bets (Trader Joe’s in the US can also be a pleasant shopping experience). Keep in mind some supermarket-savvy advice: stick to your shopping list, compare per-pound prices, and shop mostly from the perimeter (fresh produce, bakery, dairy and bulk sections are usually located on the perimeter; avoid the processed and expensive stuff from the center isles). Also, don’t waste time on coupons – virtually all coupons are for brand name, processed foods with the highest profit margins so even with the coupon your per-healthy-pound cost will likely still be high. Finally, many supermarkets have little known treasures for price-conscious shoppers: heavily discounted (50-80% off) produce and day-old bakery racks in the back of the store somewhere; you just have to ask, the same goes for artisanal bakeries. Ironically, discounted fruits are sometimes more tasty than the full price ones because they are fully ripe.

Co-ops with bulk sections (awesome for stocking up on spices and trying out new ones!) and local farmers markets can be nice, but not always available or all that cheap. If you do have a farmers market nearby, try going at the end of the day and ask sellers for “end of market/discounted produce” specials – most farmers really don’t want to have to take their produce back at the end of the day. Having your own or a community garden to supplement your food for 6-12 months of the year is a very healthy, inexpensive, and potentially a socially rewarding way to go, but the recipes and the $1/meal target in this book do not assume that it’s feasible for many of us to incorporate a garden or even a local CSA (community supported agriculture) basket into our lives. When it is feasible, a garden is a terrific bonus (see the Grow It section on the next page).

Valuing our food: Planning grocery shopping and reducing waste

As the developed world became more affluent, social taboos against food waste faded into the distant past; we treat food as just another disposable commodity, there for our convenience, unconcerned about the costs of its production or waste. We would think it’s absolutely crazy to carefully pick out and buy 3 or 4 nice outfits or jeans or laptops and then just throw one away shortly after coming home with your purchase – yet that’s exactly what we do with our food every single month (and this is just consumer waste, not counting the huge farm and retail-level waste). Did you know that 40% of all the food ready for harvest in the United States goes uneaten to the landfill[1]? Per capita food waste has risen 50% since the 1970s[2], to 200 pounds annually.[3] As much as one third of all food purchased in the UK is thrown away, a fifth of that is left on plates, and half is unopened, untouched and often unexpired or safe to eat. That’s $1100 per UK family annually.[4] In the US the amount is closer to $1400 - $2300[5]. Waste at the household, restaurant and retailer level costs the US $161 BILLION every year[6][7]; this waste higher on the supply chain is especially damaging because of the energy used along the supply chain and in food preparation. 

What about pre-consumer waste? 1 in 14 of fields planted in the US are never harvested. Once harvested, an obscene amount of perfectly edible produce is dumped by the farmer or rejected by retailers for cosmetic reasons. Consumers expect brimming grocery store shelves, and so retailers in turn expect large losses due to overstocking. Retailers are also responsible for large losses for their ready-made food suppliers when they cancel orders at the last minutes and the supplier can’t find anyone else to take the perishable items. Same with restaurants that must keep every menu item at the ready, leading to lots of prepared food being discarded at closing time. Diners further add to the problem by not taking leftovers home half the time.

While the unsavory subject of food waste hasn’t gotten much mainstream attention until recently, its ecological and economic costs are huge. A 2009 study showed that a quarter of U.S. freshwater and 300 million barrels of oil annually go into producing and distributing food that ultimately ends up wasted. Then there are billions of dollars in extra disposal and landfill costs; food is the single largest component of solid waste going to landfills (over 20% by weight). Once food gets to the landfill (or even the compost pile!), it generates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2.[8] Cutting food waste in half would be equivalent to taking 1/10 cars off the road permanently.

Realizing just how much waste there is can be discouraging, but we don’t all need to become freegans or eliminate 100% of waste in order to make a huge difference. For instance, utilizing just a quarter of the food wasted in the West could suffice to lift all the world's 1 billion hungry people out of malnourishment[9]. Not to mention how nice it would be if your family could get $500-1000 back every year while eating better.

