Thursday, February 28, 2008

The $50 menu

Some people suspect that a $50 menu can't be healthy. I disagree.

Below you will find my scratched out, scribbled plan for the week, incorporating a few tricks from the 1950s menu experiment. Click to enlarge.

Health and cost don't have to be mutually exclusive. I'm no expert, but I'll be sharing some resources that you may find helpful.

In the meantime, how do you cook healthy without spending a lot?


Anonymous said...

Why did you write this in such light colors? Its very hard to read.

: (

Meredith said...

Well, I wrote it for myself, using the markers that were on the kitchen counter. I hadn't intended to publish a photo until someone sent me the link to the grocery post above.

I bought all of these groceries for the week for $50, plus a few pantry staples I had on hand (flour, for instance.) \

A portion of that $50 went to restocking my freezer, too, with some organic ground beef I found for $1.79/lb, so I think that's a fair number all around.

I hope that anyone who is curious can read this to see an imperfect but actual menu cooked for a family on a budget.

Is it ideally healthy? No. (Though the chicken fried steak is baked, not fried!)

But it's not unhealthy, and it's not what people might imagine when they think about a $50 menu.

Anonymous said...

* Scouring the sale flyer before planning the week's menu makes sure we have the loss leaders and can stock up

* Shopping the local farmers' market beginning around April gives us plenty of cheap, healthy produce in season

* Keeping a price book to track unit prices so we can tell when something is a "real deal"

* Making as much as possible from scratch rather than relying on salty, fatty convenience's just as convenient to pull my own cooking from the freezer.

The Frugal Countess said...

Cooking from scratch with ingredients that are healthy and budget friendly seems to be the easiest way to feed my family well and for less.

Your experiment was a lot of fun to watch - and BTW I could read your green marker just fine. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Eat less junk! All that snacky stuff adds up!

Aimee said...

Great sounding menu and for $50!

I am part of a coop with some other families that means cheaper produce and the opportunity to buy organic toiletries, household products, etc wholesale through Frontier...and we are able to buy bulk grains. Being a part of this has definitely saved us a lot of money.

My local whole foods store sells organic produce on Sunday and Thursday afternoons 30% off as well as their meats. That helps too!

Dianna said...

I'm amazed at what you can do for $50! And I think your green marker is just great, by the way. ;) I've been known to take phone messages in chewed-up crayon.

Things I do: make more things from scratch and eat less meat. Healthy and cheap!

Anonymous said...

I have a terrible time knowing what I spend per week b/c I stock up on sales and pull things from the freezer and pantry. Could add it all up if I'd just take the time though. Some ways I keep costs down is making 4X the recipe for waffles and warming them in the toaster or microwave, seldom using dry cereal, making lots of soups and stir-frys, and canning bushels of applesauce each fall (no sugar added). Those are a few. A big way to save is saying "no" to all those extras that are temptingly scattered throughout the store. I stock up big time on the BOGO items that I use. I like Publix stores b/c they usually have very good BOGOs each week. I look at a piece of meat not so much as how much it costs but how many meals will I make from that and then divide the cost. I check Big Lots periodically and have found some good deals there. I also exercise THANKFULNESS for even the simplest meal and trust the Lord to continue to provide. He does!

Michelle said...

Thank you for sharing this information and how you write down your menu, it has given me a new way to plan. I am really trying to get my grocery budget under control, I have reduced it from $200 per week to $125 per week and would love to spend only $75. I watch the sale papers and plan my menu from that and I also go to the store early so I can have first pick of the marked down meats and produce, today I found 10apples for .99 cents and an organic whole chicken for $2.07. Take care and please keep sharing your ideas.

Meredith said...

Organic chicken for $2? NOw that's inspiring!

I have been blessed to find several organic chicken packages in the last few months. I really do think that the air-cooled organic Smart Chicken brand has more meat for the money than the water-cooled conventional brands.

Anonymous said...

I see you are having LENTILS on Friday!

I can see your list just fine.

Holly C.

Anonymous said...

I am assuming that this $50/week does not include paper products, detergents, etc. How many gallons of milk do you buy each week? Are apples and bananas primarily the fruit you buy? What about snacks? My pediatrician recommends offering a toddler 3 "hearty" snacks per day. I can't get my budget that low but I do buy at least 3-4 gallons of milk each week and lots of fresh fruit (grapes, berries, tomatoes, etc) and I also am buying more organic as I personally feel the cost is justified. I am working on streamlining my food budget, although $50 is not my goal as that is not realistic for my household. And I buy very little junk food - most of my meals are from scratch with the best ingredients I can afford and I do try to be creative with leftovers.

