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These days, you might be budgeting down to the penny when it's time to buy groceries. If that's the case, you might be happy to know that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it knows what you should be spending. Unbeknownst to many, the agency releases monthly "food plans" that outline a few ways households can approach grocery-buying from a financial perspective, from "thrifty" — which is used to determine SNAP benefits — to three other plans that cover low-cost, moderate-cost, and "liberal" (aka high-cost) food plans.

What is the USDA Food Plan?

All of the USDA's budgets are broken down by age and sex, but the end of the chart has a tidy total of what a family of four might be spending. For example, for a male and female aged 20-50 and two children — one 6 and 8 years old and the other 9 and 11 years old — the weekly thrifty budget should be about $224.60. Not bad, really. But if you're wondering, just one man aged 19-50 on the liberal plan is allotted $105 per week. 

How Does the USDA Come Up With the Food Plan?

The Thrifty Food Plan has weekly amounts from food and beverage categories — and their associated costs — to support a healthy diet. It stays as close as possible to current spending while aligning with national dietary guidance. The problem? Most Americans don't meet dietary guidelines, so the plan doesn't mirror consumption patterns. 

Related: 50+ Ways to Slash Your Food Budget

Does the USDA Food Plan Account for Inflation?

According to the chart, all the food plans are based on consumption and price data from different time periods (all in the 2000s) and are updated for inflation. For example, the charts for May 2023 were updated to current dollars using the Consumer Price Index for specific food items.

What Foods Are on the USDA Food Plan?

As far as what the USDA is hoping you'll buy, the chart recommends checking out the 2021 food plan. The breakdown is 24% vegetables, 14% fruit, 16% grains, 25% proteins, 14% dairy, and 7% miscellaneous. 

So, yes — it's a handy tool. But if your grocery cart is full of cookies and other processed foods, you're going to need to expand your budget (or consider a healthier diet).

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