Thrift Is Beautiful: Food

While some might claim that they're 'eating for the flavor', at the end of the day... we're all eating for the calories.  It's our never-ending quest for calories that keeps even the most frugal of us coming back to the kitchen and the grocery store.

Our senses of touch and sight allow us to evaluate our food in terms of how much space it takes up and how much it weighs.  We're unable to gauge caloric content so easily.

Take this quarter-cup of extra-virgin olive oil:

How many calories do you think this contains?  One hundred calories?  Two hundred?

500 calories.

(this is easily verified: 1/4 cup = 60 milliliters, vegetable oil has a density of ~0.92 grams per milliliter [1], and lipids have an energy density of around nine food calories per gram)

Extra virgin olive oil is expensive, right?

1/4 Cup of extra-virgin olive oil = 500 calories = $0.35.

If you could survive on olive oil alone and you required a standard 2,000 calories per day, your daily food costs would be $1.40.  Probably not what you expected.

A quarter-cup is not a huge volume: the same volume of Kashi GoLean Crunch cereal contains less than 50 calories [2].  Obviously, our ordinary sensory evaluations of mass and volume are not up to the challenge of evaluating food calorie value density.

And that's why we invented spreadsheets.

Yes I did!  Click on the picture and make your own copy of this rather intense spreadsheet.

This spreadsheet is awesome

This spreadsheet takes each store's price and unit size and converts them into dollars per kilogram, liter, or count to simplify price comparison.  It than takes the food's serving size and serving calories, grabs the lowest unit price, and calculates the calories per dollar.  If you put in the protein per serving, it'll also calculate the protein concentration and the grams of protein per dollar that the food provides.

The results may surprise you.

Looking to cut back on daily food costs?  Consider eating more of the following:

The 2000+ Club (<$1 per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
Flour (all kinds)
Oil (Canola, Safflower, Olive)
Sugar (Cane and Brown)
Rice (White, Brown, Jasmine, Basmati, Calrose)

The 1000+ Club (<$2 per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
Butter, Oil (Peanut, Coconut, EVOO)
Pasta (white, wheat)
Oats (rolled, steel-cut)
Peanut Butter
Corn Tortilla Chips

The 500+ Club (<$4 per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
Bread (loaves, pre-sliced)
Nuts (almond, walnut, pecan)
Milk (cow, whole), Cream Cheese, Sour Cream
Cheese (cheddar, mozzarella)
Beans (kidney, black, garbanzo)
Tomato Paste
Coconut Milk
Peanuts, Raisins, Honey
Almond Butter, Tahini, Nutella
Cereal (high-protein, like Kashi GoLean Crunch)
Pork Shoulder (and other fatty, less-than-$2/lb meat)

Obviously every item on here is not going to appeal to every diet, but you get the concept.

Notes of Interest

I will add more food from more stores as I have the opportunity.  If you copy the spreadsheet and use it to collect data in your town, let me know - I'd love to see a copy of the sheet to compare!

Food in most categories is significantly cheaper at Costco.  Berkeley Bowl, a never-ending indoor farmer's market, is obviously an East Bay exclusive; if there's nothing like this near you, look for real farmer's markets.  If you live in an urban area far from a food production region, your fresh foods may cost significantly more.

As previously indicated by Mr. Money Mustache, fats and oils deliver huge caloric bang for the buck.  Soybean oil comes in second just behind wheat flour (6,000) at 5,800 calories per dollar, and canola oil isn't far behind at 4,500.

This is an important fact!  Man cannot live on carbohydrates alone, and most of the rest of the lowest-cost foods (flour, sugar, rice, pasta, potatoes, oats, corn) have a very low fat content.  In fact, scientific evidence suggests that overindulgence in refined starches and simple sugars may be partially to blame for our expanding waistlines and rising insulin resistance.  There is no reason to avoid the delicious, healthy unsaturated fats in vegetable oils.  Even the long-taken-for-granted connection between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease may not be as clear as we've been led to believe [3].  Olive oil, as shown in the introduction, is a delicious source of low-cost energy.  Flaxseed comes in very high (1,500) because it's a seed loaded with oil — a surprising 42% oil by mass.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are fragile and mostly water, so they have some of the lowest calorie-per-dollar rankings of all of the foods collected.  Nevertheless, some are cheaper than others:

Food Calories per $
Tomato (paste) 680
Raisins (dry) 570
Onion 400
Carrot 400
Avocado 370
Ginger 370
Garlic 360
Cabbage 280
Apple 270
Tomato (can) 210
Broccoli 160
Stir-Fry (frozen) 150

Sorting by 'grams of protein per dollar' gives some interesting results.
The top entry on the list?  Chicken?  Beef?  Fish?

