When It Comes to Saving Food Dollars,
One is a Lonely Number

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Since the holiday season seems like a good time for scrimping -- I'm still reeling at the price of postage for my holiday cards -- I've twice eaten dinner at home this month. Neither experience has been as cost-effective as I'd hoped.

To those of us who eat 19 meals out of 20 in restaurants, staying home for dinner seems incredibly virtuous, since whatever ends up on the table is presumably cleaner, healthier and much, much cheaper than restaurant food.

But the cheap part never seems to work out for me. I'm hobbled by two significant problems: I don't have anyone with whom to share my meal costs (my husband generally works until 10 p.m.), and my cupboard's bare. That means every cooking endeavor requires me to buy pricey pantry staples, usually in far greater quantities than I need.

I gravitate toward recipes that sound affordable; I usually figure if a dish is a potluck staple, it's probably not a luxury item. Plus, one-pot meals are easy to transform into lunch the next day, so I can squeeze a bit more value out of my groceries.

Yet even with strategic recipe selection, I'm hardly saving oodles of cash. Last night, I laid out $21 for the basic ingredients in a chicken rice casserole -- and I forgot the flour. (I live downtown and don't have a car, so I'm at the mercy of Urban Market, a store I adore that probably doesn't offer pricing as competitive as its suburban counterparts.)

So today I set out to uncover whether I could make myself something other than beans and rice for dinner and spend $15 or less. Since frozen pizza and boxed macaroni don't fit my definition of home-cooked meals, I checked out three budget recipes from popular online sites, using NetGrocer.com to determine how much they'd cost me to prepare. The results, which follow after the jump, weren't encouraging.

A few notes on my methodology: I halved the recipes wherever I could, substituting one pound of ground turkey for two in Rachael Ray's recipe for turkey burgers. But, in most cases, the recipes already called for the smallest commercially available size of a product, such as the 1 pound of uncooked chicken strips used in Betty Crocker's Mexican Chicken and Beans.

Since I rarely eat at home, I chose my ingredients based on total price, not unit price: A 25-pound bag of sugar isn't such a steal when it becomes dusty and infested with ants. But I went with the cheapest brands in all instances (despite my knowing I'd never bypass Thomas English Muffins for a version without the trade secret nooks-and-crannies.)

I also made allowances for what's currently in my kitchen. Here's the grand total of what I have: Butter, bottled garlic, Dijon mustard (courtesy of the Dijon delegation that visited Dallas this year), Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Sriracha sauce, Tabasco sauce, Thomas sauce, brown rice, chicken broth, salt, pepper, curry, cumin and paprika. I also keep green tea, granola bars and York peppermint patties, but haven't yet stumbled across a recipe that makes use of them. And there's plenty of wine.

Recipe 1: Vietnamese Tofu-Noodle Lettuce Wraps from Eating Well's Healthy Budget-Friendly Recipes Thin rice noodles $5.15 Fish sauce $3.75 Lime juice $1.55 Sugar $3.59 Crushed red pepper $1.29 Extra-firm tofu $3.29 Carrots $1.65 Snow peas $4.49 Basil $1.49 Mint $1.49 Lettuce $2

TOTAL: $29.74

Recipe 2: Open-faced Turkey Burgers with Pot Pie Gravy from Rachael Ray's Budget Meals 1 lb. ground turkey breast $8.25 Chives $1.49 Dill $1.49 Flat-leaf parsley $1.49 Dijon mustard $1.95 EVOO $6.25 Butter $3.09 Shallots $1.19 Carrots $1.65 Celery $3.75 Flour $1.72 Chicken stock $1.65 Peas $1.05 English muffins $2.39

TOTAL: $24.47 (or $37.41, if my kitchen wasn't already so well-stocked.)

Recipe 3: Easy Mexican Chicken and Beans from Betty Crocker Budget Meals 1 lb. uncooked chicken breast strips for stir-fry $7.79 Taco seasoning $1.55 Black beans $1.39 Mexicorn $2.09 Flour tortillas $3.05

TOTAL: $15.87

So Betty comes pretty close to meeting my budget, although she pulls a neat trick by remaking my fallback beans-and-rice with highly processed ingredients. That's not exactly the sort of dish I had in mind.

What do you home cooks think? Is it possible for one person with a non-existent pantry to save money by eating in? Or am I doomed to eat every meal in a restaurant?

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