It’s strange to think about food as a variable cost. The need for food is certainly not variable. Outside of goods like gas (don’t need a strategy for that one, just get a Costco membership), the amount you spend on food is likely the cost you can manipulate to the better the most.
Sure, you can move to a town with cheaper rent, start taking the train to work or buy energy efficient appliances, but these are all one-time moves that are either unsustainable or require high upfront costs. Focusing on ways to reduce your average meal costs is likely the most sustainable way to materially reduce your outgoing expenses.
Bringing the discussion back to diets (the two topics are similar – it’s all about what’s going in and what’s coming out), the most successful diet I have used is Tim Ferris’s Slow Carb diet. In this diet, you avoid carbs, eat the same meals over and over, try to eat beans every day and binge on whatever you want once per week.
It works well because it manages to combine the best way to burn fat (dropping carbs) with sustainability (the binge day). Most low-carb diets are not sustainable.
The factor we want to look at, however, is eating the same meals over and over.
When I was most successful with this diet (about 40 lbs. ago, unfortunately), I was eating the same eggs and bacon for breakfast and hotdogs with refried beans for lunch every day. Dinner was usually some meat or another I had George Foremaned with microwaved vegetables. I was in college at the time so that meal plan didn’t seem at all strange to me.
This time probably also represented the least money paid per meal. Eggs, hot dogs, frozen vegetables and cans of beans are all incredibly inexpensive.
When I graduated from college and got a grown-up job, I found it was a lot easier to just drive over to Chick fil A for lunch or get some new expensive thing for dinner each night. My costs per meal skyrocketed.
I used Mint at the time to track my expenses by category each month and was often embarrassed by the amount I was spending on food. Around that time, I adopted a cat and decided to spend my lunch hour hanging out with him at home. I didn’t have enough time to stop at a fast food place so I needed to start purchasing enough food to make for lunch every day.
Soon enough, that became a problem too. I was working hard at the day job and it was annoying to come home and spend the entire time cooking. So, I started preparing all my meals ahead of time. My fiancée and I still use this method to this day (we have two cats and a dog now to visit at lunch) and she writes-up a fun whiteboard each week with our food options.
What we prepare depends on what we’re feeling that week. Sometimes it’s pork belly and frozen peas. Sometimes we load up the slow cooker with a random meat and a ton of other vegetables. Sometimes we just buy several different kinds of lunch meat and cheese and roll them up with mayo.
A typical Costco receipt for us will be two different kinds of meat or fish, a pack of water bottles and some other no calories drink, apples or avocados, eggs and maybe some soup. That’s it. If we decide to eat breakfast that week, we’ll get microwavable quiches or bacon.
We’ll visit various grocery stores when needed for non-bulk purchases (like vegetables or spices).
Spread over a week and a half or so the per meal food cost drops down to incredibly sustainable levels and allows us to save more and more each month toward our next down payment.