Thirty Dollars, Five Dinners


Back in the fall, Christina Chaey, an editor at Bon Appetit presented me with a challenge: How would you stretch $30 at Whole Foods into five family dinners? My first reaction: HAHAHAHAHAHA! Can’t be done. (Whole Paycheck anyone?) My second: You know…this kind of use-it-or-lose-it exercise is always useful, no matter where I’m shopping. Plus, I had just returned from a “root-to-leaf” type workshop at Stone Barns, where we had made our own ricotta, stretched a few carrots into a healthy fritter dinner, and whirled the tops from those carrots into pesto using a bike-powered blender. I mean, really, did I have any excuse not to test my resourcefulness? (Bonus: My mother, who has never wasted a penny or an ounce of food in her life, would be so proud.) I accepted the assignment and headed off to my local Yonkers Whole Foods. You can head over to BA to read about how me and three other food types approached the challenge, but here’s a more detailed breakdown, including shopping list, meal plan, and recipes.


A few notes: I was told I could rely on a pretty substantial pantry which is why you’ll see things like olive oil, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, an array of dried spices, and garden herbs (the weather was still warm when I did this) included in my recipes. Also, here is where I might lose a little street cred — I didn’t actually have to cook the meals, I just had to plan them, which is why what you’re reading below is a collection of very roughly sketched recipes. If you have questions, please leave them in the comment field and I’ll do my best to answer them, but I’d also love to know: What would be on your $30 shopping lists?

Meal 1: Pizza with Egg, Ricotta, Kale

Pizza dough (whole wheat or all purpose flour + salt + sugar + yeast)
4 or 5 leaves kale, torn (all stems saved for stock)
Olive oil
Onion Powder
Garlic Powder
Red pepper flakes
Olive oil
3 eggs
Dollops of Homemade Ricotta (3 ½ cups milk + cream + Lemon juice)
Chives from garden

Roll out pizza dough and bake about 8 min. Top with kale (that’s been tossed in a little olive oil and onion & garlic powder) and then crack eggs carefully on top. Bake another 5-6 minutes until eggs are set. Top with ricotta & red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, before serving. (Save leftover ricotta.)

**Could also do this with chickpea flour for socca pizzas, depending on how well stocked you are. (What, you don’t keep chickpea flour in your pantry?)

Meal 2: Frittata with Potatoes, Sausage, Peas

4 potatoes, sliced
5 eggs whisked with a little milk if any left
1 sausage link, crumbled and cooked
Handful frozen peas

Par boil potatoes about 5 minutes. Layer on bottom of cast iron skillet. Fry in a bit of olive oil; pour eggs on top and stir in cooked sausages and peas. Cook until bottom set; finish in broiler, about 3 minutes.

Meal 3: Whole Wheat Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Kale

1 ½ onions (save outer layer of onion + skins)
Whole wheat linguine
4-5 kale leaves, torn
Olive oil or butter
Salt & pepper
Thyme from garden

Caramelize sliced onions in a little olive oil over super low heat until sweet (45 min). Prepare pasta according to package directions, adding kale at the last minute. Drain, toss with butter or olive oil) and top with onions, salt, pepper, and thyme if you have it.

Meal 4: Avgolemeno with Foccacia

4-5 cups chicken stock (water simmered on stovetop with chicken bones, 1/4 onion, onion skins, kale stems, salt about 2 hours; then strained)
2 eggs
Salt & pepper
Dill (from garden)
Pizza dough (flour, yeast, sugar, salt)

Roll out pizza dough let sit and rise a bit. Press fingers into the top to create divets. Top with salt and pepper. Bake at 475°F-500°F for 15 min. Meanwhile, beat eggs in a bowl. Heat chicken stock, remove from heat. Temper eggs: Stir 1/2 cup hot stock into whisked eggs, then whisk eggs back to soup. Serve in bowls with fresh dill and focaccia for sopping.

Meal 5: Rice, Beans, & Sausage

Olive oil
¼ large onion, chopped
Salt & pepper
Oregano
Cayenne
Garlic powder
1 ½ cups wild country rice
2 cups chicken stock  (from Meal 4) + 1 cups water
2 cans black beans, drained
1 sausage, crumbled and cooked
whatever kale is leftover
(fresh herbs – thyme, oregano)

Saute onion in olive oil, add salt, pepper, spices. Add rice, 2 cups chicken stock, 2 cups water, cook until firm-tender. Toss in beans, sausages, kale, and herbs.

Meal 6: Carrot Pancakes with Carrot Top Pesto & Leftover Ricotta; Buttered Minty Peas on the side

Pancakes
Carrots, grated
ricotta (if left over)
flour
sugar
salt
baking powder
1 egg

Pesto
carrot tops
salt & pepper
olive oil
garlic powder

Peas
frozen peas
butter
mint (from garden, optional)
salt & pepper

Directions: Make pancake batter with egg, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder. Toss in grated carrots and fold in any leftover ricotta. Fry in oil. Meanwhile whirl olive oil, carrot greens, garlic powder, salt, and pepper until saucy. Top pancakes with pesto and any leftover ricotta. Serve with heated peas that have been tossed with butter, salt, and mint. (This is an adaptation of the Stone Barns fritters — for their version we whirled Parm and fresh garlic into the carrot top pesto, but those two ingredients were out of my budget.)

Photo by Laura Murray for Bon Appetit.

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25 Comments

Kate

Really nice ideas. But can we talk about the kale stems in the stock?? I make stock all the time but always compost the stems. It doesn’t make your stock funky/sulfer-y?

Reply
Meg

I would be curious if you actually make these if they satisfy your family…the way they are written I can’t see them being enough food for mine – and we aren’t that big of eaters!

