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I've calculated that I eat for $603/month or $20/day (assuming 30 days in an average month). I do not live in the USA, but "basically the same" ("the West").

I've been trying, but failing, to get a nice list of current average amounts per-country, per-age group/demographics. It would be very interesting to see where I "rank" in such a table, because I feel as if I'm living on poverty levels with 100% frozen junk food (never any take-away, restaurants or any kind of not-at-home food).

Maybe it's a bit misleading because I include not just food but anything I buy from the food store, such as toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. So this is more of a "total basic necessities" value... not counting the rent, electricity or anything like that, of course.

If a cheeseburger at McDonald's still is $1 USD, that sounds like I'm eating 20 burgers a day, but that's of course not the case. I eat a frozen pizza, another frozen meal... and... um... some canned fruit... and sometimes a pastry or two. And drink a bunch of instant coffee. I truly don't feel like I'm getting almost any food for the amount of money I waste on these grocery orders.

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    Even in the US, prices will vary by region. – chepner Jun 16 at 14:50
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    I have deleted a bunch of comments that are not asking for clarification. – GS - Apologise to Monica Jun 16 at 16:32
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    I wonder where the OP goes to shop. In the UK, the prices in a small "convenience store" can be twice as high as in a supermarket. I have been living alone in the UK for 30 years, and to spend the OP's food budget I would be eating 8-ounce steaks two or three times a week, not 100% frozen junk food. My food budget less than half the OP's, and that is without any serious effort to economize. – alephzero Jun 16 at 18:25
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    Does this include alcohol? – Azor Ahai -- he him Jun 16 at 21:13
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    "I've been trying, but failing, to get a nice list of current average amounts per-country, per-age group/demographics" - ask us on opendata.stackexchange.com – Mawg says reinstate Monica Jun 17 at 9:07

14 Answers 14

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because I feel as if I'm living on poverty levels with 100% frozen junk food

Considering that frozen junk food is about the most expensive food you can buy, I fail to see how that is poverty level. If you buy produce, you have no problem eating for 12 EUR per day (let's say 15), and you will be full.

I do not live in the USA, but "basically the same" ("the West").

Well, Berlin in Germany is in the west. I think a budget of 100 EUR per week is nice—and it means eating a lot of meat (expensive) and basically what I want including some bottles of decent wine.

No. Your idea of "poverty level" is way off, and your food is totally on the expensive side of reality. Start cooking.

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    Frozen junk food is available at a huge range of prices, at the cheapest end, it is often cheaper than home cooking, and that excludes some of the overlooked costs of equipment, electricity etc. I would always recommend home cooking for quality and health, but I think its disingenuous to say it's always cheaper. Home cooking is certainly cheaper than 20USD/day though! – David258 Jun 17 at 9:26
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    @David258 At this point, probably one should also factor in the long-time health cost of eating frozen junk food on a regular basis. – Federico Poloni Jun 17 at 9:33
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    Actually frozen food can be among the cheapest you can buy. Here in Austria you can get a frozen pizza Margherita containing 672kcal for 0.60€. At Billa you can buy a pack of yeast dumplings containing 1050kcal for 1.19€. With food like that you could easily survive on less than 3€ per day (90€ per month). On a per-calorie basis you’d be hard pressed to find anything cheaper. – Michael Jun 17 at 15:56
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    This makes less and less sense. 20 USD per day sounds like "I am poor, I can not afford 4 Cappuchino at Starbucks every workday" - the numbers are just too high. I would love to see a monthly spending breakdown for this food budget. – TomTom Jun 17 at 18:30
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    @Kevin I think it depends on the size of the pizza. One big enough to feed a family will easily cost over five dollars, but a personal one would be much cheaper. – Kat Jun 17 at 18:33
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Some years ago I backed a kickstarter for Good and Cheap, a cookbook aimed at people "with limited income, particularly on a $4/day food stamps budget". That's poverty level, at least in 'the West' (and incidentally I think you're kidding yourself if you think there's anywhere that's 'not ... the USA, but "basically the same"').

You're going to the food store and buying the cheapest prepared food available, but that means you're still paying for the preparation. You don't say how much time you have, but if it's more than none you can dramatically reduce your money spend by spending some of your own time on food prep, rather than paying other people to do it.

