Can a Family Eat on $100 a Week?As a test, MSN Money puts a household's food budget on a strict diet. The experiment has its downsides (no more rice, please!) but shows how to take a bite out of grocery bills.
Feed a family of four for $100 a week -- no coupons, no backyard garden or mystery meat.
That was the challenge MSN Money gave me (and, indirectly, my husband and two children).
I knew it wouldn't be easy. Even a food stamp allowance for a family of four is $117. With gas and corn prices surging, the retail costs of basic items such as milk, apples, pork chops and potatoes have gone up 8.5% in the past year, according to the most recent American Farm Bureau Federation's Marketbasket Survey.
But with a little planning and the help of a couple of nutritionists, I figured out what to buy and what to leave on the shelf. And no, we didn't eat beans or pasta every night. The rules:
-All of the food had to come from a major national grocery chain. No low-priced ethnic markets or bag-your-own-groceries warehouse stores. I could have saved even more, but this had to be something everyone could do.
-No coupons. I'm not a big coupon user anyway, and besides, many of these are for things that are too fattening or just too expensive to begin with.
-No cleaning products or paper goods. There wasn't enough room in the budget.
-The meals I served had to be relatively healthful. Otherwise, what's the point?
Did we make it?
First, let's say that any reduction in my grocery bill was welcome, as most weeks we spend nearly $250 at a grocery store. That's well above the $182 budget the U.S. government considers "moderate" for a family of our size and ages.
Spending less than half what we normally do was tough. A $100 budget gave us $1.19 a meal per person, obviously not enough for dinners or coffees out and barely enough to put decent meat on our plates.
Did we spend $100 or less? No.
I cheated twice, and both were on items I wasn't proud of.
The first time, I bought a sodium-packed $1.07 bean burrito at a fast-food place as I rushed off starving to an appointment for my son. The second time was at the end of the week, when I caved to several minutes of back-seat whining for soft-serve ice cream.
Those purchases brought my total expenditures for the week to $105.03, meaning I overspent by about 6 cents a meal per person.
The experts weigh in
With a $100 budget, there's no room for error. Every meal and snack has to be meticulously planned, and the whole family has to eat it. In my case, with two adults, a toddler and a 4-year-old, that's a pretty wide swing.
"That's a real challenge," says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and the author of "10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet."
She told me to use meat sparingly. Instead of a steak, I should buy extra-lean beef stew meat and cook it in a soup or stew.
"Americans are obsessed with protein, but it's the one nutrient we actually get too much of," Somer said.
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