Updated on 09.03.15

The Three Rs Meet Your Stomach And Your Wallet: How To Save Significant Cash And Waste Less On Simple Homemade Meals

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest complaints I often hear from people who are thinking about cooking at home is that at first glance, it does seem expensive and potentially wasteful, as you may have to buy some items in a larger quantity than you may need. What they don’t realize is that by starting with staple foods, hardly anything goes to waste unless you choose to waste it. Here’s how you can pretty much take any staple foods and eat from them for a long time.

First, make a very simple, basic meal from standard foods, but cook plenty. Let’s say you like spaghetti, for instance. You can snag 16 ounces of Barilla spaghetti from Amazon for $1.55 (Barilla’s a local company here in central Iowa, so we support them for our dry pasta needs) and a huge 24 ounce can of Hunt’s spaghetti sauce for $1.00 (I like to make my own, but for many people, that’s not realistic). We like meat in ours (and we have a good supplier of fresh beef), so we get a pound of ground beef to add to the sauce, costing about $3 (we actually get it cheaper, but that’s a special arrangement). We also add a few vegetables to the sauce, say, $1 worth. We cook all of it and have a huge supper for my wife, my son, and I, leaving a huge amount of leftovers (9 oz. of spaghetti, 14 oz. of sauce or so, and half a pound of ground beef). Our cost per head for the meal is about $2.20, not counting the leftover costs.

The next night, make something interesting out of the leftovers. The next night, we take the remaining spaghetti, chop it a bit, mix it with the remaining sauce and beef, add a few spices to it (marjoram and oregano) and put half of it in a 9″ x 13″ baking dish, pour half a pound of ground Mozzarella cheese on top, then pour half of the rest of the spaghetti mix on top, then the rest of the cheese, and bake it in the oven. It takes about five minutes to prepare, tastes substantially different than the spaghetti the night before, and feeds all three of us again for the cost of a pound of ground mozzarella (about $1.50). Cost: $0.50 a head.

Even after that, you may still have leftovers, so take them to work with you for what amounts to free meals. My wife and I usually have a meal’s worth for a leftover lunch for each of us. Cost: $0.00 a head for that lunch.

The big total? About twenty minutes of prep work and about $10 worth of food makes eight hearty meals. That’s $1.25 and roughly two minutes work per meal on average, or substantially less if you don’t want meaty sauce. Given that the evening meal is usually the most expensive of the day, I’m happy when my entire family can dine on healthy food on less than $4. Better yet, nothing goes to waste.

The key to all of this is prepare the foods blandly at first, then complement and spice them in completely different ways for different dishes. Above, the main portions are the beef, the sauce, and the spaghetti. At first, we just use those three together, but the next night, we mix in several extra herbs and add a substantial amount of cheese to the mix, creating a distinctly different texture and flavor for the food.

Here are some other examples of how to buy inexpensive basic foods and then reuse them in a substantially different meal another night:

Turn loose meat sandwiches into chili. My wife and I will cook multiple pounds of raw hamburger and have loose meat sandwiches one meal. Then we’ll make a huge pot of chili with the leftover meat, and then store the leftover chili in the freezer for future meals. Nothing is left over to be thrown away.

Chicken can become any number of things. Buy a bulk package of chicken breasts and prepare them all, intending to eat some of it as the basis of a healthy meal (I myself love chicken breast with black pepper along with steamed broccoli with a hint of butter). Slice up the leftovers and use them in the next few days as part of chicken florentine, chicken fettuccine alfredo, and so forth.

I even use leftover fish creatively. After grilling some catfish fillets (a favorite here, as we like to eat what we catch), I just take the unused pieces, batter them a bit with ground up crackers, fry them, then eat them on corn tortillas with a bit of lettuce and some mayonnaise – a basic fish taco. Nothing goes to waste – and that saved money goes into the wallet.

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  1. Megan says:

    I agree that eating at home is cost effective, and most of the time much healthier than dining out. I just moved in with my BF and I cook four nights a week, the fifth night is usually a “hodge podge” night, that’s where we take the leftovers from the week and eat whatever we want. Before I go to the grocery store I sit down and write a list as well as create a menu for the week. I never assign days to the meals, I just have to know what I’m making that week and can check the pantry for items we do have and buy the stuff we don’t. This works well for us and eliminates food spoilage, etc. I have a pretty picky BF so I never make him eat something twice in a row, even if it’s thinly veiled as a “new” dish by using other ingredients, etc. So I’m satisfied with the one night that the lefotvers still get used. My favorite thing to buy at the store is a rotisseire (sp?) chicken b/c we can use it so many ways. Chicken enchiladas, quesadillas, and a big green salad with chicken on top.

