When I was growing up, my mother would serve something she called "economy dinner." Pasta, sauce, maybe a quarter-pound of hamburger meat mixed in and a little cheese sprinkled on top, baked together in the oven. We didn't understand the name, but we loved the dish.
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I was thinking I need to find my own "economy dinner," as I had yet another supermarket freak-out while watching my grocery receipt print out and curl down two feet behind the register. At home with the receipt in front of me, I decided to crunch some numbers to see if I could feed my family of four for less than $100 a week.
Would it be possible to do 84 meals for less than $100? With room to spare, it turns out. According to my calculations, we could do it on $72.38. We'd be crying of boredom after Day 2. But we wouldn't be hungry.
If we ate cereal and milk for breakfast, a PB&J and an apple for lunch, and protein-enriched pasta with store-brand marinara and a couple of carrots sticks and broccoli or green beans for dinner, we could get by on $10.34 per day.
I won't bore you with the math, but this meal plan cuts out all the extras. No snacks, no OJ, no organic milk at $5.99 per gallon, no Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top of that pasta, no frozen yogurt at night in front of DWTS. The husband brown bags it to the office. I'll admit I included my coffee, at $2.15 per week, because I consider it essential, along with milk for the kids at every meal.
This exercise has been an eye-opener for me. Now that I know our family's bargain-basement dinner costs $3.40, I see the foods I thought were cheap (like a large pizza for $10) are pricey in comparison. And the foods I knew were expensive, such as a $10 steak, fish that's $14 per pound, or deli meat at $8.99 per pound, now seem top dollar.
Some of the splurges, like the organic milk, I'd opt to add back in. But that package of Pepperidge Farm Nantuckets does more to the bottom line (both bottom lines, really) than I've cared, up until now, to realize.
To get out of our pasta rut, I consulted with Leslie Bonci, a dietician at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, about other nutrient-rich foods that pack a lot of bang for the buck. Here's what she suggested:
• Eggs: 99 cents per dozen, can be breakfast, lunch, dinner or hard-boiled for snacks.
• Canned beans, like kidneys or chick peas: 79 cents for a 16-ounce can.
• A five-pound roasting chicken ($5) could yield two dinners. For the first meal, roast with potatoes and carrots and eat half of the chicken. For the second meal, make a stir-fry with the leftover chicken and a bag of frozen mixed veggies ($1.29 for a 16-ounce bag) and serve over brown rice (99 cents for a 16-ounce bag).
• Oatmeal costs $3.69 for a 42-ounce canister and has 30 servings. That could replace at least $7 worth of boxed cereal, and the oatmeal is more filling.
• Bananas, at 49 cents a pound, cost less than most fruits, especially those "select" peaches and nectarines at $1.99 per pound. Bananas are definitely cheaper and healthier than the sugary granola bars I send in my daughter's lunch.
• Texturized Veggie Protein, a lean meat substitute that's a lot like ground beef and can be added to pasta sauce or tacos, is $2.69 for 10 ounces.