A little under a year ago, I wrote an article entitled Using the ‘$1 Per Meal’ Strategy to Save Big Time on Food Costs. In it, I discussed an eight-prong strategy for keeping a family's meal costs under $1 per meal:
Strategy #1 – Plan Ahead
Strategy #2 – Base More Meals Around Sale-Priced Produce (and Meats)
Strategy #3 – Base Meals Around Low-Cost Staples and Store Brands
Strategy #4 – Take Advantage of Less Busy Times
Strategy #5 – Use a Slow Cooker
Strategy #6 – Extract Maximum Value from Leftovers
Strategy #7 – Extract Value from Scraps, Too
Strategy #8 – Keep Breakfasts and Lunches Well Below $1 per Meal
That's the strategic backbone of how our family keeps food costs under $1 per meal most of the time, but it does take some work and some imagination to jump from that kind of "big vision" strategy to the practical nature of putting food on the dinner table.
What follows are a whole bunch of tactics that demonstrate very specifically how to take those above strategies and really implement them in your home.
The 'Giant Pot of Soup' Tactic
Soup is one of the easiest meals to make. All you have to do is toss most of the ingredients in a slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low, let it cook all day, (maybe) toss in another ingredient or two when you get home from work (like pasta), and eat half an hour later.
Here's the best part: since this really is so simple, there's no reason not to make a double or triple batch of it and store the extra soup in a bunch of smaller containers in the freezer. Why? You can reheat those containers in the microwave for a quick lunch at your convenience.
All you need is a healthy handful of small soup containers. You can use glass ones like these or cheaper plastic ones like these, as per your desire. Just eat soup to your heart's content, then put all of the leftovers into several of these containers and pop them straight into the freezer.
I recommend labeling them with a piece of masking tape upon which the date and the type of soup is written; masking tape is perfect because it stays on in the freezer but is easy to remove and you can get giant rolls of it for a pittance.
The 'Leftover Smorgasbord' Tactic
One of the principles described in the original article is to try to avoid throwing away food. However, it's easy for food to build up in the fridge over time and find its way to the back, never to be seen again in an edible form.
A much better solution is to simply have two or three meals a week that consist of a "leftover smorgasbord." Pull out all leftovers from your refrigerator, make a plate of food (and/or a bowl), and reheat as needed.
Sure, it's not the most appealing meal in the world, but it's essentially a free meal, and if you top your leftovers with a few additional flavors, like hot sauce or a bit of cheese, it can be quite tasty.
The reason to do this three times a week is that you can be sure that leftovers are eaten within a three day range when they're still safe. Sarah and I tend to eat our leftovers during the week for lunches, but on the weekends, we often have a leftover smorgasbord.
The 'Easy Recipe Rotation' Tactic
Most of our meals are prepared from a rotation of easy "framework" recipes. They're ones that create a sense of variety because it's so easy to vary the ingredients in that recipe.
For example, we have this baseline "enchilada" recipe - it's not really enchiladas, but that's our shorthand name for it - where we basically use whatever beans, salsa, and other flavorful ingredients we have on hand, wrap the ingredients in tortillas, put them in a greased 9" by 13" pan, put a bit of enchilada sauce on top, toss a bit of cheese on top, and bake it at 350 F for an hour. It's almost impossible for this to not be tasty. You can make it with a lot of different meats, a lot of different vegetables, pretty much any kind of beans - it all works.
We have a baseline "pasta" recipe where we simply make a "sauce" out of sauteed vegetables and a bit of olive oil and serve it over pasta. We experiment with that simple "sauce" all the time, trying out different ingredients and different seasonings. It almost always works.
These recipes are really simple, and if you have a decent understanding of how to cook foods (like how to sauté three different vegetables together by cooking the firmer ones first and adding the softer ones later), you can almost cook these things on automatic using anything you have on hand - and anything often includes whatever happens to be on sale.
The 'Omelet' Tactic
This is something of a variation on the previous two tactics, effectively combining them together into one meal.
The reality is that a lot of leftovers work really well as the main ingredient in an omelet. An omelet, after all, is simply a few eggs beaten together, cooked in a skillet, and then folded around some ingredients, but those ingredients can be almost anything you wish. I've enjoyed spinach omelets and chili omelets and black bean omelets and Spanish rice omelets and stir-fry omelets. All of them worked really well at converting leftovers and changing them into something new because of the egg.