Anonymous said...

Meredith you do all the right things to keep that bill down.
-menu plan
-cherry pick
-trade offs/homemade vs. prepared and healthy vs. junk food
-in season
-keeping things basic
The last one is one that is rarely discussed in frugal circles. When planning a menu the recipes you pick make a big difference in your bill. KimC did a homeschool unit at "life in a shoe" where her family did a cost analysis of dinner meals. Very informative.

Barb said...

It's funny how this has come up when I just wrote a post about this on Yahoo Group's Creative Budget list. I put the post up on my blog:

I agree with Meredith that a $50 menu is possible for a family of four. We feed a family of six on $70/week with some wiggle room. We could do better if we made different choices and if we had been employing the stockpile/coupon strategy for longer than seven months.

Anonymous said...

Re your post a couple of days ago, did you ever find out what that woman does with 30 pounds of bananas that she buys each week? (now there's a budget trick for you - live on bananas). That intrigued me. I won't eat a banana once it starts to "freckle" so how could someone possibly consume so many?

Anonymous said...

There are ten in their family. Go to and read for yourself about the banana epiphany.

Jen said...

Ooohh-can you share your teriyaki chicken on a stick recipe?? Please??

Obviously I didn't have any trouble reading it! ;-)

Mary said...

When the bananas start to freckle is exactly the time they should be eaten and the best time to make baked goods from them. the "sugar spots" mean that the starch has turned to sugar in the fruit. Eating tons of fruit saves our household of six a lot of $$$ and it's a healthy choice as well.

Buying in bulk
Pantry principle
Cooking from scratch

TracyMichele said...

I could not agree more with your post! Eating healthy does not mean it needs to break the bank. We spend a little under $50 a week for a family of 4. Another thing people don't consider is the size of their portions. We (society) eat much larger portions than we should. Reducing the amount of food on your plate will certainly help the budget as well.

We also..
Make all our food from scratch. Cheerios are the only processed food in our pantry. :)
Make very simple meals
Carefully plan our menu
Find creative ways to use leftovers

Keep up the inspiring posts, Meredith!

Anonymous said...

I like your menu.

What does your DH do for lunch?

And there are a lot of regional variables in price -- I USED to get bell peppers 4 for $1.29 at Aldi in the Midwest. Then, I moved to the Southwest, where green bell peppers are $0.89 apiece -- ON SALE. My monthly grocery budget went from $360 to $525 overnight.

I could go on with examples, but, the thing is to eat well within your constraints. Even if we have the $$$, it's not heathy to have Cheese Danish for breakfast; Pringles and fried chicken for lunch; and taquitos for supper. At least not every day.


Anonymous said...

Meredith, I'm curious as to why you have desserts for lunch and not dinner. Just wondering...

Meredith said...

Oh, the desserts are just penciled in the lunch box for space reasons.

I am still experimenting with the one homemade treat each day, as a way of cutting down our family's cravings for snacks/sweets.

The dessert goes either with dinner or lunch depending on the menu. Obviously flan goes with the black beans/quesadilla, while molasses cookies are better with lunch.

My husband either takes dinner leftovers for lunch or makes a meaty sandwich on low carb bread.

TJ said...

This looks great! Definitely well balanced. Our menu looks fairly similar honestly. I always eat leftovers from the night before (or a cup of noodles if there aren't any) and hubby takes a lunch bag with cheese, veggies, some type of chip or pretzel and sliced pepperoni or tuna salad.

I however do not eat lentils. There I've said it. I can handle small amounts in vegetable soup, but that's it. We typically eat a lot more Mexican food though. Corn tortillas, fresh salsa, homeade beans, and meat. It's amazing how little meat is needed when you are serving it like this. Really helps to stretch it out.

Anonymous said...

Meredith - thanks so much for sharing your menu. It is great to see a menu that is healthy and budget concious while still having a lot of variety (this is where I find myself struggling when coming up with a menu).

For my family of 3 I usually spend $40 - $50 a week and I am always scouring for sales and I use a coupon service as well. I am also looking into joining a food coop so that I might buy items in bulk to reduce my spending a bit more.

Thanks again and I look forward to your blog every day!

Anonymous said...

I so enjoy your blog. I am very interested in the $50 menu.... I also enjoyed reading everyone else's responses!

Kim said...

I make sure we use what I cook. Leftovers are money wasters if you don't eat them!

Harper said...

