How One Woman Eats for $85 a Week in Philadelphia, PA

How One Woman Eats for $85 a Week in Philadelphia, PA

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Ariel Knutson
Jun 26, 2018
(Image credit: The Kitchn)

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: Liz
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Age: 29
Number of people in family: 1
Occupation: HR
Yearly household income: $70,000
Weekly food budget: $85 ($65 for groceries, $20 for eating out)

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Day 1: Sunday

8:30 a.m.: I'm up a little late today due to a combination of some late-night shenanigans from my upstairs neighbors, and having a migraine last night.

Today is Sunday, aka grocery day, which means I do not have a lot of food at my apartment, so I walk to a deli around the corner to treat myself to a turkey bacon, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel and an iced coffee. On my walk I pass another coffee shop that has a sign outside with a lovely illustration of Jeff Goldblum from that scene in Jurassic Park where he's injured and shirtless on the table, and it says "Coffee finds a way" — would really love a framed version of this.

Deli

Breakfast sandwich + iced coffee, $6.79

Total: $6.79

9:15 a.m.: The deli doesn't have simple syrup so once I get home I throw a little water, brown sugar, and cinnamon from my pantry into a pot to quickly make my own. I don't usually put any sweetener into coffee, but occasionally I feel like spicing it up. I eat my breakfast while watching a couple episodes of Schitt's Creek (recently discovered this show and love it) and intermittently doing chores.

11 a.m. I decide to walk to Whole Foods to grocery shop, even though I know it will be more expensive, because I have a lot of produce to buy for what I want to make for the week and I want to get better-quality stuff. I've also been under budget for food/groceries for the past couple of months in general so I am going to cut myself some slack. I splurge on a jar of spicy mayo because I tend to make a lot of fish/shrimp/tofu/veggie tacos in the summer. I'm obsessed with chipotle/Sriracha mayo and it will save me a little time with not having to make my own.

Whole Foods

Asparagus, $3.66
Sweet potato, $.97
Cucumbers, $1.50
Jalapeño pepper, $.20
Limes, $1
Lemons, $.79
Garlic, $2.88
Red onion, $.94
Cilantro, $2.49
Red grapes, $4.03
Broccoli, $1.10
Ginger, $.42
Egg radishes, $2.49
Apples, $4.15
Oranges, $1
Garlic hummus, $2.49
Parmesan, $6.51
Extra-firm tofu, $1.99
Chipotle mayonnaise, $5.99
Baby arugula, $1.99
Dark mint chocolate, $4.69
Almond milk, $1.99
Avocados, $5
Sweet potato chips, $3
Rotisserie chicken, $9.99
Corn tortillas, $1.39

Total including tax & donation: $73.40

1 p.m.: I spend the afternoon taking my time meal prepping for the week while listening to podcasts. I typically prep all my breakfasts/lunches for the week on Sundays, along with anything else I can do in advance. I usually try to make enough of any recipe for 4+ servings, and if I run out before the end of the week I'll whip up something else or buy lunch that day.

I don't mind eating the same thing for multiple days in a row as long as it's tasty and somewhat interesting (I usually don't start to get sick of meals until, like, day four or five) and I find that I prefer planning what I'm going to be eating ahead of time.

First up I make the egg bake that I'll be eating for breakfast this week. I don't actually follow a recipe for this anymore because I've made it a billion times, but it's loosely based off of a bunch of recipes I found online at one point like this.

Next I prep as much as I can for the tofu banh mi tacos I will bring for lunches this week. I pickle veggies and make the tofu, and I also chop up some raw broccoli leftover from my egg bake that I will throw in the tacos as well. Once the egg bake is done I roast the sweet potatoes I bought so that I can quickly reheat them for dinners this week.

4:30 p.m.: I haven't had much of an appetite all day due to a migraine hangover, so I eat a hodgepodge of smaller things before going to see Ocean's 8 with a couple of my friends. I eat some garlic hummus with carrots (leftover from last week) and sweet potato chips, an apple and peanut butter, and half of a small sweet potato from the batch I just roasted.

6:30 p.m.: Still not super hungry but I sneak my water bottle and a fun-size Hershey's Mint Cookie Layer Crunch bar that I found in my cabinet earlier into the theater!

Day 2: Monday

7:45 a.m.: It's cold and rainy today so I make hot coffee in my French press, add almond milk, and transfer to my travel mug to take to work. In an effort to save counter space, I don't have a regular coffee maker, so I use my French press every day to make either hot coffee or cold brew overnight. I pack my breakfast (egg bake) and lunch/snacks (taco fixins, grapes, string cheese), grab my umbrella, and I'm out the door for the 20-minute walk to work.