A three egg omelet costs about fifty cents in eggs and you can fill it with almost anything, so it's a great meal idea to hold onto. Once you get handy with making them, you can cook them up really quickly and efficiently.
The 'Seasonal' Tactic
When fruits and vegetables are in season in your area, they're dirt cheap. Since so many people have them in abundance locally and are trying to sell them, the prices tend to fall through the floor. What does that mean? It means it's time to get creative with those seasonal items.
When sweet corn season arrives in August, for example, we'll eat sweet corn over and over and over again. We don't just eat ears of it, either - we find other ways to prepare it, like using it as an ingredient in salsas or serving it as a side dish or as an item to use in a taco bar. We'll even buy extra ears, cut the corn off the cob, and store it in freezer bags.
If you're not sure what's in season in your area, watch the grocery flyers for any fresh produce that seems absurdly cheap or items that everyone seems to have at the farmers market. (Another tip: if there's an item that everyone has at the farmers market, you're probably going to have success if you try to bargain for a better price on it).
The 'Wonderpot' Tactic
Another great strategy that I often use is to take whatever ingredients happen to be on sale in a store, find out how long it takes to boil them to perfection, then start boiling water and adding the ingredients in order so that they'll all finish at the same time. I add pasta at the exact moment that will cause the pasta to finish at that time, too.
When that time comes, I strain all of it, save about a cup of the liquid, add the liquid back in along with a few teaspoons of olive oil and maybe a can of tomato sauce if that seems like it would fit, stir it, and serve it.
A friend showed me this trick many years ago and called it the "wonderpot." It's just what we call this simple dish. It's always a little different. It's always flavorful. It costs maybe a dollar per meal for that evening. It usually generates a leftover lunch or two as well.
The 'Loaded Toast' Tactic
Whenever I have a small amount of almost anything left over from my meal the previous night, I'll just eat it for breakfast or lunch the next day on top of a piece of toast. I just toss a piece of bread on the toaster, warm up the leftovers if it's necessary, then load up the toast with the leftovers.
The only dirty dish generated is a dirty plate. The only cost is that of a slice of bread - maybe a dime. It works with almost any leftover that isn't completely liquid - I've done this with everything from goulash to taco ingredients to fish filets to macaroni and cheese to rice pilaf. It's easy to eat, too, as it requires no silverware.
This is my go-to lunch on many busy days. It's just so convenient, so easy, and so tasty, and it changes the texture of the leftovers just enough that it seems fresh.
The 'Egg Jar' Tactic
I like to snack - especially in the mid-afternoon when I get a bit hungry between lunch and supper - but many snacks are super-expensive. Plus, I like the ability to just open the fridge and grab something when the munchies get to me.
My solution to that problem is to keep an "egg jar" in the fridge. It's simple - all you have to do is hard boil a dozen eggs, remove the shells, and put them in water with just a tiny bit of vinegar and maybe a few seasonings. I like to toss in peppercorns and dill seeds.
I typically store them in an old apothecary-style jar with an attached lid. I put the dozen eggs in there, add a tiny bit of vinegar, toss in some peppercorns and maybe a couple of garlic cloves and some dill if I have any, then fill it with water until the eggs are covered and seal the jar. Whenever I want a snack, I just pop open the jar and grab an egg. The peppercorns and garlic and dill gently flavor the eggs. If you want different flavor for your eggs, try using soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce and try varying the amounts of liquids in there. Just play around with it until you find exactly what you like.
This mix allows the eggs to store quite nicely for at least a week in the fridge, and the cost adds up to maybe $0.20 per egg. It's a great little cheap snack that packs a nice bunch of protein into very few calories.
The 'Whole Chicken Crock Pot' Tactic
This is one of my favorite strategies, one of the ones that we used to use all the time until we made some dietary changes for health reasons.
It's simple. Whole chickens are cheap. Slow cookers make cooking whole chickens very easy. Combine the two. Just buy a whole chicken, remove the giblets, stuff the cavity with some tasty things (like, say, an orange separated into quarters), sprinkle the whole chicken with a bit of salt and ground black pepper, put the whole thing in a slow cooker with maybe a cup of water, and cook it all day long while you're at work. When you get home, check the temperature and turn it up to high if the internal temperature of the chicken isn't up to 165 F. When it's done, the broth is amazing and the meat practically slides off the bone.
