A Month of OFB’s $450 Food Budget


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$450 Food Budget

This has been a long time coming, and I really hope that it’s somewhat helpful information that I’m about to share. I usually write a post in one sitting, and I knew that just wasn’t possible with this post! So I’ve been squirreling away little moments here and there to write this, and it’s finally ready!

To recap, I promised to give a sample of a month of meals in our home. The question we get asked more than any other is how we keep our food budget so low. I used September as our sample month, and I can attest that we stayed right within our food budget of $450 that month. Full disclaimer, four days before September 1st, I spent $120 on groceries, so I didn’t start off September needing to go shopping right away. BUT, by the end of the month, I still had $100 left in food spending, which I spent at Costco on September 30th. So I really think this month of meals is a good representation of what can be bought with $450 and zero couponing. I have nothing against that blessed art, but I don’t have the time for it.

Here are a few things I do make time for, however:

  • Meal planning! I can’t live without it.
  • Lists! I use Evernote to create a checklist, which I mark off on my phone in the store. Above the checklist, I have the meals listed that I intend to make with the items I’m buying. Otherwise, I would forget because my brain is mush these days. I usually shop without Johnny, which isn’t easy and is actually quite horrifying at times (“Sally, don’t throw that can! Don’t do it!”). So I need a very simple way to make sure I get everything I need.

A few things were also confirmed during this month of meal tracking:

  • I do not enjoy cooking much at all. I’m extremely motivated to have the most simple, somewhat healthy meals possible. I’m constantly asking myself, “How can I do the least work and still produce something tasty?”
  • We usually leave a lot left over, and leftovers become tomorrow’s (and sometimes the next day’s) meal, too.
  • Sally eats a different dinner than us about half of the time. We tend to eat late, and she goes to bed early. So after I list all of our lunches and dinners, I’ll list our go-to meals for her.
  • I’m barely not drowning. Let’s just say I’m still adjusting to two kids. For the most part, I have no time to cook! And when I try to cook, some catastrophe happens, like an important piece of mail gets scribbled all over, or one sibling bites another sibling’s toe. It’s a guarantee. So please keep that in mind! Sometimes when I’d record our meals at the end of the day, I’d think Did I really fix that for dinner? or That was my lunch?? So maybe I will try this again in six months when our lives have normalized some (hopefully!).
  • We have a bit of an In-N-Out problem. ‘Nuff said. But we try to off set that by having salad with almost every one of our dinners.

All right, I think that’s enough introspection for one post. And now onto the meaty stuff (yeah, that’s a food pun).

I’ll only list out the lunches and dinners since our breakfasts don’t vary much, and I’ll try to link to as many dinners as I can. I’ll also provide some of our other favorite go-to dinners, snacks, and toddler dinners. You’ll notice some asterisks below, which denote meals that are home runs in our house. So if you’re looking for some new go-to meals, check those out especially!

30 Days of Lunch and Dinner

Sweet Potato Tacos

Day 1

Day 2

  • Lunch: Wendy’s (We typically only choose this when we’re out and about during lunchtime, I swear!)
  • Dinner: Leftovers (ham and cheese sliders)

Day 3

Day 4

  • Lunch: Leftovers (ham and cheese sliders)
  • Dinner: Takeout (typically Chinese, Thai, Indian, some sort of gourmet salad, etc.)

Day 5

  • Lunch: Pizza for Game Day! (Johnny actually got it for free with a promo from Pizza Hut.)
  • Dinner: Leftovers (sweet potato tacos)

Day 6

Day 7

  • Lunch: Leftovers (chicken tortilla soup)
  • Dinner: Burgers from a local burger joint

Day 8

  • Lunch: Turkey sandwiches
  • Dinner: Tacos

Day 9

  • Lunch: Burgers from In-N-Out
  • Dinner: Leftovers (chicken tortilla soup)

Day 10

  • Lunch: Turkey Sandwiches
  • Dinner: Spinach and chicken salad (chopped baby spinach and sliced chicken tenders, topped with cherry tomatoes, shredded cheese, avocado, and honey mustard dressing)

