Grocery Diaries

How a Family of Two Eats for $100 a Week in Knoxville, Tennessee

updated May 24, 2019
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Welcome to Kitchn’s Food Budget Diaries series, where we show you how people around the country spend money on what they eat and drink. Each post will follow one person for one week and will chronicle everything that person consumed and how much it costs them.

Name: Maria
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Age: 41
Number of people in family: 1.5 (my son lives with me half-time; he is 12 years old)
Occupation: Data analyst
Household income: $67,000/year
Weekly food budget: $100

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Day 1: Friday

6 a.m.: The alarm goes off. Happy almost weekend! I don’t snooze so I am up right away. First business of the day is taking the dog on a walk around the neighborhood. When we get home, I feed him and start getting ready for work.

I pack my lunch about 95% of the time which consists of either a salad if I am feeling super healthy, or leftovers from dinner. Today I pack leftovers from last night’s dinner, which was a version of this cauliflower stir-fry rice from The Lemon Bowl. I have made this recipe many times and it is always a hit with my son.

I am usually not very hungry in the mornings, so I also pack breakfast to eat later at the office. Today breakfast will be vanilla Greek yogurt topped with strawberries, blueberries, and homemade muesli. I made the muesli following a recipe from Cookie and Kate’s cookbook.

My son is with me today (his dad and I are divorced and we split his time), so I need to pack a lunch for him to have at school. He wants to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every single day. I pack that along with pretzels, a small bottle of Gatorade, and mixed strawberries and blueberries, because we need fruit in our lives. He also takes a refillable bottle of water with him.

7 a.m.: Time to wake up the kiddo! This is the only time during the day I get to give my son as many kisses and hugs as I want without any complaints. It takes him a few minutes to come back to life so I take full advantage of this situation. He is usually hungry in the mornings so he has breakfast at home. Unlike his school lunch, he likes to spice things up in the mornings and change things around. Today is he having two frozen whole-wheat waffles topped with vanilla yogurt and blueberries. He chugs a glass of milk.

7:30 a.m.: Everybody is ready to go. I make coffee and take it with me to sip during the morning.

8 a.m.: I arrive at work, fill my water bottle, and start my day. Today should be pretty easy. Most people are out of the office from some reason and I only have two short meetings this morning.

9 a.m.: I eat breakfast at my desk. Is it 5 p.m. yet?

10:30 a.m.: My son has lunch at school, or brunch, as he calls it, because it is way too early to be having lunch.

12:30 p.m.: One of my coworkers had a birthday today and I ended up going out to lunch with her and other coworkers. We went to a local brewery called Elkmont; no beers for work lunches though! Somebody ordered an appetizer to share, and I had a buffalo chicken sandwich and water. I will take the lunch I packed home with me, thinking my son will have it for dinner.

Elkmont Exchange

Chicken sandwich, $9

Total: $11.83

4 p.m.: My son gets to his dad’s home from school. I don’t live in the right school zone, so he takes the bus to his dad’s house every day, and his dad usually drives him to my house later in the day. One of the best parts of this arrangement is that I don’t have to deal with homework hardly ever (amen!). Poor kid hasn’t eaten since lunch time at 10:30 a.m., so he is starving and has a protein bar and a yogurt as a snack immediately.

5 p.m.: It is quitting time! Every day when we all leave work at 5 p.m. it feels like an episode of The Flintstones. We all run out of there at the same time. Yabadabadoo! I decide to go to Aldi on my way home today before my ex-husband brings my son to my house.

I usually meal plan on Thursdays or Fridays and do my groceries sometime during the weekend. I shop either at Aldi or Kroger; I love Aldi. I grew up in Europe, and Aldi has a lot items that remind me of home; especially in the cookies section. I always keep an “Aldi quarter” in the car for the shopping cart.

Aldi

Dopple Keks (German cookies), $2.29
Peaches, $1.98
2% Milk (1/2 gallon), $1.45
2 cans diced tomatoes, $.90
2 cans kidney beans, $.98
Blueberries, $3.99
Strawberries, $1.49
Thick-sliced bacon, $5.89
Vanilla Greek yogurt, $3.49
Salami, $2.59
Pimento cheese spread, $2.99
Pita chips, $1.99
2 avocados, $1.38
Kerrygold cheddar cheese, $3.45
Olives, $2.99
Grape tomatoes, $1.69
5-pound bag baking potatoes, $2.99
Baby lettuce pack, $1.99
Cracker assortment, $2.95
Cucumber, $.49
Bananas, $.86
Malbec, $6.99
Pains au chocolat, $2.99

Total: $62.68

8 p.m.: My friend comes over to hang out. We sit at my patio; drink Aldi wine; and snack on cheese, crackers, olives, and other delicacies instead of having a proper meal. It is always fun to hang out with friends on a Friday night, talk about whatever, not cook, and pig out on chips and salsa. I love snacking.