Maybe it's just that I live in CA, but the healthier I shop, the cheaper it is. More specifically, I buy all of my meat at once, usually to last several weeks. In the weeks in between, I usually only buy produce. As long as I stay away from processed foods and canned goods, I can usually get more than enough fruits and vegetables for the week for less than $20. The weeks that involve meat, cheese, and anything else not found in the produce section usually put me over $30. So stocking up on fresh produce has been a budget saver. And yes, I do plan around sales and season.

I also do a lot with soup. So I save both money and health by making my own broth from my vegetable parings (onion skins, carrot ends, etc.).

Momma B. said...

I know it can be done. I HAVE to do it! Except I shop for the whole month. I have to cook from scratch and we are eating so much better/healthier. I have a six month old and am moving into solids, I am going to have to start making my own baby food, it takes up too much of my budget. We try to spend $200 a month and that's for food and household goods for my family of 6. OF course a family of 6 where the children are 5 and under. It would certainly be different if they were teenagers!
I started making my own cleaners and LOVE it! Way cheaper and just as effective!
Also, we just trust that God will provide. He is always so faithful! If there is an unexpected need or item that I forgot to plan for God always provides a jaw dropping deal! But with four preschoolers I don't have time or energy to coupon!

Thanks for the menu ideas!

Ann @TheAssetEdge said...

Nice job! They sound yummy & healthy. :)

For more ideas, you can read She specializes in $45 and $70/week emergency menus.

Anonymous said...

I don't even try to feed my family on 50.00 a week. I do the best i can every week but I refuse to buy marked down or expired foods. I read a report on this recently and there are safety issues around this and making my family sick isn't worth the savings.Another thing if you look at the pictures a lot of the girls post of there frugal shoping trips you will see lots of sugar cereals and processed food.There is no way to feed a family of 4 on 50.00 a week if you buy top quailty all fresh and healthly foods.

Christi said...

I normally feed our family on $30/wk. I do not normally buy organic, but that defintely doesn't mean that we eat unhealthy foods.

We do have to skimp on the junk foods and sodas. But who really misses them?

Way to go, Meredith~

DueƱaDelBlog said...

I've learned a lot from your ideas and those of the articles you've linked to. Thank you!

A couple of ideas I haven't seen mentioned specifically:

Rule #1: With very few exceptions, I buy ingredients. Ie. Flour, sugar, eggs, not bread and cookies. Canned tomato sauce and spices, not spaghetti sauce. This way we avoid processed foods almost entirely; it taste better, and we save.

Rule #2: Know when to break rule #1...Buying a bag of chips and grated cheese for nachos or a loaf of bread and luncheon meat for sandwiches is A LOT cheaper than eating out, which is what would happen more often than financially reasonable if I only cooked from scratch.

The second

Anonymous said...

Hi Meredith,

You have brought us so many important issues today. Namely, food, health and money.
Frankly this is one of my biggest challenges. Healthy eating on a budget is hard!! Healthy food simply costs more. However there are ways to save. Not the least of which is just eating less. Also conquering picky eating is fundamental in managing a food budget. It does no good to save money at the store if your kids refuse to eat it and demand a happy meal, or worse a school lunch (at our school costs $2.
I think that for me (but this is not true for all SAHMS) the pantry principle works best. I don't always know when my husband will be home for dinner. His work is such that his schedule can be unpredictable.
Considering the other members of the family are under 6-you can see how this would make a huge difference.
So planning a whole week of menus can be counterproductive. Instead I try to keep on hand (in the freezer) healthy protien like fish and chicken that can be prepared easily. I buy chicken breasts for 1.99 a lb. and whole chickens for .89 a lb. Salmon or tilapia at 4.99 a lb. We don't really eat beef. Mostly because I've never mastered cooking it.
Also I have found frozen veggies to be a life saver. It is easy to broil some salmon, microwave some broccoli and steam some rice in 20 minutes.
I live in CA, and we are very lucky that lovely food is availible fresh year round. However, it isn't cheap. I have compared what you all can pay verses what our stores charge and we do pay more to live here.
Although I think it all balances out. I pay less for heat and winter clothes. Also I can grow veggies in my little garden almost year round.
As much as I would love to eat all organic dairy there is no way we could afford it. Organic milk is over $6.00 a gallon and we go through at least 4 gallons a week.
So I try to sub soy milk as much as possible. I can get it at target or walmart for 2.50 for a half gallon with coupon.