See my link above; this is a vast area for your own further research. The PDF is available under Creative Commons and can be downloaded here: https://books.leannebrown.com/good-and-cheap.pdf

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    (Lots of comments deleted): I don't think this answer is going to be improved by an argument about what's possible. Write your own answer if you think it answers the question. – GS - Apologise to Monica Jun 17 at 21:02
  • This ignores the part about "anything I buy from the food store, such as toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste" - it's not just food the OP is buying. – bytepusher Jun 19 at 3:54
  • @bytepusher good point – AakashM Jun 19 at 9:06
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In Sweden the Konsumentverket does yearly calculations on reasonable household expenses. These numbers are used for things like social welfare budgets.

The following numbers is from their 2019 report: An adult between the age 31 and 60 and that cooks all food at home, should be able to have an average monthly food budget of 2470 sek ($265).

So I would say that you food budget is very high. For instance me and my girlfriend have a combined monthly food budget at around $600.

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    And Sweden is one of the most expensive countries in the world, especially when it comes to food. I think only Norway is more expensive. – Michael Jun 17 at 16:00
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    @Michael As somebody who moved from Zurich to Gothenburg I had to chuckle at this. Our personal food expenses went down by almost 50%. I don't even find Sweden particularly expensive, but of course that depends on your point of reference. But it's certainly not the second-most expensive in anything I observe in my daily life. – xLeitix Jun 18 at 6:31
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    @xLeitix: Yeah, Switzerland is expensive as well, but dairy products are cheap there and vegetables not that expensive. – Michael Jun 18 at 7:51
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For the Netherlands you can check out the site from nibud: https://www.nibud.nl/consumenten/wat-geeft-u-uit-aan-voeding/

Here it states that the average costs for daily food related costs for a male between 14-50 in a single person household in the Netherlands in 2020 is €7,42 (or about $8,36 per day / $250,80 per month).

Comparing this to your costs I conclude you spend a lot on food.

Note this cost from nibud is based on the food one person needs to live a healthy lifestyle. I'd like to add this as one point for your consideration: don't buy your food only based on price, but also on a healthy diet. As other have noted buying frozen food is also not the cheapest option so it might even be easy to combine the two.

Good luck!

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    If completely ignoring healthy food, you could get away with around €4 per day like yours truly :-) – Stephan Bijzitter Jun 16 at 16:37
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    @StephanBijzitter A friend of mine claimed she could live on €5/*week*. A kg of low-quality rice or macaroni at a discounter at the time was €0.30, not sure what it's now. It's not healthy but it fills. – gerrit Jun 17 at 7:29
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    Vegetables and protein are expensive. Even if it’s just potatoes, onions, carrots and legumes. – Michael Jun 17 at 16:02
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    I can't add comment to the question anymore, as it is locked, however, a great worldwide cost of living comparison site is numbeo.com/cost-of-living/comparison.jsp it is based on people filling in data for their own locales, so it can even show price difference within a single country. – Gnudiff Jun 18 at 20:30
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX: Cheap compared to 20$/day, expensive compared to wheat (flour, oat flakes) and sugar. Still worth the cost in my opinion ;) – Michael Jun 19 at 5:45
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It's a lot. Definitely above average and well above poverty.

I've managed to live on $160/month with limited time to cook and still occasionally eating out (though this only accounts for about 80% of my overall food consumption at that time, as other people provided the other 20%). Nowadays I make enough money to where I don't have to pay much attention to my food budget (and I don't really keep track of it), but it's easily below $600/month. Of course, cost is going to vary by location and you may be paying "vice taxes" on junk food where you're living (some places won't offer sales tax / VAT exemptions for junk food and some places single out those items with additional taxes), bringing that total up.

Your food budget has a lot of give, but it's going to take work to bring that down. Frozen food can be cost-effective if you stick to TV dinners and hot pockets, but only if you get the really cheap stuff and wave goodbye to your health. You're going to be much better off cooking.

