Frugal Living 101 — Eating Better, More Cheaply

by Ramona Creel

Eating Habits That Cost Less

According to the Bureau Of Labor And Statistics, grocery prices grew at 1.5 times the overall rate of inflation in 2010 — when that happens, you're guaranteed to see a spike in your supermarket bill. Climate change, fuel prices, shifts in global markets, ConAgra's greed Wink, and the increased demand for meat in India and Asia — these all contribute to a bigger dent in your wallet. But this trend doesn't adequately explain why Americans in particular spend so much staying fed. Sure, that gallon of milk that was 35 cents in 1915 cost $3.45 in 2009 — but the median net household income also rose from $687 (when it took 65 minutes of work to pay for your milk) to more than $32,000 (reducing the “time-cost” of that milk to 13.2 minutes.) We should, by all practical measures, have more buying power, be able to put the same foods on the table as our grandparents while spending a smaller percentage of our household income to do so. Ahh — there's the rub. We're not eating the same foods as our grandparents!

Ours has become a prepackaged convenience food society, and it's killing us (both literally and financially!) When you buy a pound of meat or a dozen ears of corn, you know exactly what amount you're getting for the price — it may go up or down by a few cents from one week to the next, but at least you've got a reliable yardstick against which to compare your bill. But pre-packaged foods have a sneaky way of providing you with less and less for the same amount of money (if not more) as time goes by. When you buy a box of cereal and open it, have you noticed that your flakes or loops or shredded wheats only seem to take up about half the container? Have you ever bought what looked like a family-sized frozen meal on the photo, only to discover that it was barely enough food for one person? Consumer Reports calls this the “grocery shrink-ray” — the packaging is still the same size, there's just less food inside!

And even if you are getting a full serving from your flash-frozen and freeze-dried foods, you're still getting less bang for your buck than if you had simply bought the ingredients and cooked that dish yourself. Madison Avenue has convinced our busy, overworked, stressed-out society that the way to save time is through convenience foods. But you're paying at least twice as much with those drive-thru and microwavable meals. When I went to the grocery store yesterday, a frozen “spaghetti bolognese” meal for one cost about $5 (averaging across all brands.) Feed a family of 4 this way and you're looking at $20 for just that one meal. But to purchase the same ingredients (noodles, ground beef/turkey/soy, onions, garlic, tomato paste, and canned tomatoes — presuming you already have Italian seasonings in your spice rack) would cost around $10, about half what you would spend on the “faster” option. And once you figure in the extra hours you're going to have to work to pay for that wasted $10, you'll find that convenience isn't anywhere near as convenient as it seemed!

Fortunately, it's very easy to slash your food spending almost overnight, with just a few simple changes in your diet and your eating habits:

