Here’s how I did it.
Credit: ablokhin/Getty Images

Some people splurge on a fashionable pair of shoes. Others treat themselves to a luxe spa treatment. I enjoy those things too, but not as much as I enjoy treating myself to an epic dinner on the town with friends. Afterwards, my taste buds love me. But when I chalk up a couple $100+ meals a month, my bank account begs to differ.

Going into 2019, I made one of my goals to be (at least a little) better about sticking to a food budget each month. But as a single person, I noticed month one of the new year was still full of rationalizations. “Buying groceries in bulk is affordable. Shopping for one is just about as expensive as eating out anyway!”

Then I spotted the USDA’s latest food cost trend report, which said that the average person my age should be able to score enough groceries on a “moderate-cost plan” (meaning not even close to the thriftiest) for $59.10 a week. That’s about three fancy restaurant salads. Oof.

A quick comparison between that stat and my most recent bank statement was enough to convince me that it was time for a bit more tough love. My go-to grocery store is Trader Joe’s, so I challenged myself to eat at home for every meal and consume only TJ’s goodies to see how my wallet and waistline would feel.

Just before my challenge, I saw Bari Stricoff, RD, a registered dietitian in New York City, post her top 17 Trader Joe’s product picks with the disclaimer: “This list is 100 percent not sponsored by Trader Joe’s, although I wish it was.” I knew she’d have some sage advice.

“Prepared meals from supermarkets are great options for individuals who hate to cook, have limited time or limited ability to cook. There are many prepared meals in the supermarkets that are nutritionally adequate,” Stricoff says.

Homemade meals tend to be healthier and lower in sodium and added sugars, “but that is very recipe-dependant,” she adds. “If you find yourself consuming more prepared meals than usual, read the ingredients and the nutrition label, and be pickier with both for your overall health. Contrary to what most people think, there are a lot of brands with amazing prepared meals packed with healthy ingredients!”

She left me with some parting words: “Even as a dietitian, it’s unrealistic to think I can cook everything from scratch seven days a week. Keeping my freezer stocked with healthy and quick alternatives ensures that I can still eat a wholesome and nutritious meal when in a time-crunch, as opposed to resorting to less nutrient-dense grab-and-go options, takeout or fast food.”

With those tips ringing in my ears, I slipped on my glasses for all the label examinations to come, and drove to Trader Joe’s to stock up for my three-day challenge.

Here’s exactly what I ate, how much it all cost, and how healthy it was.

Day 1

Breakfast: Mixed Mushroom and Spinach Quiche ($2.49) 440 calories

Lunch: Half of Mediterranean-Style Salad Kit with half of Hearty Minestrone Soup ($4) 320 calories

Snack: 2 servings Avocado Tzatziki Dip with quarter bag of Les Petite Carrots ($1.50) 100 calories

Dinner: Banh Mi-Inspired Noodle Bowl with a glass of 2015 Pasqua Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore ($6.98) 495 calories

Dessert: 2 servings Gone Berry Crazy ($1.19) 250 calories

Price: $17.12

Calories: 1,805 calories

Since I was eschewing eating out, I wanted to pepper in some “fun” while still balancing the nutrition of my menu. Hence, the nutty granola bar snack (remarkably KIND-like, by the way), the chocolate-covered strawberry dessert, and the glass of wine at dinner.

To keep my sodium in check, per Stricoff’s suggestions, I was sure to snag about half fresh meals, like the salads and soups, and half ready-made meals, including the noodle bowl and quiche.

Prep pro tip: I work from home and was able to follow the oven instructions to prep that a.m. egg dish, which I’d definitely recommend if you can afford the time. No one likes a soggy bottom, on pastry or otherwise.

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Day 2

Breakfast: Strawberry-Raspberry Oatmeal Cup with Plain Icelandic Yogurt ($2.78) 350 calories

Snack: 2 servings Avocado Tzatziki Dip with quarter bag of Les Petite Carrots ($1.50) 100 calories

Lunch: Half of Hearty Minestrone Soup with Banana ($2.19) 230 calories

Snack: Dark Chocolate, Nuts and Sea Salt Simply Nutty Bar ($1) 200 calories

Dinner: Vegan Tikka Masala with half of Mediterranean-Style Salad Kit ($5.99) 625 calories

Dessert: 6 Joe-Joe Slims ($0.30) 225 cals

Price: $13.76

Calories: 1,745 calories

Use-it-all was the order of the day, although by the time dinner was complete, I could do without another Mediterranean-Style Salad. “Meh” is a proper intro to that after finishing the whole bag in less than 36 hours. I’m pretty sure I could eat my weight in Avocado Tzatziki Dip, though.

Can we talk about Joe-Joe Slims for a minute? The nationwide obsession with all things Oreo perplexes me already, as a card-carrying chewy cookie-craver. These are a skinnier, less fun version of those cream-filled cookies. I should have stopped at two, but was feeling peckish after that low-protein dinner.

Day 3

Breakfast : 2 Blueberry Waffles with 1 Banana ($0.69) 325 calories

Snack: 2 servings Avocado Tzatziki Dip with quarter bag of Les Petite Carrots ($1.50) 100 calories

Lunch: Super Greens Salad Palette ($4.99) 390 calories

Snack: Vanilla Greek Lowfat Yogurt with Fudge Pretzel Topping  ($0.99) 180 calories

Dinner: Chicken Burrito Bowl ($3.49) 380 calories

Dessert: 1 glass 2015 Pasqua Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore with 1 serving Gone Berry Crazy ($2.58) 225 calories

Price: $14.24

Calories: 1,610 calories

NINETEEN CENTS. That’s how much a banana costs at my Trader Joe’s. That’s also an amount I wouldn’t even bend over to pick up if I dropped it on the sidewalk. Duly noted for future produce shopping.

While I’m stocking up on fruit, I’ll also definitely grab another of that thick and rich, sweet and salty yogurt and pretzel concoction. That, plus another glass of that remarkably decent $10 wine made up for the fact that I had to opt for water alone after accepting a last-minute dinner invite with my girlfriends.

Which brings me to the main lesson I learned from this experiment: Beyond the convenience, one of the many reasons why I eat out so much is for the social connection. There’s something pretty magical about sharing a meal with others. Regardless of our backgrounds, politics or religion, food brings us together. Eating with others is something I value, and eating every meal and snack out of a bag or a box, in solitude at home, was pretty lonely. Even with a TV show or podcast on in the background.

My budget and body were probably happy with the cost and calorie tally for the trial. Personally, I’d like to meet in the middle. A little Gone Berry Crazy + a little gone-to-snag-my-OpenTable-seat.