    I’m feeling goofy, so I’m going to post our menu for the week:

    Tonight: Ravioli with a salad and mini baguettes on the side
    Tuesday: Pork chops with broccoli and salad
    Wednesday: Taco Bake
    Thursday: Lemon Pepper chicken breasts with Scalloped potatoes and steamed green beans
    Friday: Hodge Pode night

  2. VG says:

    Home made meals is always a good idea, especially since I just took out my little lady for sushi at lunch today, $29 after tip and we both had water.

  3. NC says:

    I always cook with the anticipation that it will be our lunch the next day. This past Saturday, I made a big pot of chili and served it with corn bread muffins (so cheap to make). The next day we heated the chili and boiled some Barilla spaghetti noodles (only 80 cents a box here!). Served the chili atop the noodles. Finally, my bf brought the chili spaghetti for lunch the next day. Overall, the bf will bring leftovers to work for lunch almost everyday and that in and of itself is pretty cost effective. I work from home so I almost always eat here.

    We eat out maybe once a week and usually it is a social dinner with friends or family. We love eating at home! I rely on allrecipes.com for a lot of my recipes.

  4. Tim says:

    I think it’s hard to legitimately make the argument that eating at home is more expensive. The big thing is time…it takes time to cook and clean up. But it takes time to drive, order, wait, and pay when you eat out. So it’s a trade off. Another benefit of eating at home is that you’re likely to eat healthier!

  5. Nathania Johnson says:

    I can find pasta noodles of all kinds for 99 cents a box easy – at Walmart or Target.

    I can also find sauce for $1.50.

    Hot dogs are another cheap meal. I can find french fries or tater tots to go with for as little as $1.50.

    Instant pudding is an easy and cheap dessert. Around 60 cents for the box and use a couple of cups a milk – which btw i can find for about $1.50-$1.80 for 1/2 gallon

    frozen waffles for $1.00 at walmart – or twenty cents more at target. great breakfast.

  6. gmv says:

    I think eating at home can look more expensive, but in the long run it’s not. You can buy a package of chicken or beef and make it stretch over at least two meals. Vegetables/fruits can be pricey, but there are ways to economize there too.

    The trick to eating at home is learning how to shop prudently! I favor fresh fruits/veggies and don’t rely on pasta or hotdogs for my food, and manage to do just fine.

  7. Mission Debt Freedom says:

    We took my daughter out to Outback for her birthday the bill was over $40.00 for 4 people! You can quickly see how eating out is a budget killer. The four of us could have eaten in for a week on $40.00!

  8. beloml says:

    Barilla really is the best pasta, in my opinion.

    Also, soup is another healthy and cost-effective food that can be made to taste very different using a few basic ingredients.

  9. Susan Sabo says:

    While this winter storm rages here in the east, I have a double win regarding food that you might want to explore. The wins are great food, less cooking, and expanding friendship. In fact, this is such an attractive arrangement that others have asked to join… but alas this is a one family to one family arrangement for us. (Make your own pair we suggest).

    Here’s the deal: once winter starts Nancy (& Rob) and I (& Rich) exchange soup. The first week I make the soup and deliver a 7 c. container filled with the soup. The second week Nancy makes the soup and delivers our treat in the same container. We do this back and forth until the weather gets nice again – a random day when we’ve had enough.

    The containter is a red 7c Ziploc storage container. Red was purchased at Christmas. Using the same container we feel like we’re treating each other fairly with each exchange. Sometime the soups cost just a few dollars to make (split pea) and sometimes a lot ($30 for a recent fish chowder) – but that’s for 12 servings. No matter what, the cost per serving for the quality of food is HIGH. And, I cook soup only every other week. And, each batch of soup serves us (and them) for at least two meals.

    Remember, soup usually tastes better the next day when the flavors have a chance to come together.

    My favorite soup cookbook: The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Soup (the Barnes & Noble rendition of The Soup Bible)

    My favorite soup recipe ever: Glenda’s Tortilla Soup (not in that book).

    Bon Apetit!

  10. I found out that in 2005 i spent around $8,000 on eating out. Thats a substantial portion of my pay.

    I’ve recently moved closer to home which allows me to come back for lunch, reducing my lunch expenses substantially.

    Eating out all the time definitely does add up.

  11. dlm says:

    Leftovers taste just as good as when new. Think of them as planned overs or dividends. I find cooking at home is about 10% of restaurant cost.
    Spaghetti and sauce chopped up are good as soup with the addition of some stock. Pyrex glass dishes/soup bowls with rubber lids are excellent for freezing, storing, microwaving.

  12. deRuiter says:

    “We also add a few vegetables to the sauce, say, $1 worth. We cook all of it and have a huge supper for my wife, my son, and I,” “me”, it is “me”, NOT “I” in this case. Trent, when in doubt, say it in your head, “…have a huge supper for I..” and you will know what is correct. Using I incorrectly doesn’t make the writing sound more elegant than using “me” correctly.

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