Real Food Economics 101: Real Food vs Average Food Budgets

Money Plate

by Kathy | Disclosure

This post is part of a series, Real Food Economics 101. The series covers the cost of real food and applying the 80/20 rule to managing your time and money in the kitchen in depth. Click here to start at the beginning.

Last week in “Is Real Food Really More Expensive?” I suggested that real food is really very affordable … today I thought we’d take a look at proving it :-).

Real Food is more than just affordable, it’s cheaper!

The general perception is the real food is really, really expensive! Far out of range for the average person to have more than occasionally. They don’t call Whole Foods Whole Paycheck for nothing ;-). Well, maybe Whole Foods as a grocery store is really expensive, but does it follow that real food eating is much more expensive? To answer that question we need to know just how much do people spend on food on average on both an average diet and a real food diet.

According to the USDA the average family of four is spending somewhere between $544 to $1235 per month for food eaten at home. That’s a huge range! They break it down into 4 plans: Thrifty, low-cost, moderate, and liberal. I did a little searching around the web to see what people might be saying about their budgets in relation to these 4 plans. I found a few thrifty’s, a lot of low-cost or moderates, and no one who admits to spending the liberal plan :-). So for the sake of argument I’ll assume that the moderate plan is pretty average. The moderate plan for a family of four with small children is $855 per month. That is $7 a day for each person. Sounds pretty reasonable …

Average Diet Food Budget = $7 a day per person

This USDA plan assumes this family of 4 always eats at home, never at McDonald’s, Subway, or Applebee’s. A single meal out can blow the entire days food budget! Knowing that Americans eat out 5 times a week I consider this a low number. Now note that it is very possible to eat for less than this if you are cooking mostly from scratch from the usual grocery store fats and meats, grains and flours, canned vegetables and some fresh produce. A quick search around the web will find many people telling how to feed a family of four for $75-$100 a week. That this seems surprising tells me that most are most likely spending quite a bit more.

OK, so we’ve nailed down a decent estimate of the average food budget. Now let’s take a look at a some real life real food budgets. Several real food bloggers have been generous enough to share their food budgets on their blogs. This has been a great help to working out an average real food budget for the sake of our little research project :-).

Blogger Family Size Monthly Per Day-Per Person
Nourished Kitchen 3 $750 $8.30
Granny’s Vital Vittles ** 4 Adults/Near Adults $750 $6.25
Food Renegade 4 Less than $668 $5.56, estimated
Real Food for Less Money 5 $575 $3.83
Heavenly Homemakers 6 $500 $2.77
Modern Alternative Mama Not Sure $300 n/a
Passionate Homemaking 4 $400 $3.33


I ran a quick calculation of the average per person per day. In this admittedly limited research project real food budgets come out clearly less expensive at:

Real Food Diet Budget = $5 a day per person

So, just $5 per day each. That’s $2 less per person per day than the average USDA food budget. For a family of 4 that is $600 per month, with some families coming in a lot lower. The average USDA monthly food budget for that same family is $840.

My family ranks toward the high end of the range mainly because we like to eat a larger amount of meat, raw milk and fresh cheese. But note that we are still below the USDA average cost. Several of the bloggers above mentioned reducing animal products and increasing veggies in their diet as a means of reducing expenses. Almost all the bloggers are buying most of their food in bulk and directly from the producers. They avoid packaged foods. They also mention eating seasonally as a way they keep costs down. We do these things too :-).

How is this achieved?

In last week’s post I talked some about the trade off’s of time vs. money vs. quality. These blogger’s have relatively low food bills largely because of a willingness to trade their time to reduce costs and improve quality. So they look for local suppliers, participate in bulk group buys, and make most of their food at home from scratch. They seldom eat out. Most describe how it took awhile for them to reach this point on their blogs. Gradually, over time they built up the routines and knowledge, gradually they replaced foods from the supermarket with better versions, gradually their families became accustomed to the change.

Next week I hope to go into greater detail on how this savings on real food is achieved and how you can given a little time change your routines to achieve them too!

** This is for the past year in which we were 4 living at home.

This post is shared at The Healthy Home Economists Monday Mania, Real Food Forager’s Fat Tuesday, Cooking Traditional Food’s Traditional Tuesday, Mamaldiane’s Gathering Spot, Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, This Chick Cooks Whole Foods Wednesday, Real Food Freak’s Freaky Friday, Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday, Real Food Whole Health’s Fresh Bites Friday, Butter Believer’s Sunday School and Gnowfglin’s Simple Thursday.

