How to Reduce Your Grocery Bill by Emphasizing Foods That Are Inexpensive Per Calorie

You have a certain amount of money to spend, and you’ve got a certain amount of calories you’re going to eat. These can only be varied just so much.[1]
Most people will eat 1200 to 2500 calories per day.[2] The cost will vary depending on your country, city, time of year, whether or not you buy Certified Organic, and where you shop (for example: Costco vs. Whole Foods Market).
But here in the United States, according to the Official USDA Food Plans, the average individual spends $6 to $12 on food per day.[3]

Reduce Grocery Bills by Eating Foods That Are Inexpensive Per Calorie

If you’re on a tight budget, it is very helpful to choose mostly foods that are inexpensive per calorie. Say you have a budget of $8 per day. You might spend $6 or $7 per day on foods that provide a lot of calories per cost.
With your remaining $1 to $2, choose foods that provide a lot of nutrition per calorie and choose foods you’ve never tried or have not eaten in several months. This is important from a nutritional perspective, to ensure you get a wide variety of antioxidants, enzymes, trace minerals, vitamins and beneficial bacteria.

Address Cravings

After taking this measure, you can also bring food costs down by addressing your cravings and needless snacking, assuming that you ever eat for comfort – which most people do, myself included. Addressing these cravings and comfort-food-snacks can be extremely beneficial for both your health and your finances, but it is substantially more challenging than emphasizing foods that have a low cost per calorie.

Inexpensive, Organic, Travel-Friendly Food – Is It Possible?

