How to Afford to Eat the "French Kids Don't Get Fat" Way

Mar 6, 2009 by

 Empty shop cart

“Many cards and letters have come in,” as my French teacher used to claim, asking me about eating well on a budget these days.

The following is from a reader named Heidi:

“I live in N. Mi. where the economy and income level is a little low. I try to feed my kids balanced meals but they are NOTHING like what you are suggesting. I am curious as to your budget allowance for groceries per week. We are a family of soon-to-be seven living on a very fixed income. What are your thoughts for someone like me?”

Dear Heidi,

Thank you for your questions!  

Many experts at keeping expenses low have plenty to tell us and most people probably know the basics—buying in bulk, watching for bargains, freezing bargain finds, not wasting, using coupons.

It bears repeating here that home cooking is one of the best ways to save money compared to eating out, especially comparing quality for quality.

Many of my other money saving measures have to do with spending less on other things so that I can spend more on food. Food and private schools, that is! We have always driven old cars and for years on end, and generally pay cash for them.  We spend not a penny on cable TV.  We rarely go out for a movie. We have three cell phones (which were free or cost $20) sharing 1000 minutes for about $55 a month (that was a feat).  We don’t buy electronic gadgets. We buy mostly thrift shop clothes and even shoes. We manage to win a lot of door prizes and that lets us eat out once in blue moon.

So, to feed two adults, an 18-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, we spend around $700 per month. The kids take their lunches to school and my husband and I both work out of our home office, so we eat lunch here.  

I have more success with trying to add quality to our eating without spending more than I do cutting expenses a whole lot. I may spend less, only to follow it by spending more later, it seems. I do have a few suggestions for you based on what I have discovered for myself.  

The first rule is to plan well.

I don’t quite know how to explain why, but when I have set days to go to the store and make my list to cover the days until the next grocery run, I spend less.  As I plan better, my spending is more controlled. I go every Monday and Thursday and try to avoid other trips (and the opportunity to spend more).

Next, I focus on nutrient dense foods. Instead of filling up too much on potatoes, pasta, bread and beans, prioritize vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, meat, poultry and fish.  You may not spend less but you will get more nutrition for your buck. Of course, junk food is out. Cookies, candy, sugary cereals, chips and the like cost money and fill you up with empty calories, and worse, as we know.

Growing your own herbs is a great way to eat better for next to nothing. Fresh herbs are expensive to buy at the store. Anybody can grow some, in pots or in a tiny spot in the yard.  My favorites to always have on hand are oregano, bay, rosemary, thyme (all of which are perennials growing year-round here in south Texas), parsley, basil, sage and chevril. We do continually garden beyond herbs, but with limited success, and I won’t claim it saves us any money.

It also pays to know the regular prices of things.  Some things I only buy when they are below a certain price. I only buy asparagus at $3 a pound, when I really want it, and know to jump on it at $2. Artichokes I only buy when they go down to a dollar. It’s been several years since I bought any.  I might have to change that standard if I ever want to eat another artichoke.

Know the stores in your area. I love grocery shopping, especially since I have four different places I buy groceries. Each has its merits and disadvantages.

When I taught English in France to a group of women, once I brought up the subject of which grocery store was the best, to get them to have a conversation in English, but they became so impassioned that they argued about it in French for the rest of the class. I couldn’t stop that flood gate once it opened. If you’re like them (and me) you should be interested to hear about my stores, or at least feel the urge to tell me about yours.


I love going to the 99¢ Only Store. Everything really is 99¢ or less. They have a lot of real groceries, unlike the typical dollar store. You never know what they might have in stock.  It’s like going to a garage sale and just as fun for me. You just have to be ready to use what they have.  I try to go right before I go to a regular store, so I can see what I can get off my list or adapt my plans according to my 99¢ finds.

They often have had red, yellow and orange bell peppers two for $.99 (instead of $1.79 or more each). Quite a few times, they’ve had the almost-half-gallons of name brand ice cream. I’ve found a pound of fresh asparagus (usually $3-$4), cauliflower (instead of $2.50 or so), eggplants, zucchini, baby carrots, organic grape tomatoes, and bags full of good red pears, plums, lemons, limes, grapefruit.

I occasionally succumb to a bag of whole wheat bagels. Other finds have included decent sunglasses, camera film, nice cookies or crackers.


Foodie CM  I adore going to Central Market. It can be expensive, but only for those not in the know. Their huge selection of super-cheap bulk spices alone makes it worth going. You can buy just a little of something for next to nothing, bringing well within reach those flavorful and exotic recipes I recommend. They also have scores of other foodstuffs in bulk: organic brown rice, alternative flours and meals, granola, trail mixes, dry beans and so on.  Items you can’t find anywhere else, they have. Central Market has a great variety of ethnic and health-food items and above-average quality produce. The employees are even cheerful and friendly.

Then there are the Foodie coupons, the crowning touch. They are the main reason I can justify going there so often. These weekly coupons are not publicized. A friend knew about them and she told me. You have to go ask at the service desk and get on the mailing list. With a purchase of $40, the coupons give, for example, a whopping $10 off produce or bulk items, or free ground meat patties, chicken breasts or a marinated pork loin. It means saving about 25 percent on the total. Not bad, not bad at all.


HEB is our run-of-the-mill store where everybody goes. It’s close by, has the standard items at reasonable prices and quality. I look for their many in-store coupons on stuff I would buy anyway, and markdowns on certain items.  I also clip coupons in the Sunday newspaper (to compensate taking the paper daily) and have a little coupon classifier. I want to use them more than I do. Sometimes I take my classifier in to HEB and just use up a bunch of coupons all at once in one trip, buying stuff I will use eventually. Otherwise, I tend to let them expire.


We recently got a Costco membership ($50 a year) after a friend gave us a big block of very good Irish cheese from there that cost only $10 and would cost a fortune at Central Market. We figured we could make it even more worthwhile by buying bulk more. We estimate it about 20 percent cheaper than HEB.  We go there about once a month when we’re going that direction anyway, since it’s a bit of a drive.

I go straight for certain items that are particular bargains: an 11 oz. goat cheese ($4.99), organic apples, 16-oz. organic baby greens ($3.99 instead of $5.99), big bags of pecans (two pounds for $8.89), walnuts and pine nuts, Kalamata olives, olive oil. The more you know your regular prices the better you can recognize what’s worth buying there.

So I hope that among those ideas, you have found something that you can use to spend less or at least eat better. I would love to hear any other tips you have!



Anna Migeon