The cheap eats debate

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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:

“Hi Dana!

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):

“Dear Dana,

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?

16 Responses to The cheap eats debate

  1. cherie says:

    Sorry I missed you on CTV. And no, 20$/meal for 4 people is not too much. We should set our priorities straight. Like maybe not buying unnecessary DVDs and video games for kids and spending our money on food instead. If what we put into our bodies is not the most important thing we can do for ourselves, than what is?

  2. I must admit the Hamburger Helper surprised me. I don’t think you will build anyone’s confidence or interest starting with that product. Pasta is inexpensive and it doesn’t take much to spice up with items from the cupboard. I’m curious as to why you didn’t start with a simple pasta. (I mean this as a genuine question, not in an accusatory way.)

    I agree with Cherie. Food is the last thing you should cut back on when budgeting, so $20 for 4 people isn’t outrageous to me. I do, however, choke at $75 jean and $125 running shoes.

  3. Diva says:

    Timely topic and, no, I don’t think you’re out to lunch, Dana. I’ve only been food-blogging for 9 months and already I’ve learned that a great majority of the population is “unconvertible.” So I agree that baby steps are necessary. Why not build success into the operation? And if doing so means using a taco kit – that’s not all bad. Its a fairly quick leap from the taco kit to making your own taco mix with your own spices, etc. The trouble comes in convincing those who don’t cook that a small investment in pantry staples will lead to greater savings in home-cooked meals later on.

    As for personal food budgets – I’m not a good example. We have no kids so I’m only feeding my husband and myself. I don’t have a food budget but I’m careful with food (as in not wasting it) and we eat a LOT of left-overs. So even if I splurge on a meal – we get a lot of mileage out of it so the cost is amortized over the course of several meals.

    My perspective is def. skewed … so I can’t offer any insight on what is reasonable for feeding a family of four. Though I’m a firm believer in cooking at home, from scratch as much as possible. It healthier and in the long run, I believe, more economical.

  4. danamccauley says:

    Thanks for these nice long comments!

    Charmian, in answer to your question, my goal was to look to the packaged foods world and test the theory that it’s more expensive to cook from bought stuff than from scratch. Since HH is a long time favourite for many, many people (it’s been on the shelf since the seventies and takes up about 5 feet of top to bottom shelf space in most grocery stores), I figured it was a good place to start. There must be people buying an awful lot of it already.

    Will I be making it often myself? No, but I’m not the person I was addressing with this message.

    Keep your opinions coming- I love it!

  5. Rebecca says:

    You’re not off the mark at $20 for a Friday meal. That’s no more (and often less) than ordering pizza or four fast-food meals for a family of four.

    A lot of people try to cook their first meal, fail, and decide that it’s not their thing. A lot of couples eat at restaurants for every meal. So, I think starting with a mix of homemade/convenience foods makes sense. Hamburger Helper is pretty screw-up proof.

  6. Thanks, Dana. I must have misread things. That makes more sense.

    And I remember my mom serving us HH in the early 70s when our kitchen was being renovated. All she had was an electric frying pan to cook on and the thrill of HH soon wore off. Tuna Helper was no better.

    Like Diva, I’m not the best one to answer this question since I don’t have kids and work with food for a living.

    Interesting topic nonetheless.

  7. […] The cheap eats debate « Dana McCauley’s food blog […]

  8. Barb says:

    When you are talking with noncooking people HH IS cooking from scratch! I agree it is a good starting place for people who just don’t try to cook for whatever reason. (I work with some) Reheating frozen food is cooking to them. If you complicate things any more than that they probably won’t try for sure. In my town (pop 80,000) $20.00 is an inexpensive night out for 4. Some places have kids menus certain nights and even then $20.00 would be cheap.

  9. danamccauley says:

    Barb’s comments reminded me or research I saw about 5 years ago that revealed a startling number of Canadians who viewed serving a deli roast chicken with a salad as a cooking dinner.