The short answer is “Yes!”
This subject has been of particular interest to me because I’ve lived on very tight budgets, and traveled while doing so. Creating a cost-per-calorie chart was a valuable experience for me, as I buy all of my food organic, and eat a raw, vegetarian diet. When these four factors were combined, choosing foods carefully became of vital importance to me.
I astonished my friends and family by being able to travel so often, eat organic, stay raw, and have time for art, gardening and board games besides. “Where do you find the time?” people would ask me. And more often, “How can you afford it?”
And thus, I finally wrote a book on the topic, called Living Big & Traveling Far on $8,000 a Year. In my book I include several charts to fully illustrate nutrition received per dollar as well as a very detailed cost per calorie chart. Below, you’ll find part of the cost per calorie chart as well as one of the recipes from the book.
The chart excerpt below shows the costs of foods per 2,000 calories. While the prices I have listed won’t be the exact same prices as what you find at your store, the following chart provides a general understanding of how prices and calories tend to relate to one another.
For example, seeds are generally the least expensive per calorie. This is partly because they are so high in calories per volume. One cup of nuts or seeds will range between 400 and 1,100 calories, and you’ll find 3 to 5 cups of seeds in a pound.
If the pound of seeds only costs you $3, that’s going to be a lot of calories for $3.
Seeds can be stored for a long time, whereas fruits and vegetables have to sell before they wilt. This is another reason that seeds tend to cost less than fruits and vegetables.
Since you can buy a hundred calories of seeds (about a handful) for less than a hundred calories of greens (about a head or bunch), that means you can meet your caloric needs less expensively with rice, grains, beans, seeds and nuts. However, if you compare a hundred calories of almonds (a handful) versus a hundred calories of greens (a bunch), you’ll find that vegetables are far superior in nutrition.
In contrast, vegetables are the most expensive per calorie.
A pound of greens ranges from 50 to 300 calories. And, a pound of greens costs as much as $6. This is one big reason I suggest gathering your wild greens from your lawn or garden. Free dandelions are a great deal. Remember, while the “cost per calorie” of vegetables is exorbitant (as illustrated below), the cost per nutrition of greens is just as good as seeds, and often it is actually better.
The following chart is based on the hypothetical situation of “living off of” a single food for a whole day – eating 2,000 calories of that one food. So if you ate nothing but carrots, it’d cost $10.81 a day to get 2,000 calories each day.
The purpose of this chart is to show you prices in a way you’ve probably never seen them before. I never saw them this way until I made the chart myself! This chart is not suggesting actually binging on 2,000 calories of a single food. That’s a really bad idea for your health, so please don’t try that!
Seeds tend to be least expensive, and vegetables tend to be most expensive, when measuring per calorie. Fruits mostly gravitate toward the middle of this chart, averaging $13 to $30 for 2,000 calories.
It is revealing to see that goji berries at $15 a pound are less expensive per calorie than apples, watermelon, olives and frozen blueberries.
Even more revealing is that bell peppers cost $118.29 for 2,000 calories. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat bell peppers; rather, that bell peppers are not a good source of calories. They are, however, an incredible source of nutrition. Half a bell pepper provides a full day supply of vitamin C. If you have a garden, it is quite worth while to grow your own.
Note: All prices on this chart are for organic produce.
Food Name Cost Per Pound Cost Per 2,000 Calories Notes
Regular Rolled Oats $1.49 $1.69 Cheapest food around! However, for raw foodies: These are not technically raw.
Flax Seeds $4.00 $3.31 Buy whole. Store frozen. Grind in a coffee grinder or Vitamix.
Lentils $2.69 $3.36 Home-sprouted lentils are one of the best deals on microgreens.
Bananas $0.73 $3.62 You can freeze peeled, ripe bananas for smoothies.
Sunflower Seeds $6.00 $4.54 This “buttery” seed is a low-cost alternative to almonds.
Coconut Oil $9.10 $4.66 Mostly saturated fat with a high smoke point, making this a healthy choice for cooking.
Ginger Oat Cookies $1.16 $4.90 This travel-friendly, healthy recipe costs $1.16 per serving. Recipe below this chart.
Brown Rice $4.29 $5.12 Roughly 2½ cups per pound.
Potato $1.15 $6.69 Technically, as a root, potatoes are the cheapest veggie.
Flax Oil $16.00 $8.00 Flax oil, while often considered “expensive” is still less expensive that most fruits and vegetables. This healthy salad topping is a great source of omega-3.
Almonds $13.00 $9.98 Always choose organic, and look for “bee-friendly” almond operations, as large-scale almond growing has been linked to bee-population decline.
Carrots $1.00 $10.81 The primary reason to put carrots in your vegetable juice: they’re cheap, yet pack the nutrition of a vegetable!
Frozen Corn $2.60 $13.07 Contains roughly 3⅓ cups per pound. Choose organic to avoid GMO corn.
Hemp Seeds $15.83 $13.29 Lika chia and flaxseed, hemp seeds are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Tofu $2.65 $12.59 Choose organic to avoid GMO soy.
Sweet Potato $2.50 $12.85 Look for sweet potatoes that are purple on the inside for higher antioxidant value and more flavor.
Carob $6.47 $12.88 Seek raw carob for the sweetest, freshest flavor. Roasted carob is comparatively quite bitter.
Medjool Dates $9.00 $14.35 Quick treat: put 1 cacao bean and 1 almond in a date and sprinkle with raw carob powder. Or, use coconut shreds, pecans and cinnamon powder. You can even use a sliver of fresh ginger and two almonds per date.
Cacao Powder $13.97 $14.39 Raw cacao powder is now available at most health food stores. Or purchase online.
Mission Figs, dried $8.78 $15.58 In my meal plan, Collecting Calcium, I show that figs are one of few fruits higher in calcium than phosphorous, which is essential for building healthy bones. These are a great alternative to raisins and dates if you want a sweet snack that won’t drain your bones.
Maca $11.97 $16.26 Maca powder is made from a dried root, making maca powder a vegetable.
Mango $5.00 $16.26 Wegmans often sells a three-pack of organic mangoes for $5.
Pomegranate $2.00 $18.18 These fruits are highly rich in antioxidants, amino acids and enzymes. If you can’t eat a whole one at once, you can freeze the rest for later.
Goji Berries $14.97 $18.27 Also known as “wolf berries.”
Nutmeg $25.00 $21.03 This powdered seed is delicious in stir-fries, pies, smoothies and nut-milks.
Apples $3.00 $25.53 Notice that organic apples cost more than organic goji berries these days!
Olives $10.60 $32.32 These are easy to add to your diet for diversity. Just mince one olive over a salad, or put one in your home-made salad dressing, or mince it over sprouted bread.
Cauliflower $4.00 $38.10 Minced up the stalk and freeze. Then fry up the stalk with onions next time you want to make a stir-fry or onion-based soup.
Broccoli $3.00 $38.96 There are roughly 6.6 cups of broccoli per head.
Collards $3.00 $41.67 These leafy greens keep well in the fridge and work well blanched or raw as a wrap for brown rice, steamed veggies, or rich salads with nutty dressings.
Ginger Root, raw $8.00 $44.20 Try a little ginger in your smoothie or juice for an extra immune-system boost.
Kelp Powder $5.09 $52.47 Add to soups and smoothies for added nutrition.
Frozen Blueberries $6.40 $55.41 Thaw on the counter or in the fridge and then use to garnish muesli, ginger cookies and salads.
Lemon $4.00 $66.67 Essential for keeping leftovers fresh, especially avocados and apples.
Romaine Lettuce $2.60 $67.53 Keeps well in your refrigerator and goes with virtually everything. Use in place of bread.
Onion $7.96 $90.45 Keep minced onion on-hand in a sealed glass container in your fridge or freezer.
Spring Mix $5.00 $105.26 These baby greens wilt fast, so be sure to make a big salad the same day that you get them.
Bell Pepper $8.28 $118.29 For a better pepper deal, grow your own in pots, auqaponics system or hydroponics system.

