Can You Make Dinner on $5.50 for 5 People? The Family Foodie Gave It A Try.

I hated history in school. Lists of dates were just drop dead boring. Fortunately for my kids, their school district uses a curricular approach called “History Alive.”  This year, they have reenacted The Civil War, immigrated through Ellis Island, carried out trench warfare from World War I, and had a 20s Dance Party. But this week, the kids got to do my favorite assignment…the Depression Dinner.  Each kid has to plan, shop, and prepare dinner for a fixed amount of money determined by the number of family members you are making dinner for. As a family of five, the twins each got to spend $5.50 including tax. And we got to enjoy two “Depression Dinners.”

Of course, both kids are well aware of the time that I spend grocery shopping, and turned to me for advice. First, they both checked with their teacher to make sure that they could use coupons. Then, they checked what was on sale that week. Then, they spent some time dreaming.

The Picky Eater asked her teacher if we could use the pesto in the freezer that we made from the garden last year. No go, said the teacher, you need to use something prepped recently from the garden (uh, it’s February) or else get it from the store. Of course, she doesn’t eat pesto, so I guess she was just planning on plain pasta.  I think she just thought she could count it as free.

Then she checked the sale circular. Chicken thighs/legs were on sale for 69 cents/lb. So she started thinking about chicken. She quickly abandoned that as too expensive when she realized this was for the value pack size. Next up, she decided to make the potato-leek soup that we had made a couple of weeks ago, with some homemade biscuits. Cool, I thought.

But then, we went to the grocery store (we had to get a receipt – so the farmer’s market was not an option….). She got 5 potatoes, weighed them, and was dismayed to realize that it would cost her $2.50 to get enough potatoes.  Then, she looked at the leeks, and just about died when she saw that they were $3.99/lb. Thinking on her feet, she asked if she could use green onions as a substitute. Sure I said. At $1 a bunch, they were closer to her budget. But then she was at $4.50, and still needed to get chicken broth or boullion.  That was the deal breaker. She was over $6.

While she was regrouping and thinking about plan two, the Fruit Hater and I (aka her twin brother) turned to his menu. He had decided to make one of our favorite go-to dishes: pasta with lemon, ham, black olives, and thyme. Fortunately, spices and olive oil didn’t count against his total, so he just had to get lemons, ham, and black olives in addition to the thyme.

Ham was easy. We stopped at the deli. Boiled ham was on sale, and he got 1/4 lb for $1.15. Then, he looked for lemons. All he could find were organic, and he asked the produce man if they had any of the “regular” lemons in the back. Lucky day for him — they said no — but they gave him an entire bag of lemons for 99 cents — score!! Then he found a can of black olives for 88 cents (big decision was sliced or not…). Next stop was the pasta. Straightforward – pasta was available for $1.29. So, he was pretty confident that he was good at $4.45. But then he remembered parmesan cheese. Shoot – how could he afford that? After, much decision, he returned the olives, and got a small can of fake parmesan. He came in under budget. No vegetables at all, but certainly an edible meal. And enough lemons to add to our required water (no milk for the kids or wine for the grown-ups).

Meanwhile, the Picky Eater was thinking. As we were pricing pasta, she found store brand macaroni and cheese for 22 cents a box. So, 2 boxes of mac and cheese became the cornerstone of her meal. As we wandered past the processed meats, she saw some smoked sausage on sale for $2.50. As a lover of all things hot dog related, that fit both her budget and her preferences. But then, she wanted to use the coupon we had for frozen boxed vegetables. If we bought 3 and used the coupon, the price per box would be 67 cents. So, we bought 2 boxes of brussel sprouts (her choice, can you believe it?!) and a single box of sugar snap peas for the freezer and another meal.  So, she was feeling victorious – and well under budget. She had a brief moment of panic however, when her mac and cheese rang up at 79 cents a box. Turns out that the 22 cents was what was saved because they were on sale…. but since she was only planning to serve two boxes of brussel sprouts, she was okay.

And then they both prepared their dinners. While we missed our regular salads, we were certainly fed. And among other things, the kids learned about how much food costs — and why we have a garden, and use coupons, join a CSA, and frequent the farmer’s market.

What would you make for a family of 5 on $5.50 for a meal?

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9 Responses to “Can You Make Dinner on $5.50 for 5 People? The Family Foodie Gave It A Try.”

  1. What a great assignment! I bet they’ll always remember it.

  2. Wow. Very good homework! I wish my classes were as interactive when I was in school.

    Personally, I probably would have made something with rice & (dried) beans with vegetable inside (maybe frozen spinach? or canned tomatoes?). Like your kids, it would definitely depend what was on sale. In college, the staple of my diet was stir-fries (using frozen veg, half a chicken breast, & making my own sauce). My weekly grocery bill was like $25!

    • It is great for the kids to have interactive lessons at school — something to look forward to, right?

      I would have gone the bean route too, but The Picky Eater is not big on beans. They didn’t consider stir fries but they love them too! Great idea. I think I’ll have to send the Eldest over your way before he heads out to college – he’s a junior, so it’s just around the corner. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. what a great assignment. My eldest would definitely go down the orange mac and cheese path, I bet.

  4. Great post! I try to work the $5 dollar a meal challenge in my head for a lot of our dinners since reading about Slow Food’s challenge campaign, but we are only a family of three and they let you have 5 dollars per person as an allowance… It is tough when you are not able to take advantage of planned buying a whole chicken to make several meals out of, or the things you already have on hand like the chunk of parmesan – that’s what keeps costs down for me. I’d probably do Thai rice noodles with a peanut sauce perhaps, or bulk italian chicken sausage from butcher ($3.00 a pound) sauteed with peppers over spaghetti, but my child would not care much for that. But she’d give us ramen and cucumbers and black olives I bet.

  5. Thanks! Having $5/person like the Slow Food challenge is closer to our typical allowance for dinner, but this exercise really brings home how dependent I am on all the things you mention — using a whole chicken to anchor multiple meals, and using pantry items at every meal. I can’t believe the kids didn’t think about ramen – it is one of their most favorite snack items!


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