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Five Dollar Challenge

Can I feed my family for one Lincoln a person?

I mean well. I really do.

Every year I pull a a few tags from our church’s giving tree. I pick grocery store gift certificates. “Great lesson for the kids” I think to myself. “We eat cheap, and use the savings on someone who needs help.”

Every year, when push comes to shove, we don’t eat cheaper. I buy the gift certificates, of course; our savings takes the hit.

This year, I read about the Slow Food $5 challenge. The challenge: eat for less than a $5 value meal at a fast food restaurant. Aha! Money for the giving tree! At $5 a person, we’ll have plenty to contribute.

I rushed to my organic grocery store, the one with the good bulk foods section. I wanted exact amounts on my receipt:

Bacon4.99/8 oz$4.99
Cannellini Beans1.08 lb @ 2.69/lb$2.69
Onion.76 lb @ 1.69/lb$1.28
Garlic.12 lb @ $5.99/lb$0.72
Sea Salt.7 lb @ $0.69/lb$0.48
Lemon.24 lb @ 3.69/lb$0.89
Total $16.24

*My reuseable bag got me a $0.05 discount, not included in the total.

Forget five dollars a person; I’m closer to three, even with the extra cost of buying organic. I have $8.76 left over from my $25. I’m on the road to savings!

So, how much am I saving?

Not much. Our weekly grocery budget is $200 for five people. If we cut back to five dollars a person, (times five people, times seven days) our budget would be $175. That is not hundreds of dollars to donate to charity.

That didn’t seem right. I’m a food blogger. I shop at farmers markets, specialty stores, ethnic markets. I’m a member of a CSA. I eat well – just ask my bathroom scale. I spend a lot on food, don’t I? What’s going on?

I found answers at the USDA*. Turns out, I am a below average American. I spend less than the “low cost” average per week, and border on the “thrifty” average.
Source: Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, January 2011. I’m cooking for a family of five; a 19-50 year old couple with a 9-10 year old and two 6-8 year olds. According to the data, for our family, low cost is $220/week; thrifty is $168/week. I would have to spend $330 a week to be on the high end of the scale.

Wait, what? Thrifty? Me? I just spent $4.99 on 8 ounces of organic bacon. How can I possibly be thrifty?

I don’t give myself enough credit, apparently. Dried beans, even expensive organic dried beans, are still cheap. I love strange cuts of meat; sure, short ribs are getting expensive at $3.99 a pound, but compared to a $12.99 /lb ribeye? They’re downright penny pinching. Yes, I shop at farmers markets and organic grocery stores, but I buy what is in season…which is usually a bargain. My side trips to ethnic markets uncover a lot of great deals.

I think of my splurges; extra virgin olive oil, real parmesan, a bottle of good wine. My kids have a different view. “Why does everything have to be on sale?” whines my ten year old.
After I told him to put down the full price Life cereal and pick up the generic Cheerios.

What does it all mean?

Cooking is a great way to save money. Because I cook with real ingredients, five dollars per person isn’t much of a challenge. The global average of $2 a day, however…I have some work to do…

Related posts:
Weekly Dinner Plans
Cooking Authentic or Cooking Everyday?
Why Dad Should Cook

What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.

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Filed under: Ramblings


Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.


  1. DEBART says

    “My kids have a different view. “Why does everything have to be on sale?” whines my ten year old.”

    Wow, I thought it was just my kids that think this way!! Great article.

  2. @DEBART:
    Thank you! Yes, my kids think I’m an old stick in the mud. If they only knew…wait. Now that I think about it, they’re probably right.


    Yes, exactly! My wife makes a great granola; oats, honey, nuts, dried fruit…I want her to write a post with the recipe. Unfortunately, the kids won’t touch it. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but that’s OK with me…it leaves more for me when she makes it.

  3. Even cheaper than Cheerios: Oats mixed with honey or maple syrup, toasted in the oven. Add dried fruit and/or nuts if you want to splurge.

  4. Anonymous says

    You also have a pressure cooker. As an immigrant friend told me, pressure cookers are the microwaves of the third world. Beans and cheaper cuts of meat are made for the pressure cooker.

    BTW, a new Indian market opened up in Cuyahoga Falls across from the Acme on Bailey Road. Not sure if it is the one from State Road relocated.

  5. Lorraine says

    So what did you make with the posted ingredients? That’s what I’m wondering.

  6. @Lorraine:

    Check back tomorrow, and your patience will be rewarded.

    Pressure cooker? That’s the recipe tomorrow! How did you know that was coming…am I that obvious?

    Thanks for the tip on the Indian grocery store, I’ll check them out.

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