Updated on 10.17.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Meal Mixes

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Jenny writes in: One thing my mom always did and that I’ve started doing is to make the equivalent of prepackaged meals and store them in Ziplocs to use in the future. How much does this really save?

On the surface, I think this is a really good idea. Many mixes that you buy at the store can very easily be assembled at home, where you have much more control over the individual ingredients and thus the healthiness of the meal mix as well as the price.

The question is whether or not you can actually save a significant amount of money by doing this. My calculations seem to show that most of the time, you do save money by making the mixes yourself.

I’ll use minestrone soup as an example.

You can easily get Bear Creek minestrone soup mix for $3.96 a bag. A bag mix weighs about 9.3 ounces and has the usual ingredients you’d expect for minestrone soup.

What about a dry soup mix? I based my “dry” minestrone soup off of this recipe from the Washington Post. A dry mix would thus contain:

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon good-quality beef bouillon granules (may substitute vegetable bouillon granules)
3 tablespoons minced dried onions
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped dry-packed (not oil-packed) sun-dried tomatoes (may substitute chopped freeze-dried tomatoes or dried sweet pepper pieces or dried chives, or a combination)
1 1/4 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves (may substitute dried thyme leaves)
1/2 teaspoon dried minced garlic (may substitute garlic powder; do not use garlic salt)
Scant 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (may substitute 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper)
1/4 cup uncooked pearl barley
1/4 cup dried red or brown lentils
1/4 cup dried green or yellow split peas
1/4 cup dried kidney beans
1/4 cup dried cannelloni beans or great northern white beans
1/2 cup dried medium-size macaroni, penne or corkscrew pasta

This recipe ends up making about twice as much as the Bear Creek mix.

Much like the Bear Creek mix, I found each ingredient on Amazon, estimated how much of it I would use in this mix, and added up the cost. It came up to about $4.23 a batch, which is about twice the size of the Bear Creek bag. If you divide this in half, you have a total of about $2.11 per bag – about $1.85 cheaper than the Bear Creek minestrone mix.

I did some very rough estimates of other mixes and consistently found myself coming out with an ingredient cost adding up to about 60%-75% of the prepackaged mix.

You might be thinking, “Great! Let’s make our own mixes and save money!” Not so fast.

First of all, there’s a time cost involved. You’re going to have to invest some time into this project. Each mix will have to be made by hand, measured out, and mixed.

Second, you’re going to need containers. We often use small Rubbermaid containers for these kinds of things, but Ziplocs work, too. Yes, you’ll reuse these containers a lot, but there’s still a cost.

Third, and perhaps the most painful, you’re going to have some leftover ingredients. Unless you want these ingredients to go to waste (which would reduce the value you get from doing this), you’re going to have to plan for other mixes and meals to use the leftover ingredients. One solution, of course, is to just make a lot of mixes and give the extras away as gifts.

For me, these three drawbacks aren’t severe enough to overcome the benefits and savings of making my own mixes. I love having a container in the cupboard that I can just toss into a pot, add some water (and maybe some vegetables), and immediately have soup. This is especially nice when I know the ingredients in the mix are good and it’s less expensive than buying a soup kit in the store.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    I don’t understand why ingredients need to be “preassembled” into new containers. Just like preparing any meal, measure out what you need when you’re ready to cook it. That way, the cost of the meal is the cost of ingredients alone without needing or washing extra containers.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Toss the little bit of leftover into the pot. No one really cares if you put a few more kidney beans and a few less split peas in the soup.

  3. Johanna says:

    It looks like the beans in the Bear Creek mix are precooked, whereas the ones in your homemade mix are not: The instructions on the Amazon page say that the Bear Creek mix needs to be cooked for just 10 minutes, whereas the Washington post page says that that mix needs to be cooked for more than an hour. So you are not really comparing apples to apples: The Bear Creek mix is much closer to something you can “toss into a pot and immediately have soup.” On the other hand, they’re not going to taste the same, since precooked dried beans taste different than freshly cooked beans.

    I agree with lurker carl that it doesn’t seem like your homemade mix is that much more convenient than measuring out all the ingredients when you’re ready to cook. If you wanted to do some of the work in advance, you’d probably be better off cooking a big batch of beans and freezing them in soup-recipe-sized containers. Or use canned beans and canned tomatoes, and you can make minestrone in no time flat.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    Or go ahead and make the minestrone (or whatever) & freeze it in meal-sized batches.

    Johanna & lurker carl, I think it’s about spending some time on a slow day putting ingredients together, to have the convenience of not having to think much or spend much time on an overscheduled day.

  5. Gretchen says:

    Perhaps as a gift?