My son does indeed eat my work lunch for dinner, plays with his XBox, and watches terrible cartoons.

Day 2: Saturday

8:30 a.m.: At the slight indication that I am alive, the dog jumps in bed with me and licks my arm. He is ready to get up. Eventually I do get up, let the dog out, and make coffee. My son is still asleep, so I sit in the patio with my coffee and look at Pinterest.

9:30 a.m.: Kiddo is up and demands breakfast. Today I am feeling like a big breakfast so I cook potatoes, poached eggs, and bacon. I have been learning how to make poached eggs without using an egg poacher. They don’t come out as pretty but they do taste delicious.

I plan our day while breakfast is cooking. As a mother of a pre-teenager, I make every attempt to keep him out of the house so he does not spend the day watching TV or playing video games. It is hard. I am forcing my kid to go to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the day with me. We are lucky to live so close to so many outdoor activities, and I try to take advantage of them as much as I can. My son, on the other hand, is not a fan. I pack a picnic lunch for us to eat whenever we get hungry.

2 p.m.: Instead of a full-on hike, today we took the 11-mile car ride around Cades Cove. We both drank water along the way. We did do few short hikes to all the cabins, and visited the Visitor’s Center. But we are now hungry and we stop at some picnic tables to eat the lunch I packed earlier. For our picnic I packed salami, cheese, pimento cheese spread, crackers, chips, peaches, and the Dopple Keks. I drink water and my son has a Gatorade.

5 p.m.: Does anyone want to mow my yard? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Since nobody volunteered, I do it and reward myself with a beer afterwards.

7:30 p.m.: We are having enchiladas for dinner. I follow a recipe for black bean and avocado enchiladas from Budget Bytes, except I omit the avocado and make them with ground beef instead. There is more filling than I need, so I keep the rest to make a taco salad for work lunch. I have a second beer with dinner, and my son drinks water.

9:30 p.m.: My son and I sit in the living room to watch a movie together. It is always really hard to pick a movie we both want to watch. We settle on Thor Ragnarok (not my choice). We munch on some candy corn. I always forget how terrible candy corn is for you, and how much of a stomachache you get if you eat too much of it.

Day 3: Sunday

9 a.m.: I am up! Usually on Sundays I wake up and spend about an hour in bed reading, but I just bought a new accent chair for the home office so I sit there to test it out today. So far I love my new chair. I sip on a cup of coffee while I read.

9:30 a.m.: My son is up and says “he could eat.” I make him wait a bit because I am not ready to start “working.”

10 a.m.: I guess I can make breakfast now. Every weekend my son is with me there is one day when we must have pancakes. I always follow a recipe from The Joy of Cooking when making pancakes instead of buying the mix in a box. I cook the pancakes in a griddle and add chocolate chips to half of them. I serve the pancakes with syrup and a mix of strawberries and blueberries. I keep drinking coffee while my son has milk.

Today is gloomy outside and it’s probably going to rain, so I don’t have aspirations to do any outdoor activities. We do some laundry and cleaning instead. Fun!

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

2 p.m.: It is football Sunday! My son and I go to a friend’s house to hang out and do a lot of sitting around watching the NFL. My friend has a teenage son so him and my kid spend the entire time playing video games while the grown-ups watch TV, chat, and enjoy a day of doing nothing. My friend has made white chicken chili and lentil soup in the slow cooker for everybody. I eat a bowl of chili topped with sour cream, cheese, and tortilla chips, and drink a beer. The chili was really good, so I ask for the recipe. My son is too distracted to eat anything at this point.

6 p.m.: My son is finally ready to eat. He eats a bowl of chili.

7 p.m.: I have a second bowl of chili with sour cream and cheese. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Football scores have been a mix of wins, losses, and ties; emotions are high.

