Filling The Pantry on the Cheap: Finding Balance

Filling The Pantry on the Cheap: Finding Balance

~Portions of Inverse Proportions~

Food costs are climbing like a toddler on Red Bull.  My own grocery costs have increased dramatically in the last few years.  We’re going to start this series with broad ideas to reign in grocery costs.  As we work our way through, we’ll narrow our focus and fine tune spending.  I hope there will be something helpful for everyone!

I’m by nature a planner and a list maker.  I’m detail oriented, slightly compulsive, and I’ll admit to having very very minor control issues.  (My kids just laughed themselves breathless and rolled their eyes, but the laugh is on them.  Whether by nature or nurture, they’re just as uptight.  Oh, did I mention that Liam is a Type-A personality too?  They get it from both sides!  Yep, who’s laughing now?  [Insert maniacal laughter here])

Being an uptight planner has its advantages.  Shopping consciously has helped keep my food budget under control for years.  After almost thirty years of detail oriented, compulsive, list addicted shopping, I had an epiphany.  If you break it down to per meal costs, there are three things that affect every grocery budget.  These three things are quality, time, and effort.

Quality: We want the best food for our families.  Each family has to decide what ‘quality’ means to them, because, our definitions vary dramatically!  Take time to decide what quality means to you.  Freshness, organic, cruelty-free, chemical-free, and locally grown foods are all possible measures of quality.  Other families may value imported delicacies, rare ingredients, or exotic preparations.  Decide what’s important to your family.

Dried beans take more time and effort to cook, but are a low-cost quality food!

Time: Time is precious, whether it’s on our side or we’re racing the clock.  Feeding people requires a time investment.  The difference is how much we choose to invest.  Do we nuke a frozen dinner, spend ages making homemade ravioli, or something in between?  Many people think time is a fixed variable.  I mean, we’re only given so much time, right?  Wrong.  It’s how and when we use time that makes the difference!  A little time invested in preparation and planning can result in huge time savings in a crunch.

Effort: There’s a reason pre-made food is popular.  Restaurants, deli counters, ‘Helper Style’ meals, and frozen dinners are everywhere.  Because they’re easy!  Home cooked food requires effort.  The best part about this variable is that basic meals, continued practice, and family participation can ease the burden.

This isn’t the highest quality meal we eat, but it takes little time or effort. It’s also much healthier and cheaper than take-out pizza!

So, how do these three things affect our food budget?

  • Quality:         High quality = higher cost       Low quality = lower cost


  • Time:             Quick prep = higher cost         Time consuming = lower cost


  • Effort:            Low effort = higher cost           Higher effort = lower cost

Basically, in order to get food for a set price, the quality is inversely proportional to the time and effort required.  Okay, I know that sounded ‘math-ey’, but hold on a sec.  Don’t throw things at me or go back to scanning Facebook yet.  It’s simple!  I just mean, as the quality of food goes up, you’ll need to put in more time and effort to hit the budget.  So, if you want to spend the same money and invest less time and effort getting it on the table, you may have to consider buying less high quality goods.   The idea here is finding balance for your family.

Let’s see how this works in an example:

  • If I purchase an organic non-soy non-GMO pre-prepared package of hummus with a little stack of pita chips on the side, I’ll pay about $4 a serving.  This is high quality, low time, low effort food.
  • If I purchase a national brand of prepared hummus and a bag of pita chips, I’ll pay about $2 a serving.  This is moderate quality, low time, low effort food.
  • If I purchase ingredients to make hummus from canned garbanzo beans and a package of pita bread to toast, I’ll pay about $1 a serving.  This is moderate quality, moderate time, moderate effort food.
  • If I purchase ingredients to make hummus from dry garbanzo beans and make homemade pita chips, I will pay about $.30 a serving.  This is moderate quality, high time, high effort food.  (Note: I consider this to be moderate quality due to the lack of organic/non-GMO/etc. certifications, not because of the taste.  Homemade hummus is fantastic.)

If you have a grocery budget that’s on the snug side, then you have some choices to make.  If you’re determined to have the highest quality food consistently, then you’ll have to put in more time and effort to keep your budget down.  If you have no time or hate to cook, you may have to purchase some quick easy foods that are of moderate, but not exceptional quality.  (Just for the record, I am not talking about dumpster diving or dodgy food, when I refer to lower quality.  Everyone must make their own decisions as to what’s an acceptable corner to cut.)

One thing is true, no matter what quality of food you purchase, ingredients are cheaper than meals.  Being willing to put in the effort to make basic meals allows you to turn $5 of ingredients into $20 worth of meals.  If your budget is tight, your schedule is tight, and the thought of cooking makes your nerves tight, you’ll have to do some flexing.  Remember, there’s only so much that can be done changing only quality.  After all, you don’t want to eat Ramen noodles seven nights a week.

Homemade tortillas are better quality than store bought, but require a little time and effort.

Once your budget is set, give some thought to quality, time, and effort.  You may see ways to better balance them, and that can help the budget balance too!  If you feel like increasing your time and effort in the kitchen, I’m adding new recipes to the link above.  Give them a try!

If money is tight, do you decrease quality or increase time and effort?  By the way, if money is really scarce, you may need to do both.  Heaven knows, there have been times we have been grateful for ‘naked beans‘.

The first post on Filling your Pantry on the Cheap is here, if you missed it.  Please, leave a comment below, if you have time.  It makes my day to hear from y’all!  Let’s find balance and see how far we can stretch our grocery budgets!

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