This article was written by Kassondra Cloos, an Earnest client and freelance journalist.
For someone like me who often lets speed get in the way of planning, easy food options eat up my budget, fast. Sometimes, I end up spending $40 or more on lunch and snacks in a single week. I always feel guilty for it.
So when my editor here at Earnest challenged me to eat for a whole week at Trader Joe’s with $50, I was up for it. It seemed like a good way to keep from spending too much money, and a good way to force me to plan ahead a little better and eat much healthier.
Why the $50 challenge? Earnest data on food spending shows that millennial shoppers typically go to brick-and-mortar grocery stores an average of three times per month, and spend about $50 per visit. We make up the gaps between grocery trips on take-out and sit-down restaurants, which adds up quickly. So we decided to test out the $50 grocery bag. Could it last for a week? We found that it could.
The Challenge: $50 for a Week of Food
The rules of the challenge were simple: Free food was totally cool, but eating out and going over $50 would be cheating.
My boyfriend and I are both pretty frugal people, and we cook dinner at home far more often than not. But we rarely track how much we’re spending in any given week. We share a credit card for groceries and road trips, and we split it down the middle at the end of every month without giving it much thought. Capping our spending made us think about what we were buying in ways we typically don’t. We planned out meals instead of shopping only for that night’s dinner, which allowed us to buy ingredients we could use more than once.
If you’re OK with eating variations of the same thing every day, this challenge would be a breeze. With some creativity, you could likely even eat for $30 or less. But we were aiming for variety, home-cooked goodness, and leftovers—and still only spend $7 per day to feed two people.
I have to admit that we had a couple of cheat nights–we splurged one night on $12 worth of appetizers at Trader Joe’s for a potluck with friends, we took advantage of a sale at another grocery store to make BLTs ($2 bacon is hard to pass up), and twice, we went for after-dinner walks and ended up getting ice cream cones to pat ourselves on the back for being so good at saving money (ironic, no?). Our Trader Joe’s doesn’t sell alcohol, so we drank wine a friend had given us the week before as a gift for letting her crash at our house.
In total, we spent a little over $100 that week, which fed two people (and, one night, four) and left us with some pantry staples we continued using after the week was over. But the vast majority of our meals came from our Trader Joe’s challenge. I found that it’s not hard at all to feed one person at Trader Joe’s for $50. It’s not impossible to feed two, either.
My Food Budget Breakdown
This roadmap will guide you through planning meals for an entire week for $50 or less, per person. We generally chose vegetarian options to keep the cost down.
I’ve included an estimated number of servings with each meal. If you’re cooking for just you, save those extra servings for lunchtime. I’ve assumed that basics like vinegar, oil, and salt are all things you’ll have in your pantry already.
Our grocery list
Baby spinach, $2
Sliced prosciutto, $4
Jumbo sweet onion, 60 cents
Lemon, 50 cents
(2) Garlic & Herb Pizza Dough, $1.20
(2) Smoked mozzarella, $4
TJ’s Cheese Tortellini, $2.30
(6) Bananas, 20 cents each
Bread, $2.50 (we already had a loaf, but this is what it costs at our TJ’s)
Packaged & Prepared:
Trader Giotto’s Pizza Sauce, $2
Triple Berry Oatmeal, $3.80
Sundried tomatoes, $2
(2) Single-serve sushi, $3, $3.50
Asian Vegetable Stir Fry with Beijing Sauce, $2.60
Mandarin Orange Chicken, $5
Baby spinach salad with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes (4-6 servings)
For lunch on the first day, we mixed baby spinach with smoked mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. We made a simple vinaigrette with pantry items: balsamic vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
Pesto pizza with mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, and spinach (2-3 servings) and red sauce pizza with mozzarella, onions, and prosciutto (2-3 servings)
Homemade pizza is one of the best bangs for your buck at Trader Joe’s. The crust is only $1.20, and you can buy toppings that you can repurpose into other meals later. Close to half my meals this week revolved around spinach, pesto, mozzarella, and sun-dried tomatoes, less than $10 altogether.
Triple berry oatmeal (4-8 servings, depending on how much oatmeal you eat)
This oatmeal is hearty, thanks to chia seeds and quinoa. With 8 packets in a box, it goes far, too. If you’re a light breakfast eater like me, you can get a full week’s worth of breakfast for under $4, leaving much more flexibility for lunch and dinner.
Peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches
I’m not one for peanut butter and jelly, but a lightly toasted peanut butter sandwich with half a banana, sliced, and a drizzle of honey is one of my go-to easy meals. It’s hearty without being overly sweet, and you can get nearly a dozen sandwiches for just a few bucks. When the bananas started to get soft, we made banana bread for breakfast using other pantry items we already had around the house.
Tips for Making It Work
The biggest and most important thing you need to do is to make a food plan. It can be hard and it takes time, but you can piece together delicious meals with overlapping ingredients if you put some thought into your week instead of shopping one dinner at a time. Here are some tips to help you through the week.
Be honest with yourself. Think about meals you eat regularly, or staples in your diet. Do you regularly buy a $4 iced chai on your way to work? Do you often get ice cream on Friday afternoons? If you ignore those habits, you’ll end up spending more money as you revert back to your old ways instead of kicking those treats cold turkey. If you catch yourself buying a pastry and a cold brew every morning, to the tune of $30 a week, find replacements and build them into your plan. Instead of opting for cereal because it’s cheaper, get a package of frozen almond or chocolate croissants and substitute your morning Starbucks latte for a carton of chai concentrate and a jug of milk. Then, find another way to use that milk in your cooking so none goes to waste. Make an Alfredo sauce or mac & cheese, for example, which will yield quite a bit of leftovers.
Strategize when you’re wandering the aisles. As much as possible, buy ingredients for overlapping recipes. When I saw the pre-made garlic & herb pizza dough, I immediately thought of making a pesto pizza with fresh mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. So the next step was to figure out how to use those leftover toppings. I bought a $3 tub of pesto that lasted for two pizzas and a 4-serving package of tortellini, with plenty to spare, and I used the rest of the mozzarella and sundried tomatoes in salads.
Make a real meal out of frozen ingredients. Instead of buying a single-serving frozen dinner or getting an appetizer, like egg rolls or dumplings, and eating the whole package as your dinner, mix and match. Get a $3 bag of dumplings that will last two nights as a side for two separate $3 dishes.
Don’t think strictly in dollars per day. The first thing I did when I took on this challenge was figuring out how much money I’d have per day and per meal. A rough estimate is that you’ll have about $7 per day, but that feels impossible when you think about it like that. Instead, think about staples you can eat more than once–for me, that box of oatmeal was breakfast every day–and think about meals that will lead to lots of leftovers.
Don’t dread the leftovers. I know, I know. Leftovers can get boring, fast. But you don’t have to eat yesterday’s dinner for lunch every day. Instead of repeating meals, find something new to add to them to make them seem fresh. When we made the second pizza, for example, we used different toppings to avoid eating the same exact thing.
We want to hear about your food budgeting and spending. What food hacks do you use to save money? Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.