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Food: Feasts Under $5 – Setting Up the Pantry

August 26, 2011

I’m getting really interested in the intersection between healthy eating and the cost of food in America. Too often the excuse in our country is that people can’t afford to eat healthfully, that a value meal at McDonald’s (which hovers around $5.00) is much cheaper than fresh vegetables. I could go on and on about food subsidies and education, but I won’t – not yet. For now, I’m going to start a feature called Feasts Under $5 – proving that healthy, quick, and filling meals can be made for under $5.00 per serving. Each meal in this feature will serve up to 4 people, and I will include a financial analysis to show just how cost-effective healthy eating can be. I’ll start with my Meatless Monday meals, which are usually cheaper and healthier, but always include protein. However, as soon at the cold weather hits, I promise meat will be present in these Feasts Under $5.

But first, we need to set up pantry expectations. Below are the items that I will not include in the meal cost each week. These are items that anyone with a kitchen should have – you can make hundreds of recipes using these items. These staples also have a long shelf life, so while the complete pantry start-up cost of $74.46 ($96.90 if you want to bake, too) is not inconsequential, it is just that – a one time initial investment, with small cost replacements from time to time.

The prices listed below are in the middle of the price spectrum- almost all of the items I buy are all natural or organic, so you could get these products for less money if you bought, for example, irradiated spices, sold in most grocery stores. However, that’s the point of this feature – to prove that you can eat all natural, high quality food on the cheap. If you’re missing some of the items below, go grab them so you can follow along in the coming weeks with my Feasts Under $5.

Pantry Staples:
Fats – bulk size Extra Virgin Olive oil: 100 oz for $22.99 and Butter: 16oz (4 sticks) for 3.69
Salt: 26 oz (2 lbs) for $1.69 and Pepper: (spice jar size) $2.99
Flour: $4.99 for large bag and Sugar: $3.99 for large bag
Bottled Lemon Juice: 10 oz for $2.99. I prefer fresh lemon juice, but this is a pretty good substitute, lasts a long time, and is less expensive than fresh lemons. Just don’t buy the juice that comes in a container that looks like a lemon.
Garlic: 1 large bulb (15-20 cloves) for $.84, or 8 oz jarred for $1.79, or a jar of garlic powder for $2.99. I prefer the fresh bulb, and its a good value.
Spices: This list of spices opens the door to many different recipes. Try to stay away from spice “mixes” and packets, which usually contain tons of chemicals and salt.
Cumin, Curry Powder: $3.49 each
Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary, Cayenne Pepper, Red Pepper Flakes, Chili Powder: $2.39 each
Herbs de provence, Tarragon, Paprika: $2.99 each
Cooking total: 74.46

And in case we bake at some point:
Cinnamon: $3.49
Nutmeg: $2.39
Vanilla extract: 4 oz for $8.99
Canola oil: $3.99
Baking powder: $1.79
Baking soda: $1.79
Baking Total: $22.44

Total Cost with Baking Items: $96.90 

Some other notes:

Parsley and Basil – I use both herbs frequently, and I think they should always be fresh. A big bunch of parsley is usually around $1.00, and a big container of basil is usually around $2.99 – so these are cheap to buy fresh. (Or if you’re motivated, become self-sustaining and grow these yourself). If you store them properly they keep for a week or more – I put mine in a plastic bag in the fridge and squeeze out all of the air, or you can stand parsley up like flowers in a glass with a bit of water. However, since I am not requiring that these go in your “pantry,” I will include their cost in my financial analysis of the meals, $.25 for parsley and $.75 for basil.

Shallots: Another item I use frequently, a typical shallot costs $.50, so that’s the price I’ll use.

Lemons and Limes: Sometimes you *must* use fresh lemons or limes (for zest etc.). When I use these I will charge $1 per lemon, $.50 per lime.

Dairy: Butter, milk, cream, and eggs will likely feature in many of these dishes, but butter is the only dairy product I’m including in the pantry staples due to its long shelf life. The rest will be charged market price in each recipe.

Pasta: Maybe it’s just because I’m a staunch Italian, but I think everyone should have at least 4 lbs of dried pasta in their possession at all times. Since I know not everyone does this, I’m not including pasta in the pantry staples. I will charge $1.99 for each lb, unless it’s a particularly fancy or fresh pasta.

Wine: Maybe it’s just because I’m a staunch oenophile, but I think everyone should have at least one bottle of red wine and one bottle of white wine in their possession (for cooking) at all times. The general rule is that you should never cook with something you wouldn’t drink, but there are plenty of good wines under $7.99 that can fill this role. There are about 25oz in each bottle of wine, and most recipes that use wine call for 1/2 cup, or 4oz, which equals 6.25 servings/bottle. So for my meals I’ll charge $7.99/6.25 = $1.27 for each 1/2 cup of wine used. I will assume you happily drink any wine that does not go in the pot.

*Note: I am not a nutritionist, but I do have a background in food, and I can read labels. When I use the term “healthy” I don’t mean “diet” food – some meals will have plenty of butter, cheese, and oil, some meals won’t. All meals will be balanced with all natural or organic vegetables, protein, and starch.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Shibby permalink
    August 26, 2011 2:57 pm

    I am super excited for this! Question: I have a risotto recipe I frequently make, which calls for 1/4c white wine. I’ve been known to freeze 2oz from a bottle I’m drinking, so I have my risotto wine at the ready. (While I’ve also been known to drink wine, sometimes I just want risotto and not risotto and 23oz of wine.) Is this acceptable? I have yet to do a side-by-side comparison, but my novice palate doesn’t notice anything different in the finished products. I freeze it in a BPA-free plastic container, intended for freezing food. It holds 2.5oz.

    Props to your definition of healthy. So many “healthy” foods seem to actually be a big ol’ pile of chemicals and fillers.

    • bestthingslicedbread permalink*
      August 26, 2011 3:01 pm

      hi shibs. i would say that freezing a fine drinking wine is never ok. however, freezing a less expensive cooking wine is ok.

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