Many aspects of our food system are in need of improvement, but because each of us already makes dozens of decisions about food every day we don’t need to wait for the whole system to change to make a serious impact. With these simple steps you can take the stress out of your cooking and shopping while ensuring that the food you buy won’t have to be thrown out:
·         Begin by doing a thorough survey of your fridge and pantry to find out what you currently have on hand and make sure things are stored properly. Is there anything getting stale/oxidized because it’s not in an airtight container? Pretty much anything besides fresh produce stores best in sturdy airtight containers. Nuts, spices and whole grains will keep much longer in the freezer (sturdy ziplock bags minimize oxidation and are space efficient), but if you don’t have room in the freezer transfer them from plastic or paper packaging into jars to prevent any pests getting in. Have you discovered anything that’s close to or recently past its use-by-date but still smells and tastes fine? Put this in full view in the refrigerator, freezer or countertop and make a note of it to remember to incorporate it into your menu over the next few days or weeks. Repeat these surveys monthly, and you’ll feel right away your fridge and pantry becoming your friends rather than cluttered spaces full of unpleasant surprises, and your kitchen in general being more inviting to cook in.
·         Each week, before doing any major grocery shopping, set aside a few minutes to think about what meals you would like to prepare every day that week. This may sound daunting if you’ve never tried it before, but it’s actually amazing how much time and stress it will save you during the week when you don’t have to worry about “what’s for dinner”. First of all it’s a lot easier and more fun to be creative and come up with delicious meal ideas when you’re relaxed on the weekend than when you’re hungry at the end of a busy workday. Plus if you already know what you’ll be making that week you’ll be much less likely to reach for a frozen dinner or eat out. Second, you can use this opportunity to incorporate into your meal plan anything that needs to be used soon. But resist the temptation to try out 10 new recipes or plan an elaborate dinner each night of the week; if possible plan on making copious quantities of just a handful of main dishes each week and then using leftovers for lunch/breakfast and/or another diner later in the week. After a few weeks of this you’ll likely discover that out of the things you planned to make only maybe 80% got made – so keep it simple. To streamline things further you may try picking a theme for the week where you can use similar ingredients in several meals.
·         Use your meal plan as a guide for making a shopping list. A list based on a meal plan, containing only the necessary missing ingredients is your best defense against impulsive/poorly planned buying or having to make multiple trips to the store. Over time, as you find good deals and stock your pantry with the most frequently used beans, grains, spices, and sauces, your weekly list is likely to get smaller, featuring mostly fresh produce, dairy (if you eat it), and a handful of re-stocking items. Opportunistically buying a few favorite canned or dry bulk items on sale is probably a good idea for households that cook a lot, but with perishables it’s best not to bring home more than you can easily eat or process the same week, even if it’s on sale. In addition to having a solid shopping list, avoid going to the store hungry, and if possible delegate shopping to the most patient and least easily tempted person in your family.
·         Visibility is key. During the week keep checking your refrigerator to ensure that your fresh produce/perishables/leftovers get eaten while they’re still fresh. As a last resort, if you just won’t have time to use something, freeze it and keep it in mind for next week or month (most foods excepting raw lettuce, cabbage, radishes and potatoes freeze quite well).
·         For a healthier waistline and less waste, serve moderate portions on smaller plates – your family can always go back for seconds. This way you’ll have more appealing, as yet untouched leftovers (i.e. tomorrow’s free meal) and a minimum of plate scrapings. This is especially helpful in households with young children. That’s it!

[1] National Resource Defense Council paper:
[2] K.D. Hall, J. Guo, M. Dore, C.C. Chow, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its environmental Impact,” PLoS ONE 4(11):e7940, 2009.
[5] Bloom, American Wasteland, 187


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About this blog

The goal of this blog is to celebrate delicious food that's also practical. Contrary to certain foodie trends, we believe there is no reason for amazing food to be expensive or complicated or time consuming.

Our hope is to bridge the ethos of the slow and simplicity movements (cooking delectable traditional foods from scratch, connecting with others, minimizing waste and clutter) with the everyday needs and constraints of “the 99%”.

Check out the recipe section for easy, healthy, authentic recipes from the world’s vegetarian traditions that ANYONE can make.