Day 11

  • Lunch: Cheese, crackers, apples (When Johnny has a work lunch, Sal and I keep it simple.)
  • Dinner: Got together at a friend’s house

Day 12

  • Lunch: Hot sandwiches from local cafe
  • Dinner: Leftover sandwiches

Day 13

  • Lunch: Grilled cheese and tomato soup
  • Dinner: Got together with Johnny’s family

Day 14

  • Lunch: Turkey sandwiches
  • Dinner: Bean and cheese burritos with salad (whole wheat tortillas filled with refried beans and shredded cheese, rolled up and cooked in oven for 20 minutes at 350, and then topped with salsa, sour cream, avocado and surrounded by salad)

Day 15

  • Lunch: Grilled cheese, chips, grapes
  • Dinner: Takeout

Day 16

  • Lunch: Apples and celery and peanut butter (Once again, Johnny had work lunch, so the girls improvised :))
  • Dinner: Sausage and spinach pasta*

Day 17

  • Lunch: Leftovers (sausage and spinach pasta)
  • Dinner: Take-and-bake pizza from Costco (Johnny out of town)

Day 18

Day 19

  • Lunch: Leftovers (sausage and spinach pasta)
  • Dinner: Takeout (Johnny out of town)

Day 20

  • Lunch: Cheese and crackers (Johnny out of town)
  • Dinner: Breakfast burritos (scrambled eggs, shredded cheese, sour cream, and salsa/green chiles rolled up into a tortilla)

Day 21

  • Lunch: Frozen burritos and salad
  • Dinner: In-N-Out burgers

Day 22

  • Lunch: Tuna salad sandwiches
  • Dinner: Leftovers (sweet and sour meatballs) over rice and a side of corn

Day 23

  • Lunch: Peanut butter and honey sandwiches
  • Dinner: Popcorn shrimp tacos (Popcorn shrimp, chopped lettuce, ranch, salsa, shredded cheese rolled up into a tortilla)

Day 24

  • Lunch: Cheese, crackers, apples, peanut butter sandwich
  • Dinner: Chicken quesadillas (cooked chicken, cheese, and green chiles melted in the skillet between two tortillas, then topped with sour cream, avocado, and salsa and surrounded by chopped lettuce)

Day 25

  • Lunch: Turkey sandwiches
  • Dinner: Takeout

Day 26

  • Lunch: Grilled cheese and tomato soup
  • Dinner: Pizza (bought)

Day 27

  • Lunch: Turkey sandwiches
  • Dinner: Potato bar (sour cream, steamed broccoli, shredded cheese, sour cream, bacon, etc.) and a side salad (spring lettuce mix, shredded parmesan, and poppyseed dressing)

Day 28

  • Lunch: Leftovers (pizza) and side salad
  • Dinner: In-N-Out

Day 29

  • Lunch: Cheese, crackers, apple (These types of lunches are an indicator of how much parenthood was kicking my butt that day.)
  • Dinner: Tacos

Day 30

Go-To Toddler Dinners

Toddler Dinner

On nights when Sally eats before us, I try to do a veggie, protein, and fruit combo, often adding some sort of bread, too.

  • Veggies: Steamed (in the microwave) chopped broccoli topped with shredded cheese / corn / sugar snap peas / edamame
  • Protein: chicken nuggets / scrambled eggs / peanut butter on toast or waffle / cheese quesadillas (also in microwave) / turkey and cheese pinwheels
  • Fruit: fruit cups / apple slices / strawberries / raspberries / banana

Other Favorite Go-To Dinners

Breakfasts

For the most part, we eat cereal for breakfast. I never realized just how often we do this until I was taking note of it. We had cereal 24 times in September, and we had waffles the other six days. This isn’t a budgeting choice so much as it’s just that Johnny and I aren’t big breakfast eaters. It wasn’t until I had kids that we even ate breakfast regularly, so we keep it pretty darn simple in our house. We would love to add a green smoothie to our breakfast routine, but that’s still TBD.

Go-To Snacks

I’m a big snacker, and Sal has taken up this habit, too.