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Kathy lives just outside of Austin with her husband of 20 years Barry. She has two sons one in college and the other grown and married :-). While not a Grandma yet, with two grown kids she remains hopeful. Kathy wants a world where everyone has fresh wholesome food and feels that cookin' like a granny woman is the surest way to get there.


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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Meghan @ Whole Natural Life May 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Interesting idea to look at other real food bloggers’ budgets. I think it was an especially good idea to average them all out so as to get a better overall picture. The more I get into real food, the more I realize how much location matters when it comes to food budgets. Comparing your budget to one other person’s can be pretty meaningless since food prices vary so much by location, but I think it’s helpful to see that on the whole, real food budgets are not more expensive than the average food budget.

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Kathy May 21, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Thanks Meghan! Location can make a big difference. One thing I noticed is that Kristen at Food Renegade and I live pretty close to each other and our food costs are pretty close considering I’m feeding 4 adults/older teens and she’s feeding younger kids, we’re eating more dairy and meat and her family is eating less animal products. I suspect that here in Central Texas we are paying less for beef and more for dairy and produce, on average.

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Mrs. Mom of 6 May 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I look forward to the rest of these articles. We struggle alot to have real food on a real budget. My budget falls in around 3.50 per person per day, but I can’t eat solely real food on this, and certainly not organic. We live in Upstate New York. I have 7 people I feed, plus I’m pregnant.

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Kathy May 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm

This weekend I hope to have a post detailing some of the strategies used. Looks like about half the bloggers listed above are in your ball park so it’s looking good :-). Also, I wanted to point out that at the menu at the top of the site you’ll find “wholesome ingredients”. Click on that to see posts about specific ingredients, how to determine quality, and a grading by expense for various levels of quality. I hope this will help in figuring out where to make trade offs. My rule of thumb is “healthy fats first” above every other consideration. You can prioritize from there according to more individual concerns.

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Larry Eiss May 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Here in upstate NY we have to pay around $3.75 – $4.25 per dozen for “real” eggs, and about $7 per gallon for raw milk. Beef shares are pretty steep here too. Consequently it is somewhat more costly for us. Even so, we all spend a lower percentage of our overall income on food now that any of our grandparents did. So there is room for real food even if it does cost more. It’s really a question of what we choose to value.

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Mrs. Mom of 6 May 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Kathy,
We do manage the healthy fats! I will check out more of your site thanks for the hints! I looked at one budget, Heavenly Homemakers… they pay lots less for the food they buy, have a garden (mine never produces anything) and get free fruit as much as they can pick and can. That’s awesome, but for us, I can’t do those things. I have to trade money for time like you said, but I don’t have either. I hope there will be loads of other strategies coming, I look forward to it.

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sueathome of 6 April 19, 2013 at 9:25 am

I am inquiring about why Mrs. Mom of 6 can’t do any of these things other than exchange money for food. For me living in the middle of Wyoming where there are no Whole Foods and things don’t grow great I still have huge gardens and shop at small health-food stores, online everything, neighbors eggs, down the road grass fed beef, raw milk that I make into yogurt, ferment everything. What about swapping something. If you have kids get them involved. Picking, peeling, cooking, gardening, whatever is appropriate for their age. I buy in bulk when I can afford it and freeze, i.e. organic strawberries when in season and freeze through the winter. Or bulk grains in glass containers. You can “always” eat healthy. Pretend like the garbage food doesn’t exist. Knowing about toxins and GMO’s is enough to make me go the extra mile. One way or another you are going to pay either with your time, your money or your health. I wish you well on your journey.

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Jen May 25, 2012 at 11:48 am

It’s funny how those with less people in the household spend more on food per person. It’s that way for us too (only two of us and we are right there at the top). It makes me wonder if I can cut corners somewhere. I also wonder how practical it is to get a real food grocery budget low in certain regions of the country.

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Elaine January 9, 2013 at 7:35 am

I am sooooo glad to have found your website. You are very practical and thank you!

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Kathy January 9, 2013 at 8:14 am

So glad you like it! I’ve got some great practical tips coming up in a new series very soon.