9:15 a.m.: After checking my emails that came in over the weekend, I head to the kitchen to put my lunch in the fridge, heat up my breakfast, and fill my water bottle. By the time I get to work in the morning I am usually so thirsty that the first thing I want to do is inhale water, so I usually end up drinking almost a full 20 ounces while I eat my breakfast. I hate drinking coffee on an empty stomach so I always save my coffee for after I'm done eating.

I see that someone brought in some sort of raisin bread and it's up for grabs in the kitchen. Free food is my #1 weakness so I cut off a small piece to try and it's pretty good! I bring my egg bake and water back to my desk and eat while catching up on emails.

12:15 p.m.: I'm just finally finishing my coffee from the morning and am not hungry yet so I decide to take a quick break outside to get a little midday exercise. I am almost never hungry before 1 p.m. at the earliest so I tend to try and move around/go outside at this time and then eat lunch on the later side once I'm back in the office.

1:30 p.m.: I'm starting to get hungry now so I refill my water bottle and heat up the tofu and tortillas and add pickled veggies, raw broccoli, green onions, avocado, cilantro, and some spicy mayo, and eat at my desk while I get some more work done.

2:30 p.m.: I'm fading a little bit so I decide I need a little more caffeine and make a cup of Trader Joe's mint watermelon tea that I keep in my desk. While getting hot water from the break-room machine, I see that there is a plate of cookies/madeleines out that were left over from a work event and I grab a madeleine. Can't resist the call of free food!

4 p.m.: Fill up my water bottle one more time. I didn't end up eating my snacks today so I leave my grapes and string cheese in the work fridge for another day.

5:30 p.m.: Get home and change into gym clothes because I signed up for a cardio sculpt class. I don't really like eating before working out but I eat a string cheese as a snack to hold me over since I won't be eating dinner for a while.

7:45 p.m.: I get home from the gym and shower before making dinner because my curly hair takes 3+ hours to dry (!) so I have to get that out of the way ASAP.

I preheat the oven to warm up part of a sweet potato and to roast some asparagus for the salad I'm making. I don't have a microwave or toaster oven because my apartment is 400 square feet and my kitchen is about the size of a child's Barbie car. (I also only have a European-sized mini fridge and a freezer that is about three inches high). Anytime I have to reheat something I either just pop it in the oven or into a pan on the stove. I make a salad based on a recipe I found and eat it with chicken and half a roasted sweet potato for dinner. After dinner I do my usual routine of packing my breakfast/lunch for tomorrow and making cold brew to take to work.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

8:45 p.m.: I DVR'd The Bachelorette so I can fast forward through the unnecessary parts (aka the group dates). I start it a bit late and eat a piece of the mint dark chocolate bark I bought at Whole Foods.

Day 3: Tuesday

9 a.m.: After I get to work I see that someone has scheduled a last-minute meeting for 9:30 a.m. so I quickly eat my breakfast and chug some water so I can bring my coffee to the meeting and focus on work — I have a busier day ahead!

11:50 a.m.: I have meetings later this afternoon so I duck out quickly for my lunch break to run an errand downtown. Before I go I eat the string cheese that was leftover from yesterday since I probably will wait to eat my real lunch until after my meetings.

12:30 p.m.: Back in the office and I refilled my water bottle to hydrate before getting back to work. Also still babysitting my iced coffee from this morning but I think at this point it's a lot of coffee-flavored water from all the melted ice. I don't hate it though!

2:15 p.m.: I build my tacos and eat as I review my notes from my meetings and mentally prepare for the rest of the day. Day two and I'm not sick of the tacos yet — they're still delicious.

3:15 p.m.: I'm actually low-key really enjoying the coffee-flavored ice water that is left over in my travel coffee mug. I also became inspired to put my grapes that I didn't eat yesterday in the freezer, because I've heard that frozen grapes are a thing and I've never had them before. I'm heading to trivia at a local jazz cafe with some friends/coworkers after work, and I want to save the grapes to eat as a quick snack before I head out.

5 p.m.: I'm not gonna lie, I don't love the frozen grapes! I feel like it took away the crunch/burst of juiciness you get when you bite into them. Gonna have to go back to regular fridge-temperature grapes. Maybe I am missing something?

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

5:30 p.m.: We arrive at trivia and immediately sit down and peruse the bar snacks menu which features $1 truffle mac and cheese (!) as one of the options. I wasn't planning on getting food here but I might actually regret it for the rest of my life if I don't jump on this opportunity to see what $1 worth of mac and cheese entails. I don't really feel like drinking so I decide to skip getting a drink; luckily both of my friends order extra-dirty martinis and food so I don't feel quite as guilty for taking up space at bar trivia and barely ordering anything. I Venmo a couple dollars to one of my friends to cover my bar snack and contribute to tip after realizing I have no cash on me.