Some tips from personal experience:

  • Grains are the staple of a stretched budget, though you'll need some nuts, beans, and veggies for nutritional completeness. Pasta and bread can form the base of lots of meals at a low cost.
  • Beans are cheap (even canned) and filling. Garbanzo beans in particular are a halfway-decent meat substitute.
  • Eggs are a cheap meal stretcher that doubles as a protein boost. They also last a shockingly long time, so buying in bulk is a good option if you have fridge space.
  • Adding ramen to canned soup can stretch one meal into two.
  • Peanut butter is an excellent grain stretcher. One of my cheap go-to meals over the last couple of years is peanut butter toast with applesauce on top. I'd estimate 60-80 cents for two slices, maybe less.
  • The freezer is good for extending the shelf life of meat, bread, and leftovers. Take advantage of this superpower when food is on sale.
  • If you're living alone or don't share food with roommates, avoid the temptation to buy anything perishable in larger quantities than you're absolutely certain you're going to eat before it goes bad.
  • You can cut up a beef/pork roast into smaller portions, which is much cheaper than buying steaks or chunks and is often from the same part of the animal. Use your freezer to store leftover chunks and remember to cook them.
  • Crockpot cooking will feed you for several meals for roughly $15. Soups don't usually go bad as quickly as other types of leftovers, so you probably won't have to worry about it going bad as long as you eat some every day until it's gone.
  • Mexican food is very cheap if you make it yourself and even cheaper without meat. It's easy to make a burrito for under 50 cents.
  • Expiration dates are suggestions, not rules. Milk is usually good for a day or two after, sometimes more. Rely on your nose, not a number stamped on the packaging, and trust your immune system. You'll be fine.
  • You can add meat, eggs, and/or vegetables to rice-a-roni and other dry packaged foods to give it a little more substance.
  • Potatoes are very cheap and reasonably healthy if you eat the skins. Just make sure you cook them before they start growing eyes (though technically you can still eat them even then). You might look into buying them individually as needed if you aren't big on potatoes.
  • Use onions liberally. They're cheap and they at least give you some vegetable intake.
  • Oils and seasonings are your friends. It may seem like an extra expense, but they last a long time and go a long way to making your food enjoyable.
  • Soda pop and alcohol should be rare treats. Neither is good for you and both are expensive. Stick to water for the most part. Brew your own coffee/tea or skip them entirely. Drink milk only if you also cook with it.
  • Take advantage of free food wherever and whenever it's available. There is no shame in visiting a soup kitchen, eating food from work, visiting family for a free meal, or even going to parties because you heard there would be free food.
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    Good answer, addendum for smelling milk with rely on your nose: often some milk dries up near the top of the package, this dried-up milk may smell bad even though the milk in the package is still good. So don't smell the milk directly from the package, pour some into a clean up, then smell that. – gerrit Jun 17 at 7:34
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    A food stuff to add to your list...potatoes. They are cheap, and have a enormous variety of ways they can be cooked. – illustro Jun 17 at 9:30
  • You can also boil some of the milk to see that it is bad or not. – kelalaka Jun 17 at 15:09
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    I agree with everything, except the thing about eggs being cheap. Protein is always expensive. Here in Austria curd cheese and legumes are probably the most affordable, followed by eggs, cheese, meat and tofu. – Michael Jun 17 at 16:06
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    @Michael Here in the US, a dozen eggs costs under $2. A dozen eggs can easily fill out 6 meals, sometimes more. Sure it's not as cheap as grains, but you gotta get your protein. – Beefster Jun 17 at 16:49
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In the US, there's an invaluable resource we use when figuring out a reasonable grocery budget. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts out a monthly report at https://www.fns.usda.gov/cnpp/usda-food-plans-cost-food-reports-monthly-reports which gives details estimates of food costs per person by age, gender, and gradation of spend level (Thrifty through to Liberal). I'd highly recommend it.

We also put basic toiletries and household goods you could find at the grocery store in that budget line item and found it's still a reasonable estimation.

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    Could you summarise what should be a typical monthly food cost per adult, in a city or away from it? Links may rot. – gerrit Jun 17 at 7:31
  • It's a service that's updated monthly and directly answers the question. To post a copy of the data from a random month would rot just as quickly. Archive.org has a copy of the page. – bobmagoo Jun 19 at 21:27
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We live in Austria (Europe) and spend ~550€/Month on food (my wife, myself and one child). Also including diapers & toiletries. Not including money for eating outside, which we rarely do - we cook most of our meals ourselves. We are around 30 years old.

