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A food blog from NHPR news, digital, & programming staff, exploring food & food culture around the state & the New England region. On-air features air Thursdays on All Things Considered and Saturdays during Weekend Edition.

Foodstuffs: Grocery Shopping On $35 A Week? It Can Be Done (Sometimes)

Ale Viyie via Flickr Creative Commons

For years, Market Basket has called itself the store where you get more for your dollar.

And those longtime customers who are currently boycotting the chain over the firing of longtime CEO Arthur T. Demoulas say they’re spending more on groceries as they’re patronizing other stores.

Those worried about their grocery budgets might pick up a few tips from Erik August Johnson.

The Boston-based software developer and blogger has been writing about his attempts to stick to a grocery budget of $35 a week.

“I sort of told myself the first week, just unconsciously do what you normally do, just get what you normally get. After about five items, I realized I was going to be over. And staying within $35, but I really tried to evolve my diet as well.”

I mean you could just eat Ramen every night that would technically put you under your goal, but that’s not the idea.

“The idea is to first of all figure out what a well-balanced diet is for me – I am a runner, I run 40 to 60 miles a week – so my diet’s not the same as someone else’s. The overriding theme is to be conscious of what’s good for you, what works for you as far as a well-balanced diet. What items can you buy that are a little more ethical, a little more conscious, so it’s really a work in progress.”

Are there particular foods you found to be if not staples, certainly items you would keep in the rotation from time to time that are both price friendly and give you the nutrition you’re looking for?

“It’s clear that peanut butter is my absolute obsession. It’s a mania really. But it’s also protein complete. You can get peanut butter that is just peanuts and salt, a big jar at Whole Foods, 36 ounces, for somewhere in the range of $5 to $6. Pair that with a whole wheat bread for a few dollars a loaf, and you’re looking at thousands of calories for the week and still getting pretty well-balanced, energy-packed meals. You might get sick of that if you’re not vegetarian or vegan. I like eggs, and then rice and beans, obviously. Another carb-packed meal that for $5 you’re going to get 8,000 or 9,000 calories out of.”

Conversely, are there items you have found have not been worth the cost on a budget of $35 a week?

“You realize the packaged stuff, it’s good stuff, like Clif is. You look at it and say it’s only 99 cents a bar. But if you break it down, for 99 cents, you’re getting a well-balanced 250 calories. But if it’s only Clif, that’s about $10 a day. When you do something like I’m doing as far as overall including vegetables, including a more well-balanced diet, I’m still at $5 a day. A lot of prepackaged stuff can be sneaky expensive like pizzas and waffles.”

You make clear in your writing that there are some caveats that make it easy for you to do something like this. You mentioned you’re a runner, you’re in a good shape. You don’t have trouble with gluten or dairy. But you also live in a part of the country that has a number of good, high-end grocery stores. If you were in what’s known as a food desert, would you have to change this approach or maybe even change your budget?

“I’m in walking distance of Trader Joe’s. I’m in walking distance of Whole Foods. I’m in walking distance of Star Market, Wegman’s, Stop & Shop. If I lived somewhere where I had in a two-mile radius a 7-11, yeah, I would totally have to revamp and rethink how I do things. I love getting comments, people coming and telling me hey, ‘That’s great, what you’re doing is cool, but I’m a vegan or I live in a food desert.’ There’s so many other voices out there of people that are making it work or doing a lot of great things and overcoming all these obstacles.”

But even with all the variation that is out there, what do you think it takes in a shopping list and in a person to do what you’re doing and eat well on $5 a day, $35 a week?

“The thing that I think I’ve learned from the blog the most is being conscious. For myself personally, I’ve gone through so many weeks where you’re just buying on default, your default behavior. The most important thing for someone to be able to achieve something like $5 a day is simply to be very conscious of what they’re doing, what they’re eating, what it means, where it’s coming from. And if you can do that, I think people have made it happen in a variety of ways, including myself.”

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