I am trying really hard to keep our monthy grocer bill at $400 but more often than not it ends up at $600 for a family of 5-and we own a sandwich shop we eat from for free at least once a day.
All in all our grocery budget is a huge challange. I worry about it every day. My husband makes a great living but we moved to a big house 2 years ago just as the bottom fell out of the housing market and we couldn't sell the house we were living in before. So with two houses and three businesses, groceries may seem like a small thing. But really they are the one way I can contribute to our financial well being.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see you post your menus-can't really see everything. Also how to you prepare your baked chicken fried steak-I was just thinking about preparing something like this recently. Thanks! Julie Schaal

Anonymous said...

Staying on top of leftovers is one of the best ways to save money. I just threw out some bread this morning that was starting to "turn", as my husband (whose super nose I trust) calls it. Anyway, I know I'm going to be all bummed about that for a couple of days, at least, because I certainly could have made some croutons, bread crumbs, whatever.

$50 may seem lean for a budget for a family of four, but I don't think it's impossible at all. It simply means not a lot of frills. But when I look at your menu, Meredith, it's far from boring, & looks balanced & varied, too. So I say, well done.

Fresh fruits & veges are preferred by most people, but if you're ratcheting back down one or two notches, frozen & canned would be just fine. That is one way to save.

I also believe that condiments & other specialty items can actually lend a sense of "plenty" to otherwise plain meals. They tend to cost more upfront, but so little is used (mustards, Tabasco sauce, malt vinegar, capers, just to name a few at our house), that you buy them only a couple times a year. But what a difference they make!!

And let's not forget portion size. Children usually don't like to have their plates overloaded with food. They might need a snack between meals, where an adult might not. But unless they're going through a growth spurt, their plates should have only a modest amount of food placed on them, to start with. This will reduce waste.

Just some observations from my own kitchen & family dinner table. I'm eager to read how your $50 menu serves your family!


TJ said...

I'm not sure I saw anyone mention this, but portion size is key. In an effort to watch our waistlines, I have really begun watching portions. In my huevos rancheros recipe I used to use 5 eggs. Then I realized, if I only use 4 will anyone notice? nope. We were all just as satisfied on the 1 egg per person with plenty of tomatoes and chile's. By doing this consistently I'm cutting not only the calories/fat/carbs, but the cost.

Anonymous said...

I think this is such a regional issue. There is no way I could feed a family of four of $50 where we live. We live in a large metro area on the East cost. I've never seen organic ground beef for less than $2.99. even if it is a manager special. We buy basics, we buy local meat and lots of produce, and I make lots from scratch. We've chosen to buy organic dairy and we're making the switch to locally grown mostly organic meat since DH no longer feels that the large meat packing plants can be trusted. Plus, we'd rather support local producers. My grocery budget isn't $50 but it is a lot less expensive now that we no longer shop a regular grocery store but buy direct from farmers and small food producers. I agree with the poster who notes that a lot of the low cost budgets--not everyone-- have sugar cereals and processed foods in their pictures.

Anonymous said...

I so agree this is a area thing too.I live in the 4th largest city in the USA. We have Krogers but none of the cheap stores Like Adi. I spend about 150.00 a week for 2 of us. That is cheap here. Example organic milk is almost 7.00 a gallon. The cheapest healthly ground beef is 5.99 a pound. Yogurt for the organic fat free 1.99 for 6 oz size. So you see there is no way here to feed a family for 50.00 a week and eat good healthly food. The food that is cheap is all processed and sugary.
I think more needs to be written about this with real eyes. I believe it is discouraging and misleading to a lot of young moms who spend more than 50.00 a week. We are an older couple so I look at things in real terms. Just because someone esle does something doesn't mean everyone can do it. Instead of focusing on 50.00 a week we should be encouraging women to pray and do the best they can to feed thier families.

Meredith said...

That's exactly what I am trying to do. Not a SINGLE item on my menu is processed. Not a one.

The organic milk I buy is at Kroger. It costs $5.48/gallon, or it is marked down to half that within a day of its sell-by date. That is a date by which the store must sell it--NOT the date by which one should drink it.

We make our own yogurt from the organic milk. No sugar added. That's a lot cheaper than $1.99/6 ounces.

I don't expect everyone to copy me but I for one am learning a lot from other's ideas. I only hope that they can pick and choose what is helpful from mine.

Anonymous said...

I sorry that you took my comments personally. I was only giving people another side of the coin. There are blogs out there that push people really hard and make them feel bad if they spend more than 50 a week.
My dh refuses to allow me to buy anything that is near the sell by date.I have done that and with in 2 days it was spoiled which is no savings.

Anonymous said...

Meredith, I'm glad to see that you're doing this!

Often I find myself thinking to the folks who say "It can't be done! You can't eat healthy on $50 (or in our case, $40!) a week", oh yeah??? Watch me!

