Lately I feel like every time I go to the grocery store I spend at least $50. A few years ago, that was my weekly budget for food but recently I find myself spending that more than once per week. I had actually expected my grocery bill to decrease last year because I moved from San Francisco to Boston (and was in Manhattan before that). It did not. Am I buying more food each trip? Not really. Am I choosing more expensive foods or brands? In some cases, yes but not enough to result in a 1.5 or 2x increase in my food expenditure. I almost always choose a sale. Have food prices increased a lot in the last year? Absolutely.
Americans’ budgets are tightening, not only because of layoffs or holds on annual raises, but also because the cost of essential items is on the rise and there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling in sight. Gas prices surged to well over $4 a gallon in many places this summer, cell phone bills seem to continually increase (what would we do without our mini hand-held computer, phone and GPS, all in one?), rent costs have spiked in many areas (thanks to fewer people buying homes), and food prices are up significantly over 2010.
In July 2011, the average cost of all food was up 4.2% over July 2010; food consumed at home was up 5.6% and out of the home 2.4% according to the Economic Research Service (ERS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The biggest contributors to the increase in food prices included red meat (up 8.2%), fish (up 7.9%), eggs (up 13.3%), dairy products (up 7.9%), and fats and oils (up 10.4%). Fresh fruits and vegetables followed closely behind, up 6%, and the foods that increased the least included chicken, sweets, cereals and baked goods, non-alcoholic beverages, and “other foods”, which I assume includes just about everything else.
July food costs inched toward the upper estimate for price increases; the ERS forecasts food prices for 2011 to increase about 3.5-4.5% over 2010 by year-end. A recent report on Bloomberg suggests that this may be a conservative estimate and we might see much higher increases than the USDA estimates. Commodity prices are up and food companies are passing much of this cost onto consumers. Rice, wheat, corn, soy, and milk prices recently reached the highest they have been since 2008. In addition, global food prices are up, supply is down, and demand isn’t changing. The food system is complicated and there are several interrelated factors that can affect food prices but I won’t bore you with the details (let’s be honest, I don’t really understand all of it). If you’re interested in learning more, you can read about it here.
Inflation is normal, though unfortunately this year it may be more of a struggle for many people to adapt, given the state of the economy. In addition, it may feel worse than it is since food prices remained quite last year. The all-food price index from 2009 to 2010 increased 0.8%, the lowest increase since 1962.
A rising grocery bill doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice the quality or healthfulness of your meals. Eating healthy on a tighter budget can be more difficult, but it is not impossible. It just requires some education and planning. I shared some of my strategies for saving at the checkout line back in March (meal plan, choose store brand, eat in season, buy in bulk, and look for sales). Here are some additional suggestions…
Eat more plant protein: meat, fish, dairy and eggs are four of the largest contributors to increasing grocery bills, according to the ERS. Start by replacing these foods with nuts, seeds, and beans at one or two meals per week to see savings. Nuts, seeds, and beans provide tummy filling fiber and protein for about 25% of the cost. On average, 100 calories of beans costs 25-35 cents where the same number of calories of chicken costs $1.10 or beef $1.25 – $1.50. As an added benefit, nuts, seeds, and beans provide healthy fats and a long list of vitamins and minerals that offer many health benefits. Bonus!
Cook regularly: It’s not a secret that eating out costs more (in general – I’m not considering certain fast food dollar menus here) than eating at home. This includes breakfast and lunch. Invest in a lunchbox ($5-$20 on Amazon depending on what you choose) and freezer pack ($1.25 at grocery stores) so you can keep your lunch at your desk if you don’t have a refrigerator at work. Make cooking a fun family activity and prepare Sunday night dinner together. Make extra so you will have it to eat throughout the week when life gets in the way of cooking.
Eat what you have in your fridge: It’s easy to look in the fridge and think there is nothing you feel like eating, and then order or go out for dinner. You’d be surprised; with a little creativity you can put together some great dishes with just a few ingredients. In my opinion, the best base for a “whatever I have” dinner is either pasta or eggs. Scramble the eggs, veggies, cheese, and put it in a whole-wheat wrap or have a salad or piece of toast on the side and you have just made yourself a very healthful meal. The same goes for pasta – toss in whatever is in your fridge with a little olive oil and garlic and you have a cheap, healthful meal.
Make a food budget: Sit down and really figure out what you (and your family if you have one) can afford to spend on food. Make a grocery list of what you really need and then stick to it when you get to the store. It might take a few trips to the grocery store to figure out what you’re spending and what you really need (do you have food left at the end of the week that you’re throwing away?). If you’re way over your budget and you’re not buying a lot of extra food, you may need to reassess your budget and see if there are other places in your life where you can cut back.
Only buy what you need: This goes back to meal planning and sticking to your grocery list. It’s really easy to get sucked in by attractive grocery store displays (I’m guilty of it) but if you’re budget it tight and it’s not on your list, keep walking.
What are your strategies for saving $$ on groceries? Has your wallet been feeling the rise in food prices? Are there any foods you’ve chosen to give up because of cost?
-your food and fitness friend