6 p.m.: The $1 mac and cheese arrives in a ramekin that has about a 2-inch diameter and it's cute AF. 100% worth it. I try a sip of my friend's extra-dirty martini when it arrives because I've never had one and it tastes like stagnant ocean water. Much respect to them both for putting themselves through that.

Jazz Cafe

Truffle mac and cheese bar snack, $2

Total: $2

8:30 p.m.: I make dinner back at home — pop half a pre-roasted sweet potato, asparagus, and chicken in the oven to reheat them and then quickly make a salad and dig in. I drink multiple glasses of water before bed. I've accepted the fact that I will not be able to sleep through the night without getting up to pee due to my water/coffee consumption and I have chosen to lean in to it. Before going to bed I do my usual routine of packing my food and making cold brew for tomorrow.

Day 4: Wednesday

9:15 p.m.: Heat up my egg bake at work and eat quickly as I have another busy work day today. I manage to drink a full 20 ounces of water before starting on the iced coffee I brought.

1 p.m.: There is a farmers market here at work today in honor of a Healthy Week initiative my company does every year, so I head up to the cafeteria to check it out. There are a bunch of vendors here and I end up trying samples of so much delicious stuff: Red Jacket Orchards strawberry apple juice, a broccoli and apple skin slaw, and a pineapple skin mango green tea (I grab recipe cards for the slaw and green tea to try and recreate later at home).

I also stop at the Soom table and end up buying a sampler (1 jar regular tahini +1 jar chocolate sweet tahini) for $12. I am extremely obsessed with tahini and eat it all the time and I recently ran out, and I also am happy to support a local business owned by women! I make a mental note to include a budget-friendly, tahini-centric meal in my planning for next week since I'm going to end up overspending a bit this week.

Soom

Soom sampler, $12

Total: $12

3 p.m.: I meant to eat lunch at 2 p.m. but I got sidetracked doing work and talking to some of my coworkers, so I end up eating a bit late. I heat up the tofu and tortillas and build my tacos as I settle in for a conference call. Day three of tacos and still going strong!

9 p.m.: I'm really having a late day today eating-wise — I signed up for a spin class in the evening and stretched in the sauna after so I got home from the gym a bit later than usual. I throw together another half of a roasted sweet potato, chicken, and asparagus salad, and eat while watching the latest episode of The Handmaid's Tale. After dinner I eat a couple pieces of the mint chocolate bark and drink multiple glasses of water — I'm super thirsty after spinning earlier!

Day 5: Thursday

10 a.m.: I heat up and eat my last remaining portion of the egg bake I made on Sunday. This recipe never fails to deliver because it still tastes just as good late in the week. I down some water and start on the cold brew I brought from home.

12 p.m.: I have a lunch date scheduled today with two of my coworkers and it's absolutely beautiful outside so we agree to meet up and sit outside to eat and enjoy the weather. It's apparently Tenant Appreciation Day so there are free soft pretzels, ice cream (Dixie Cups, which I haven't seen since like 1998!), and water ice. I grab a pretzel with mustard and a lemon water ice and we eat at a table while catching up.

3:45 p.m.: I still have taco materials left, which I brought again today, so I build my tacos and eat them with grapes. I'm feeling very tired because I haven't slept very well this week for some reason, so I make a black iced coffee from the off-brand Keurig in our break room.

8 p.m.: Home from the HIIT class I went to this evening at the gym, and I'm starving so I decide to eat before showering and commit to my hair looking "a fright" tomorrow. I throw together what I have left of my salad ingredients (I've eaten all the avocados at this point so I add in part of a chopped apple instead), chicken, and half a sweet potato, and eat while reading a chapter of The Alienist. I eat a piece of chocolate mint bark after for dessert.

Day 6: Friday

9:30 p.m.: I eat overnight oats that I threw together last night with oats, cinnamon, chia seeds, apple slices, almond milk, peanut butter, and a little bit of honey. As per usual I drink a ton of water and follow with my cold brew that I brought from home.

1 p.m.: I'm leaving work early today due to our special summer hours, so I didn't bring a "full lunch" and just brought some hummus, carrots, bell peppers, and sweet potato chips. I eat at my desk while wrapping up anything I need to get done before the weekend. My brother is visiting this weekend from Long Island so after work I'll take the train out to my parents' house for the night so we can all hang out. I'm very excited to be able to spend time with my whole family!

