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Good Food on a Budget

Food critic Stett Holbrook wonders how to eat well while cutting his family's meal expenses

By Stett Holbrook

HAVE YOU ever added up exactly how much you spend on food each month? It's not for the faint of heart. I did in an effort to get control of my budget (such as it is), and I was shocked by what I found.

Not counting my restaurant review meals, for which the Metro pays, my family and I spend about $1,000 a month on food. A grand a month! That's $250 a week. That seems like an awful lot of money to me, especially these days. If we always bought expensive cheese, pricey wine and lots of meat and fish I could see that sum being reasonable, but we don't. I try to limit to my wine purchases to $15 or less. I buy in bulk as much as possible (hello Costco), and because we're mainly vegetarian, fresh fruit and vegetables make up the bulk of what we buy. So why are our food bills so high?

Part of the problem could be how we shop. Instead of planning out our meals and making one big shopping trip, we make lots of little runs—a gallon of milk and dozen eggs here, a pint of gelato and a six pack of beer there and a few trips in between. Spending $20 or $30 bucks every few days doesn't feel like much, but I've discovered how quickly it adds up. It's really death by a thousand cuts. I guess $5 pints of vanilla gelato don't help either.

I'm a firm believer in spending more for quality, food included. But eating well shouldn't be prohibitively expensive. I guess it's all in how one defines "eating well." For me, that means little or no processed food and plenty of fresh produce in season. Food is of course a necessary expense, but there's a lot of discretion on how to spend your food dollar. But the ironic thing about food when you buy fresh, unprocessed ingredients and cook for yourself rather than opening a can or box, eating well generally costs less. At least that's my belief.

I intend to put my belief to the test in the months to come. I've set out to see how low I can go and still eat well. My goal is to lower my food bill to $700. To start, I'm going to plan a week's worth of meals and try to limit my trips to the store. I'm also going to try to make as much food as possible to avoid costly packaged food. Crackers, bread, salsa and ice cream are at the top of the list. I'll let you know how I do.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one taking a hard look at their grocery store receipts in an effort to rein in spending. How much do you spend on food a month? What high-priced items are you willing to give up? What foods do you have to have, budget be damned? Any money-saving strategies? Pass them on.

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