  • Yogurt, cheese sticks, crackers, peanut butter and crackers, sugar snap peas, popcorn, granola bars (for sal) and protein bars (for me), apples, grapes, strawberries, carrot sticks, raisins, nuts, pretzels

As you can see, we keep it pretty simple. To be clear, this post is not a how-to-cut-your-grocery-bill-in-half post. It was a response to readers who want to know how we spend our food budget, so take it for what it’s worth — a daily log of our eating habits. We don’t eat like starving college students, but our meals aren’t sexy, either. Cooking is not a hobby for me — it’s a necessity. We also don’t drink alcohol, so no money goes there. And we don’t eat out at restaurants except for special occasions. After eight years of marriage, this is what us in our food groove looks like while staying on a reasonable budget. Full disclosure, when life isn’t as crazy as it is now, our meals are a bit more put together. But I’m keeping it completely real here, and this is what September looked like in our house!

Hope this post gave a better look into how we keep our food budget where it’s at. We’d also love to hear any of your go-to favorite meals! I’m always looking for fresh ideas!

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28 Comments

  • Reply MomofTwoPreciousGirls October 21, 2015 at 7:58 am

    You need to use a crockpot! Lifesaver when it comes to time and being able to throw things in before the kids destroy something!

    A site I really like is New Leaf Wellness. You do bulk prep (when Johnny can take the kids out) of your contents and put the whole meal in a freezer bag without cooking anything. You mark the bags and pull them out the night before to thaw in the fridge, dump the contents into the crockpot and you are done. It’s a great alternative to freezer cooking because it seems my husband can ALWAYS tell when I have reheated something that was frozen and he doesn’t like it.

    • Reply Jen October 23, 2015 at 9:16 am

      I second New Leaf Wellness! I’ve been trying out some of the meals there and they are easy to make when you can do them in bulk. It is also nice to know you have meals ready to go in the freezer when needed. I’ve been working on getting our food budget down, we spend too much on eating out.

    • Reply Melanie December 22, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      Is it free or does it cost money?

      • Reply MomofTwoPreciousGirls December 22, 2015 at 4:31 pm

        She sells stuff like books but there are plenty of free recipes and shopping lists available. I’ve never bought anything but have gotten really great easy recipes.

    • Reply Joanna December 27, 2015 at 2:50 am

      Thanks so much for recommending New Leaf Wellness. Such a great idea. I’m planning to try it in January and get our family off to a better start with meals in 2016!

  • Reply Lance @ Healthy Wealthy Income October 21, 2015 at 8:21 am

    I am a huge fan of leftovers. My wife continually apologizes when we have them but that is all I lived on when I was single. My life was so busy that Sunday was the only day to cook so I fixed all my meals on Sunday and usually it was a giant pot of spaghetti because after 12-13 hours of work the last thing I want to do is cook and I didn’t want to pick something up on the way home because of cost and health reasons. If you are going to cook it takes as much time to double the recipe as it does to make a single serving. The more you plan the more time and money you save. Cereal has been my breakfast for the last 18 years. Quick, easy and cheap.

  • Reply Kate @ Cashville Skyline October 21, 2015 at 8:24 am

    Wow, what an epic post! I’m seriously in need of a food budget makeover. I thought about starting a 30-day restaurant / takeout ban, but failed on the first day when my friend asked to go to lunch! Haha. Plus, I’ve been following the slow-carb diet (grain free, dairy free) for the past couple of months. So, sometimes it’s just easier to grab some BBQ or something diet friendly from the hot bar at the grocery store near my office. Anyway, thanks for sharing all these details! You’ve motivated me :)

    • Reply Melanie December 22, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      Im working on drastically cutting out my going out to eat budget in January…going to be so challenging!

