Three Stores, Two Bloggers, One Recipe: Feeding a Family Well on a Budget

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Indiana’s Family of Farmers as part of a series pairing me with a local agricultural blogger. You can read the first post in the series here. Thanks to Leah for being my blogging and grocery shopping buddy, and to Kim Galeaz, RDN for sharing her time and wisdom with us.

Homemade Ground Beef Tacos from America's Test Kitchen

Some things are just fine on their own, but even better when paired together: Peanut butter and chocolate. Milk and cookies. Tacos and beer. Grocery shopping and budgeting.

Wait, what? Why did I have to go and ruin a good food analogy?

I know, I know. I hate the b-word just as much as the next girl (budgeting, not beer). But over the years I’ve learned that a little planning and some smart budgeting go a long way to making your cash go farther. I’ve also learned that there are many expenses and life events we can’t control – but one place where we have the most influence over where our money goes is at the grocery store.

A couple of years ago I got very serious about reigning in our grocery budget. As a stay-at-home mom, I felt it was an area where I could spend time and make decisions that would have a big impact on our monthly spending. I made a list of the staples and food items we purchase on a regular basis and then took that list to five different grocery stores and compared prices. I went into it with an open mind, but even I was shocked at the differences in prices for the same things at different stores. Based on what I found, I narrowed my weekly shopping down to a few stores and focused my efforts on finding out how to save the most money at those stores. To this day, our monthly grocery budget is the envy of many. I’m not an extreme couponer or the most frugal girl on the block, but we do eat well and spend less than most of the other families our size I’ve talked to on the subject.

I was thinking it might be time to reevaluate my stores and cost comparisons when Indiana’s Family of Farmers asked if I would be interested in sharing my perspective on finding affordable food options for Indiana families. They asked me to pick one of my family’s favorite meals and shop for the ingredients at three different local stores. I was paired up with an agricultural blogger (my friend Leah of sweet corn fame), and we toured the grocery aisles with Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Consultant Kim Galeaz.

We shopped at three Indianapolis area stores that fall into different categories: a traditional store (Kroger), a high-end/specialty store (Trader Joe’s), and a discount store (Aldi). We walked up and down every aisle, paying attention to the items needed for our recipes and noticing the differences in prices and options. Our goal? How to get the most for our money without sacrificing good nutrition. I chose the one miracle recipe that makes everyone in our family happy to sit down and eat, the one recipe that I get more requests for than any other: my homemade ground beef tacos.

I think of myself as a very knowledgeable consumer, and up-to-date on the latest issues concerning food quality and nutrition. And yet over and over again as we walked the aisles with Kim I found myself surprised at my lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of some important nutritional concepts. These concepts not only had an impact on our health, but also on our wallets! I also gleaned some fantastic insight by shopping with Leah, who has an understanding about where our food comes from that most consumers, far removed from the agricultural side of food supply, have no idea about. A few things, in particular, stood out.

Labels mean very little.

I’m not talking about food nutrition labels – those mean everything! I’m talking about labels like brand names, or labels that profess a food is guilt-free or healthy. Take one specific ingredient in my taco recipe: tomato sauce. In all three stores, I had numerous options for tomato sauce, from pricy organic to no frills to one labeled “fit and active.” The price varied greatly ($1.49 to $0.25), as did the feeling when you looked at each can. The organic can felt like a superior choice (though it came with a cost). The can spouting healthy superlatives made me feel like any other choice must contain terrible additives for my family. In the end, the cheapest option contained the same ingredients as the others and, though it lacked fancy packaging, was just as nutritious as the others. As a bonus (thanks to Leah’s savvy eye), I realized the tomatoes in that can were actually grown and packaged in Indiana – saving me money and supporting my local enconomy.

Red Gold and Kroger tomatoes are the same

Red Gold and Kroger tomatoes are the same

Organic is not always the answer.

At the beginning of our tour, as we stood in the produce section of Kroger, Kim asked me if I make purchasing organic a priority. How does such a simple question evoke so many conflicting feelings? I felt like the right answer was, “Yes! Of course! It’s the best for my family.” But the truth is that it’s not a priority for me. I do it when I can, and prioritize some items as organic purchases over others, but our food budget does not allow for us to buy purely organic. Still, I feel badly about it sometimes, as if I’m failing my family. Kim shared with us a great resource for finding out just how safe your organic and conventional produce is. Leah shared just how concerned dairy farmers are about antibiotics getting into our non-organic milk supply. The bottom line? If your food budget and sensibilities allow for purchasing organic over non-organics, go for it. But if not? You’re not compromising your family’s nutrition.

We can all just relax a little.

I was nervous about sharing some of my kids’ eating habits with Kim. I try very hard, but kids are kids, and it can be so difficult to get them to eat what we think they should be eating. Her advice? Don’t worry so much about what you can’t control. Serve a variety of nutritious things and make swaps where you can. Use whole grain flour in your baking. Kids want cookies? Don’t freak out or ban them, but do serve them in moderation and pair them with milk. I confess my kids’ obsession with Nutella and she said, “Great! Nutella is delicious! But how about you pair it with apples or whole grain bread?” 