According to the official statistics for 2015 Konsumerhebung 2014/15, the expenses for food per household (average ~2.2 people) in Austria were 353€ per Month (not including Alcohol, or eating outside).

This graphic shows the percentage of total monthly expenses for food in Austria:

This shows the percentage of income spend for food

I think 10€ per Person per day should work fine if you cook for yourself. Food is cheap here (I think) e.g.:

1kg of noodles/rice/potatoes/carrots/salad/apples/milk ~ 1€

If you want to save money cook a large portion and freeze the rest.

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    As pointed out it doesn't only save money but also a lot of time. I know this practice as "meal prepping". You can also apply this practice to reduce additional costs around the process of cooking (saving water, heat energy, avoiding dumping unprocessed food...) – Limon Jun 17 at 8:27
  • As someone also living in Austria, in Vienna, my groceries budged is 300 euros a month for a two person household. This includes eating out sometimes, as well as toiletries. OP must be buying some expensive cheeses and alcohol. – strwoc Jun 18 at 7:48
  • +1 This is pretty much my experience, we are a family of 3 and spend a little more but we buy most of our food organic which is more expensive. – Ivana Jun 18 at 9:46
  • I'm not allowed to answer yet so I can add in comment: near to Austria, in South Germany I perfectly ate for 30 Euro per week - meat, vegetables, milk, coffee grains. Multicooker lunch and huge salad dinner (evening). That took visiting several shops each shopping, but I spent gas anyway: going back home from office I just visited several shops and bought items on sale in one or another. It's perfectly safe since expire dates were OK and saved me a lot. – tequilacat Jun 18 at 17:55
  • In the prepping direction, I can recommend cooking a big pot of mixed vegetables ("Ratatouille") starting with an onion + tomato basis (plus peppers if affordable). This goes well with potatoes or pasta or rice and on the protein side also a variety of things from meat balls to fish etc. or can be used on a pizza. A whole variety of food for cleaning only once. Can also be frozen. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 18 at 21:10
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Whether or not it is "a lot" or average is a relative judgement based on what other people spend and may not be the most precise question you could ask-- a multimillionaire might have a private chef and gourmet meals every day, costing far more than $20 per day, while not being "a lot" to that person. Conversely, there are many people whose income couldn't possibly support a $20 per day food budget.

I will say that you can eat well and far less expensively than $20 per day. I've gone long periods on $3-$6 dollars per day for food for myself by shopping sales and using efficient cooking and food storage methods, and even today many of my home meals fall into that cost range. Making one batch of chicken noodle soup, for example, cost me around $20 and yielded roughly two gallons of soup, which translated to 10-12 meals' worth. Understanding that the higher upfront purchase price for the ingredients (relative to a frozen meal) translated into a far less expensive and more nutritious and satisfying per-meal experience was a major change in my food budgeting.

My experiences with convenience food (frozen pizzas, boxed dinner mixes, and so on) have been that it is extremely expensive on a per-serving basis, and a "meal" that you can eat for $1-$2 have tended to be unworkable for extended periods-- my 6-8 weeks of prepackaged ramen constituting 75-80% of my meals left me very malnourished and feeling quite ill. The urge to supplement that food with something else, anything else, was very strong.

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The other answers have already pointed out that prepared meals are more expensive than cooking but just to illustrate with an example of something you've said you eat, here's what I do when I feel like a pizza and/or am feeling too lazy to cook a "proper" meal:

  • Base: 1x wholemeal tortilla (£0.12) (you can double-layer 2x tortillas if you want more calories)
  • Sauce: 1/3 tinned tomato (£0.09) mixed with a bit of paprika (£0.02), dried basil (£0.02), and a crushed or chopped garlic clove (£0.02)
  • Cheese: 1/2 pack of mozzarella (£0.35)
  • Toppings: whatever you feel like, I usually use a few handfuls of various chopped vegetables e.g. onions, tomatoes, peppers, etc (~£0.20)
  • Cooking: 10 mins in the oven

For a total of £0.82 (=$1.03) I have a meal which is healthier, cheaper, and tastes way better than anything I could have got in the frozen section. Based on London prices at a mid-range supermarket, so you could probably do better. I can quite comfortably produce all my meals for £1 - £2 each; less if I were on a budget.