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Jaci January 24, 2013 at 10:23 am

I’m sos glad to have found your site. In the last year my family of 4 (me hubby 6 and 3 yr old boys) have swtiched to eating real food and int he past 4-6 mos we’ve made the switch to ALL organic in order to avoid GMO’s. My husband was concerned that it would be way to expensive btu I told him I really thought I could get everything we’d need for a week at (hopefully) $125! Which would put our monthly budget at $500 or ~$4 per person per day. I started shopping and have blessed enough to find local raw non-GMO milk, and organic food co-op for fruits veggies and dry goods, a friend hooked us up with an awesome deal on their grass fed beef. But a couple of weeks ago I decided to start keeping track of our spending to make sure I hadn’t lied to my husband…I was sad to find out that I go over almost every week..usually by just a few dollars but sometimes(when his favorite salmon is on sale:)) by $40! But then I found this site and realized I may have cut our budget a little short, and see as how we arent completly broke after I buy groceries I might have just guessed too low! Thanks

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Kathy January 24, 2013 at 11:37 am

I’m so glad you found us too :-) It’s hard to make a guess at a budget till your actually doing the shopping with what you can find in your area, to be sure. I think you did a great job of estimating! You’re really close …

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Sarah @ Raising Isabella March 31, 2013 at 2:01 pm

This is encouraging on a couple of levels! One is, I’m amazed at how low some of these numbers are, considering that these families all eat mostly organic. I’m also encouraged that the numbers are more reasonable than what I was expecting for myself. I’m feeding 2 adults (plus I’m pregnant) and two children on $400 a month. We aren’t able to buy any organic, but we buy all “real food” and I’m blessed to have access to raw milk for just $3/gallon. If I made more of our baked goods and dairy from scratch, we could probably raise our standards on organics!

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Rachelle March 31, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I’m so excited to have found this blog! Followed a pin from pintrest and have been sitting here for an hour!!
I’m working over the last few months to clean up our eating. Making progress, but man, here where I live it’s super spendy to get good stuff! Experimenting with raw milk in our budget, been doing it for a month and ouch! $14 a gallon!! Still trying a cost effective way to get grass fed beef…$7 a lb for ground beef…organic’s gotta be better than nothing (I hope)
We are a family of 8 (1 nursing) and our monthly budget is $500. (in So.Cal)

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Kathy March 31, 2013 at 6:12 pm

So glad to have you along for the ride Rachelle :-) I’ve heard before that Southern Cal is relatively expensive. I think your raw milk price is the highest I’ve heard! Gotta be a way to get some of those expenses down. Are you in touch with any other real foodies in the area? Also, you might want to join us for The Granny Plan.

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Brenda May 3, 2013 at 11:45 pm

I’m struggling to get ours below 900-1000 a month, my goal was originally 600 for our family of two adults, one four year old and a teenager who is only here half the time and doesn’t eat here every meal. I think we eat too many “paleo” snacks purchased at the store. I’ll be happy to get it to $700 a month, I truly will. Raw milk is not legal here, free range, organic eggs cost $4.50 a dozen, chicken $4 a pound, beef $6 a pound for ground beef, $3.50/80z for produce… I think we are eating too lavishly in trying to ‘reward’ ourselves for changing to real food. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

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Mrs. Greenfield May 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm

We spend what you do on our family of three because two of them have high caloric requirements (one tall and muscular, the other athletic and growing very rapidly), In March we spent $1100 :( . The snacks are what get you! Our goal was to pare down to $800 a month. We eat healthfully for the most part, but having to run a house without gluten proves to be a pricy challenge when the husband still wants pizza, pasta, and pastries. We are about 70/30 Primal, but his carb love just won’t cease. I bake a lot from scratch also. Raw milk is $15 per gallon, pasture-fed eggs are $7 a dozen, organic chicken and beef a minimum of $7 per pound. Produce averages out about $2.50 per pound, because I only buy in season and get it at the farmer’s market when possible. I have two blueberry bushes in pots to provide me with about 4 to 5 pounds of “free” berries per year, because I won’t pay the crazy price for organic blueberries. I understand the woes of pricy food! I redid my budget, and if we can knock it off with so many snacks and have more fruit instead along with making the most beloved goodies at home, we should be able to do it. Good luck, and my best advice is to get a handle on the snacking!

