My friend Lauren graciously volunteered to be the first subject in my quest to Help the World, One Grocery Cart at a Time. She let me take her grocery bill for an entire month and analyze the heck out of it. Which I totally did. With a spreadsheet, of course.
Here is the thing. The exact same monthly grocery cart would not lead to the same suggestions for everyone, because we all have different parameters governing our purchases. Time, money, convenience, family size, goals … these are all part of the equation.
Here’s what you should know about Lauren and her family:
- Generally speaking, she is open minded to making changes at the supermarket (she’s my now famous cheese shredder).
- Time is tight (she works 3 days a week and has several hours a week dedicated to physical and occupational therapy for her youngest).
- Grocery budget is flexible (within reason), but she doesn’t want to go to numerous different stores.
- One area in which she is not willing to compromise is taste. (In my opinion that’s the easiest parameter to work with, because lots of times the fresher, less processed food actually does taste better!)
So to summarize, she is willing to give a little on the budget, but not on taste or time.
Here is what I did:
- I compiled all the receipts, and split everything up by category.
- For the next step, I flagged items that are worst offenders in terms of ingredient lists. You know, the ingredients you can’t pronounce and your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
- As you can see above, the total amount spent for the month, after I added up all the purchases, was $354.51.
You may be wondering how the heck she spends so little (~$350) on food for a family of four (two adults, two small boys).
Well she doesn’t, really – they do also eat out a lot. Also, she has a well-stocked freezer. So some of the grocery budget is indirectly spent elsewhere. But don’t worry, we still have plenty of data to work with for the purposes of this exercise (plus, my guess is this is a fairly representative shopping sample for a busy family of four).
Ok, so what did her weekly grocery cart include? Approximately two home-cooked dinners a week, plus peanut butter, bread, fruit, carrots, snacks, cereal and milk.
After adding up the totals, I’d rank it at a “70/30” level for the month in consideration. Not too shabby. I could tell they eat a lot of fruit for snacks (and my daughter’s favorite applesauce pouches), which is great.
In the spirit of trying to be a bit better, I think 80/20 is a great overall goal for someone who wants to make some significant impact without a ton of effort. The question of the day, therefore, is exactly how much effort will it take?
The Low Hanging Fruit
After digging through the line items, it turns out that for Lauren, just nine items can move the needle drastically.
Let me say it again. Out of the miles long receipts for the month, I identified nine items that totaled about $107 (over 25% of her total spend) that I categorized as “low hanging fruit” with our general goals (outlined in intro post).
Wow. Major progress with just a few swaps? That’s what we’re all about here at Good Not Perfect. Here are the nine items in her basket that can be swapped out to make a big impact on the makeup of her monthly grocery allocation.
You will notice her total budget only went up ~$15 for the month, despite the addition of organic dairy. Milk and yogurt are things they buy every week, and “better farmed” dairy is my # 1 priority (if I could only afford to buy one thing non-conventional) due to environmental, animal welfare, and health-related concerns with conventional high-volume dairy farming. Recall I was sticking with her regular grocery so I did not assume she went above and beyond to go the health food store, farmers market, co-op, or CSA route. If budget were the limiting factor for her, she could cut out 100% of the soda and frozen pretzels to leave the budget unchanged without compromising any meaningful meals for her family. But recall, we’re just aiming for improvement, not perfection.
The New and Improved Grocery Cart
If she were to take all of my advice and swap out these nine items at the grocery (not assuming coupons or sales or bulk buying), her monthly spend would go up about $15. However, in terms of voting with her dollars, she’d be cutting back significantly on the dollars she allocates to the most highly processed foods and would be buying at a level closer to 90/10 instead of 70/30!
I really was surprised at these results. In Lauren’s case, substituting just nine items could really move the needle in terms of the types of food she is feeding her family and the companies she is (or isn’t) supporting at the checkout counter.
The last 10% of the equation might evolve with time, or for some people may just not be worth the fight – it’s things like taco shells or pancake syrup that she rarely buys. Although, as I type this, I am thinking regular maple syrup blows regular grocery store “pancake syrup” out of the water in terms of taste and ingredients … so maybe I should make that a more stern recommendation … or heck, I could just buy a jug of it for her as a gift next time I’m at Costco.
By swapping or eliminating a few packaged food items (frozen pancakes, super pretzels, 50% of the diet soda) we made room for bakery bread and organic dairy. Fantastic progress.
I must admit … I didn’t know I had such an avid shopper of Super Pretzels when I did this pretzel post. Um, sorry Lauren! Anyway, for the record, she did try making her own in November and was impressed with the results (I reckon a quick freeze to a batch of these, half-baked, once a month would be a great sub for super pretzels, for less overall money and better nutrition and taste).
Next, if Lauren decides she has a little spare time and wants another kitchen experiment, she could even further reduce the dependence on store bought cereal by making a batch of Mary’s homemade granola … she clearly is a cereal person and the granola is So. Darn. Yummy.
Now I am going to scurry on over and deliver her these suggestions. I’ll let you know what she thinks. She may take none, some or all of the suggestions (whatever she chooses is perfectly ok with me … I’m just glad she’s willing to hear me out).
P.S. Remember how I said lots of my friends have other causes they are passionate about? Join me in learning more about a cause that is near and dear to Lauren’s heart by reading a bit about Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy here.