$200/month grocery challenge – Part IV

This is the fourth installment of a 5-part series.  Missed the first three parts?  Go here, here, and here

My family and I recently completed a 4-week long experiment in which we aimed to drastically reduce our spending on groceries and continue to eat well, perhaps even better than before.  If you’re curious, here are our weekly meal plans for the month.

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While we came in more or less under our $200 budget for eating in (depending on how you account for my seasonal produce projects), eating out was another matter.  We blew that budget, which was roughly $200-300.  I have less control over that, so I left it a bit looser.  My husband and I never agreed on a firm number.  Although I would have liked it to be $200 I knew that was too low.  I had hoped we’d keep it to $300, and I thought we might when my husband brought home bean & cheese burritos one night for just $6.24.  (That had me thinking, why don’t we eat this once a week instead of cooking!?!?  But alas, while cheap, they are heavy and vegetable-free.  Better as an occasional treat.)

The problem wasn’t eating out too often.  The meal plan kept us on track in that sense.  I had planned that we would eat dinners out twice a week – at the farmer’s market Wednesday nights and a restaurant for family date night on Fridays.  Also, we’d grab lunch out as a family once each weekend.  That’s 12 family meals, in total, for those of you counting along.  In addition, I knew my husband planned to eat lunch out once a week.

Over the course of the month we ate out 11 times as a family (1 breakfast, 3 lunches, 7 dinners), my husband had 5 lunches out and I went out for dinner once.  In total this cost us $408.  Two additional times we were treated to dinner (thanks family!).  Counting the times we ate out separately as half a family meal, we ate out 16 times in total, 14 of which we paid for.  Pretty much on target.

However, while the number of times we ate out was close to what I had planned, the spending was higher.  My husband and I both felt as though we were making relatively modest choices, especially compared to how we used to eat out, but still our spending on food out was more than anticipated (and more than double that of food prepared at home!!).

The two festivals and college football game we attended played a big role in blowing our budget, as did grabbing food (and beer) while watching the Bills, Red Sox and Dodgers last month.  (It turns out there are unanticipated costs to cancelling our cable service!!)

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On average, our eating out cost nearly 8 times what eating in did ($29.14 vs. $3.85 per family meal).  And that reflects buying cheap shwarmas and burritos some of the time.  Whoa.  I shudder to think what we used to spend when going out five times in a single weekend was not unusual.

Moving on from that depressing note…  Dining out did include alcoholic drinks while dining in did not, since we didn’t buy any this month.  (Not sayin’ we didn’t enjoy our wine, though!  We just drank what we had been saving for a special occasion.  Turns out our $200 experiment month was it!)  In truth, $29 isn’t bad to feed a family of two and a half when dining out.  Especially when alcohol is included.  And the value of the events themselves is considered (but that’s harder to quantify).

For me the real lesson, which was driven home again this month, is that dining out should be exactly that: dining.  Eating out should be more than just feeding my family without having to do the work involved.  I have homemade freezer meals for that.  Instead, eating out should be about relaxing over a meal together, gathering with friends, soaking up the atmosphere of a place, enjoying a cuisine that’s not in your cooking repertoire, and if you’re a parent, getting a taste of what life used to be like pre-kids, if only for an hour.

Tomorrow, catch the final installment of this series in which I reflect on what I learned from this experiment, and what I decided to do after it concluded.

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