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How much does dinner cost?

I am a finance person through and through.  It's what I do for work, and it's what I spend extra brain power on when we're at the supermarket.  And, not only do I track and calculate what we spend on food weekly, I have started to try to estimate what each dinner might cost.  Recently, I came across a new issue of Delivered Dinners in Portland and was surprised at the price tag: $45-50 per meal. Perhaps I'd rather opt for the DIY Freezable Dinners, which bear a much lower price tag.  Maybe the delivered dinners would equate to a fancier night out for the family.  To be sure, that's not what I spend on an average weekday dinner.  When we're looking for take-out, we might hit up some of those chains, where ne'er would we break the $30 point, barely even $20.

Lately, I've been doing the calculating.  Our cheaper dinners are meat-free: black beans & rice, an egg bake, tofu stir-fry with veggies over rice.  Those dinners are well under $10, probably more like $5. Meat dinners are much more expensive.  I splurged on a seafood dinner last Friday & it was the price of a dinner out!  Thank goodness, though, with the discovery of food buying clubs, I feel I am saving more and investing in great quality.

Right now, we are needing to pinch pennies more than ever, and I am always thinking: What is your *super-affordable*, healthful, and easy dinner option?  Your go-to family-pleasing meal that meets all the criteria?


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My husband loves to break down our dinner- wish he would add in the time/effort of shopping/prep n cooking & screaming/fussy kids in the background add ten percent please! Mashed potatoes with greens and plenty of melted butter are always welcome at the table.

This lentil rice salad is always a hit. Skip the olives for picky eaters (and to save even more money!)


Our cheapest dinners are 'pantry' meals such as lentil or bean based veggie dishes like spicy black bean soup (which I tend to make from dry beans in a big batch and then freeze 2/3rd of it in single meal portions for quickness) over rice with a veggie on the side. Our go-to almost cheap but quick meal is a good boxed tomato soup with a small pasta in it with grilled cheese sandwiches. Our cheapest meat based meal is oven-baked, lightly breaded (with stale bread that always seems to be around in our house) chicken drumsticks with sweet potatoe baked fries (from 1 sweet potatoe) and a big side of in season veggies.

Also, need to plug breakfast for dinner as the super cheap option... old fashioned oatmeal or pancakes plus scrambled eggs is pretty quick and cheap.

Lentil soup and sauteed veggies or salad happens a lot in our house. I have made it my goal to have two meals a week under $10 and then fish at least once a week. That said, salmon goes a lot further (meaning everyone eats less of it) when it's flaked over pasta with veggies then when it's in fillet form.

I generally just make sure we have stuff that's quick to throw together and lots of fresh fruit and veg (we're busy, and I'm an uninspired cook) so I don't have a fix on our per-meal costs. We don't eat a lot of meat, much to my carnivore daughter's chagrin. She is an athlete and a huge eater for her size, and takes leftovers for her school lunch. We probably have above-average costs for a household comprised of one mom and one teen.

Last night I shopped for the ingredients for a big lasagnas I'll make over the weekend, and honestly about fell over. A couple of pounds of meat, all of the cheeses, and decent (but not THE most expensive) canned tomato products set me back quite a bit. That sort of meal is certainly a treat and if we ate like that regularly I'd have to pay a lot more attention to our food bill.

Have you ever heard of E-mealz? It's an online meal-planning service that promises to cost families only about $75/week. (I don't work for them -- I just think it's a great idea.)

You log into your account, get the meal plan for the week based on your preferences (vegan, gluten-free, etc) and an aisle-by-aisle shopping list. The coolest part is that meal plans are based on the current week's sales at your local (chain) grocery store!

I recommend it to my mom organizing clients who hate meal-planning on a budget (like me). If you want more info about it, I blogged about it here: http://respacedpdx.blogspot.com/2011/01/meal-plannng-and-schedule-tracking-for.html

Baked potatoes ... try them topped with diced green chilies and cheddar! They're so filling, I can often split one potato with my 4-year-old light eater.

Crockpot beans might be the easiest and least expensive meal on my current "dinner roster". I buy dry beans in bulk and keep them in jars in my pantry. One morning a week I rinse a few cups of beans, put them in the crockpot with a bit of water, a clove or two of chopped garlic and crank it up to High. I let them cook almost all day on high, then a few hours before dinner I add chopped carrots, celery, spinach and a link or two of sausage for flavor. My kids love this dinner and I'm continually amazed at how easy, healthy and cheap it is! Depending on how many sausage links I use, the entire dinner (which always yields lots of leftovers too) is less than $5.

I also do a dinner a few times a month (usually when I have day-old bread to use up) where I poach eggs in stewed tomatoes/spices and serve over a slice of bread with sauteed spinach and parmesan cheese.

