When economic times get rocky, one of the first places families start trying to cut back on expenses is their food bills. This isn't always easy: Even couples with no children find it tough to get every spur-of-the-moment food shopping splurge or unplanned restaurant meal under control. It's exponentially more difficult to cater to the needs and wants of a busy family of four. While the United States Department of Agriculture and many financial experts have recommendations for the monthly food budget for two-parent, two-children families, there are a number of factors that can alter or affect these numbers.
According to Crown Financial Ministries, the food budget for a family of four, along with housing and car expenses, is one of the three most important categories that make up the bulk of the family's financial obligations. The suggested percentage of income that should be allotted for food is 12 percent of the family's disposable income, and Crown Financial Ministries recommends that a family of four should not spend more than 70 percent of the monthly income on food, housing and car expenses combined.
The United States Department of Agriculture publishes a monthly "Cost of Food at Home" report that details the average cost of food for a family of four on the basis of four different food budget spending levels: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. To compile these food budget figures, the USDA based its information on families of four with two adult parents between the ages of 19 and 50 and gave two levels of food costs depending on the ages of the children: One level measures the amount of money recommended if the couple's two children are between 2 and 3 or between 4 and 5 years old, while the other level recommends amounts for families with two children that are from 6 to 8 years old and from 9 to 11 years old. The data was compiled from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the Food Price Database. These recommendations take into account the specific nutritional needs of both children and adults at these age levels, as well as the cost of the types of foods that can both fulfill these needs and meet recommended dietary allowance levels and the MyPyramid food intake recommendations also set up by the USDA.
The figures that the USDA gives for the monthly food budget for a family of four vary widely between the four sample budget plans, both because of differences in the foods used--the liberal plan, for instance, has foods not included in the thrifty plan due to cost--and the ages of the children in the home. According to the USDA plans, if your two children are between the ages of 6 and 11, you can expect to spend anywhere between $70 to $150 more per month on food than you would for two children between the ages of 2 and 5. If your family of four has a different makeup, such as one parent and three children or two parents and two children above the age of 11, you can use the individualized information on the official USDA food plan page to calculate your family's cost, since these individual costs were calculated using people from families of four.
The Economic Policy Institute reports that monthly food budgets for families of four can differ profoundly for families in different parts of the country due to wide variations in food prices and availability. According to a U.S. Statistical Abstract reported by FamilyResource.com, these differences in the amount a family of four spends on food in different cities can vary more than 50 percent; for instance, in 1998, the average family in San Francisco spent approximately 59 percent more of its income on food than a comparable family living in Philadelphia.
You may find that the USDA monthly food budget recommendations may not fit the needs of your family of four for a number of reasons. The USDA specifies in the Cost of Food at Home plans that the figures it compiled are based on all meals and snacks being prepared at home--most families of four spend at least a portion of their monthly food budget on take-out or restaurant food. Additionally, none of the plans take into account the cost that may result from one or more members of the family needing to eat different, potentially more expensive foods or staples due to a food sensitivity such as an intolerance to wheat gluten or lactose.