The average American family spends over $7000 per year on food. Over 40 percent of that amount is for food eaten away from home. That’s about $135 per week, $54 of which is eaten in restaurants. But are we getting good value for our money? The quality of the food we eat directly affects our health and well-being. Why not take the month of March—which is National Nutrition Month®—to examine your family’s spending patterns for food? To get the maximum amount of cooperation from your children, involve them directly in the process. They may end up teaching you a thing or two!
In the early days of our country, most people grew their own food. In the 1700s, farmers represented the overwhelming majority of the labor force and today farmers seem to be few and far between. Today, most people are cut off from the sources of their food supply. When children helped their parents to hoe, plant, weed, prune and harvest, as well as peel, chop, pickle, boil and bake, it’s a safe bet they didn’t waste their meals. They knew firsthand exactly how much effort went into every bite! On the other hand, if they grow up thinking milk comes from the grocery store, and lettuce is the green stuff sticking out from under the hamburger, they’re less likely to appreciate what’s put in front of them.
To help your child learn about the real cost of food and how to get good value for dollars spent, try one or more of these activities:
• For one week, keep track of all your food expenditures. Include grocery shopping, convenience store purchases, school lunches and snacks, and restaurant meals. Add them all up to see what your family spends per week on food. Multiply that weekly total by 52 to get an estimate of what your yearly food budget might be. Then divide the weekly total by 21 to see what the cost of each meal was for that week.
• Do a blind taste test. Compare a store brand product, such as peanut butter, with a higher-priced name brand. Or compare a homemade product with an already-prepared version. With eyes closed, can you tell the difference? Which is better?
• Point out the ways in which advertisers try to get people, especially children, to buy their products. Bright colors, fun shapes, cartoon characters, and small toys are some of the gimmicks used. Explain that these foods may be overpriced or unhealthful despite their appeal. Make a game of trying to be the first to spot such gimmicks on television, in ads, on menus, and on product packaging.
• Read labels. Grab a bag or box from your refrigerator, your cabinets, or the grocery store shelf and read the ingredients. By law, ingredients must be listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first. Some ingredients will be easy to identify, like flour or sugar. But do you know what casein is? Lactic acid? Polysorbate 80? Point out to kids that ingredient names can be confusing or even misleading. Fructose, glucose, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, malt syrup, and agave nectar are all different kinds of sugar, for example.
• Try a new food. Take kids to a farmer’s market, the produce aisle of a grocery store, or wherever plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables are available. Choose one unfamiliar item to prepare at home. Use recipes found in cookbooks or online. Salespeople at farmer’s markets are usually a great source of information about the foods they sell. You could also research a new item first, one that sounds delicious or intriguing. Have you ever tried star fruit? Ugli fruit? Blood oranges? Fresh artichokes? Find a simple recipe for preparing your new food. Then go to the store and look for the item, as well as any other ingredients you need for your recipe. Take it home, prepare it, and then discuss what you’ve made. Is this a food you’d like to try again?
The real cost of food is more than its price tag in the store or restaurant. Mass-produced, overly-processed food, as well as too-large portions, can lead to obesity and other diseases, which in turn can lead to doctor bills and higher insurance rates. Children can learn a lot about finances and other topics by spending a little more family time in the kitchen and in the market and your whole family may feel more rewarded! Today is a great day to start to gain control and begin preparing for the future.
©2016 Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, Springfield, MA 01111-0001
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics – Consumer Expenditures 2015, released August 2016