Earlier this year, I decided to try the $4 a day food budget. Considering my grocery bill averaged close to $12 per day, this was a drastic reduction. Eating on $4 a day is a concept popularized by Leanne Brown in her free online book, Good and Cheap (PDF). The print version of Good and Cheap is also available on Amazon and from most booksellers. Leanne developed the book primarily for those using SNAP (food stamp) benefits. But the concept can help anyone develop a more economical food budget.
When I began planning $4 a day meals, of course I turned to Leanne’s book. But I also read the experiences of people who tried her recipes. Like some of them, I found that creating a shopping list and meals from her recipes was an onerous task. The days and weeks began to stretch out before me in a long succession of K.P. duty and random leftovers. There must be an easier way.
So, instead of developing a list of recipes and then purchasing the necessary ingredients, I decided to simply shop for food groups using the USDA ChooseMyPlate guidelines and then decide what to do with it when I got the groceries home. While this seems counter to today’s routine of reading and trying recipes, it is the method used by many of our mothers and grandmothers (and great grandmothers). They bought the ingredients they could afford and made their food budget dollars’ stretch by using a battery of basic recipes, being clever and thrifty, and wasting nothing. So what did I buy?
Suggested $4-a-day weekly grocery shopping list
The grocery list below itemizes the amounts to buy per week to feed an “average” person. Some amounts have been adjusted slightly up or down to avoid odd amounts, such as two quarts (8 cups) instead of 7 cups and 1/2-pound (8 ounces) instead of 10.5 ounces.
Fruits to buy (1½ servings per day)
- 7 pieces whole seasonal fruit or 7 cups frozen or canned fruits, or some combination of fresh and canned (1 piece or 1 cup per day)
- 2 cups dried fruit such as raisins, dates, or apricots (1/4 cup per day)
Vegetables to buy (2-3 cups per day)
- 3½ pounds fresh vegetables (1/2 cup per day)
- 3½ cups (1 pound) frozen vegetables (1/2 cup per day)
- 3½ cups canned vegetables (1/2 cup per day)
- 2 cups dark leafy greens (1/4 cup per day)
- 2 cups dry beans (1/4 cup per day)
- 2 cups (10 ounces) peas or corn (1/4 cup per day)
- 2 potatoes (1/4 medium potato per day)
Grains and pasta to buy (6 servings, for example: 2 slices bread, 2 ounces cereal, and 2 ounces pasta or grain)
- 14 slices/pieces bread. (2 slices or the equivalent per day, e.g. tortillas, muffins, etc.)
- 1 pound cereal such as oatmeal, farina, etc. (2 ounces per day)
- 1 pound dry pasta or other grain such as rice, bulgur, polenta, quinoa, etc. (2 ounces per day)
Proteins to buy (5 ounces per day, limited to 3.5 ounces meat/poultry and 1½ ounces other protein equivalents per day)
- 1½ pounds meat or poultry (3.5 ounces, 7x per week)
- 3 ounces fish (1½ ounces, 2x per week)
- 3 eggs (1½ eggs, 2x per week)
- 3 tablespoons nut butter (1½ tablespoons, 2x per week)
- 3/4 ounce nuts (1x per week)
Dairy or Soy/Tofu products to buy (3 cups per day; 1½ ounces cheese counts as 1 cup dairy)
- 2 quarts milk (1 cup per day)
- 2 quarts yogurt, cottage cheese, soy yogurt, or tofu (1 cup per day)
- 8 ounces cheese (1½ ounce per day)
Tips for customizing the weekly grocery shopping list
Because this grocery shopping list is based on “average” recommended servings as suggested by the USDA ChooseMyPlate website, you may need to adjust the list based on your household. If your family has small children, elderly people, or you have a sedentary lifestyle, then the above amounts might be decreased by one-quarter to one-half (1 or 1½ cups instead of 2). If you have active teenagers, men, or a very active lifestyle, the amounts might be increased by up to one-quarter to one-half (2½ or 3 cups instead of 2). So adjust quantities as needed for your family size and lifestyle.
Also feel free to adjust choices within a food group. If you don’t use canned vegetables, increase the fresh or frozen amounts. If you prefer toast and eggs or peanut butter to cereal and milk for breakfast, make adjustments to those food choices. Likewise, if you are vegetarian or vegan, adjust the types of proteins you buy. So use the list a guide and modify your grocery shopping list as needed.