King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour

Armed with my ingredient list, I purchased ingredients at three different stores. A few notes on the stores and ingredients before I give you the cost per store and share my recipe:

  • We toured Kroger with the dietician, but neither Leah nor I purchased the ingredients for our recipes at that time. When purchasing my recipe ingredients in the traditional store category, I shopped at SuperTarget. This is where I do my traditional grocery store shopping, as opposed to Kroger, Meijer, Marsh, etc.
  • Although the recipe calls for it, I opted not to include vegetable oil or salt in my cost breakdown. I figured these are ingredients every kitchen would already have on hand as staples, and I didn’t need a lifetime supply of either.
  • I did include the spices, since a few of them might be ingredients you might not use or own. When calculating spice cost, I figured out the cost per ounce, since the spice jar sizes varied greatly in between stores. Also, two of the spices were not available at Trader Joe’s (chili powder and coriander) and two were not available at Aldi (coriander and cayenne pepper). To make the cost comparisons as even as possible, I deducted two comparable spices from the cost of seasonings in my Target price breakdown.
  • The per serving price seems high, but keep in mind that it includes the cost of spices. You wouldn’t normally repurchase all your spices every time you made the meal.

Trader Joe's ground beef taco ingredients

Trader Joe’s: $31.76 ($7.94 per serving)

Target ground beef taco ingredients

Target: $21.93 ($5.48 per serving)

Aldi ground beef taco ingredients

Aldi: $19.32 ($4.83 per serving)

Are you surprised? I wasn’t surprised to see Trader Joe’s as the most expensive option. While they have great deals on certain items, purchasing all of your groceries here would add up quickly. Personally, I use Trader Joe’s for unique food items and treats, as well as higher-quality convenience meals. My biggest props to Trader Joe’s for this meal goes to the availability of these corn and wheat tortillas with 14 grams of whole grains per serving.

Trader Joe's corn and wheat tortillas

I was surprised to see SuperTarget and Aldi so closely matching in price. It just reinforces what I found when I did my initial grocery cost comparisons before: SuperTarget prices their items competitively. The trick is staying away from the non-grocery store departments! I do love Aldi, though, and shop there biweekly.

This was such an eye-opening experience, and the things I learned about nutrition will continue to guide me as I shop for my family with the goal of providing healthy meals at the best possible price. In addition to what I learned from Kim and Leah, here are a few other ways you can bring down the cost of your meals without sacrificing nutrition:

  • Change the way you buy spices. Spices are by far the greatest cost. As spices at most stores are the same both nutritionally and in quality, plan to buy your spices where they are cheapest. Aldi has fantastic prices on spices. For harder to find spices, shop the bulk bins at health food stores. While the price may be higher, you can purchase exactly what you need at a fraction of the cost of a big jar you’ll never get through.
  • Convenience costs. Pre-minced garlic and onions, pre-shredded cheese and lettuce cost more than their whole counterparts. If the time involved in prepping those items won’t deter you from cooking for your family, then consider purchasing them over the more convenient forms. However if chopping onions is the one thing that makes you throw your hands up and order out? Go for convenience. The important thing to remember is that nutritionally it’s all the same.
  • Use your freezer! The most expensive ingredient in this meal is the ground beef. When you see ground beef at a great price, buy more than you need and stock your freezer with it. You can do the same with shredded cheese.
  • Buy and cook in bulk. Taco meat is one of my favorite recipes to double and triple. It doesn’t take me any longer to prep and cook, I can save money by buying some of the ingredients in bigger quantities, and it’s such an easy meal to pull out of the freezer when there’s nothing in the pantry! It’s so versatile as well – we use frozen taco meat for nachos, on baked potatoes and pizza and in soup.

Homemade Ground Beef Tacos from America's Test Kitchen

Ground Beef Tacos

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 heaping teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (more if you like them spicy, less if you don’t)
  • salt
  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1/2 cup canned tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon light brown sugar

Heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering.  Add the onion and cook until softened and just beginning to brown. Stir in the garlic, spices and 1 teaspoon salt.  Cook 30 seconds, until you can smell all the spicy goodness.  Add the ground beef and cook, breaking into small pieces, until the meat is browned and no longer pink.  Stir in the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and brown sugar.  Simmer until thickened, usually around 10 to 15 minutes.  It will thicken up a bit more upon standing.

Divide among taco shells or flour tortillas.  If you’re feeling really frisky, you can buy fresh corn tortillas and fry them yourself.  Once you’ve had a freshly fried taco shell, you’ll probably find yourself passing by the boxes, too.  Mike is our fry guy, and he fries his into the usual taco shape.  He leaves mine flat and I eat my tacos tostada-style.

Serve them up with shredded lettuce, salsa, shredded cheese, sour cream, cilantro, pickled red onions, avocados, whatever you like!  I find they pair quite nicely with fresh guacamole and an ice-cold margarita.  If you need someone to swing by and perform some quality control, I’m your girl.

Quick and easy homemade ground beef taco recipe. Ditch the packet and use your own spices. Paired with fried corn tortillas, taco night dinner will never be the same! America’s Test Kitchen | Homemade Taco Seasoning | Dinner Recipes

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  1. Wow…what a novel idea! (Grocery) Shopping and budgeting.