This was originally part of my Fight Food Inflation email Series.
One really impactful way to save money on food is to KNOW how much your average dinner costs. Or SHOULD cost. If you eat an average of six dinners at home each week x 4 weeks, that’s 24 meals. If you spend $20 per meal, that’s about $500 each month on DINNER alone. That number isn’t good or bad. It really depends on how much you can afford, how many people you are feeding, how much you spend on breakfasts and lunches, etc. But just having a ballpark figure is helpful as you plan other meals.
One of the biggest advantages of my freezer meal club was that in calculating how much each meal costs, I was learning what to expect and what was realistic for my family. Knowing what a splurge really costs is helpful. Not to judge or feel guilt, but to plan with and for. And perhaps to balance out with a cheaper meal.
Or work backwards. Perhaps you will want to take your OVERALL monthly budget, factor out what you would spend on breakfasts and then use the balance and divide it by 24 (or your number of meals). I’m using 24 to account for dinners and using leftovers for lunches. Anyhow, if you only HAVE $300 left in your monthly budget then you KNOW you have a per meal budget of $12.50 and can perhaps set a goal to keep each meal below $12. Now you’re working with real numbers and a solid goal. If you’re into SMART goals, this fits (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Based).
Another aspect of what a meal COSTS is how much TIME you spend on it. For some of you, saving money is a very important focus of your job as a home manager. For others, earning money takes precedence. Knowing how much you earn per hour and then comparing that to the cost of a meal can be very valuable in allocating your time. For instance, if you earn $15 per hour and you decide to work an hour and get take out at $25 per the entire meal (excluding any extra gas and time on the road), then you need to compare those two figures. Might it be more worthwhile to NOT work that hour, “losing” $15 but then GAINING $25 back in NOT eating out. So you go home and make a $12 meal. Now you’re “ahead” $3 PLUS the better quality meal and added health-value to your family.
In another example, you might be higher wage or salary earner and bring home (I liked to work with what actually hit the bank account) $30 per hour. An hour of your time might cover a decent meal for your family. But if you are paying down debt or have a savings goal, you might want to cook at home OR have someone else cook at home. A $15 at-home meal goal helps you prioritize your TIME.
Also note that if you enjoy creating a meal for your family, that in itself has a value. And there are many other factors that can influence your decision. There is NO wrong decision but intentionally making a decision in itself is important. I believe most families have no idea what they spend nor do they make an effort to know.
Other factors that go into your cost/meal decision:
- clean up time – I strongly suggest getting your kids involved in this!
- leftovers – Using leftovers decreases your cost per meal considerably.
- family relaxation and enjoyment – A family that rarely goes out and can fully enjoy a meal out might benefit from the experience. I find that families that eat out often might not benefit as greatly since it’s just another meal out.
- family values – At-home meals help you establish and reinforce family values, whatever they may be, from building a family culture of contributing or gratitude or health. I also promote NOT aiming for “special” dinners each night. Your kids do not need to be “wowed” by each meal. Beans and rice have a place and they should learn to accept your “plain” meals so they can truly appreciate the special ones.
- gas expenses – families on tight budgets have to think this through.
- convenience – we pay a premium for convenience. When budgets are very tight, we tend to redefine what is convenient! But sometimes you might decide that eating something more processed or eating out saves more in time, gas and stress.
You might even find that with some planning, convenience can be obtained at quite a value. Especially when compared to eating out. I promote Epicure Meal Solutions for this reason. Most of the Meal Solutions come out to a very low cost per meal, especially compared to meal delivery services! They also save considerable time because each one provides a flavorful meal that can potentially be “Raw to Ready in 20 Minutes” and/or make creative use of leftovers and/or use ANY combination of protein and veggies you happen to have on hand. I share many examples of this in my private recipes and kitchen hacks FB group.
And finally, I’ll take yet another opportunity to remind you of two of my main missions:
- Meal planning is so valuable in this process of keeping your cost per meal down. Use whatever you like! Plan to Eat, your Tula XII meal planning insert, my Flex Planner, an old envelope. Use something.
- YOUR CHILDREN should be helping you with meals. Start by having them do the prep chef jobs or chopping veggies or making pasta. THAT SAVES SO MUCH TIME for when you need to come in for the more complicated tasks. Over time, they should graduate to taking on entire meals for you. I found the hardest part of this was balancing their abilities with the budget. But you’ll probably find that the time YOU get back from having kitchen-capable kids is worth more than is immediately returned. While you are (or will be when they are more independent) gaining time, they are gaining their future health, confidence, and even financial savings in being able to cook for themselves.
So spend a little time evaluating what your cost per meal currently is and what you would like it to be. Prioritize your meal goals and reap the benefits!