Note: This chart is an excerpt. The chart in the book is longer, and contains additional items such as tahini, home-made kombucha, olive oil, and the recipes from the book itself, just like you see Ginger Oat Cookies in this excerpt of the chart. The chart in the book also shows the calories per pound.

How can you use this information to reduce your grocery costs?

Here are four ways you can use this article to start reducing your grocery costs this very week:
1. Play around with the ingredients that are least expensive, and get to know them. Below you’ll find one example of a delicious, easy-to-make, travel-friendly, inexpensive recipe.
2. Be careful to never waste the more expensive items.
I can’t tell you how many moldy bell peppers I’ve seen in kitchens in my life. Have a plan for when you’re going to eat your fruits and vegetables, and how you’re going to prepare them.
If needed, set aside a shelf in your fridge for food that “needs eating,” or put up a wipe board to list items that should be consumed within two days.
3. Fully utilize all parts of your vegetables. Remember, vegetables are not only the most expensive per calorie, they’re also the most nutritious.
To make full use of them, find ways to use cauliflower stems, broccoli stems, chard stems, wilting greens and so forth.
Often these items are great stir-fried with coconut oil, garlic, onion, raisins and curry powder. You can also juice stems and wilted greens with green apple, lemon and carrot.
4. Start sprouting. Seeds are the cheapest food source on the market, and when you sprout them you increase their digestibility dramatically – nutrients that were “bound up” become available. Add sprouts to smoothies, salads, sandwiches, and wraps. You can even garnish soups and stir-fries with fresh sprouts.