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Mrs. Greenfield May 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Oh, and the gluten free is because we have to, I am Celiac and our daughter has Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (basically she reacts to it badly like I do but it hasn’t destroyed her intestines *yet*, nor will we let it get that far). My poor hubby is stuck eating GF with us because I kept getting sick from cross contamination. Not that wheat is good for you anyway, but it isn’t even a backup option for us.

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Katy May 26, 2013 at 2:45 pm

What a helpful topic. Last year my husband’s business did not go so well, and we were on a $250/mo budget for a family of six for half the year. It made me realize how completely unavailable healthy food is to the very poor. Hubby has since found a job, and we’ve bumped the budget up to $400 (excludes $100 allowance for eating out, so maybe $500 is more honest–although most of that goes to his eating out for lunch a few times a week. Unfortunately his office has an eat-out culture, and he can’t be too antisocial.). Our kids are very small (5 and under). We live where cost of living is lower.

During our tightest budget I made a cut of meat (or whole chicken) last a week. Most meals were broth based. I stopped thinking about all the simple carbs we ate (white rice and pasta). It’s easier during the winter to eat various soups and stews and oatmeal or porridge. And I’m so thankful my kids love faki (lentils prepared the Greek way, with a little red wine vinegar).

Relaxing means we actually went a little crazy and I spent $500 last month, but I think I can bring it back down this month.

Oh, and we used to pay $4 gallon for raw milk with cream, before I couldn’t afford the drive to get it. I still don’t think the drive is worth it (we have one car), but some friends of ours own goats, so might switch.

(

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Clarissa June 4, 2013 at 10:47 am

coupons and aldi’s. I coupon all the time. Besides you can get organic coupons commonkindness and other websites.

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Jess Dang July 22, 2013 at 6:54 pm

I’m doing some research on this subject and so glad I found your post. Very well analyzed!

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Ross Eldrin Taupa August 25, 2013 at 8:06 am

Thank you for this very detailed post, budgeting for food expenses is hard but once accomplish it could be very rewarding.

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Kate October 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Nice article! I am so glad someone is helping to spread the word on such things :-)

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Celeste October 28, 2013 at 11:42 am

VERY helpful series of posts! I’ve recently switched my family from a vegan diet to more of a paleo style adding in raw milk and clean meats. Ive gone from spending around 500/month to 800/1000 per month. Wanting to keep things closer to 800.

I’m encouraged by seeing others real numbers. We’ve also stopped eating out other than the occasional date night so we’re seeing things balance out as we use the eating out money for groceries:)

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Danielle November 2, 2013 at 9:54 am

Interesting article… too bad it doesn’t take into account income sources… We are on food assistance. I just did the math and we get $1.41 per person per meal. Only we are forced to shop at major food stores only. No bulk shopping, fresh food, whole foods… in other words nothing healthy. With junk food being all we can afford, I was looking for help making this work. I just got news that I’m diabetic. Thank you for the article. Would love to hear what you have to say on this subject since such a large percentage of Americans are on food assistance.

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Danielle November 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

Forgot to add we are a family of 6

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Kathy November 3, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Danielle … sorry, I just reread your post and I think I understood your budget incorrectly in my prior reply. Sounds like you have a budget of $4.23 per person per day. That fits in on the low side of the real food diet budgets of our example families. So it won’t be as tough as I thought. I was thinking you said that was your daily budget … ooops! There are many eating a large percentage of real food on this budget so with time and practice it’s doable. My suggestions below should be helpful in increasing the amount of real food you can provide.

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Kathy November 2, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hi Danielle … it’s gonna be tough, no bones about it! There have been a few commenters in this series that are on assistance and are making some headway though I’m not sure they have quite as many mouths to feed. My best advice is to simply not give up on the idea of eating well during times when it’s very difficult to afford. Keep your eyes open for opportunity to get good food for good prices and when you can’t do that, hang in there and try again the next time you’re buying. Since you need to shop at the big box groceries you might want to read my Walmart series for ideas on real food that can be found there. I would lean on organ meats, eggs, bones for broths and save your money for good fats like real butter. Eat legumes soaked in water with a splash of vinegar and then cooked in broth to up the nutritional value. For carbs depend on fresh potatoes, rice and oats, not bread which is much more expensive per fill-you-up and nutritional value. If you can order beef tallow it’s quite cheap though it would require an up front investment.

