Saving Pennies or Dollars? Meal Mixes

Saving 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.