Planning 30 Days of Meals at Whole Foods on a Poverty Budget

Lisa Johnson's family shopped exclusively at Whole Foods for one month with $491.10.

By Margaret Badore for

Is it possible to feed a family of three healthy meals on a budget that's just above the poverty level? What if you only shopped at Whole Foods? It sounds nearly impossible, but food blogger Lisa Johnson took the challenge, buying all of her groceries at Whole Foods for under $500.00 for the month of January.

The challenge was inspired when Johnson was browsing the USDA website. She came across four different budget levels, which are set based on the grocery bills from 8,000 different families from around the U.S. Her family fell into the "low" level, which made her wonder how much harder it would be to purchase all of her groceries on the "Thrifty" level, which is for families just above the poverty level.

Lisa added the additional challenge of shopping only at Whole Foods, where she usually shopped for her family. "You can definitely spend a ton of money at Whole Foods if you want to, but you can eat there frugally as well," she says. To add an incentive to the proceedings, Lisa asked Whole Foods to participate in the challenge by agreeing to a bet: if she succeeded, they would reimburse her for the month. If she failed, they would get a lot of press for free. Whole Foods agreed, and the challenge was on.

According to the age and genders of her family members, Lisa's grocery budget came to $491.10, or $16.31 per day. In order to stick to the budget, her son took his own lunch to school and no one could purchase additional snacks or meals outside of the home.

Lisa says the first two weeks were the hardest. She began with very little in her pantry, just a few spices and seasonings. Purchasing the family's staples, such as eggs and baking supplies, took up nearly half of the budget for the month. She learned that Whole Foods offers a Value Tour, which Lisa found to be very helpful. This was a one-on-one tour of the store where an employee shows you how to shop and find the best deals. She also learned that although Whole Foods may highlight 100 to 150 specials each week, as many as 2,000 items may be discounted at any time. This means it's good to compare prices week to week.

Lisa found that she could save a significant amount of money by avoiding processed foods, and began baking her own bread in addition to cooking the rest of the family's meals from scratch. Lisa found that being forced to make all the family's meals made her a more confidant cook. "I felt restricted over the ingredients that I could choose," she says, but that she also became more creative.

One unanticipated benefit of cooking every meal at home was that it brought the family together. "We were forced to eat breakfast together because I had to cook it," says Lisa. "We liked that." Before the challenge, her family grazed in between meals, but this also ended as Lisa kept a close eye on what was getting eaten. Both Lisa and her husband lost weight, and although they didn't feel physically hungry, did have cravings for foods that weren't in the budget.

Of course, there's more to think about than just cost when it comes to eating. Lisa also wanted her family to eat well. Although she didn't count calories during the challenge, she did track how many servings of starches, vegetables and proteins her family was eating. "I was generally keeping an eye on it," she says. "We were getting three to five servings of vegetables per day, and that went up as the challenge when on and I got more confidence." She relied heavily on frozen vegetables, which are a better value than fresh produce in winter, especially where she lives in Boston. Lisa also bought meat in bulk when it went on sale, and froze what couldn't be used right away.

Although it took a lot of price comparisons, a bigger time investment in shopping and a few tears (some of despair, some of joy over the price of oranges), Lisa and her family succeeded at staying under budget for the month. They were even able to throw a dinner party for eight with a few bottles of wine to celebrate the end of the challenge.

After the challenge, Lisa's family isn't ready to go back to eating the way did before January. "When the challenge was over, we had a day where we ate cupcakes and cookies," Lisa laughs. "We were all sick!" She's happy that her family was able to cut down on sugar and other processed foods, and was happy to buy more fresh produce and even some out-of-season asparagus. "I think we're settling into something that's halfway between what we did before and what we did during the challenge."

Lisa won her bet with Whole Foods, but the experience brought home the difficulties faced by many Americans who have even less to spend. So, Lisa and her family's final act for the 30-day Whole Foods Challenge was bigger than the dinner party or the sugary snack binder, but instead they donated their $491.10 winnings to a local food bank.

Hear Lisa's story in her own words, or visit her site to see meal plans, grocery list, and more.

The big question - could you do it?


How to Coupon to Save on Healthy Groceries

Mom Feeds Family of 8 Healthy Meals with $15 per Dinner

Find the Best Healthy Deals at Whole Foods