The advantage here is that whole chickens are very cheap, almost all of the meat is edible, you can use the chicken as the centerpiece of the meal, the leftover chicken can be used in all kinds of additional ways, and the broth itself can be saved and used as stock for almost anything you might want to use it for.
You can do almost the exact same thing with a pot roast by using an inexpensive large cut of beef or pork, but that's usually quite a bit more expensive.
The 'Divide and Conquer with Children' Tactic
This is something that I've found comes in handy if you're ever in a situation where you have to take older children to the grocery store. Older children almost always want to feel responsible and involved in the adult world, so I take advantage of this. I simply give my oldest two children very specific tasks in the grocery store.
For example, I'll tell my middle child to go over to the banana section and select a bunch of bananas that are just slightly green and aren't brown at all. I'll tell my oldest child a bit more challenging task, where I'll tell him to go to the bread section and find the loaf of wheat bread that's on sale and bring it back.
This serves a bunch of purposes at once. First of all, it's teaching them how to shop in a thrifty way. Second, it keeps them occupied on the shopping tasks that don't require much focus from me so that I can stick with the ones that do require some focus. Third, and perhaps most important, it causes us to spend much less time in the store, so there's less time to get tempted by incidental things - plus, if my children are busy on tasks, they have much less time to get tempted.
I can blow through a shopping trip in much less time these days with my two older kids in tow than I do by myself. I just need to stay super-focused during that shorter block of time, which is good because it means a lot fewer incidental items make it into the cart.
The 'Remixable Sides' Tactic
Whenever possible, we prepare side dishes in such a way that they can be flexibly reused in a lot of ways.
For example, when we grill, we'll often grill sliced potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil with minimal seasoning. We just slice up several potatoes, put them in aluminum foil that's been lightly coated with a bit of oil or butter, add an ice cube and a pat of butter, and cook them until they're done. They make for a very tasty side dish, but the best part is that the grilled potatoes can be reused in a ton of ways.
We might use those potatoes as part of a breakfast skillet meal the next day. We might use them in a soup or a casserole in a day or two. We might just chop them up and toss them with scrambled eggs. We might use them as a taco or burrito ingredient. Grilled potatoes are really flexible.
The flexibility of side dishes is a big consideration in our cooking. If there's something we can easily reuse in something else later on in the week, we'll just cook plenty of it now in a simple way that enables it to be quickly used later on. Grilled potatoes are just one example - we do it with things like fresh broccoli, asparagus, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and many other things. We prepare them the first time in a very simple way so that they can easily be reused later on in a more specific way.
The 'Potluck Dinner Party' Tactic
One of our favorite strategies over the last several years (sadly, we haven't had one of these in a while due to scheduling challenges, but there's one coming up soon!) is a running series of potluck dinner parties. It's a way to have a cheap meal with a lot of friends.
On a rotating basis, one family in our regular group simply hosts a potluck dinner, usually followed by board and card games or sometimes a movie. That family usually provides the main course and then suggests a type of side dish or beverage or dessert for everyone else to bring. For example, one family might make a pot of soup and ask one family to bring dinner rolls, another family to bring a light dessert, and a third family to bring some shareable beverages.
This enables each family to just focus on one simple item for a dozen or so people. For example, two dozen dinner rolls is more than adequate to cover that many people. That person can decide if they want to just buy pre-made rolls or if they want to cut costs and make their own pull-aparts.
The cost per attendee is maybe $0.50 per person at the party when everything is added together, maybe more if they're taking an easy route. The host often has leftovers of the main course, so something like soup is perfect as it can easily be frozen (see the first tactic in this article). Not only that, it gets a bunch of friends together for an evening without much more cost than an inexpensive meal at home.
All of these tactics fit well as part of an overall strategy to cut meal costs as low as possible and they demonstrate that you can have a wide variety of foods and have a nice social life while still shooting for a "$1 per meal" target for your food.
As always, pick and choose among these tactics and use only the ones that really make sense for you. If some of them just don't fit, go on to the next one. Remember, some tactics will work well in your life and others won't, but the set of ones that work well are going to likely be different for each person. Just pull the items that you think will click with you and use them to the best of your ability.