Wheat flour.

Remember 'wheat gluten'?  Wheat flour is about 10% protein by mass.  A two-pound loaf of bread contains around 4 cups (480g) of flour, meaning that the flour itself contributes about 50 grams of protein to the finished loaf.  For context, the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for protein are 45g for adult women and 55g for adult men [4].  Less than you anticipated?  Most Americans eat a lot more protein than they need.

Note that wheat bread alone is insufficient to meet your daily protein needs.  Beyond the RDA, you must also get enough of each amino acid — the molecular building blocks of proteins — so that your body can assemble new human proteins from the broken-down food proteins.  Fortunately, these requirements are easy to meet.  A shortfall of a particular amino acid in one food can be offset by an excess in another: the proportion of the amino acid lysine in wheat flour is insufficient, but lysine is available in excess in eggs and dairy products.  If you pour dairy milk on your wheat cereal, or your bread recipe also contains egg, the overall meal is a 'complete protein' — it meets your overall protein and individual amino acid requirements.

Other low-cost high-protein sources, at least 10% protein by mass and 500 calories per dollar:

Food% ProteinProtein g/$Calories/$
Wheat Flour101636000
Mozzarella Cheese2755620
Cheddar Cheese2544690
Whole Wheat Pasta14601430
Kashi GoLean Crunch1743900
Flax Seed18491470
Tahini 2323590
Almond Butter 2224610
Peanut Butter2236970

Animal sources of protein are unsurprisingly more expensive:

Food% ProteinProtein g/$Calories/$
Pork Shoulder1742580
Whole Milk---              34480
Egg 1333380
Ground Beef2132260
Chicken Breast           2331150

If one eats a kilogram of food per day, only 5% of the total mass needs to be protein.

Food% ProteinProtein g/$Calories/$
White Rice7843560
Kidney Beans541850

The amino acid profiles of rice and beans combine to form an extremely low-cost complete protein.

In addition to destroying the flavor and mouthfeel, skimming the fat from milk also kills its calorie value density.  Unsweetened soy and almond milks come in low as well; their sweetened counterparts come in higher, but this is only due to the addition of cane sugar.  Soymilk redeems itself with 7g of protein per serving, but rice and almond milk have very little to recommend them:

Calories per $
Whole Milk
2% Milk
1% Milk
Soy Milk, Sweetened
Skim Milk
Soy Milk, Unsweetened
Almond Milk, Unsweetened
Tomato (can)
Stir-Fry (frozen)

Pasta Sauce
The calories in pasta sauce are usually inflated with added sugar.  Making your own from canned tomato paste could be significantly cheaper:

FoodCalories per $
Pasta Sauce190
Tomato Paste880
Olive Oil2,220
Tomato, Canned Diced210


low-cost food subreddits - A great source for recipe ideas!

nutritiondata.com [5] - This service is free and quite comprehensive, and has been around for many years.  I have fond memories of looking up the nutritional information on very near everything when I first began cooking for myself in 2007.  If you register an account, you can save your favorite foods to a list and combine them into recipes to analyze your entire day's intake if you are so inclined.

Google Knowledge Graph [6] - Google announced earlier this week that they're rolling nutritional information into Google searches.  When you search for a food, the basic stats will appear on the right-hand side of your search results:

If this isn't working for you yet, no worries - Google usually rolls these things out over the course of a week or so.

There are many other nutrition-data-themed sites out there (such as fooducate.com), but they generally require you to create accounts and install apps, and many of them force silly artificial grading scales on food or appear to have some weird agenda.  We're adults - give us the data and we'll make our own decisions.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that cooking at home instead of visiting restaurants, bars, and fast food joints is by far the easiest way to reduce your food expenses.  Beyond that, expenses can be reduced further still by paying attention to unit price, calorie density, and calorie value density and substituting with lower-cost alternatives.

As always, the goal isn't strictly minimization of expenses — it's maximization of happiness!
Looking for other ways to reduce food costs?  Consider food fermentation!