Reply
Erin

I had the exact same thought — my oldest is 13 and he eats BIG. Pretty sure he would need second dinner after one of these meals. (Not saying that $30 can actually stretch to 5 family meals that would satisfy a 13-year-old, mind you!)

Reply
Jenny

I don’t know — I think most of them would come close to feeding everyone at the table, with the exception of the frittata maybe. Of course, neither of my kids eat eggs and one of them does not eat pasta, so half the week is already a fantasy.

Reply
Marie

This looks like a list I put together kind of like this some weeks but it would only be for 2 people, dinners and cover a few lunches. Out of the 4 lists on BA this seems the most comprehensive and realistic. Would love to see someone cook all this for a week. 🙂

Reply
Libby

This is incredible. Our weekly budget for groceries is $100 and most people say that they can’t believe we can do it. THIRTY DOLLARS?! And for a family! That’s amazing. That’s a challenge that I’d like to give to myself.

Reply
Michele

How “me and … approached the challenge”? Are you trying to talk like a Millennial? 😉

Reply
Meg

Yes! I read over the recipe a few times and was confused not to see lemon juice in the list of ingredients.

Reply
Mila

I love these ideas– a great starting point. With a few extra added dollars the menu can be pretty realistic for families with teenage boys.

Eggs– a painful topic! I could not let it go, I just refused to accept the fact that eggs could be not eaten. After about a year of determined, consistent and persistent effort (on my part) my 10-year-old is now eating eggs.

Reply
MJ

I like the concept behind this and some of the dishes look really tasty. It has reminded me that I should probably look a little more at my meal planning to help reduce our grocery bill.

However, like someone else mentioned, it doesn’t seem like quite enough food for my family. In particular, I’d be concerned that meals 3 and 6 don’t have any protein in them. (I guess ricotta has protein but if you’re just folding in leftover ricotta I’m not sure how much protein would be in each pancake.)

Reply
Ellen

Hi Jenny!

I’ve found that *the* way to eat inexpensively is to have meals based around legumes and rice. You can buy quite a lot of good organic veggies (and milk and eggs) and still have your overall expenses be low if you’re not paying for meat or fish as your protein. (I’m not vegetarian–these days, my husband & I cook meat or fish once a week. The rest of the time we do cook vegetarian, both for environmental reasons & because it’s good for the budget.) A little over a decade ago, I lived in a vegetarian coop in college where we ate incredibly inexpensively with, yep, lots of legumes & rice… We made a lot of Indian curries (since there’s nothing like tasty spices to jazz things up!).

Enjoyed seeing your take on this challenge. 🙂

Reply
Mag

I would love to see is how to do a simple, affordable, meal plan that doesn’t include bread, rice, or pasta as the central glue of the meal. I feel like it’s so difficult to meal plan affordably if you’re trying to veg-up your family’s diet.

Reply
Nat

Mag, you could try swapping out a veg for the starchy stuff in those meal plans. I’ve been trying to use riced cauliflower (you can make your own with a food processor or buy the already chopped stuff at the market) or a spiralized zucchini in place of pasta with success. Spaghetti squash is a great canvas too. 🙂

Reply
Allison

I used the focaccia/pizza dough recipe tonight and topped with olives, pesto, and a bit of manchego. So good!

Reply
Sarah

Oh I love challenges like these. Whole Foods is our closest store but I can’t seem to get out of there under $100 for a week of meals, and I’m just 365ing it all the way anyway. Here’s what I’ve done for my family of four that fills us up and gives us nutrition: bowls. Base is usually a starchy veg like sweet potato or Brussels sprouts, then another veg like kale or parsley, a grain pilaf type thing with nuts in it, a highly flavored sauce, and then any meats or dairy more like condiments than anything else. It was strange at first for the kids to have things TOUCHING on the plate or even (gasp) MIXED TOGETHER but the sauces make up for it. Most of my recipes are from the book Whole Bowls but I’m getting brave enough to improvise.

Reply
jaclyn

I SAW THIS YESTERDAY! I love this idea. How fun! For me-
EGGS (good eggs-6$), f’sho
Sharp Cheddar Block 5$
Bread loaf (whatever has the most protein) 4$
Scallions (2$)
Lemons (3$)
Loose Salad Mix (4$)
7$ worth of chicken breasts (or whatever is on sale)
You can make-
Fritatta, omelettes, egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, Chicken Salad, Chicken salad sandwich, Cheese plate, Eggs Benedict, Roasted chicken and salad, Stuffing, Lemonade, Fried Chicken, Cheese sauce for…anything left in your cupboard.
If I included my pantry, I would make lemon cookies, chicken dumplings, and mac and cheese

Reply
Annabelle Chapple

This is a thought provoking challenge. I think I’ll have to give it a try next week… $30 really wouldn’t go far in Australia. I try to limit my spending to $80 a week and that is hard (for two of us!)

Reply
adira

I love your website and your books but I think this was a silly exercise! This would never be enough food for 2 adults and 2 kids unless the kids were about 2 yrs. old. 1 sausage split 4 ways? Come on! whole foods is dreaming!

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Tina

I love seeing how you cook – it’s like Pollan’s Food Rules come to life! Very inspiring. My family would enjoy and appreciate these meals without complaint (except the little one would pick around the greens, but silently, because she’s seen greens on her plate since she had a plate). One sausage between four diners is plenty when you’re using it as a flavourful condiment, not the centrepiece of the meal.

Reply
Meredith

Wow, this exercise really brings home how difficult it is to feed a family according to current nutritional guidelines while on a tight budget–meals of lean proteins, heavy veg and a little carbs. Carbs are the most economical while the proteins and veg drive the grocery bill up. Definitely “food for thought”!

Reply