    But more likely related to Trent’s “prep the veggies in the morning” stance, which I’ve previously questioned.

    (In this particular recipe, I would question some things like the lentils overcooking.)

  6. Katie says:

    Heh, I missed your earlier posts on that, Gretchen. I’m glad I’m not the only one who questions the wisdom of cutting fresh veggies a long time before you plan to use them. I’d worry about overcooked pasta here.

  7. lurker carl says:

    I understand now, Bear Creek makes “Minute Rice” versions of soup. I’d be more inclined to make the Washington Post recipe and freeze small batches.

    I always prep veggies in advance of making soup, I precook them but leave them a bit under done. The same with beans, barley, pasta and other ingredients famous for absorbing all the liquid. The soup remains quite soupy as the dry ingredients are rehydrated. Everything (except pasta) goes into the hot soup stock at the same time to simmer and the ingredients will slowly reach their appropriate level of doneness together. Pasta is precooked and added at the very end. Nothing turns to mush or remains rock hard unless it is intentional.

  8. Steven says:

    I’m not sure it’s always appropriate to factor in the time costs for daily household activities such as cooking. I mean, people do have to eat, and cooking is really just part of home/family life. Unless you’re actively using that time to generate income, I don’t see a reason to continually factor this into the equation. Not everyone is productive from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. Most people work 8 hours a day, and use the other 8 for household chores/tasks without concern of whether or not they could be earning more money.

    So, does anyone else feel it’s a bit irrelevent to factor in this “expense” or is it just me?

  9. Heather says:

    For us, the real savings in having some meals on hand would be avoiding ordering takeout or hitting the drive through. Soup mixes aside, I have found analogs for Hamburger Helper by utilizing a basic white sauce recipe and adding cheese or other flavorings and mixing it with ground beef and pasta. You make almost any of the store variations at home with more control over the ingredients. I try to keep ingredients on hand for on the fly meals that can be brought together in 20-30 minutes to resist the temptation of ordering takeout and saving our entertainment dollars for better things.

    I don’t understand the resistance to prepping veggies hours before-hand. This is routine in most restaurants. What do you do with your left over veggies if you only need half an onion or a pepper? I wouldn’t leave it there a week but a day or two isn’t going to hurt anything. If you know you’re going to have a harried weekday evening, preparing in advance makes the evening meal routine smoother.

    Bottom line, for frugality, planning ahead and laying the ground work for success saves you money.

  10. Genny says:

    At our house we love the “Desperation Dinners” recipe for minestrone-using canned beans and fresh veggies and it is ready in 20 minutes. A lot of their recipes are not “frugal” because they use convenience product like preshredded carrots. However, on busy work and activity night those recipes are the difference between home cooked meals and fast food takeout.

  11. Katie says:

    Most people work 8 hours a day, and use the other 8 for household chores/tasks without concern of whether or not they could be earning more money.

    I don’t think it’s about working in the home vs. working for pay (though to a minor extent it might be, because you’ll have to ultimately work more before you retire). I think it’s about how much in savings you’re willing to trade for your leisure time.

  12. Jonathan says:

    I don’t have any direct experience with this type of homemade pre-packaged meal. I do, however, have experience with those cookie-in-a-jar type items that people give as gifts. Personally I find those much more convenient than having to do all of the measuring by hand when I want to make cookies. I assume that convenience extends to things such as soups, etc. This should especially be true when the only thing you need to add is water.

  13. Tom says:

    So, does anyone else feel it’s a bit irrelevent to factor in this “expense” or is it just me?

    Yes I agree, and I believe he does this as an equivocation. It does save money but takes some time, which I believe in most cases, is implicit in trying to save a buck by doing something else. I never really understand the $/hr calculations that are trotted out and how they are germane to the discussion.

  14. Melody says:

    It seems like the $/hour is most useful in comparing different money saving activities…and leisure time. If you can save $2 a hour doing activity x or $25 a hour doing activity y…or save 0$ doing something fun…you can use the $ per hour to compare apples to apples.

    You may spend some time doing activity y since it’s more worthwhile – and swing in a hammock instead of doing activity x.

    No, you aren’t always saving that dollar amount, but it can help you prioritize your time.

  15. Emma says:

    The way the original question was written, I assumed that Jenny was asking about premade, cooked meals that could be stored frozen in a Ziploc bag, and just microwaved. Like homemade instant lunches. For example, instead of making one casserole you make two, cook both, eat one for dinner, cool the other until you can cut it into portions and freeze each portion in a single bag.

    Personally, I do this only rarely but I wish I could get into the habit of doing it more, since I think it saves a bit of money and a lot of time.

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