  • Reply Halsy October 21, 2015 at 8:24 am

    I meal plan too and think it’s the best way to save on grocery bill. I plan my meals around the sales ads. We usually spend $425 for 2 adults and 2 kids (ages 1.5 and 3.5 but they eat like adults. This includes groceries, health and beauty, household goods and eating out. We get fast casual, take out or eat out at restaurant(rarely) about once a week for my sanity! I agree with the above commenter on crockpot meals! If you find healthy, easy recipes they are usually pretty well balanced and affordable! I use my crockpot twice a week most weeks. This usually accounts for 5-6 meals. Sometimes those are lunch and sometimes dinner. I really like New Leaf Wellness recipes as well! She does so many 1 hour freezer cooking sessions (perfect
    For Naptime) where she makes 5-8 meals. I recently receive a free 2 months subscription to once a month meals that I’m looking forward to doing some freezer cooking sessions a few times a month. I know Young Wife’s Guide did a podcast on budgeting a few weeks ago where she mentioned a meal plan site that you can put in your budget amount and pick recipes based on cost and they even use sales ads!

  • Reply Shay October 21, 2015 at 9:19 am

    Is your $450 budget just the meals you prepared at home? Or does that number include the pizza and In n Out as well?

  • Reply Heather October 21, 2015 at 10:36 am

    If you want good meals, cheap, the Budget Bytes blog is fantastic. Lots of pantry meals that have great flavour – and are quick. I recently made the chickpea, artichoke, rice skillet meal thing (!) and it was actually really tasty.

    The other thing I am a huge fan of is soup. It’s a great way to get tons of veggies, and, if you make a hearty soup, protein (whether in the form of meat, beans) and whole grains. And you can easily whip up a huge pot and have tons of leftovers. It’s my go-to lunch. I’m no longer the biggest fan of sandwiches anymore (unless it’s a damn good one). I like a hot lunch, and if I don’t have leftovers, soup easily does the trick.

    Eggs are also great. I love omelettes (really, they aren’t hard and you can fill it with some sauteed vegetables). And I love fritattas – basically mix 5/6 eggs together with a bit of seasoning (salt, pepper and whatever herbs and spices you want, plus you can add cheese. I generally don’t b/c my bf doesn’t handle it well). Saute up some leftover vegetables. Combine in a greased pie dish and bake till done. Super easy, and another tasty way to get lots of vegetables.

    And roast whole chickens! You can get fancy, but all you really need to do is slather with oil or butter, salt and pepper and stick in the oven. If you have leftover meat, it can go in soups, tacos, burritos etc.

    Sorry if this was unsolicited advice. I love to cook. I never used to and while I cooked, my meals were never very tasty. (Think overcooked meat, potatoes and an uninterestingly prepared vegetable). As I’ve learned more about cooking, and become a more intuitive cook, it’s become more fun. I’ve learned a lot about making simple, but really tasty meals. But, I don’t have two little ones running around, so I understand other people have time restraints that I don’t. But I am glad I learned all this now, so that if I have kids, I’m armed with at least the knowledge of how to throw together a meal. Whether or not I’ll have the time to do it is another story…nothing like best laid plans, are there?!

    • Reply Joanna December 27, 2015 at 2:45 am

      Thanks for all these awesome tips, Heather. They’ve been super helpful. Such clever ideas!

  • Reply Julie October 21, 2015 at 10:37 am

    This is awesome! Somehow, our food budget is the second most expensive item per month, after daycare. Yes, our mortgage is third! :*-( Anyway, I’d love to figure out how to cut that back. I know we spend more because we try to eat a lot of organic produce and meat and limit super-processed stuff, but many of your meals and recipes can still accommodate those preferences and keep things on the cheaper side. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Reply Caithlin October 21, 2015 at 11:12 am

    I am curious how take out and In and Out fits into your budget. I am assuming that is included in the $450 total? We like to try to do take out once a week or once every other, but it ends up costing $30 or so each time, which eats into our budget. Do you get take out for the kids too, or do they eat something else those nights to keep the cost lower? Also do you only get burgers at In and Out and make some side dishes at home? I would love to be able to incorporate more take out in our budget for my own sanity, so any tips are appreciated.

    • Reply Jen October 23, 2015 at 9:21 am

      I’m also curious about this. I (quickly) counted about 11 times you got take-out, In And Out or pizza (take out I assume). With an eating out budget of $125 a month this works out to be about $11-12 each time. How do you keep the cost so low? Even for just the 2 adults (assuming the kids eat something else)?

