MyPlate on My Budget: We Ate $1300 in March

The MyPlate on My Budget Project

Throughout the month of March Jenny Bardsley of Teaching My Baby to Read took on the challenge of limiting her family’s food budget to only the USDA’s Thrifty Food Budget, about $560 for her family of four. That would have been challenge enough but she simultaneously attempted to feed them according to the USDA’s MyPlate daily nutritional guidelines. At the end of the month her results were mixed. A big part of the MyPlate guidelines had to be scrapped when her children flat out refused to eat a bite of any fish. Thus she abandoned the recommendation to eat fish twice per week. She also had to give up most of the gluten free cereal and snacks she personally enjoys. The family’s steady diet of nearly all organic foods shifted to mostly conventional and by the end of the month her refrigerator and freezer were nearly bare.

Jenny’s conclusion: “Could I follow the USDA thrifty food plan and feed my family the Choose MyPlate advised daily nutrients? The answer was yes, but it took a big toll on everyone.”

MyPlate on My Budget We Ate $1300 in March

Photo Credit: 401(K) 2013 via Flickr

While Jenny was pinching every penny I supplied some of my own ideas for eating healthy on a budget including visiting the produce market and shopping in discount grocery stores. I didn’t commit to following the same limited spending allowance but I was curious about the specific breakdown of my family’s spending habits.

I track our spending using a free on-line software called Mint. It allows me separate expenses into many categories and even split individual transactions into multiple categories. For this investigation I split our regular Grocery category into Food and Non-Food. Anything edible was classified as Food, other items including those used for pet care, hygiene, household maintenance, or alcohol were classified as Non-Food.  March was a little bit of a tricky month with two holidays and a television show to prepare for but every month seems to have a few extra events so I feel comfortable calling this a fair reflection of our normal spending pattern.

During March, in the Food category alone, we spent a grand total of $1, 063.

Now let’s break the numbers down a little. $334.69 was spent to acquire a 1/8 share of a cow. I’ll tell you more about that adventure soon but I estimate this meat will last us 18 – 24 months. So far we have eaten only 1 of the 78 pounds of beef. For this exercise I am going to subtract all but $4.29 of the cost of the beef from our grand total.

The adjusted total for our March Grocery (Food) spending is $732.60. According to the USDA’s Cost of Food at Home for February 2013 our family’s spending lands between the Moderate and Liberal spending levels. I found this part of the exercise very encouraging. But there is more to our story…

We Ate $1300 During March

We also ate out. A lot.

During the Month of March we logged 17 transactions in Mint that qualify as eating out. We managed to tick almost every box in the eating out category – we grabbed a couple quick lunches from the deli, ate an inexpensive dinner on nights I was “too tired” to cook, treated ourselves to a few family date nights, and treated friends and family to a few nicer meals. We also ended the month with a weekend away which included several meals in diners and restaurants.

In March we spent $581 eating away from home.

As encouraging as I view our grocery spending, I find our spending on meals away from home highly discouraging. We like to eat out a couple of times during the week but the hit to our bank account is a very real side effect.

The Cost of Eating Out Can Easily Surpass Grocery Spending

Through our weight loss journey we have learned how to navigate a menu to make healthier choices and many of our meals out leave us with leftovers for lunch the day, or two, after we go out to eat. This does offset the cost per meal but it doesn’t reduce the total spending. AND even though we know how to make healthier choices we don’t always order the lightest option on the menu. Mr. Second Helpings has been juggling a lot of work stress. While eating out can be an immediate stress reliever, the frequency is taking a toll on his weight maintenance.

At the end of the month our pantry and freezer still had plenty of food which tells me we could have eaten several more full meals at home without much, if any, additional spending on groceries. I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy shopper. My frequent visits to the produce market and discount grocery store do reduce our grocery bill. After taking this more detailed look at where our food money is going I can see that it is time to make cooking meals at home most nights a higher priority, for the sake of our wallets and our waists.


  1. Thank you everyone for your comments and contributions. This has been a very interesting experience. I will be continuing to explore the themes of affordable healthy food in the coming weeks and months.

  2. Feb was our killer

    I keep track of our expenses -2 senior citizens and 2 cats – food is just what we eat -no detergents, no cat food except rare tidbit of meat one will get, no paper products etc.

    Last year we spent $6174 on groceries and $ 241 on eating out (my diet is very limited so not much eating out). This is just for the 2 of us; donations are handled separately on my expense ledger.

    Jan 2013 we spent $ 728, Feb 2013 $ 889 and March 2013 $ 575. A year ago those were $ 585, $ 560, and $ 710. We do a lot of stocking up and eating out of the pantry when we can so Feb might have been heavier than average on “stock up’ items.

    We aren’t trying to keep our expenses way down – we do eat well – lots of produce and some animal source of protein daily. We spend more on produce than meat.

    We also live in an area with limited choices and are paying a premium for fresh foods at times. In exchange we get fairly clean air, beach walks when we want and a reasonable amount of wildlife including snowy owls at the beach the last couple of winters and deer in the back yard.

    If we were to qualify for SNAP, our benefit would be a maximum of $ 367 a month. There is no way I could provide a semi-decent diet on that little money with my health restrictions living where we do. We would have to visit the local food pantries for food instead of giving them a check like we do now.

    We do shop a nearby “city” often where there is a produce market, 2 larger supermarkets (nothing compared to what you find in a Seattle suburb), and a Grocery Outlet but the pollution in that area takes a toll on my health.

    One thing I noticed lacking on this thread at Pininterest was a mention of ALDI. No there aren’t ALDI’s in Washington that I am aware of.but they are a chain in a large part of the country and advertise themselves as “the stock up store” or at least did when we would shop there. I knew what days they would bring in produce and would hit the store right after they did. We had several other staples we would purchase there. If we lived in an area with one I would still be buying a select portion of my list there.

    • Hi Sara Thank you for sharing your personal experience and mentioning another source for lower cost groceries. I was aware of ALDI when I lived in Europe but didn’t realize it was in the US.

      • We first shopped ALDI in Germany over 40 years ago and it turned out when we moved to IL we found ALDI again.

        It is all over the midwest and further east in US (an online friend shops one in CT). People came for miles around to stock up on cheap canned goods.

        Living in the Seattle suburbs (I grew up there) gives you a big advantage on options available. Prices do vary and even with what I spent on groceries, very little of our food is organic because of the cost and lack of availability in our community.

  3. I appreciate your honesty, Rose. It doesn’t take long for eating out to consume a HUGE part of your budget. I love Kali’s hint about the cooking dates! Gets you out of the house, with friends, and preps meals for those “too tired” days all in one.

  4. My monthly income is lesss than what you spent on your food budget in March. I try to keep the grocery bill for two adults (and three cats and one dog) under $350. Most months I can do it, thanks to frozen vegetables and an unfortunate few fresh fruits. [Note: coffee is a line item on my budget, and I am not counting Starbucks, which is limited to gift cards I get for Christmas and my birthday, thank goodness.]

    • I appreciate you sharing your experience Webster. I’m sure there are many readers who have similar stories and will be glad you represented their situation.

  5. I did a budget challenge last August and found myself totally embarrassed at my grocery spending habits, even after my discount. One idea that I would love to do with you is have a Once a Month Cooking date, where you get 2-5 women together to assemble freezer meals. I go down to my aunt’s place and 3 of us each bring ingredients for 8 servings of three recipes. Then we trade and each go home with 9 meals that you can put in the freezer and have on hand for nights you don’t feel like cooking. Time and money saver, plus girl time all at once!

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