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Published: Tuesday, 2/2/2010

Cooking on a budget


I've been analyzing recipes to find the best way to lower the cost of grocery shopping.

Two recipes tested at The Blade cost $7 for a potato gratin and $10 for Beef Tostadas Grande.

Potato gratin shouldn't cost that much, so I found a better version of simple scalloped potatoes.

The Beef Tostadas Grande “was very good, easy to make, and the salsa sets it apart from other recipes,” said Angela Benko, who tested the recipe.

What constitutes a low-cost recipe? Erin Chase, author of The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook (St. Martin's Press, $14.99) uses the guideline of $5 for a recipe that serves a family of four. It works for her family.

The mother of three children, ages 2 months, 2, and 4, told me in a phone interview that she could make the tostadas for less, but only if the ingredients were on sale. “I couldn't make it for the full price,” she said, estimating that her weekly grocery bill is $60.

She does not pay full retail price for items. “All prices in the book are either on sale or I use coupons,” she said. “I buy meat on sale and use it or freeze for the next week. Protein costs are the most expensive.”

The Dayton-area resident shops at a major supermarket in her town that gives double coupons, so she estimates how much meat purchases will stretch.

For example, Apple-Dijon Pork Roast with Sauteed Potatoes and Steamed Broccoli (see recipe on Page 8) costs $4.30 by her estimation. She buys the pork loin for $1.89 per pound and knows that she will use one to one-and-a-half pounds for her family. “The rest is used for cold pork sandwiches,” she said. She doesn't buy processed foods, “except maybe barbecue sauce. I make foods from scratch, which also helps with health aspects.”

Just how this 32-year-old former teacher translated her philosophy to a cookbook is a story in itself. Between 2001 and 2006, she and her husband were missionary teachers in the Dominican Republic. Her young-adult grocery shopping days were spent without coupons, sales, and advertisements, and few choices in the grocery store. Her frugal attitudes prevented her from spending $5 on a box of American-brand granola bars. After returning to the Untied States, she writes that she was overwhelmed with the choices available in American grocery stores.

In 2008, when gasoline prices shot up to $4 a gallon, she began reducing her grocery budget. “I broke down the cost of a meal each night,” she said. “Then I said, ‘I bet I could keep doing this.' ” The result was her Web site 5dollardinners.com, where you can sign up for a free e-mail newsletter. In August, 2008, she was contacted by a publishing house and then began writing the cookbook. It was published last December.


Recipes that Mrs. Chase prepares usually have eight ingredients or fewer. “I don't use a [great] variety of spices,” she said. She buys them on sale with coupons that can be doubled. “McCormick puts out 50-cent coupons for herbs,” she noted.

She doesn't have to buy formula for the baby because she breast-feeds her infant. As her older children grew from babies to toddlers, she made baby food. “It's much cheaper,” she said. “It's one-quarter the cost [if making] it yourself.”

She makes soups from scratch, which she says taste better. Although she bakes dinner rolls from scratch, she buys sandwich bread from the supermarket.

Mrs. Chase also uses day-old products. “After the baby was born, I would get a loaf of day-old French bread because baking bread was not my top priority.

“I won't buy bagged produce unless it's marked down [and within the expiration date],” she said. “I will buy bagged lettuce if it's 69 cents. I typically buy leafy lettuce, iceberg or romaine.”

She buys very little cheese. “My oldest children have dairy allergies,” she said. The young mother makes rice milk for them. “I would have to spend more if I bought it in a box [already made].”

Although she doesn't buy butter, or ice cream, she does make frozen pops from fruit. “I did watermelon [frozen pops] last summer,” she said. She also uses a dairy-free margarine for baking and cooking.

Time and planning

At the beginning of her project to reduce the cost of groceries, she was spending 45 minutes to an hour a week on it. “Now it's about 15 to 20 minutes,” she said. “I choose to make time to do this. It saves me $40 to $50 a week.”

In the summer she has a garden. She calls it “square foot gardening.” “You grow a lot in a small space,” she said. “We have limited sun space because of the trees in the yard.”

She and her husband, Steve, eat out a couple of times a month, usually without the kids. “We don't eat fast food,” she said. But when time is an issue, they look for a Chick-fil-A for a grilled chicken sandwich and fruit.

She often cooks family dinners for the holidays. Sometimes a relative or two will make a dish, but she does most of the cooking.

“I estimate spending $5 per person, so it's usually $60 for 12,” she said. “This includes meat, sides, and desserts. I bake pies from scratch and make my own crust.”

Using Mrs. Chase's idea for $5 dinners, a five-pound turkey breast should yield enough turkey meat for three meals. Use one-third of it for today's roasted Turkey Breast with Pineapple Salsa and serve a side of baked beans. Pull extra turkey meat from the bones, slice it for sandwiches, or shred and freeze it in two-to-three-cup portions to use for two more meals, such as a turkey pot pie. Try to buy the turkey breast on sale (it's sometimes as low as 99 cents a pound).

The cookbook does use specialty products, including a recipe for Chicken and Fried Plantains. But the plantains were a special sale item she found at two for 66 cents.

Contact Kathie Smith at: food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

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