The Perfect, $5 Family Dinner

After searching for the ideal meal, one family discovered it.

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After realizing that our grocery bill almost doubled once we became a family of three, my husband and I have been trying to think of ways we can avoid spending a small fortune on food each month. Part of the problem is that our toddler often prefers her own food, separate from what we’re eating, which makes it hard to save money by simply making larger quantities.

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So we went on a search for the ideal dinner that would cut down on at least one day’s worth of food expenditures. We figured we’d expand from there. The requirements for this ideal meal were five-fold: 1) It had to be easy to make, involving half an hour or less of prep time. After all, we’re busy working parents. 2) It had to make use of easy to find, healthy, and affordable ingredients. 3) It had to be easily frozen so we could have a quick second meal ready to go from our efforts. 4) It had to be so delicious that we would all want to eat it on a regular basis. 5) All family members had to agree on these points and enjoy the meal, even our daughter.

After much experimentation and trial-and-error, we found our meal. The winner: Barefoot Contessa’s Mexican Chicken Soup, which is essentially tortilla soup. The Food Network star has created a masterpiece. While some of her dishes are deceptively tricky or laden with fat, this one stands out and easily meets or exceeds all of our criteria. And most importantly, our daughter finds it scrumptious.

Here is the cost breakdown: The total ingredient list, available on the Food Network site, adds up to around $30. That makes about six meals: Two dinners (for two) and one lunch (for two). On a per person basis, that costs around $5 per meal. Not bad, especially considering take-out for two easily tops $30.

As we continue making the tortilla soup recipe on a regular basis, we’ve also incorporated other techniques that have helped cut down on our grocery bill. We make sure we always have the ability to make spaghetti or black bean chili at a moment’s notice by keeping the pantry well-stocked; that way, we cut down on last-minute take-out orders. We also stick with vegetable-heavy meals as opposed to meat-centric ones. And we make a lot of use of eggs, that old stand-by that rarely costs more than a few dollars per person. Scrambled, soft-boiled, fried—all forms taste good.

Planning ahead, of course, is also an essential strategy. I map out our meals over the weekend and write them on the chalkboard in our kitchen so everyone knows what we’re having. That also makes it easy to figure out how we’ll use leftovers. I keep all over our go-to recipes in a binder filled with clear plastic sheets, which protects my much-used printouts from spills. That binder also makes it easier when I’m choosing the meals and ordering the ingredients online for delivery. (That food delivery, by the way, costs about $10 but gives us an extra hour of family weekend time—an easy trade.)

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We do still struggle with one glaring weakness in our overall food plan, though: Toddler food. Anything that comes pre-packaged for young children seems to cost double what it would otherwise. For example, baby yogurts, snack bars, and juice boxes all seem to carry a price premium, perhaps because they come in such small packages that are also often covered in television characters. You might be thinking that we should just skip these items altogether, because they aren’t healthy anyway, and you are probably right. But if you’ve ever been responsible for an insistent toddler, you know how hard that would be.

Readers, do you have any money-saving meal suggestions? Or better yet, specific recipes? Please share them below.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer