I recently reviewed a book where a congresswoman was challenged to eat on $41 dollars a week. The woman found it a horribly difficult experience, purchasing many prepared and junk foods as she went. It made me think that it should not be that hard. I decided to challenge myself to come up with a meal plan for four people that used a $50 a total week budget.
My parameters - find a reasonably nutritious, balanced assortment of food to support two adults and two school-aged children, that slowly builds up a larder of versatile foods. Meals have to include breakfast, a portable lunch, snack, dinner and even dessert.
First, I discussed basic meal planning ideas with a friend who falls into these parameters in her real life. Then I took a notebook and calculator to my local Safeway supermarket. In this case study, I shopped in April of 2011, a time of high oil prices - and accompanying high increases in consumer goods. Some items were on sale and some were not, but I did use my Safeway Club Card (free) and did completely thorough price comparisons per ounce/pound.
I discovered that shopping for food staples in a first world supermarket is far more difficult than I'd imagined. Aisles are set up to direct the shoppers to sodas, chips, frozen pizzas, boxed cereals, crackers, cookies and deli meats. Anything in it's simplest form - like a bag of white rice - had to be hunted down. Bags of food in large amounts are stocked on the floor. I spent hours in this one supermarket, half of the time backtracking to things I'd missed in previous aisles, and actually sitting on the floor with a calculator. At one point another customer mistook me for a store employee and started to ask me a question! :)
I was pleased that I was actually able to come up with a $50 a week plan for decent meals for four people, since I was told it was not possible. I might have been able to do better the first week at a bulk food store like Costco! This plan uses what I was able to price in a typical local supermarket.