Ginger Oat Cookies

Appliances Used: Food Processor
Preparation Time: 11 minutes
Servings: 5
Excellent for travel.
Can be stored at room temperature.
This is one of the most cost-effective, travel-friendly, delicious and easy-to-make recipes I ever came up with. It is also one of my most-loved recipes for its flavor.
  • 4 cups rolled oats ($1.18)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh ginger root, peeled or washed (50¢)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh turmeric root, peeled or washed (optional) (45¢)
  • 2 cups raisins (or any dried fruit you like) ($2.90)
  • 1 tablespoon nutritional powder of choice (such as spirulina or probiotics) (optional) (62¢)
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt (1¢)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional) (6¢)
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice (optional) (5¢)
  • ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg (optional) (3¢)
1. Blend rolled oats into a fine powder. Then add ginger and turmeric and blend thoroughly.
2. Add all other ingredients and blend until entirely combined.
3. Shape into balls or cookie shapes if desired.
4. Use wax paper to separate cookies, or roll in oat powder or sunflower seeds. Or, just mash the entire mixture as one lump into a glasslock container.
5. This recipe will last at least a year in your freezer, months in your refrigerator, and five to ten days at room temperature. If dehydrated (at 105ºF overnight), these will last months at room temperature.
Substitutions to bring cost even lower: Reduce raisins to 1½ cups and ginger to 1 tablespoon (and leave the rest of the recipe the same). It will be less potently flavored and less sweet, but the recipe will still work. (This will reduce the cost of the recipe by $1.74.)

Nutrition Per Serving

5 Servings Total; Serving size is about 1¼ cup.
Calories: 432 Calcium: 44 mg, 4% A: 10 IU, 0%
Fat: 4.5 g Potassium: 547 mg, 12% C: 1.7 mg, 2%
Protein: 13 g Iron: 4.1 mg, 23% E: 0.3 mg, 2%
Carbs: 93 g Selenium: 0.7 µg, 1% Zinc: 0.3 mg, 4%
Water: 12 g Magnesium: 30 mg, 9% Cost per serving: $1.16
Fiber: 10 g Cost for total recipe: $5.80
Note: The above cost assumes oats are $1.49/lb, raisins are $4/lb, ginger is $8/lb, turmeric is $9/lb, spirulina is $20/lb, sea salt is $1.30/lb, cinnamon is $6.49/lb, allspice is $22/lb and nutmeg is $25/lb.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Living Big & Traveling Far on $8,000 a Year. Containing hundreds of useful facts and tidbits, you’ll discover new ways to look at your expenses and income. Click here to learn more.
~ Raederle Phoenix
Author, Speaker, Wild Food Pioneer
[1] It is possible to lower your calorie intake dramatically if you go on a water fast for a period of time. However, without drastic lifestyle changes and spending-habit changes, your grocery budget and calorie intake will stay fairly constant.
[2]USDA: Calories Per Capita: Calories per capita indicates the amount of food consumed per person. The average daily per capita calorie consumption for the U.S. in 2010 was 2,534, according to a report from the University of Michigan.
Average Adult Consumption: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the years 2005-2006 concluded that the average American adult male, age 20 years and older, consumes 2,638 calories daily; the average adult female: 1,785 calories.
[3]The $6 to $12 a day average does not include buying a $3 cup of coffee in the morning, supplements, or probiotics. When these amounts are factored in, many individuals spend as much as $22 per day on things that they eat, drink or swallow. The $6 to $12 a day average comes from the Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, July 2014.

5 Comment(s)

  1. Maybe I missed something. Is there no liquid to bind this mixture together?I have not tried it yet, RP

    Richard Prager | Reply

  2. Hi Richard,

    It doesn’t require a liquid (or work well with one, I’ve tried it). The raisins are the sticky substance that binds this recipe together.

    ~ Raederle

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  3. What an eye-opener! I always thought nuts were really expensive, but this really illustrates how inexpensive they are. Flax oil too!

    I wonder where cravings come into play though. Don’t nuts and seeds end up causing you to eat more because they have less nutritional density than vegetables?

    Susan | Reply

  4. Hi,
    Love your info – but I have a question. Are any of you Patrica McKillip fans?

    Marilyn West | Reply

  5. Hi Marilyn,

    Yes, my mother is a fan of Particia McKillip. She found my name in the Riddle Master of Hed trilogy. And my father gave me my middle name, Phoenix.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

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