  • cook it yourself (most people avoid cooking like the plague — they rank it right up there with cleaning the toilet and vacuuming the living room carpet in terms of the enjoyment factor — back in the days of Julia Childs and Irma Rombauer, cooking was considered an art form — so when did Americans stop getting pleasure from creating a delicious meal? — it happened because we quit taking the time to truly engage with our food — everyone is in such a damned hurry now that eating is more of a nuisance than a joy — the trick is to get out of the mindset that cooking is a chore, and start to see it as a sensually pleasing bit of indulgence — the “slow food” movement is a great place to start, an organization which promotes the enjoyment of eating and treating meals like a daily celebration of life, rather than a bland and tasteless refueling exercise — instead of snarfing down a plate of crappy take-out while sacked out on the couch, gather your family/friends together and turn cooking dinner into a fun group activity — food always tastes better when you have company, and having everyone contribute to the effort keeps it from feeling like “work” — best of all, REAL cooking doesn't have to be expensive — you will be amazed at the spectacular and creative culinary masterpieces you can make with the equipment you already have and easily-affordable ingredients — search the internet, check out books from the library, and look through my collection of regional recipes — then commit to trying just one new dish a week — hell, you can even watch the Food Network and follow along with Emeril or Ina Garten or Bobby Flay — I rarely think of watching television as a “simplifying” activity, but if it gets you more interested in cooking at home, go for it!)
  • eat meat sparingly (meat has always been one of the more expensive parts of the American diet, and one of the most economically inefficient to produce — according to the USDA's Economic Research Service, it takes 16 pounds of grain and around 4,000 pounds of water to create one pound of beef — and the resources required for sustaining/slaughtering a cow or chicken are vastly out of proportion compared to their nutritional value — a 100-gram portion of meat contains only 20 grams of protein, while that same portion of legumes yields 25 to 34 grams of protein — not to mention the fact that, even on sale, most “meats” are going to cost you between $1.99 and $4.00 a pound, while plant-based proteins average less than 50 cents a pound — why would you want to pay more money for less nutrition?? — if your goal is to immediately save money, start replacing more and more of your carnivorous meals with vegetarian recipes, and save the animal flesh for side dishes and special occasions — your wallet and your cholesterol levels with both thank you!)
  • drink more water (it's pretty common knowledge that you should be ingesting 64 ounces of water a day for health reasons — being sufficiently hydrated helps you ward off stress and disease, sleep better, and maintain higher energy levels — unfortunately, only about 1/3 of all Americans consume anywhere near enough H2O, and at least 10% don't drink any water at all during the day — more importantly, they're replacing that water with sodas, coffee, alcohol, and other beverages that not only dehydrate the body, they cost a hell of a lot more in the long-run — if you eliminated all other fluids from your diet and drank nothing but water, how much money would you save? — and how much weight would you lose? — even juices and soy milks are full of unnecessary calories, and you can get more nutrition from eating a piece of fruit or a slab of bean curd — a good savings strategy is start replacing these other drinks with water, and I don't mean the bottled kind — buy yourself a good filter and start enjoying the free stuff straight out of the tap!)
  • eat fewer calories (I hate to point out the obvious, but part of the reason that our food bill in this country has gone through the roof is that we simply eat more than we need to for good health — if you take in 150 calories more than you burn each day, the equivalent of one can of regular soda, you will gain 1-1/4 pounds  month or 15 pounds a year — but we're actually consuming several hundred more calories than needed each day — the modern American sit-on-your-butt office worker requires about 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day, yet the current consumption is more like 2,700 to 3,500 calories — in the 50's and 60's, we as a nation averaged around 800 calories less per day than we do now, but the portion sizes were smaller — a standard bagel was 3″ in diameter and had 140 calories, but today it's hard to find one less than 6″ in diameter with 350 calories — try eating half what you normally would in one sitting and I bet you'll find your waistline and your grocery bill shrinking in tandem! — you also have to consider the modern addition of unnecessary fats, preservatives, and sweeteners to our diet, even in foods that we think are healthy like oatmeal and fruit juice and shredded cheese — ingestibles with a lot of chemicals and additives are not only less healthy, but also more expensive — who do you think is paying for all the R&D over at General Mills?? — you have to be careful to read every label — if it's got some form of sugar in the first three ingredients, don't buy it! — if it includes ingredients you can't pronounce, don't buy it! — if it has saturated fats or anything “partially hydrogenated,” don't buy it!)
  • be smart about eating out (I love to eat out, and I would never suggest that you stop frequenting your favorite restaurants just to save money — but by eating out more intelligently and frugally, you'll be able to do it more often without breaking the bank — first, take a look at your restaurant habits — are you guilty of “apathetic dining” the kind that comes not from a desire to celebrate or try a new cuisine, but from being too lazy to make a meal at home? — you know you're experiencing the law of diminishing returns when eating out is no longer fun  because you do it too often! — if you save the take-out and restaurant meals for special occasions, you really will enjoy them more — we also never eat out without a coupon, certificate, or discount — I'm sorry, but there are just too many online specials to ever pay full-price for a meal again! — if you can go out for lunch instead of dinner, and during the week instead of on a weekend, you'll save a lot — one of our favorite sushi places in Miami charges $7.95 Mon-Thu mid-day, $12.95 Mon-Thu evenings, $15.95 Fri-Sun mid-day, and $24.95 Fri-Sun evenings for the same damned buffet! — and because portion-sizes are so ridiculous, Matt and I are usually quite content to split a meal or a couple of appetizers — finally, if you can learn to have water with your meal and live without the added expense of appetizers, then go home for drinks and dessert later, so much the better — restaurants make nearly all their profit on these “high-ticket” items)
  • why not a picnic? (when frugal living experts suggest “brown bagging” to save money, most people immediately wrinkle up their noses in disgust — who wants to eat a peanut butter sandwich or reheated leftovers every day for lunch? — not me! — but who says bringing your own food has to mean slumming it? — not me! — Matt and I have gotten in the habit of fixing ourselves a picnic on days when we know we'll be away from the kitchen at lunchtime and we don't want to spend money eating out — that might mean gourmet cheese and veggies and hummus, it could be southwestern “fish taco” wraps with corn salsa and guacamole, or it could be a field green salad with grilled salmon, gorgonzola, walnuts and cranberries — whatever we make, it's almost always guaranteed to cost less than a restaurant, even fast food — and because we put together something “special” for these meals and make an occasion of it, choosing a nice spot outdoors and taking the time to enjoy ourselves, it doesn't feel as though we're sacrificing — in fact, we get to indulge while we save money — now that's a bargain!)
  • bring your own snacks (it's easy to get in the habit of stopping for coffee on your way in to work, buying a candy bar or some trail mix from the vending machine each day, picking up a soda when you get gas in the evening — you don't have to give these treats up, but why do you have to overpay for the indulgence? — pick up a case of sodas and a jumbo package of snacks at your local warehouse club and bring them with you each day — buy your favorite ground Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts coffee, make it at home, and take it with you in a travel cup for pennies on the dollar — there's no reason you can't have what you love without going broke in the process!)

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.