  10. Sheila says:

    Hi again! I thought the whole purpose of the presentation was to show that you could cook a meal for those prices that didn’t take long in the kitchen and was easy for new to the kitchen cooks. In my own cooking, I try to stay away from a lot of packaged foods, mostly because they seem to contain a lot of hidden additives but much fast food contains more fat and calories than we realize as well. I don’t know how four people could eat out for even the $20. My husband and I ate at a fast food restaurant this past week and our bill was $16.25 and I didn’t even have a beverage.
    I have been a scratch cook for years, but sometimes I am pressed for time as well. One of my favourites for when I am in a hurry, is salmon loaf. I make it in an 8×8 glass pan and it cuts nine pieces so it will feed four people nicely and leftovers are even good cold. It bakes for about 35 minutes, takes 10 to prepare while the oven is heating and while its cooking, you can make salad or veggies and even cut up some fruit. This is a pretty easy recipe to start with and salmon is often on sale for $2. or less a can and it takes two cans and costs under $6. to make the recipe. Maybe instead of Friday night being eat out night, it could be cook with the kids night and if you make things that produce leftovers, your ahead of the game and so what if everything doesn’t turn out perfect, life is all about learning and you can have fun with your family in the kitchen and all come out winners.

  11. Shellie says:

    Hi, I didn’t see the show (I am in Australia) but thought I would give you my two cents worth.

    I work from home and manage a household that is run by my 1 year old. I love cooking from scratch, but at the end of the day it’s just not possible 7 days a week. Sometimes I want to enjoy good flavor without chaining myself to the kitchen for more than 15 mins.

    I use both ready made foods and “scratch” items to produce fast and tasty delights.
    I think the key is to get dinner on the table in a non stressful manner.

    get blog btw!

  12. Sophia says:

    this was very informational and helpful. thank you! I find myself spending a lot of money on buying groceries, but I’d still rather spend more money on fresh ingredients than buy things out of boxes…

  13. Amy Snider says:

    Hi,
    I also got a chance to see the note from undisclosed as it was also addressed to me as a team member.

    When issues like this come up, I still go back to the mantra I learned as a Food and Nutrition Student – “all foods fit”.

    This means that while I don’t advocate an entire diet of Hamburger Helper, it can be part of a balanced diet. And even “scratch cooks” might be surprised when their pantry is audited that someone could find fault with their ingredients, too.
    For example, your critic also included the suggestion in one of her recipe tips to (quote):

    “Open cans: kidney beans, navey beans, mushrooms, corn, potatoes and tomates – again, whatever is in the cupboard.”

    All these canned products also contain sodium one of the faults of the boxed products. Others would insist that you should be using dried beans, but who has time on a weeknight to soak those beans? And, fresh ingredients are more expensive and have a shorter shelf life…

    Where do you draw the line?

    The key is to find balance. The meals that Dana showed on air were nutritious – they contained key nutrients and energy that our bodies need. Eaten as part of a diet that contains a wide variety of food, they certainly can be part of that balance.

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  15. Ruth Nichols says:

    We were eating out 3 or 4 times a week and are trying to improve things financially and nutritionally. There are only the two of us so what we find is good is making great use of leftovers. I cook some nice meals on weekends and package leftovers for lunches and future meals. We will grill more chicken than we plan to eat at the meal, for instance. In the summer, weekends keep me busy using up garden and CSA produce.

    One roast chicken (or rotissary if you buy it) will make 3 to 4 meals for us, one a soup or stock based from the boiled scraps and bones, one just roast chicken, one a casserole and perhaps a sandwich, quesadilla or panini.

    Then I usually have energy to cook on Monday and sometimes on tuesday but we can make a meal on leftover steak and mashed potatoes with corn and beans from the freezer. I also have started cooking several cups of beans at a time and putting them in small containers to take to lunch. Our lunches have been more nutritious and delicious.

    We always go out on Wednesday night.

    When we don’t have energy to cook we enjoy making a breakfast dinner, those bacon and pancake meals we never seem to have the time for in the morning. Easy to do and rather fun. Add some fruit and an egg and quite balanced.

    At the very worst, I have in stock some frozen meals like Stouffer’s mac and cheese with broccoli and the best quality frozen pizzas I can find. This is to give myself and Jim an escape valve for days we really have something else we want to do that isn’t cooking!

    It is working out quite well and in general our diet is good.

    BTW, we spend much time this last summer, roasting and freezing or canning tomatoes. Also canned juice and made jam. We really do enjoy these activities and often have jam-making parties. Work and play. Dinner those days is done on the grill.

    I don’t have a website but you can find me at Live Journal under the name janefluffington.

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