Monday, March 7, 2011

Warmth and better meals some rewards of cutting our food budget

Last summer, after my husband and I did some honest budget-crunching, I revealed that we were spending an average of $800 a month on food for our family of six, with approximately $200 of that amount going toward meals out. (Some months, we discovered, we spent close to a $1,000 on food. Ouch! )

At first when we realized what we were spending, we decided to cut our food budget in half. It was a drastic move that forced us to rethink how we were using our food dollars. We started using cash and reconsidered buying many of the items we thoughtlessly threw into our cart. While I’m glad we reached a new level of consciousness, we all ended up feeling deprived—and crabby.

We realized that, while we're capable of spending half as much as we once did, we honestly didn’t want to make such a sweeping change. Instead, we decided to slowly increase the amount we were spending on food, until we arrived at a level comfortable for us. As of now, we’ve determined that we’re comfortable with spending about $500 a month on groceries.

Two notable changes have taken place since our food budget revelation. First, by shopping more carefully, we have freed up cash to help us reach one of our financial goals, which was our original motivation for changing how we shopped. That goal was to install a source of backup heat, which we were able to accomplish in early fall. We now have a small gas stove in our living room, a place where we’ve been curling up and spending lots of time together on cold winter nights.

Second, as we’ve become more aware of how we’re spending, we have become more conscious of what we’re eating. We’re eating out less and preparing more satisfying and nutritious foods at home. We’ve also cut out most prepackaged foods, including things like frozen pizza and pudding cups, and we have switched to an almost all-organic diet.

Seeing our food budget through new eyes has definitely been a learning experience. Not only have I had to learn to shop differently, but I’ve also had to sharpen my skills in the kitchen. The first time I made cooked chocolate pudding from my mother’s old recipe, it was so runny that it was more like chocolate sauce than pudding.

To be honest, it’s taken some adjusting on the part of our children, as well. We don’t buy the super-sweet 8-ounce containers of yogurt or microwave popcorn anymore. But we do enjoy plain yogurt sweetened with a little honey, and popcorn made in a kettle on our cook stove. Finding suitable substitutes for the pricier convenience foods we once ate has helped with the transition. Getting my children more involved in meal preparation has helped, too.

Having my children work alongside me does take extra time (and patience), but when they’ve made an investment in what they’re preparing, I’ve found they’re much more likely to eat it. I suppose you could say buying and preparing wholesome food is the same for me: it takes time and a little bit of patience.

Still, even while I may be devoting more time to shopping or spending a few more minutes in the kitchen, we’ve enjoyed the tangible (our new gas stove) and intangible (increased energy, improved health) rewards in a way that makes this kind of conscious spending feel like a worthy pursuit.

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