Editor’s note: In this special edition of Millennial Money, coach Jason Heath writes about rising food costs and tips on takeout, groceries, and eating at home. Need advice? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your situation.
Annual food costs for one person households average $ 4,650 per year, according to the 2017 Survey of Household Spending from Statistics Canada. For couples with children the average is $ 11,917. This includes groceries and restaurants, with a split of about two thirds for food purchased from stores and one third for food purchased from restaurants.
Food was the third highest expense in the survey, following shelter and transportation, and regardless of household type, was approximately 13 per cent of an average Canadian’s budget.
In addition, food costs have been increasing by more than the rate of inflation this year. In October, the year-over-year price increase for food was 2.3 per cent, led by fresh produce, dairy products, and fresh or frozen poultry and pork. Tomato prices were up an astounding 41 per cent and lettuce prices rose 26 per cent compared to October 2019.
With all this in mind, over the past few years, my wife and I have made a conscious effort to do more cooking at home. Prior to that, we went through a phase when we ate at restaurants a lot.
We have three preteen kids, and when they were younger, it was a real privilege to take them to Boston Pizza and not have to worry about cooking or satisfying their different food preferences.
It was family time well spent, when the kids were happy to colour pictures, do crosswords, and order from a menu. Meanwhile, my wife and I could enjoy a glass of wine without cooking or cleaning. Date nights often included dinner at a restaurant as well.
Pre-pandemic, our food budget definitely exceeded the 13 per cent of spending for the average Canadian household. It was conscious as life was busy with our kids, and building a business meant we worked a lot of hours as well. Convenience was a privilege and a cost we were willing to incur, and believe me, even financial planners spend money frivolously sometimes.
When we did our budgeting, we noticed how expensive eating out was getting, and we made a conscious decision to do more cooking at home for both financial and non-financial reasons. We both enjoy cooking, so that helped as well.
A happy medium we found was meal kit delivery services. The cost is more than cooking from scratch, but cheaper than going to restaurants or ordering delivery.
There are options that take more or less time to cook depending on your selections, as well as options that can be catered to your family’s dietary restrictions.
Chefs Plate, Goodfood and HelloFresh are available throughout most of Canada and have meal options under $ 10 per serving. We have tried all three ourselves, discovering new foods and different cooking techniques along the way.
We have also ordered a year’s worth of frozen meat, fish, vegetables and fruit directly from a group of local farms a couple times. This has been a good option as well to always have food on hand that is healthy and priced at a discount compared to what we would normally spend paying retail prices at the grocery store.
When I was younger and money was tight, my grocery habits were focused squarely on what was on sale. Discount brands, discounted items — the lowest cost option was my main priority.
As I have aged and become responsible for my children’s diets, I am more inclined to buy organic and choose quality over price. There are special dietary needs for our kids as well that support the healthy food choices we make. Those choices, however, come at a cost.
One way we try to balance our food budget involves the types of healthy foods we buy. We realized our berries never seemed to last long, leading to food waste, so we tend to opt for longer lasting fruits we know do not need to be eaten right away.
We also bought a deep freezer and do our best to freeze things we can thaw later as well as stocking up when things are on sale.
Cucumbers have become a staple in our children’s lunch boxes and on their dinner plates, because they all like them, they are modestly priced and they last forever. This past summer, we even started to grow cucumbers in our backyard, though the rabbits and chipmunks seemed to enjoy them at least as much as we did.
Now that the winter is here, I miss caring for our vegetable garden. In retrospect, the benefit I got from taking a few meditative minutes every morning to water was more important than the bounty we reaped or the money we saved.
Food costs are a big expense for most families, and for those who are looking for ways to cut spending, avoiding restaurants will make a difference. If you are spending more than one third of your food budget on dining out, you are spending more than the average Canadian family.
If someone needs to cut spending to meet a saving goal or because they are going through a difficult time financially, decreasing food costs should be high on the priority list. That said, even as a financial planner, I can tell you my family has spent more than most in the past to eat at restaurants, and currently orders meal kits and pays a premium for healthier food options.
Some of our food choices help our family have more quality time, but also ensure we are feeding our kids foods that are specific to their needs. We consider our food costs to be an investment in our relationships and our health.
So, just try to make sure if you are spending more on food, it is for good reasons and does not limit your other saving or debt repayment goals.
Try not to worry if it happens to include fulfilling the odd late night ice cream craving when you are already in your pyjamas, as that delivery is probably not going to make or break you anyway.
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What are your best tips for managing your food budget?