You may also want to consider that your diet, the way you have described it, sounds very unhealthy. I'd bet that you have way more salt and sugar than you should. Even just swapping the tinned fruits for a banana or an apple would be a big improvement. In general, doing your own cooking means that you will have a much healthier diet, as long as you apply a bit of common sense and variety.

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    Where are you buying "a generous amount of various chopped vegetables" for 20p? – Brondahl Jun 16 at 15:07
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    Grated Mozzarella is £3 a pack, so that's wrong too. – Brondahl Jun 16 at 15:13
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    I agree with the general principle of your answer "Making food is can be very cheap", but if you do that and get the numbers wildly wrong you're not helping anybody, least of all OP. – Brondahl Jun 16 at 15:13
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    @Brondahl There's no need to be snarky. I did check all of the numbers before posting. To address the specific examples you've given, using Tesco: red peppers £0.45, of which I would use about 1/8 (try making a pizza with an entire red pepper and I think you'll agree that is an absurd amount to use); mozzarella I grate myself and will edit the answer to make this clearer - I used this one priced at £0.70 but there is also a slightly smaller one for £0.45 – JBentley Jun 16 at 15:44
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    @jamesqf In reality, grated mozzarella can be bought for far less than that anyway e.g. this one for £1.70 from Tesco. The one Brondahl found for £3 is twice the size, so is actually even cheaper (equivalent to £1.50). His error was in assuming you would use the entire portion for each of the ingredients, irrespective of the size it comes in. – JBentley Jun 16 at 16:15
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I live in the UK, just outside London (probably, the most expensive area in the UK) and our average weekly shopping for a family of 5 comes to about £130 (about $163). Divide that by 7 - and it's under $5 per day per person.

Do note that we always buy fresh fruits/veg/produce, meat, fish, etc. We bake all bread ourselves. We buy tea and coffee beans from specialty shops. We're definitely not anywhere near the poverty line.

As pointed in other answers, if you switch to buying ingredients and cooking at home, you'll see a massive drop in your food spending.

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I think you need to redo your math to exclude all the non-food items to see exactly what you are spending on for food in a week. Not only will this help you figure out how much you are actually eating, but it'll help you figure out what else you are buying. This may help you figure out if you need to reduce or cut other things out.

By the numbers:

I haven't done a budget since I moved, but when I was living in the US Midwest, I was generally able to spend $40-$100 USD a week on myself and still be full. The higher totals included lots of meat.

You might wonder how I was able to spend as little as $40. Well, I bought a ton of frozen meals: the really, really cheap ones. I'm talking $1 to $1.50 per meal, and most of the time I'd eat two of them for lunch. Yes, I eat about 2 to 3 times as much as the "standard serving size" and I was able to survive, and even be full and overweight, on $40 a week. They didn't taste the greatest, but they were food.

I also got soups that were $1 to $2 a can. Tuna is cheap at less than $1 a can. Eggs are also cheap, even though they sound "expensive" at $2 a dozen. You realize that means they are about $0.17 each, right? You can get real full real fast eating eggs, and because it's protein, you'll stay full longer. Rice and egg noodles are also inexpensive and tend to fill you up easily.

The cheap end of frozen pizza that's not a "single serving" pizza was around $2.50. You could definitely get other pizzas for $5-$10, but I kept to the cheap ones. And I only ate one a week. You could sometimes get them on sale for "5 for $10". I'd usually add toppings, since they were pretty scarce out of the box, but that was less expensive than buying them fully loaded.

BTW, I'm an active male at 5'10" tall and roughly 285 lbs., so I'm not a tiny person assuming my food intake will work for everyone. In fact, I'm pretty sure I eat more than most people, as I've seen at lunch time in the various places I've worked.

Meat:

Meat in the Midwest is usually less expensive than other places, since the animals, rendering, etc, is generally done fairly locally. Most of it is done within 100 miles from the retail sales, even for the "big box" stores. Nearly everything, except for fish, is generally butchered within 24 hours, so it's also fresher, but that's beside the point.

Even 2 years ago, you could get a pound of 85% ground beef for around $2.50. Pork and chicken were generally less than $2 a pound. Prepared bratwurst is generally cheap and easy to fix. Even in the larger US city (in the middle of a desert) I'm in right now, I was able to get a 10 pack of brats for $10 last week.