      • Reply Joanna December 27, 2015 at 2:33 am

        Sometimes we’ll split meals with each other, and when we grab pizza, it’s usually from Costco, so it’s only $10. In-N-Out is usually a $9 meal. So it really does average out to not be very much each time we grab takeout. That said, sometimes our takeout spending for the month is more than $125, but we focus on just making sure the total is below $450. That’s the most important number.

    • Reply Joanna December 27, 2015 at 2:44 am

      For takeout, it’s just Johnny and me. I do a simple meal at home for the girls, and one of us grabs takeout while the other one puts them to sleep. We typically do pretty simple takeout meals most of the time. In-N-Out only costs $9 for the both of us (two burgers and one fry). And we use the local coupons we get in the mail for more expensive places. A few places have a monthly buy one meal, get one free type of deal. For places that give really big portions, we split one meal between the two of us and then get a side of chips or some sort of inexpensive appetizer to keep the cost low. Hope that helps!

  • Reply Nicole October 21, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for sharing! This was very interesting to me. I work pretty hard to keep our food budget reasonable and try to cook from scratch and go organic when possible. I have two kids (3.5 and 1.5) who eat a lot, as do my husband and I! Luckily, we don’t have any food allergies/dietary restrictions to accomadate, and I strongly believe in only cooking one meal for the whole family. However, we do have occasional nights where I will feed the kids early so my husband can enjoy takeout after they are in bed.

    Two questions… 1. Does Sally eat a lot of fresh fruit and/or veggies? This is a huge part of our budget, especially the fruit. We plow through fresh fruit in our house, and while I try to buy seasonal to keep the cost down, we live in a colder climate with a short growing season so it’s tough. 2. What do you eat when you do takeout/how much is your average bill? Even if it’s just my husband and I, takeout is usually a solid $25-$30.

    Lastly, I second (or third?) the crockpot advice (off to check out New Leaf Wellness next!) and also to double recipes and freeze the second batch for later. I do this with chili, lasagna, sauce, soups, etc. Also, roasting a whole chicken (oven or crockpot) is super easy and cheap and the leftovers can be used for soup, tacos, enchiladas, etc the next night. Even picking up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store is pretty budget friendly, especially if the alternative is takeout!

    Thanks again!

    • Reply Joanna December 27, 2015 at 2:41 am

      Great ideas and good questions. Sally is super picky, so she doesn’t eat a ton of vegetables, but she does eat a lot of fruit. We always have oranges, apples, and bananas in stock at our house. For veggies, lately we’ve been trying to do green smoothies almost every morning (with baby spinach) to help her get her vegetable intake. They’re really inexpensive to make, and we only have to buy the ingredients once a week.

      For takeout, we do pretty simple meals most of the time. In-N-Out, for instance only costs $9 for both of us. And we use local coupons for more expensive places — buy one meal, get one free. For places that give really big portions, we’ll split the meal and then get a side of chips or something inexpensive like that. Hope that helps!

  • Reply Katie @ This That and the Budget October 21, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Wow, what an awesome post. Thank you for sharing!

    My hubby gets picky about eating the same thing too many meals in a row (except for cereal for breakfast which he has no problem eating every day!), but I could eat the same thing for a week and not get tired of it. Your list gave me some new ideas to try and has me thinking about when we have kids and want to keep costs down and life simpler! Thank you again!

