Simple Ways to Stretch Your Dollar (Think Cost per Meal)


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I started using Cost Per Meal ever since I was in college. Similar to Cost Per Wear, I began looking at every food purchase as how many meals can I make out of a particular buy.

It started my freshman year which was probably different from most students’. Shortly before starting college, I found out that I was in overflow housing. Worrying about being housed in a dorm’s janitorial closet, I crossed my fingers hoping to get lucky. I ended up rooming with a resident advisor at an apartment on-campus filled with mostly upperclassmen. I was far from the freshman dorms and dining halls. Fortunately, I had a full size refrigerator and small kitchen to use. Once I started shopping and cooking for myself and suitemates, I had to budget my refund check to last the whole semester. It was all about stretching the few dollars I had for food and expenses.

I first experienced success with the Hamburger Helper meals. They were cheap but unhealthy. I realized I could add “fillers” like vegetables, spices, and more pasta to dilute the cream and make additional meals out of just one box. Sure, I spent a little more on those fillers, but as a whole they became more substantial meals using the same base. On average I was able to make 3 meals out of one box of Hamburger or Tuna helper ($2) + meat ($2) + veggie fillers ($3). So that’s about $7 for 3 meals or $2.33 per meal. You can barely get that kind of deal at McDonald’s.

Without diluting food quality, today I still stretch the dollar by adding up Cost Per Meal from each item I buy, ultimately keeping them tasty and saving money for more important purchases.

Juice and carbonated water – We got the idea after our cousin served us Pom, pomegranate juice, and seltzer at their apartment in Manhattan. Oh this was fancy, I thought. Then I figured we can use this idea for the orange juice we buy as an alternative to water. So now we buy flavored carbonated water ($1) and mix it with the juice to taste. Not only does it add a complementing flavor, but it dilutes the calories and sugar from the OJ, making it healthier and cheaper to drink.


Family Pack deals – When comparing like for like packages of food, definitely look at price per ounce. But when deciding if a pack of meat or vegetables is worth it, mentally portion out the pieces and calculate the cost per meal. For example, whole chicken breasts, I consider as 2 meals each. So for a pack of 3 at ~$6, that only adds $1 per meal that uses protein-packed white meat. Definitely worth it!

Canned Soups – Any chunky or condensed soup is a great filler for your quick recipe meals. At no more than $2 a can, you can actually make 2 meals, again adding only $1 per meal.

Restaurant habits – We all know a premium is paid when dining out which we can’t avoid. If you can hold out and bring leftovers home, you typically can eat it for lunch the next day, effectively making my recent $17 dish of tandoori lamb karahi into a restaurant quality $8.50 lunch for free. A sandwich meal at Panera will cost you more. Or if we don’t want to get two dishes, Bernadette and I will split an entree, recently turning a delicious $12 Honey Wasabi Tuna burrito with sides into a $6 dinner each at a sit down restaurant.

Use the unusable – Of course, I try to use every piece of the animal or produce. I make chicken adobo in the slow cooker, and instead of leaving the skin on, I peel it and bake it into delicious chicken skin crisps!

Basically, the idea is to plan and think ahead of time to make smart decisions on what you buy. Also many people hate leftovers because you get tired of eating the same thing. I actually enjoy the challenge to not eat the same thing and transform them into a ‘gourmet dinner’. Just because they’re leftovers doesn’t mean it has to be the same boring dish.

Do you think it’s worth stretching your dollars for meals? What else would you do?


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