As for spending $100, I was able to buy a bunch of meat. I'd put it on a (large) charcoal grill all at once, then throw it in the fridge or freezer for the rest of the week. I'd have burgers, brats, chicken, pork chops, even a cheap steak, and some other things. I'd even get veggies for stir fry, chop them up, throw them in a stainless steel bowl (with a packet of spices), cover it with foil, and let those cook on the grill while the meat was cooking. By cooking larger amounts at once, you are using less energy (and the materials it comes from) to cook the food, when you consider the amount of combustibles or electricity it takes to heat up and cool down the utensils, pans, etc. It also takes less time to cook it all at once than it does to cook things individually.

My history:

I've lived in a poverty level situation for most of the past decade, so I know that it's easily possible to be full while eating less than $2 per meal. When I was unemployed, I found ways to eat for less than $1 a meal. I also appreciate eating a $4 lunch and $8 supper. I'd "splurge" once a week going to a fast food restaurant.

Yes, there were times when I spent more than $100 a week. That usually included longer use items that I ran out of. Things like paper towels, toilet paper, dish soap, and other low-use high-quantity-purchase items. Or I'd be stocking up on 5-10 pizzas for variety, which, again, I'd only eat one a week.

The last time I went to the grocery store, I think I spent $170, but that was for about 2 weeks worth of food and included quite a bit of meat. I should be able to buy only the perishable foods I use on a regular basis the next time I go and spend considerably less.

Drinks:

What you might also want to look at is your drinking habits, and I'm not even talking about alcohol. (But yes, alcohol is expensive, so don't drink it if you're worried about cost.) Instead of going with bottled water, pop/soda, and sports drinks, stick to tap water. You can get a filter pitcher for a weeks worth of bottled drinks and those filters will easily last you months, each. If you don't like the taste of even filtered water, well, you're going to have to get used to it. There are different inexpensive things to add to it, but even that cost can add up quickly.

You also state that you drink a lot of instant coffee. Well, you're going to have to reduce that, too. Because it has caffeine, like pop/soda, you'll have to reduce your intake slowly, or you'll likely have withdrawal symptoms. Somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, I dropped my pop/soda intake from around 6 cans/bottles a day down to 1. I haven't regretted that decision. (I know people who drink more than 6 a day.) I've also tried to remove my pop/soda intake completely, but it's hard to do and because I drink it in the morning to kickstart the day, I found mornings miserable.

Start by determining your "normal" daily intake over a week, then immediately reduce it by 1 the following week and replace it with tap or filtered tap water. If you drink 6 cans/bottles (or coffees) a day like I used to, drop it to 5 a day. Then every month reduce it by 1 again until you either aren't drinking any of it; or you just can't reduce it any further while remaining human. Eventually your body will get used to the reduced amounts, which is why I suggest slowly removing the caffeine and sugar. If you can manage it without becoming Mr(s). Hyde, reduce your intake even faster. I managed to drop from +6 cans a day to 1 without any problems, but I was also still fairly young, in better shape, and had more discipline and determination than I do now. YMMV.

Caveat: I still drink more than 1 sugary or caffeine drink a day if I'm doing a lot of physical labor. I normally drink about a 1 gallon of just water a day, but sometimes I need something more than water when I'm working up a sweat. My 1 can a day is strictly a "normal" day. A few weeks ago when I was moving, I drank at least 2 pops and 6 sports drinks during the hardest and hottest days, as well as upping my water intake to nearly 2 gallons.

Quantity vs Cost:

You might not even realize how much you are eating in actual cost. You might get some real cheap food, but because it's not filling, you eat more of it and it costs you more than buying something more expensive. Chips and other corn or rice based snacks are a good example. I once bought a huge $3 bag of "cheesy puffs" and thought it would last for weeks. Because it was mostly air, I ate the whole bag and was still hungry.

Granola is more expensive, but it'll keep you full longer. A $3 box of granola bars will make you more full than a $4 bag of chips. Fruit cups and even pudding cups can be less cost, when you consider the food density and how long it takes to digest.

On the other side of that coin, you can probably get a 2 liter of pop for $1-2 and that has a lot more in it than the 20 oz. that costs the same $1-2. If you have a resealable sports bottle that can handle pressure, you can refill the bottle for less than grabbing a new one. That is, if you buy the bottles individually. A 6 pack of 20 oz bottles is $4-5, instead of $8-12 they would cost from a machine or vendor individually. And a 12 oz. can of pop can cost $1-2 individually, or $0.30-0.40 in a 24 pack case.

