Dollar Menus

by Kim Randall

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OK, so maybe you don't have a drive-thru window attached to the side of your house. That doesn't mean that you can't offer affordable menu options at home just like fast food chains. Create your own "dollar menus" and save even more on your next grocery bill.

During my graduate school years, my husband and I had very little disposable income. I had to do a lot of creative thinking and budgeting in order to make ends meet. The area in which I was able to realize the greatest amount of savings was food. I did the math and found that I was able to feed both of us for an average of $2 or less each per meal (did I mention I went to school for engineering?).

So, my dollar-stretching friend, how can you achieve this kind of food economy in your kitchen? A little time invested in research and planning can pay off in double-digit savings each week. Here's a step-by-step guide to get you going.

  1. Make a list of your favorite meals. Begin with a short list of the top ten and add to the list as you have time.
  2. For each meal, write down the ingredients as they would appear in a recipe. Don't forget to include the accompaniments like the bread you eat with your stew.
  3. Break out your grocery price notebook. Don't have one? That's OK. Just grab some old receipts or look at the stickers on the packages of food you have in the house.
  4. Next to each ingredient, note the cost for the amount used. You'll need a calculator and a conversion table for units, but I promise there's no high-level math here. I've given an example at the end of the article so that you can see how easy this method really is.
  5. Add up the ingredient totals for each recipe and divide by the number of servings. Did you come out around $2 or so? My meals range anywhere from less than a dollar to $3, but I try to average around $2. You'll need to determine what's a reasonable goal for your household.
  6. Now, review the list again. See if you can realistically reduce portion sizes of more expensive items like meats and look for cheaper priced substitutions for the highest cost items.
  7. Continue paring down the cost until you're at your comfort level in terms of cost and taste. Remember, you're not (hopefully) going to eat the same thing every day so it's OK to have some meals priced higher than others. Just plan your weekly menus so that they average near your target.

I really enjoy this method of grocery budgeting because it breaks my grocery bill into smaller, more manageable pieces. Now I view menu planning as a game instead of a chore and that makes it a lot more interesting. Who says saving money can't be fun?

Well, the engineer in me can't resist a little bit of math. Here's a favorite meal in my household that's economical and very tasty. Consider it a freebie!

Garlic Lover's Chicken and Mushroom Pasta with a Caesar Side Salad
(serves 4)

Item Purchase Size Purchase Price Amount Used in Recipe The Math Recipe Price
bow tie pasta 1 lb $0.99 8 oz 8/16 x $0.99= $0.50
butter 1 lb (32 Tbsp) $3.49 2 Tbsp 2/32 x $3.49= $0.22
minced garlic 3 oz container (18 tsp) $3.99 2 tsp 2/18 x $3.99= $0.44
coarse ground black pepper 4 oz container (24 tsp) $3.49 1 tsp 1/24 x $3.49= $0.15
fresh sliced mushrooms 10 oz $1.99 10 oz 10/10 x $1.99= $1.99
chicken strips 16 oz $4.69 10 oz 10/16 x $4.69= $2.93
chicken broth 32 oz $3.19 6 oz 6/32 x $3.19= $0.60
caesar salad kit 10 oz kit $4.29 10 oz kit 10/10 x $4.29= $4.29
Grand Total = $11.12

Divide by 4 (servings) = $2.78 per serving

Pasta Preparation Instructions: Boil the pasta according package directions. Drain. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic, pepper, and mushrooms. Cook until the mushrooms are lightly browned. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Add the chicken to the skillet. Cook thoroughly. Return the mushrooms to the skillet and add broth. Cook another 5-6 minutes or until chicken broth is warm. Pour over the pasta.

At $2.78 a serving, this is a well-rounded meal that can really maximize your grocery dollar. But can we do even better? Absolutely. Using fresh garlic, fresh lettuce, homemade dressing, and buying the chicken in larger quantities are a few obvious ways to do so. Armed with a little creativity, some coupons, and your local grocers' sales flyers, I'll bet you can easily make this meal for $1.50 or less per serving.

At that price, maybe you should attach a drive-thru window to the side of your house. You just might give the fast food chains a run for their money!

Updated September 2013

Kim Randall is a full-time engineer and part-time home business owner living in southern NH.

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