Saturday, September 6, 2014

Target: $1.50 per person-meal

Staying within our food budget continues to be a struggle for us.

How hard is it?


At current prices $1.50 will buy one bean burrito at Taco Bell or one McDouble at McDonalds.  Both of these items provide a bit less than 400 Calories, so unless you just had gastric bypass surgery you will find yourself longingly checking out the drumsticks on the family pooch.

The maximum pay-out in Pennsylvania for food stamps is  $162/person/month.  $162/90 meals per month works out to $1.80/person-meal.  There is also the expectation that free breakfasts and lunches will lift some of the burden of feeding the children by reducing the number of meals that are prepared in the home during the school year.

The maximum amount of food stamps that can be received per month by a household of one person is $162, of two persons is $298, and of three persons is $426. Food stamps are not intended to pay for all of the food needed for a month.  -Source

We are not helped by our family composition.  I have two teenagers at home and neither of them are fly-weights with muscle mass measured in micrograms.  For example, my daughter can deadlift over 400 pounds.  That takes muscle mass and muscle mass burns fuel.

Mrs ERJ...well heck, I can put her bright light and she will photosynthesize enough Calories to keep her going.

The other three of us, we have what is euphemistically known as "Healthy appetites".

So feeding us for $1.50 per person-meal is fairly aggressive.

The Plan


The Dinner Plate as it appears on the table.  Approximately 1/2 carbs, 1/3 veggies and 1/6 protein.
Nope.  It is definitely not "Paleo".  The Carbs are the foundation.  The Vegetables are the walls.  The Protein is the trim-work.  You will sometimes hear this called the "Meat as flavoring" model.

Why does it work? 


It works because carbs are cheap and meat is dear.

This is how that same plate looks from a budget perspective.  Image of fish from HERE.
Even though the protein is only 1/6th of the plate by amount it is still almost half the meal by cost.

Gory Details


Several alternatives were evaluated in each category.  Package sizes that would be chosen by typical consumers on a weekly shopping trip were priced.  These were not the best prices but they are prices that a consumer can find with very modest effort.  A typical serving size was selected and each choice was priced out at that serving size.

Using Carbs for example:


The base serving size was chosen to be 4 ounces (112 grams) dry weight or about 400 calories.


Cost 4 oz dry Cooked weight
Rice $0.13 12
potatoes $0.18 9
Bread sticks $0.20 6
spaghetti $0.25 10
corn bread $0.26 8
Biscuits $0.32 6
Grits $0.50 12

As you can see, 4 ounces of white rice expands upon cooking to 12 ounces on-the-plate.  These are not tiny servings but neither are they huge servings.

The median value, Spaghetti at $0.25 per serving, was used for the analysis.

Similar analysis yielded $1.25/pound for vegetables (house brand frozen mixed vegetables) and $3.25/pound for meat (hamburger).

The generic meal sketched out here costs $1.20 for the major pieces-parts.  Add a little butter, or sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, some ketchup or a smidgen of fruit for dessert and you are bumping that $1.50 meal.

Do we hit it every time?


Nope. 

It is a goal.  Goals are the rock on the other end of the bungee cord.  Small misses drive us to make small adjustments.  Big misses drive big adjustments.  We know how to get there...or darned close.

  • Stay out of restaurants
  • Don't waste food
  • Stay away from drive-through widows
  • Keep the proportions on you plate similar to the ones in the first picture
  • When confronted between choosing a bland protein and a more flavorful one, chose the one that is more intensely flavored choice.  It will throw a longer shadow. 
    •  Sharp ceddar cheese has at least three times the flavor of mozzarella cheese
    • Chicken thighs with the skin attached are not only less expensive that skinless, boneless chicken breast but they have four times as much flavor
    • Wild game is flavorful and can add a unique "mouth feel" dimension to food flavors
    • Tougher (cheaper) cuts of meat are tough due to inter-cellular connective tissue.  Slow, moist cooking dissolves much of the connective tissue and adds to the flavor and body to the juice
  • Stay out of bars
  • Pay close attention to beverages.  Their cost adds up quickly.
  • Most impulse buys and convenience foods (like bags of chips) will kill your budget.  A couple of exceptions are jars of roasted peanuts and summer sausage... for those times when you are hungry and too far from home.  
  • Plan your shopping around the weekly sales at your favorite food stores
  • Only buy things that you know your family will use regardless of how attractive the price might appear.

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