There are ways to make improvements if you can win the families cooperation. Now I’m not sure just how far you can get but every bit helps … that’s my message here. I doubt there are above 5% of us that eat real wholesome food 100% of the time. We’re all at different levels … let’s think in terms of doing what is possible for us. I’d highly recommend checking out The Granny Plan for further ideas on cranking up the kitchen machine and getting the family on board.

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Gina February 23, 2014 at 10:07 am

Kathy, I have a big concern with budgeting my monthly grocery shopping. I ‘am currently going to college for nursing and my husband is on disability and right now we are receiving help from the government (food stamps). I’am not working right now because nursing school is very grueling and time consuming. We were receiving $ 400 a month and just got cut down to $ 295 a month. How can I feed my husband, and a teenage son, a pre-teen daughter and myself on this budget? I guess I can never buy meat or milk. Help! there has got to be a way to get through this until I finish school. Sincerely, Gina

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barbfisco March 11, 2014 at 11:59 am

Unless youre eating organic food you have a date with the medical proffession and your children will REALLY suffer because they are still growing. We cant “shop” like our mothers did because the food industry and the FDA are criminals. See the movie: “Food INC” and go to naturalnews.com for the truth about why our sons will be sterile and our daughters and sons will be sickly and probably die of cancer…if this sounds too alarming for you -you have the option of ignoring it of course but you sound like a caring person so i thought I’d open my big mouth….sincerely,Barb

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Claudia April 8, 2014 at 11:50 am

Hi, your story and research is nice and well-rounded, BUT we lived in Houston, TX and now are back to Florida…. wow , the prices here (and I buy Costco, and local) are much higher than in your state. (we only have Publix – I never ever go to Walmart, and Winn Dixie is no option, too). As I recall from Texas, I had at least three great super markets in my area, making it easy, to scoop out the sales and stay in a mid-range budget. So, to go all organic with 5 of us (teenagers eat A LOT) we are way into the liberal range, even if we don’t do dinner out (maybe 8 times / year), no Fast Food (way too unhealthy) and I cook every single day from scratch – as we do back at home in Europe.
So location differs a lot, it seems.

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Becky April 24, 2014 at 3:54 pm

If you can tell me how to feed my family of 4.5 (I’m pregnant) on $1.29 per person per day, that’d be great. We have less than 25% of what we’re supposed to in our food budget. Food stamps seems to think we have more money aside from the $160 they give us each month. Nope. Not a penny more. It’s great when you have to spend all your money on garbage in cans, and don’t get a single fresh apple or pear, let alone have anything sweet to give to your kids, because the canned garbage is the healthiest thing you can afford.

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Finny May 1, 2014 at 10:53 am

The number is not low, it is absurdly high.
We spend $400 A MONTH to feed our family of nine. (two teenagers)

We heat healthy, wholesome, home cooked meals. By the USDA’s math, I should be spending $3,000 a month to feed my family. I barely spend that much per year on food.

What are you guys eating that you spend so much!!?

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Jennifer Wheat May 17, 2014 at 2:15 pm

The freezer is your friend. My favorite tip is to buy in season. Buy a LOT in season. In season is cheaper. If you can find a farmer’s market, and get to know your local farmers, even better. So buy your cheap in season wonderful fresh food…and freeze it. Dry it. Find ways. Can it. That way you can stretch your budget in lean months when there is nothing in season. I am learning to balance out how much protein we need in a week vs. how much I buy per week. My budget is currently VERY GENEROUS for a family of four … 800.00/month and that is all grass fed meet and fresh vegetables and fruit. I don’t buy bread often as I have celiac’s disease and my children, and my fella, tend to eat what I cook. I have found that whole birds (chicken) are cheaper than breasts per pound. They also leave a carcass for broth. I really, really want a stand alone freezer, because if you can buy in BULK (pre order half a cow, for instance) the price goes way down. We are gardening and I will use that to supplement our food but I do not have beef critters or chickens. :) Eggs – 5.00 / pound. Chicken breast – 11.75/pound. Whole chickens – 10.00 per pound. Bones for bone broth are fairly cheap, as is organ meat. Broccoli right now is 3.00/REALLY BIG BUNCH. Asparagus is everywhere. Strawberries are starting to show up. Greens such as swiss chard, and early lettuces. Sugar snap peas. Know your farmer, know your food. I am trying to only buy local when I can.

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