8:30 p.m.: We are going home, but not before my friend sends me away with leftovers. For some reason, she thinks there are 20 people eating at her house at any given time so she always makes too much food and, if you are visiting her, you are taking food home. There is no other way. She gives me stuffed peppers she had made earlier in the week, and a container with more white chicken chili. When we get home my son tells me he is a little hungry. He has two cheese sticks as “dinner.”

I sit in my home office and do homework, which is just reading different stories. This semester I started taking a class in Introduction to Creative Writing just “for fun.”

Day 4: Monday

6 a.m.: The alarm goes off and I am not ready to be up. I take the dog for a walk and it’s raining. When we come back I feed him and start getting ready for work.

I pack my son’s regular school lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then remembered he wanted something else today. Oops! Sorry, buddy. He gets a banana, a chocolate chip cookie, and a small Gatorade to go with the sandwich. I pack breakfast for myself: vanilla Greek yogurt with blueberries and muesli, plus a banana. For lunch I pack the stuffed peppers my friend gave me yesterday.

7 a.m.: I wake my son up. He is also feeling the case of the Mondays and does not want to get up. For breakfast he has two pancakes topped with syrup and a glass of milk.

7:25 a.m.: I make coffee to go and we head out the door.

8:15 a.m.: I am a little late for work but that’s okay. I fill out my water bottle and start my day.

12:30 p.m.: I realize I never ate my breakfast and now I am starving! I eat the stuffed pepper. It is a yellow pepper with Mexican-style filling: ground beef, rice, black beans, tomatoes, and corn. It is delicious and I send her a text thanking her for feeding me. I think the way to most people’s heart is through food. Feed me good food and we will be best friends. I drink water with my lunch.

4 p.m.: I have a banana as a snack. My son will be with his dad this evening so I plan to go to the gym after work. I am hoping a banana will keep me from raiding the fridge when I get home — it probably won’t.

8 p.m.: After a workout and a walk around the neighborhood with the dog, I sit down to watch some TV with leftover enchiladas from Saturday night. I top them with half an avocado and wash them down with water. As I write this, I realize I have been eating a lot of Mexican food these past few days. I do love some Mexican food, but this is not the norm.

Day 5: Tuesday

6:30 a.m.: I get to sleep in half an hour today since my son is not here this morning and I don’t have to drive him to school. My routine is pretty much the same as every day. I get up to walk the dog, feed him, get ready for work, pack my lunch, make coffee to go, wash, rinse, repeat.

8 a.m.: This morning I am hungry earlier than normal so I eat my breakfast as soon as I get to the office. I am having the breakfast I packed for yesterday, which I didn’t eat (let no food go to waste). Breakfast is vanilla Greek yogurt topped with blueberries and homemade muesli. I sip my coffee and start my day.

10 a.m.: I am daydreaming about the weekend. I will be traveling to Colorado on Friday with a friend to hike and enjoy some Colorado brews (I like beer). My son will be with his dad and I try to enjoy my “free weekends” as much as possible. Going on this trip was a very last-minute, but very good decision, and I am looking forward to it. I am thinking about what to pack … I am the worst packer.

12:30 p.m.: Time for lunch! Today I have to go to class in the middle of my workday so I try my best to take a very short lunch break and work through lunch to make up some time. Today I am having a salad topped with the leftover fillings from the enchiladas. So basically a taco salad and, yes, more Mexican. I top the salad with half an avocado and drink water from my refillable bottle. I also have a banana.

5:30 p.m.: I get home and I am starving! I eat some almonds and cashews after taking the dog for a walk.

8 p.m.: I drive to a friend’s house to help her move some rugs (16 to be exact) from her house to another house. After our hard work we reward ourselves by going to a local restaurant called Stock and Barrel, which has THE BEST burgers. I choose one called The Hurtlocker, which has fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. Fried green tomatoes for the win! It is so good but it falls apart as I am eating it and I am making a mess. I end up having to eat my burger with a knife and fork which is embarrassing. The burger comes with fries and it is way too much food, so I only eat half of my meal. I drink water with the burger because I am thirsty.

My friend treats me to dinner as a “thank you” for helping her move the stuff. I’ve had a lot of friends feeding me this week — this is not normal for me but it sure is nice.

