How Much Does It Cost to Feed a Family in Canada?

CC BY 2.0. david

Unfortunately, following the recommended nutritious diet would put a lot of families in the hole.

How much does it cost to feed a family in Canada? The government likes to tell us what to eat with its Food Guide, and Statistics Canada tracks the rise and fall of food prices, but neither tells us how much it costs in real-life dollars to follow that recommended nutritious diet.

Global News tackled this question in a recent investigation, creating a fictional family of four, with two parents, a teenage son, and a young daughter. This family could feed itself well by spending CDN $220 (US $173) per week. This would require a take-home income of C$1,450 (US $1,138) per week after tax, which works out to an annual salary of around $100,000.

Not many Canadians earn this much money, however, which makes the suggested budget unrealistic for many families. As the Financial Post noted in 2015, only the top 10 percent of Canadians makes $97,000/year or more. (That's with an added 10 percent factor for unreported income.) The median income for Canadians in 2013 was only $35,200, which means that half of the country reported incomes above that number and half reported below it.

The calculation is supposed to be "based on thrifty food choices," although commenters on Global News' original article appear to contest that fact. One person wrote:

"Wow! I can't believe these figures. I think more people need to explore the benefits of couponing. We are a family of three in Nova Scotia, we live and eat well, and I don't even spend $150 a week! And we eat good food, not all processed food."

I thought the numbers seemed high, as well. I feed a family of five in a rural Ontario town for roughly $200 a week, and we shop at a higher-end grocery store because it's the only option besides Walmart, which I avoid. That being said, I source all our vegetables from a local CSA program (which costs $800 for 20 weeks and provides all the organic veggies we can eat), eat very little meat, which can quickly derail a budget, and purchase almost no processed foods.

One problem is that 30 percent of the money Canadians spend on food goes toward eating at restaurants. (In the United States, it's 50 percent.) And restaurants are much more expensive than grocery stores. Says Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University:

"While food costs have been stagnating, the price of restaurant-bought food climbed by 2.7 percent over last year, nearly twice the rise in retail food prices. And growing demand means menu prices can soar, even if the cost of food doesn’t."

So, if you're like most Canadian families and feeling that crunch when it comes to feeding hungry children, it's best to stay away from restaurants and cook from scratch, based on what's available, in season, and on sale.

Being flexible in your diet is another helpful piece of advice from Michael Mason, a professor at the University of Guelph. Since so much of Canada's food is imported, prices are affected by weather in other parts of the world, as well as exchange rates. Whether it's cauliflower, lettuce, avocados, or orange juice, it's not uncommon to see significant fluctuations in price. If you're willing to compromise, buying, say, broccoli instead of cauliflower, you can save some dollars.

How much do you spend on groceries per week?