Yesterday I appeared on the CTV News at Noon (that’s my set just before it was rolled onto the main sound stage) to showcase how people who don’t know how to cook or who don’t feel they have the time to learn to cook and stock a usable pantry can still make dinner for four people for $10, $15, or $20.
The idea of the segment arose after I wrote in this post about whether it was possible to make a $10 dinner at all. If you check out the comments section on that post, the people who were sure that one could feed four people for $10 were mostly scratch cooks. But what about the people who never learned to cook and who have been relying on pricey prepared deli foods and restaurants? What could they do to get themselves easily started in the kitchen now that the economy might be forcing them to reconsider their mealtime habits?
As it turns out, I discovered that you could feed a family of four a full meal even if you can’t cook well. I visited the grocery store with my calculator and discovered that:
• For $10 you can provide a Hamburger Helper based meal that uses a pound of ground beef, a serving of Green Giant frozen peas and a glass of milk for everyone in a family of four.
• At $15 you can satisfy heartier eaters, by using the same menu served with a package of freshly baked Pillsbury Multigrain Crescent rolls.
• And, for $20, you can have a fun Friday night meal that kids will think of as a treat, by making an Old El Paso Taco kit, adding some shredded cheese, lettuce and sour cream and serving each person that ubiquitous glass of milk. This meal option is way less expensive than a visit to even the most modest full-service restaurant and it includes all four food groups – unlike a delivered pepperoni and mushroom pizza that is also about $20. Plus, if you get your kids involved in preparing the ingredients and setting the table, you’ll be teaching them skills that may help them to feel confident in the kitchen when they become adults.
I got a range of email based on my TV segment. On the supportive side, I heard from Sheila Miller who wrote:
Watched your presentation of these meals on CTV news at noon today. I live in the country, so eating out for us is not so common as it’s not so handy as when you live in town or the city. This can be a good thing, for your health as well as your pocket book.
I did want to make one comment as to the meal of tacos. I have made these for my family for years and a couple things I do that I believe add more nutrients to the meal are as follows: When the ground beef (I use lean) is almost cooked, I add two to three chopped onions and let them cook a little more with the meat. Also, instead of adding water, as the package says, I add one to two cups of tomato juice. These two items are not very costly, onions are cheap and you can usually get a can of tomato juice for $.99 or less. One other thing I tried just this week was to use plain (unsweetened) yogurt instead of sour cream…You kind of reminded me that some children don’t have the opportunity to learn to cook as their parents don’t have the skills or sometimes the time. I’m wondering if my local public school would like to have me volunteer to come in some time to teach some kids how to make a simple meal. I started cooking a meal on my own when I was around ten. I came from a large family and when I learned to peel potatoes, I thought I would never get enough peeled for the meal, it seemed to take forever. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to show the meals.”
To Sheila, I say: Thanks for taking time both to watch and also to write this note. Please do approach your local school to find out if you can share your cooking skills! I think that’s a wonderful, generous idea!
Less enthusiastic was the note I got from this reader (whose name I’m not disclosing since I didn’t get her permission to print it):
I can’t believe the meals you were advocating to moms who do not know how to cook – and meals at $10, $15, and $20, each!!!
How many families can realistically afford a $20.00 meal every day, as well as the other grocery essentials required to feed breakfast & lunches to your family and outfit your home with toilet paper and cleaning essentials – not to mention clothing, school supplies and memberships for 2 or more children???
Why don’t you recommend getting back to simple basics, instead of filling their family’s tummies with high sodium and preservatives and god-knows what other synthetic garbage that comes in the hamburger helper and taco boxes?????”
Her letter was quite long and went on to add a bunch of her own very good budget cooking tips; however, for the sake of brevity I won’t print the whole letter here (she should start her own blog with the tips – seriously!). I will respond to her emphatic (“????”) question about why I recommended cooking with convenience products such as Hamburger Helper and Green Giant frozen vegetables.
The truth is that I’d love to teach everyone to enjoy scratch cooking, but after almost 20 years as a food writer, I know that not everyone is convertible and, even those who are convertible need to start out with baby steps to build their confidence before they start buying ingredients instead of products. My hope is that by starting today with super easy meals that people can afford, that viewers will gain interest and confidence and start to become more adventurous in the kitchen in time.
What do you think? Am I out to lunch? Likewise, I’m curious about your shopping budget. How much do you spend to feed your family each day? Is $20 for a Friday night treat too much to spend to feed a family of four?