In addition to trying to do more meatless dinners during the week (which is tough to pull off--my husband is a big meat eater), I'm having more success with just reducing the amount of meat per portion. Instead of pasta with 4 links of sausage, I use 2. Instead of 1 chicken breast per person, I use 2-3 for our family of 4. If we do steak, I find that flank steaks and london broil sliced thinly will feed our family much more effectively than other cuts.

I can't imagine spending upwards of $50 for a delivered, prepared meal... When I'm in a big rut, I will occasionally go to our local meal prep place and prep several dinners to freeze for later. Most of those only cost me $20-25 for my family of 4 and I feel like that's quite a splurge.

Homemade veggie burgers on homemade buns with all the fixings only cost about $0.65 per person. I calculate costs from time to time, and that's one of the best frugal meals! And delicious too. I do pinto-, chick pea-, or oatmeal-based ones most of the time/

Great topic. We just recently took wheat out of our diet, which has made making quick, easy and cheap meals a little more of a challenge. We eat huevos rancheros pretty often. I use dried black beans and usually make enough to eat with dinner one night and maybe a plate of beans and rice the next night. I also came across this recipe recently: http://www.cookinglight.com/food/everyday-menus/healthy-budget-recipes-00400000056656/page11.html and it's delicious and great way to incorporate greens into a main dish instead of just having them as a side.
We also try to make chicken soup pretty often. It stretches meat really well, is a great vehicle for veggies that kids might not otherwise try, and after we've made it, we usually have enough leftovers for a few meals, and we are a household of pretty big eaters, young and old.

We like breakfast for dinner as a cheap meal. I usually make a quiche with eggs, frozen bell peppers, and onions, and we have waffles for dessert. Probably under $5 for our family of 3.

Like many others have mentioned, breakfast for dinner is almost always an inexpensive and fairly easy meal to make. We mix things up with our Bird's Nest and add a veggie on the side for one of the kid's favorite dinners!


We do bean & rice bowls with a roasted veggie, or pasta night. Homemade meatless pizza is usually pretty cheap, as is veggie stir fry.

When we do cook with meat, we really stretch it. We're not big meat eaters, so we don't need a lot. Most people get plenty of protein and for us, we get it from many other sources.

I like to roast a whole chicken (so much easier and less fancy than it seems!). I try to buy several and freeze them when they're on sale. It will usually get us through at least three meals: roasted chicken breast with a veggie side, chicken quesadillas, chicken salad (the mayo heavy kind) or chicken on top of salad greens. Then you can use the bones to make a soup or stock.

since we started buying beef and pork in big quantities to put in the freezer, we have a quandary: it's both cheaper (as little as $2.50 or $2.75 a pound for the beef) and I forget totally how much it costs by the time I use it! same with things like canned tomatoes and jam and canned fruit and pickles: I spent on those in the summer; I've forgotten completely how much they cost. so, my "cheap" meals are things like tacos, pasta with ground pork sauces, roast beef, onion soup, in addition to the veggie/bean or beef/veggie/bean chilis. and my egg costs are all in chicken feed; I know it's pretty pricey (about $15 every three weeks or so) but I don't really connect that to the eggs. (this month, we're definitely getting a bargain! related: anyone want some eggs?)

there's something about buying in bulk and from the buying club/farmer's market that completely divorces me from the per-meal cost; I think about food costs from a monthly or even annual perspective. I spend a ton more in the summer for food, b/c I'm buying so many tomatoes and peaches and blueberries for canning and gorging my family on watermelon and berries and artichokes and asparagus.

I think a sensible way to approach food budgeting is on a monthly perspective; at least for me, it helps keep me buying in cheaper large quantities and using my leftovers. (I think of my meal as "free!" if I use leftovers instead of going to the store :)

Stephanie, I also think of meals based on bone broth -- like our go-tos, beef carrot noodle soup or onion soup -- as free. we already "paid" for the meat, right? :)

I agree with much of what Sarah's said. I'm planning now for what I'll be spending this summer and fall on beef, chicken, duck, fruits, and vegetables that we will be eating this time next year. It's a completely different way of looking at "meal planning."

My family is on a grain- and sugar-free diet that encourages lots of bone broths, fermented foods, animal fats, vegetables, and moderate amount of protein with every meal. Since it's practically impossible to buy food that meets our dietary requirements, I prepare everything from scratch. My husband lost his job late last year and we've been on SNAP, getting $190/month. I spend that on fresh fruits & vegetables, milk and cream, but otherwise, our food comes from our stores--out of the freezer, the pantry, the fridge, and the garden. So, that's a $2.04/meal we're spending now + what I spent last year...money that's gone, spent. Rather, it's not gone, it's banked, in the form of caning jars and freezer paper packages. Having stored food not only saves us money year-round, but it has saved us from deciding between eating and paying the heating bill during this period of unemployment.

Homemade soup is nourishing, inexpensive, and easy to put together, especially if you have some leftover cooked meat. I have several delicious soup recipes here: http://cookinggaps.wordpress.com/category/soup/ .

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