We eat salad 3-4 times a week. Probably more than Aaron would like, but he needs his veggies just like I do. Otherwise, we ALWAYS have a vegetable and fruit at every meal - I use frozen veggies if we aren't having cooked veg like fresh carrots. Canned veggies are used only for super foods salsa, etc.

We do eat a lot of venison - DH hunts, so does StepFIL, and every year my MIL and StepFIL generously give us a whole deer. It takes the entire year for the two of us to eat it. I'm sure now that Liam is 6 months old, once he's on food, he'll eat more too, but not a huge amount at first. Otherwise, I stock up with things are on sale....

Frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts have to be around 5 bucks a 3# bag for me to buy. They were this week, and even though I spent $15 in chicken, I won't need to buy for at least 2 months!

Pork chops have to be around 1.99 a pound - in Wisconsin, this is a good price.

Ground beef has to be at 1.69 a pound before I stock up.

I buy frozen fish at ALDI - often, I can get a bag of salmon that will feed us for 2 meals for $4, and Tilapia for 8 meals for $4. Obviously, if we have guests, it doesn't last as long, but I don't mind! The fish is good quality, and I love to entertain! Haddock can usually be found for the same price as the Tilapia.

Now, I don't buy organic, so I can't comment on the organic dairy.... I just buy the Roundy's RBGH free milk that is now $3.03 a gallon for SKIM! And I live in the dairy state! I do buy yogurt at the store - I tried making my own, and DH and I just couldn't get used to it. I buy the sugar free light tubs instead of the mini tubs, and it is more cost effective. I do stock up on butter though, when it is around $1.89 a pound. Aldi usually has that price all the time, but I like a certain brand the most if I can get it. I'm a butter snob. ;) The savings aren't worth it if you aren't going to eat it!

I DO buy meats that are marked down if I happen on them and I'm at Sam's or Walmart. I just either cook it that day, or freeze it right away. We have NEVER gotten sick from this method. I'm nervous about buying produce at the grocery that is marked down, but I will buy it at our local farmer's market in the summer - I know it is organic, and I know it hasn't traversed the country before it reaches me!

I do also coupon - I don't cook everything from scratch, but the majority of it. I don't have as big of a problem buying box muffin mixes, bags of chips, Betty Crocker potatoes, etc, if I am getting it free or nearly free! Just this week, I spent 15 dollars on Muir Glen tomatoes - I got almost 60 cans of them, at 25 cents a can after coupons. I stocked up for ourselves, to give some to my folks, to give away, and also because I can't CAN them for that cheap! Things like boxed cereal isn't consumed every day here - DH and I eat it on Saturday only, otherwise, I eat oatmeal during the week, and he eats fruit. I grew up eating Frosted Mini Wheats every day, and I'm just fine... :)

Sorry for the novel, but that's our MO around here for grocery shopping!

Meredith said...

A family of two will have issues of spoilage on all food that is bought in quantity.

Freezing milk stops spoilage indefinitely.

Making yogurt from this milk is ideal, because what is yogurt but fermented (spoiled) milk to begin with?

Patty said...

Hi Meredith,
Good job on your menu ! We always fed our family of 6 for about $100 a week including paper products, personal care items and cleaning items.
I still buy ripe banana's for cheap, peel them, freeze them and use them for smoothies and "ice cream" with my champion juicer.

~Red Tin Heart~ said...

I make alot of stir fry. I use a little meat but lots of vegetables.
That streches meat a whole lot.
I also have a garden in the Summer and can tomatoes, freeze ocra. And go to our local farmers market in the Summer. xoxo nita

Angie @ Many Little Blessings said...

How interesting to look through the menu! I really need to be that organized sometime. The worst for me is that we will stay on the menu, and then we get such a craving for food from out and apparently we have no will power. Augh! *insert eye rolling*

Anonymous said...

I spent $180 this week at Wegmans (Western New York) and it makes me crazy! I've seen prices rise weekly at all the local stores. I'm feeding a family of 5, two of them teenagers and all 3 kids very picky. They wouldn't eat half the food on the (great) $50 menu you posted. Also, we are so busy with activities almost every week night, that I have a hard time cooking from scratch.
We eat healthy foods like real maple syrup (19.99 1/2 gal) whole wheat bread (2x the price of white), organic apples because they consume so many and are known to be a high pesticide produce. My kids take a lunch most days and I buy natural deli Turkey (at $8.50 per lb) I use expellar pressed canola oil and extra virgin olive oil for cooking and baking. Both more expensive versions of what most people buy.
I give lots of thought to buying less expensive, lesser quality versions of these to save money. But what about the cost to their health?