  • Reply Halsy October 21, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Another thing I did to avoid take out when not planned is come up with a list of meals that I almost always have ingredients for. Pasta, homemade pizza, pancakes etc!
    My favorite crock pot recipe is a super easy pork recipe that you can repurpose leftovers a million ways or even freeze half for another meal or 2.
    3-4 lb pork roast (whatever cut is cheapest shoulder, loin etc-my price point is $1.49-1.99 lb)
    Salt and pepper to taste
    1 onion chopped
    A few garlic cloves
    1/2 cup apple juice-we always have because kids :)
    Cook on low on crockpot for 6-7 hours
    Shred pork, remove half liquid then stir pork into the remaining liquid.
    We eat this for 1-2 meals on buns as shredded pork sandwiches. Then I repurpose leftovers into easy pork shepherds pie by steaming a bag of peas and then covering with shredded pork and top with garlic mashed potatoes. This makes 1-2 meals. Then the remaining leftovers I put in a skillet add either taco seasoning or chili powder paprika and cumin and fry with some bell peppers and make a fajita with rice, taco shells and whatever toppings. Alternatively you could just add 1-4-1/2 jar of your favorite salsa to the pork in skillet and not have to season it! Usually one pork roast ($5 ish) covers 6 meals. And it never really feels like leftovers!

    • Reply Joanna December 27, 2015 at 2:36 am

      This was super helpful, Halsy! Thanks for sharing such awesome meal/leftover ideas.

  • Reply M.C. October 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Loved this post! I’d actually like to keep track of this for our family. With a toddler and a newborn, we’ve been doing way too many grilled cheeses and takeout dinners, but I’m giving myself a little more time. Crockpot meals always sound like such a good idea, but I always forget and then it’s 2 pm and I haven’t started cooking it. But as a mom, food is a necessity and planning helps with the budget. Thanks for posting what your reality is. Sometimes other blogs give the impression they’re eating gourmet meals three times a day. :)

  • Reply Sarah @ the frugal millionaire October 22, 2015 at 7:01 am

    This looks like a lot like our month – to a T with two kids and a mama who doesn’t really enjoy cooking! This past month, I’ve been trying to do all of my shopping at Costco and once I see if it works and get in a groove, I’ll do a post on what we’re spending :) We do typically spend $400-$600 per month (this was before my “only shopping at Costco” idea) on food including going out to eat. We also do simple meals at home and quick, cheaper meals on the go (Chipotle, deli sandwiches, pizza, etc). Like you guys, we don’t drink much which helps keep the costs low!!

    Thanks for being real!! :)

  • Reply Ramona @ Personal Finance Today October 23, 2015 at 6:13 am

    I am also doing the cooking, but we have one toddler only, so it’s easier 😀

    Most of the time she does eat something different, so there 2 meals to prepare, but I go with simple and healthy, so it’s not such a huge deal. I am looking more into meal planning (am not doing it for a week upfront, only for the next day), since it would really help me a lot.

    Thanks for the meal ideas, will ‘steal’ some for our family as well :)

  • Reply Kristin S. October 23, 2015 at 10:13 am

    So yeah, you ate a lot of meals out/takeout (12?), but it didn’t hurt your budget at all.
    You are still spending well below the” Thrifty” level according to the USDA charts http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/CostofFoodSep2015.pdf
    That means that if you qualified tor food stamps, you’d get more than you’re currently spending on food.
    To me, the problem is that when you don’t cook your own food, you don’t know what you’re putting into your body. I totally understand that you don’t like cooking, as I personally can barely stand to set foot in the kitchen when I’m pregnant. And I know how difficult it is to get a nutritious, from-scratch dinner made with kids. But if anyone can do it, you can. You have majorly admirable self-discipline with your money. I’d love to see what you could do if you applied that to your family’s nutrition.

  • Reply Brittany November 29, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    Hi, I’m also curious about the eating out and meal planning on a budget. I will meal plan, it keeps us from eating out (good for the budget) but I tend to get ingredients I might not normally for the recipes (bad for the budget). Do you research recipes that limit ingredients? I noticed you both don’t eat a ton of meat. Do you purposefully limit meat for the budget? Thanks for the help!

    • Reply Johnny December 27, 2015 at 1:42 am

      We typically try to focus on meals that use ingredients of other meals we’re planning. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but we’ll try to make sure that an ingredient can be used for multiple meals. And while it might not be reflected for this month, we do eat plenty of chicken and beef. We usually go with frozen chicken breasts and Costco-sized ground beef portions (which we divide and freeze in bags) and usually include in salads and wraps (tacos, fajitas, etc.).

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