5 p.m.: It's so nice outside so my mom, brother, and I all drink Pinot Noir on the back patio at my parents' house while we relax and wait for my dad to get home. I love living in the city but I think I took the 'burbs for granted while I lived here — it's so quiet, peaceful, and green with all the trees everywhere. My mom shows me all the herbs she planted in her backyard garden and I am super jealous. I'm moving in two weeks and am going to attempt to have a potted herb garden in my new kitchen, but I know they are notoriously finicky indoors, so we will see how that pans out!

7 p.m.: We had grand plans to grill but we all decide we're a little exhausted from the week and settle on ordering food from a nearby (and beloved) Thai place instead. My dad and brother get sushi, and my mom and I order chicken and shrimp pad Thai (one of my favorite comfort foods). My dad graciously agrees to pay for the food and we settle in to eat while drinking more wine.

My mom always has dark chocolate goodies on hand at their house and we eat some Trader Joe's dark chocolate-covered cherries and almonds for dessert. I drink a couple glasses of water to try and offset the wine and prevent myself from getting a migraine later tonight/tomorrow. So far it's been an OK week for me headache-wise, so I am happy!

Day 7: Saturday

9:30 a.m.: We all slept over my parents' house last night and are heading into the city together today for some quality bonding time (my family has also kindly volunteered to help me get my apartment ready to move today!)

My mom and I make a late breakfast for everyone of "pancakes" based off a recipe my grandmother allegedly made up (although I've never seen her eat pancakes ever in my life): cottage cheese, eggs, oat bran, and ground flaxseed. My mom has some overripe cherries and a plum in the fridge so we decide to make a sort of sauce/fruit topping for the pancakes since the fruit is already a little too mushy to eat. We chop up the cherries and plum and heat them on the stove with some blueberry jam until they all sort of melt together, top the pancakes with the fruit and eat with iced coffee.

12:45 p.m.: We get stuck in traffic on our drive into the city so I eat some almonds/cashews from the emergency snack stash in the car.

2 p.m.: After we arrive at my apartment, my brother wants to have beers on hand while we get some work done, and he walks to a bottle shop to pick some up. He also grabs some Wölffer dry rosé ciders so I sip on one of those while I get started on some organizing/packing.

3:30 p.m.: Enough progress has been made so we walk into Rittenhouse Square to get some fresh air/exercise. We are going to be eating a big dinner later so we are content to just snack on some hummus and leftover bell peppers and sweet potato chips from my apartment.

6:30 p.m.: We head to a restaurant in the Italian Market area for dinner which has an amazing fixed-price dinner menu that lets you try a bunch of different smaller-sized dishes. I end up getting a small salad with grilled octopus, fennel and arugula, walnuts, green olives, and orange marmalade; two raviolis with spinach and ricotta, almond sage brown butter and nutmeg; and finally sesame grilled swordfish steak with lemon caper sauce, broccoli rabe, and plum sauce. We drink more Pinot Noir that we brought from my parents' house with dinner and all split a small tiramisu and cannoli for dessert.

My dad generously pays for everyone again, as this was sort of a late family birthday celebration for me, and the four of us do not get to all be together very often. We head home pleasantly stuffed!

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

1. How did you set your food budget?

I track all my spending/budgeting/savings religiously through Mint and Personal Capital, and my primary focus is on adhering to my monthly food budget, so I am usually relatively flexible week-to-week and am not super strict about it as long as I stay within my overall monthly budget which I almost always do (my weekly grocery spending typically ranges from $40 to $75, so this was definitely a higher spending week).

I live in the city and don't have a car or many other expenses, so I am also not on as stringent of a food budget as I might be otherwise. Making sure I have consistently (mostly) healthy meals is also really important for me, as I've found that in the past few years that I've been focusing on this it's really helped with my headaches/migraines. Cooking is also a creative outlet for me, as I like to try new recipes and learn new skills while taking full advantage of living alone for the time being since I am able to make whatever I want!

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

Hummus/tahini, Parmesan cheese, eggs, lemons, spices, honey, fresh herbs, fresh produce.

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

My favorite budget recipes would typically be anything easy involving eggs, like kitchen sink omelettes where I just throw in any random vegetables I have leftover, or shakshuka which is another favorite of mine. If I'm really in a pickle I will also just roast a bunch of vegetables and mix tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and spices together to drizzle over them. I also fall back on peanut butter/other nut butters a lot when I need to quickly make something that will sustain me for a while (I really like English muffins with peanut butter, chia seeds, cinnamon and banana slices). In fall/winter I also make a lot of soups which tend to be cheap and easy to make with whatever vegetables are in season.

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.

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