I won't even tell you how little I thought our grocery budget could be when we first got married. I had shopped for groceries for meals for my family of five, but I guess I had never shopped for a full week of groceries for three meals a day. So I was shocked (and not a little stressed) by how much it cost to buy groceries for only two people.
The first year, I used coupons and took advantage of Buy One Get One deals. I also tried my hand at the drugstore game. I eventually cut out extra stores, as it was too much work to drive around for the best deals while also teaching full time. We had lots and lots of boxed macaroni and cheese or spaghetti with small salads for dinner. We mostly had peanut butter and jelly for lunch at school with a handful of potato chips or carrot sticks and apple wedges. We didn't eat unhealthily, but we also weren't eating particularly well. We would consider a $4.00 non-needed item the splurge of the week.
Don't get me wrong; we also had plenty of good meals (and perfected our broccoli cheddar soup during that time), but eating so much of the cheapest bread and not enough veggies and protein took its toll on us. Plus I stressed when we had company and had to spend extra money.
The next year, after we found out we were pregnant, we decided to increase our grocery budget (which had always been more of a number in our heads that stressed me out rather than a clear cut tracking system). We ate farm-raised, antibiotic-free chicken after watching documentaries and reading about the state of most poultry. We found out about the dirty dozen and the role of pesticides in birth defects. I purchased an expensive (but life changing!) prenatal vitamin that increased my energy and kept me healthy.
And as we continued our adventure, I began to love to cook. I loved finding new recipes. I loved trying new ways to cook meat or incorporating unique vegetables. We kept fruit on hand, and snacked on walnuts, almond butter, avocados, and bananas. We bought truly whole wheat bread.. My health and strength improved dramatically, even though I was also pregnant. I knew the crucial role good nutrition plays in pregnancy, labor and delivery, and recovery. And during my entire labor and recovery, I was so thankful I had eaten well, as I attribute my quick recovery to my overall strength and health.
Meals have also provided memories and much joy for us as a couple. We love cooking together, and when we take time to make a good meal, we also take time to sit down at the table and eat it.
There is something lovely about gathering friends around a delicious meal without thinking about how it wrecked your grocery budget. There's something beautiful about seconds and thirds and ripe, fresh fruit and crisp, cold vegetables and putting together a meal with all the ingredients, including the spices.
We have to spend money on food. There is a time and place for saving and cutting out unnecessary things. But in a sense, food is life. Food is directly related to health, as well as pleasure. It's a necessary part of being human, and it should be good. I have considered the following three things in determining the role of food and our grocery budget:
1. Food should not be an idol, but the sense of taste and range of food, both given to us by God, are incredibly complex. We are commanded to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8) and the Promised Land's goodness is described to the Israelites in terms of food as "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3:8, 33:3). Blending flavors and creating dishes employs skills and creativity that mirror God's own creativity. And the finished product can be such a delight--one of the many joys of being human.
2. Our money should be spent well and ethically. Posts like this one, this one, and this one make me realize that someone else should not suffer or live in poverty just so I can have the food (or clothing or anything else) I want. By purchasing organic and/or local produce and meat, we are voting with our dollars--using the power of buying to show what we want to be able to purchase. Where and how and on what we spend our money shows what we value. Is health--our own health, the health of our land, and the health of communities and nations--important to me? Am I seeking justice and loving mercy in what I purchase?
3. It can be frugal (as is argued here and true in my own experience) to spend more money on healthy groceries, as that slight increase in spending may save excessive money on healthcare costs. In addition, it counts as entertainment, family time, and improves the overall quality of one's life.
Money is complicated, and we all have different priorities (and most of us have blindspots). I'm not saying we should spend extravagantly on food or be mindless shoppers. I understand that there are seasons for many of us when we really do have to pinch pennies in all areas of life. I still plan our menus around deals, and I use coupons when it is convenient. But I write this to the former me--to the one who thought cutting back on groceries was the best way to save for the future. Food, though a present need, is not one to skimp on.
There are plenty of things to skimp on. The extra square footage may not be as important as quality meat . Upgrading a sofa may not be as important as gathering around the table for delicious (guilt-free) meals. And I would argue that even saving for a child's college education, while important, may not be as important as providing that child with plenty of good, healthy food. After all, physical health is an incredible gift and filters down into all aspects of our lives.