There's lots of things you can buy in bulk that will cost you less per unit than a smaller bag. Cheese is a good example. I use a lot of shredded cheese, so I buy a 5 lbs. bag, instead of the 1 lb bags. I know I'll go through it before it starts growing mold. It also freezes well, so if I see a good deal, I'll buy it an throw it in the freezer, if I don't need to open it right away.

Then there are concentrates, and not always in how you think. Dish soap is often sold in larger bottles as concentrates, which usually means there's less water in it. But then you can also think of salsa as a concentrate. If you like mild or medium salsa, get the same sized jar of hot and simply use less. If you already use the hot stuff, get a small bottle of habanero sauce and add a few drops to each use, and then reduce your salsa use, too. That small bottle will last much longer than the salsa and you'll likely reduce your salsa use by half.

Cereal lasts and stays fresh for a long time, so always get the family size. I used to buy 10 lbs. tubes of ground beef, too. The grocery store I got them at would reduce the price by $0.50 or more per lbs. doing it that way. Then I'd portion it out to 1/2 lb burgers and a few 1 lb chunks for tacos and other meals. I'd put most of it in the freezer and it'd last a couple of months.

Caveat: make sure that you are going to use the larger sized containers before it spoils. If you waste the food, you aren't saving money, so sometimes a smaller container makes better financial sense. I gave up milk, since even a pint will go bad before I finish it.

Conclusion:

There's definitely a lot of ways to reduce your food spending, but the first thing you need to do is still determine what you actually spend on food vs non-food. You probably don't need to figure the cost of individual slices of bread, but the finer resolution you do your math, the better estimates you can make for how much you actually eat in a day.

Even though I'm no longer in the poverty category, I find it difficult to spend $20 a day in food, unless I'm eating out. And spending more than about $10 on a meal is something I've had to mentally overcome. (I have a hard time understanding how a fast food burger is $12.) Also, I still get cheap steak to grill, since if you prepare them right, a $5-6 steak can taste really good. And at 16-20 oz. it'll easily fill even me up, especially with an 8 oz. can of beans and 2-4 slices of toast. (Like I said, I eat a lot.)

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I think it depends on how you define poverty.

The poverty line in the UK (again not USA, but other OECD-like country) is defined at 60% of the median income. By that definition, $20/day might be close to "poverty."

But biologically speaking, you could definitely eat quite well for $20 a day in the US if you cooked at home, and could satisfy a wide variety of diets.

For example, you can achieve a high-protein bodybuilding diet on your budget, and protein is the most expensive macronutrient.

I know someone currently living on £13/day for "food and related" who puts away money each month.

The solution is to cook. Legumes, brown rice, pork, chicken, many vegetables are quite cheap. The other day I bought a massive whole chicken at £2.50, which is enough calories for a small adult. Throw in some pesto, and you have a keto-type diet.

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It was already mentioned in the comments, but food prices vary a lot even if you just look at precooked frozen food.

For example in the Netherlands the cheapest you can get is probably frikandellen, a product made with dodgy meat. Today (18 May 2020) a sale price at a wholesale store, 40 of these, 85 grams each for 7 euro. Say for your main meal you eat two, that is 35ct. Than you eat maybe some cheap bread or rice with it, maybe squeeze some tomato ketchup over it, your are still around 1 euro for your main meal. This is how cheaply and unhealthily you can eat. (But dont, not every day, really its bad for you).

If you move to still cheap but more healthy, you can buy fresh vegetables cheaper stores or markets. This will at least double the meal-price but it will still be only a fraction of your $20 a day.

To give you an idea of the range of prices for fresh products: organic apricots go for 6 euros per kilo, regular apricots regular price 4, sale price 3 or maybe even 2 per kilo at a cheaper market.

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My experience covers Germany, Italy and Canada at various times. Any prices I'll list will be from Germany, since that's where I have current prices.