Finally, even if you are buying for one or two people, you want to purchase some foods in economical quantities, such as one dozen eggs or one loaf of bread, which is cheaper than buying a smaller amount. In this case, buy the extra during one shopping trip and reduce or eliminate another food purchase that week. Over time, things even out. You will skip some foods that are still in your pantry and buy only what’s needed to replenish your shelves. It’s more difficult at first, but once you develop a rhythm, your shopping trips become more second nature.
If you would like to customize a grocery shopping list for your family preferences and size, download these helpful PDF files:
- Tools for planning grocery shopping and 4 dollars a day budget meals
- Customizable grocery shopping list for $4 a day budget
Follow the instructions to calculate amounts needed for your family and use the customizable list to create a detailed shopping list. You only need to do this once to develop a guide for your grocery shopping routine. After a few shopping trips, you will have made adjustments according to your family’s preferences.
So what do you do these ingredients when you get them home? What does a week’s worth of meals and snacks look like with this amount of food? Here’s a suggested menu.
Suggested menus for $4-a-day food budget
Breakfast menu ideas
- Cereal with dried fruit and milk
- Fruit smoothie made from yogurt or milk with ice and fresh fruit
- Toast with poached egg with fruit
Morning snack ideas
- Fruit (fresh or dried or a combination) and cheese
- Toast and peanut butter, with or without a topping of fruit
- Fruit and nuts or nut butter
Lunch menu ideas
- Sandwich: bean spread (hummus) and thinly sliced vegetables or a vegetable slaw, or tuna or egg salad mixed generously with diced vegetables
- Soup: Bean soup with vegetables and barley, with optional garnish of seafood, hard-cooked egg, or cheese
- Salad: Vegetable and greens salad tossed with cooked beans and rice, with optional garnish of egg, nuts, or cheese
Afternoon snack ideas
- Carrot sticks and hummus, yogurt or cottage cheese
- Vegetable smoothie made from yogurt or milk with ice, fresh greens, and 1/2 apple
Dinner menu rotation ideas
- Sunday: Roast or braised chicken dinner with grain and vegetable pilaf
- Monday: Stuffed vegetables with beans and grains (meatless)
- Tuesday: Tacos with shredded chicken and vegetables in tortillas
- Wednesday: Pasta primavera with shredded chicken and vegetables
- Thursday: Chinese-style stir-fry with shredded chicken vegetables over rice
- Friday: Seafood stew with vegetables over polenta
- Saturday: Sloppy Joes with Cole slaw, or leftovers from the week’s’ meals — either eaten as is, or made into a new dish such as soup or stew
I don’t tend to snack and prefer instead to incorporate more food into each meal. So I usually combine foods from the snack suggestions into other meals. Like the grocery shopping list, use these menus as suggestions to develop your own $4 a day plan.
This menu also suggests some repetition for breakfast, snacks, and lunch. This is useful if you have a busy schedule (and who doesn’t?). But more variety is possible. For example, what is stuffed between sandwich bread can be as varied as the bread itself. From peanut butter sandwiches to tortilla wraps or stuffed pitas and even pizza or calzone…all of these are some form of a sandwich. Quite frankly, I find a lot of comfort in sameness—an oasis in today’s technology driven world. Tuna and egg salad are my favorites, and I could probably eat these two sandwiches most days of the year and remain completely contented.
For dinner, I’ve opted for a weekly rotation: Sunday roast or braised meat, Monday stuffed vegetable (usually meatless), Tuesday tacos, Wednesday pasta, Thursday stir-fry, Friday seafood, and Saturday burgers (unless I have enough leftovers). Using a rotation of recipes saves time as well as money. I vary the ingredients from one week to the next, so that the tacos or pasta dish, or whatever the main recipe is, seems different from one week to the next, as well as takes advantage of what is cheapest at the grocery store in any given shopping trip.
If your family is accustomed to greater variety, you might want to build in more recipes than seven or establish several “open menu” nights for trying new recipes. But many homemakers I’ve talked with have a base of go-to recipes — if you do, start with those. Perhaps the biggest change for some might be getting away from the classic meat-potatoes-vegetables trio. Many of us are finding one-pot meals and combo dishes (skillet pasta, quick stir-fry over rice…) are much more reasonable options for today’s busy families.
I’m still refining my routine, but overall I’ve enjoyed this drastically reduced food budget. In fact, meals seem to be more comforting, especially after a long work day and many decisions I used to mull over are already made by using a standard rotation.
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