Day 6: Wednesday

6:30 a.m.: It is hump day! Although not for me, since I am traveling to Colorado on Friday and I won’t be at work that day, so it is “Thursday” in my head. I go through my regular routine of walking the dog, getting ready for work, and making coffee to go. Today I am not packing a lunch because we have a lunch seminar at work and we will be fed (more free food!). We do these seminars often, but I only go to those where the topic seems interesting to me; the free food is usually not worth sitting through an hour of a boring PowerPoint presentation.

9:30 a.m.: Hunger strikes and I eat a banana.

12 p.m.: Our lunch seminar starts. Food was catered from Publix and I eat half a turkey sub with mayo, tomato, and lettuce; potato salad; and a chocolate chip cookie. I drink lemonade during the seminar and refill my cup to have some more at the desk during the afternoon. My liquid consumption usually consists of coffee, water, or beer, so lemonade is a treat for me.

5:30 p.m.: I get home from work and take the dog out for an hour-long walk.

6:45 p.m.: My son is back home with me for a couple of days; he will spend the weekend with his dad. I start making dinner for both of us. Today I am making a Spanish tortilla, which is a large omelette made of eggs, potatoes, and onions. We also have a salad to go with the tortilla. The salad has greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cheese, and olives. I make extra salad for tomorrow’s lunch. I make a balsamic vinaigrette for the dressing. My son has finally decided he likes to eat salads that include more ingredients than just lettuce. Kids are easier when they are younger.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

7:45 p.m.: We eat dinner while watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory. After dinner, we both sit down in the home office to do our respective homework. I have some reading to do, and he has to work on a science project. The dog is not happy we are not playing with him, and my son is not happy he has homework.

Day 7: Thursday

6 a.m.: Last day of the work week! Let’s make the best of it. Dog and I take our morning walk and come back home to get ready for our day ahead. For lunch my son is having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a sliced peach, pretzels, and a small Gatorade. Mom is having salad and leftover Spanish tortilla. I also set up the slow cooker with this vegetarian chili from Budget Bytes to cook for tonight’s dinner.

7 a.m.: I wake up my child with kisses and hugs and set him up for breakfast. He is having an egg over easy and a buttered piece of toast washed down with milk.

7:30 a.m.: And we are off … with coffee on hand.

8:15 a.m.: Work work work work work … today I have two short meetings and class. I must focus and get as much work done as possible. I sit down to drink coffee and get motivated when I realize I am doing a tomato tasting this morning, so I go do that. Six (not great) cherry tomatoes later, I grab a banana and a bag of goldfish from the snack table and go back to the office. I eat the banana and save the goldfish for later.

12 p.m.: I eat my lunch of salad and tortilla before I am really ready to eat. but my two meetings and class are all back to back starting at 12:30 p.m.

3:30 p.m.: I come back from class and I start to relax. Let’s finish the day strong!

4 p.m.: I break down and eat the bag of goldfish. I probably don’t need to eat it but I can’t help it. I love goldfish!

8 p.m.: We eat the chili. There are a lot of leftovers and since I won’t be here for a few days I decide to freeze what is left to have another day. I am excited about the weekend. I pack and spend the rest of the night watching old episodes of Friday Night Lights.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)
(Image credit: The Kitchn)

1. How did you set your food budget?

I don’t have an exact budget I am trying to follow on a weekly basis. I do keep track of all my monthly expenses on a spreadsheet; I mostly look at my monthly average. I try to average between $400 to $500 a month in food, including groceries and eating out.

Even though there are really only 1.5 people at my house, we don’t eat out very much and my son eats like an adult. The months I do go over are those when I am feeling extra social and I go out for beers or margaritas with my friends a little much. Drinking alcohol can really add up. I do cringe if my monthly average goes over $500.

2. What are the kitchen ingredients you can’t live without?

Some stuff I always have around are olive oil, salad mixed greens (weird I know), tortillas, black beans, cheese, ground beef, eggs, and pasta. I use an app called “Out of Milk” on my phone to keep track of ingredients I run out during the week, because my memory is not what it used to be.

3. What’s the budget recipe you always rely on?

Tacos! When all fails, ground beef tacos are the answer. You can fancy them up as much or as little as you want, based on what is the fridge. I always have the ingredients to make tacos. Pasta is also a budget meal both my son and I love. Most of the time I have salad mixed greens so I can always have a side salad and pretend any meal is not a budget meal.

At Kitchn we believe setting a food budget for you and your family is an essential part in getting your financial life in order. Don’t know where to start? We have a guide for that. Want to share your food budget diary with Kitchn? See how here.