This is a new feature – my DH writing, in his own husbandy words, his views on budgeting, couponing, and saving money. This week, a favorite topic of his — dinner! And now…here’s the DH’s POV:
In these economically challenging times, many of us are looking for ways to feed our families for less. In recent weeks, supermarket chain stores in our area have been promoting their own versions of “dinner for a family of 4 for $15” The list of ingredients they suggest are mostly prepackaged food items; typically protein, such as chicken or pork, is the only truly raw ingredient that the consumer will have to deal with in their kitchen. When Flash showed me this the other day, I started thinking about whether or not this is really a good deal or not; after all the total budget for a month’s worth of dinners works out to roughly $450 and you still have to pay for breakfast and lunch for 4 people.
On the surface $15 for dinner for 4 sounds pretty reasonable. Walk through any grocery store and you will find a whole frozen fryer chicken priced at close to $2 per pound ($8 dollars for a 4 pound bird), milk is running $3 a half gallon, fruits and vegetables price out at several dollars a pound more often than not, and even canned goods, like green beans, are going for $2 a can. So spending $15 dollars on ingredients for one dinner meal is clearly no challenge when purchasing items at full price.
Is there a cheaper way to go? Absolutely. But it takes some time, careful thought and planning, and discipline in executing the plan.
The first thing you need to decide is your taste standard. If you insist on eating high-end, gourmet meals, there is not much hope of saving money in the grocery department. A mixture of casual, “rustic” food with an occasional high end entrée is probably workable, but the simple truth is that the closer your meals are to basic everyday food, the more you can save in the long run. It also helps if the chef/cook of the house learns the art of substituting one ingredient for another, but this takes time, patience and a lot of practice. And, of course, this only works if someone in the house is really willing to cook everyday with a lot of basic and raw ingredients. Picture a fair amount of pots and pans on the stove top and the microwave humming away. (Having someone in the kitchen acting as the cooks assistant (sous chef), really makes all the difference. My role from time to time J )
Assuming that you have decided that lobster, filet mignon and caviar are not dietary necessities, ideally your next step is to construct a rough menu of dinners for a week or two. Salad, entrée, side dishes, dessert – whatever floats your family’s boat. The benefit of this approach, first and foremost, is that it tends to eliminate the nagging, annoying everyday issue of “what are we going to eat for dinner tonight?” Once the menu is set, you won’t waste any more time on that subject. If you want to be particularly smart about it, get the family members to suggest what they would like to eat, get them to help prioritize the list from the most to least favorite dishes, and then select from the top of the list to assemble the menus. Underlying this process is the guiding economic principle that the ingredients for these dishes need to be on the low to mid-range of cost (This you can learn through research and experience).
One you have the menu list, you can generate the list of ingredients for each dinner meal, and this is where the process of saving money really kicks in. Your first priority is to identify the stores with the lowest prices for the list of ingredients. In the event that an ingredient is expensive everywhere, try to substitute something cheaper. Store circular ads distributed in newspapers and online ads are good resources for identifying the best deals. If coupons are available to cut the cost of an ingredient even further, go for it! Taking the amount of storage space you have in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer into account, try to buy as many of the ingredients in advance at the lowest prices. Obviously raw meat and fruits and vegetables have a short shelf life, so you will have to buy these items closer to the day you prepare the meals they are used in.
An alternative approach that experienced home cooks employ is to construct the week’s menu of dinners based on the items that are on sale that week at local supermarkets. The trick to this approach is that you need to have a fair knowledge of the ingredients different dishes require stuffed away in the retrievable part of your memory. Myself – no such luck. Flash, on the other hand, well she can be encyclopedic in her knowledge of ingredients and ingredient substitutes. I just don’t have the mad skills to make this approach work.
Whichever approach a family decides to use, the driving economic principle is to buy as many of the ingredients in advance, on sale, and at the lowest prices. And you must stick to the shopping list as much as possible – no extra snacks thrown into the cart while cruising the aisles. Flash and I have used both approaches, and based on Flash’s undisputed brilliance at this sort of thing, we routinely save between 50% and 80% on our food bills. (My skills are far less advanced, so the best I can do is in the range of 25% – 45% savings.) Using the “Dinner for a family of 4 for $15 dollars” as an example, I am certain that a person with sufficient determination and dedication could routinely get the price for this type of dinner meal below $10. It might not be the fanciest food on earth, but it will be wholesome, nutritious and in sufficient quantity that everyone can walk away from the dinner table satisfied. And that extra $5 a meal you save, well, with sufficient planning, that can go along way towards paying for breakfast and lunch.