  • Here in Germany, food is incredibly cheap iff you cook yourself and go for what is traditional old-fashioned poor-people's food. Some examples:

    • Starch/carbohydrate-rich stuff: (the German term for this category literally translates to "saturating side-dishes")
      Potatoes are ≈ 1 €/kg for 5 kg bags (5 - 8 €/kg for 10 kg bags). 5 kg is an appropriate size for one person who needs to eat cheaply, and will give potatoes for ≈20 main meals, so about 5 ct per serving.
      Ready-made or frozen fried potatoes are 3+ €/kg. (and neiter 2 % onion, nor the bacon or the salt come anywhere close to explaining the difference in price).

      Rice, pasta start about ≈1 €/kg, so 10 - 12.5 ct/serving. The 2.5 - 5€/kg range will get you various dried pulses (beans, lentils), grits, pearl barley, buckwheat. So a whole lot of healthy variety at still less than 50 ct/serving.
      Notice that bread actually isn't all that cheap (and it is cheaper in Germany than in either Italy or Canada).

    • cereals: rolled oats are about 1 €/kg, compared to 2+ €/kg for corn flakes. For the price difference to Müsli (oatmeal mixes, 3+ €/kg), you can mix about 250 g of nuts or seeds at 10 €/kg into a kg of rolled oats.

    • Vegetables: fresh carrots 1 €/kg, red or white cabbage, red beets, onions are all about 1.30 €/kg (canned red cabbage or Sauerkraut also start roughly at 1.30 €/kg), porree (leek) 1.70 €/kg (this includes the recent increases due to corona). You can often save substantially here by shopping in the evening when lots of veggies are on lowered prices.

      Frozen vegetables (pure veggies, so sauce/rice/pasta to dilute the veggies) start at about 1.80 €/kg, so are definitively a consideration, too.

      So, another 60 ct gets you a variety of 300 g servings of vegetables.

    • Fruits The 2 - 3 €/kg range will get you a variety of fruits from apples over oranges or bananas to various seasonal offers (right now e.g. nectarines, water melons, ...). I just bought a box of 10 kg apples for 14 € - but you may not have access to such bulk offers.

      Canned fruit: 25 ct of short grain rice + 1 l milk (70 ct) + 1 can of peaches in syrup (1 €) gives a total of 2 kg rice pudding with peaches, so 1 €/kg (same for apple sauce). Store brand ready-to-eat rice pudding with fruit starts at 1.5 €/kg.

    • Protein (besides the pulses above) Quark (curdled milk without the whey) starts at 1.40 €/kg and a kg has 12 % of protein (so do oats and pulses), so 85 g protein/€. Half a box (250 g) of Quark with 100 g of oats with 200 ml milk and an apple gives you 50 g of protein and one of your 5 fruit/veggie servings for just less than 1 € - after you've got the other 4 x 150 g of fruit & vegetables (say, another €), your current daily budget would allow for 250 g of a 40 €/kg piece of meat (that would get you organic entrecote).

      The cheapest industry eggs are about 1,30 €/10 pcs. This gives you about 70 g protein/€.
      Cheap cheese starts at ≈5 €/kg ("students eat about the same things other humans eat, but topped with cheese"), 50 ct/g protein.
      If you want to go for "meaty" things, how about the occasional liver (6 €/kg)? Chicken or minced meat would also start in that price region.

    • Ground coffee starts at about 6 €/kg, at 7 g/norm cup that's 4.2 ct/cup. Instant coffee starts at 25 €/kg, at 1.8 g/cup (calculated from 200g glass saying "for 112 cups") that's 4.5 ct/cup - so no big deal either way.
      You may find fast food like meat balls for about the same price per kg, but they'll usually have more fat and less protein per kg.

    • I omitted oil, salt, sugar and spices: particularly spices are costly per kg, but for most dishes you need only small amounts. And the herbs that are eaten "in bulk" (parsely, chives) can easily be grown even in a flower pot on the window sill.

  • What food to buy to live on budget varies between countries. E.g. I listed Quark as a cheap high-protein food/ingredient for Germany. Try that strategy in Canada, and you'll pay through the nose.
    OTOH, citrus fruits (particularly limes and lemons) were cheaper in Canada than in Germany (may be outdated info, though). Broccoli was cheaper in Italy, whereas oats were very expensive there.

  • Corner stores were more expensive than bigger supermarkets in all three countries. Bulk buying saved most in Canada.

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