A useful ‘metric’ to have in mind is that it takes about ‘one dry pound’ of food to feed a person for a day. Yes, it’s less than that for a 100 lb / 50 kilogram woman and more for a 300 lb / 150 kg male. But it is a useful number for planning things like emergency rations.
That same rule of thumb can be used for comparing the costs of various food items for a subsistence diet. Just figure out about how much you are paying per “dry pound” and you have a fair way to compare different choices.
But turning ‘wet pounds’ into ‘dry pounds’ is not exact. So, for example, a boneless and very fat pork roast has a lot more calories per ‘dry pound’ than a set of lean pork ribs. The water content of fat is near zero, while the water content of the lean is closer to 75% to 80%. The bones are a nearly complete loss anyway, other than making soup or flavoring beans. So many of the comparisons have a significant ‘guess’ aspect to them. I’ll use a general guideline of 4:1 or 5:1 ratio for turning ‘wet’ meat into ‘dry’ pounds. So a 1 pound ‘wet’ steak is about 1/4 to 1/5 ‘dry pound’ while more bony cuts could run up to 10:1 ratio.
In general, the disparity is so large and so much in the same direction that it isn’t an error of ‘kind’, only of ‘how extreme’.
That means a $4 / lb roast is about $16 to $20 / “dry pound” while $3 / lb ribs are closer to $30 / “dry pound”. Meat is very expensive… A $1.10 / lb chicken is about $4 to $5 / “dry pound” and much more reasonable.
The Lowest End
At the very low end of the cost curve are the dry goods. Rice, flour, beans & lentils, corn meal, oat meal, sugar. That kind of thing. At the very high end are fresh high end meats, wines, and specialty foods like caviar and truffles. We won’t be going anywhere near the high end specialty foods.
To ‘eat cheap’ involves a lot of the very low end dry goods. Also a lot of whole grain cereals like various whole grain mixes. Things like a mix of rye, wheat, and barley grains, steamed or boiled.
How cheap is cheap?
Well, locally, rice is about $1.20 / lb in small units, and down closer to 50 ¢ in large bulk. Similarly prices for beans ( $1.40 / lb or so). So at a lower bound, you could live a month on about $20 to $30 by eating nothing but ‘dry goods’. This basic strategy is the baseline for most poverty level cooking. There are a thousand and one variations based on just this approach. From biscuits and dumplings, to pancakes and even Cajun “red beans & rice” or “dirty rice”, to Spanish Paella; most historical ethnic cuisines have an iconic ‘dry good’ that the rest of the meal plans are built around.
Asian rice. Italian noodles. North African couscous. Southern USA Corn Bread and Grits. Mexican corn, with rice with refried beans. Scotts oats and oatmeal. German barley. Polish rye bread. In Africa, and in ancient Asia, millet was the staple grain. To some extent, you can treat the potato as one of these staples, though it is technically ‘wet’; but sells so cheaply it is also a very cheap staple. The Irish lived on nearly nothing but potatoes for decades in the historical past.
Around this base, each cuisine adds a variety of flavors and spices, some characteristic fats and oils, vegetables and proteins. Decorate with fruits and sweet deserts based on the local available produce, and you get the ethnic mix. Finally, making various sauces out of those ingredients tends to finish the presentation and flavor pallet. But at the core, it remains that ‘dry goods’ base.
Exactly how much protein or which fats (or how much cheese or…) tends to vary with the relative wealth of the age. So one might have plain spaghetti with marinara if very poor. Add some grated Parmesan and olives if a bit better off. Moving up to mixed cheeses, lasagna noodles, and even some sausage and salami in the sauce in good times. To live cheaply, one just runs that escalator back the other direction. Many times when money was tight, I’d work at the bottom of the scale until I was enough ‘money ahead’ to have a high end special meal. A vegetarian Paella would be very cheap (but still very nutritious); one step up you can add a bit of low cost farmed fish (such as tilapia) and / or a few shrimp. At the top end, you could go all out with a variety of expensive shell fish, even salmon and a lobster. So take a high end cuisine, and take out the expensive ingredients, add in some cheaper ones, and you get a cheap very similar meal.
Historically, for most of humanity and for most of history, that was the usual diet. Only for the very rich, or for rare periods of time, would wealth allow a lot of meat or high fat diets. Historically, too, there were a lot of fruits and vegetables added to that base diet, mostly from family gardens and orchards. Today those can be fairly expensive, especially off season, but they are important for a variety of health reasons. Even if ‘living cheap’, it is important to find a way to add them to the diet. Even if modest amounts.
Breads are one of the major ways this class of food is still present in the western diet. “Man does not live by bread alone.” was a reference to spiritual needs precisely because bread was THE dominant food item in the diet of the people of that age. In the USA Old West, corn bread, hard tack, and tortillas were still the center of the diet. “Corn bread and chili beans” is a classic. Folks can still live on not much more than that today.
But at what cost?
Some example prices
I did a bit of price shopping at the local middle / higher end grocery store, Publix, and at the Walmart about 2 blocks away from it. Comparing those prices can be enlightening. Even in this, the low end of things, you can get 50% savings by price shopping.
Beans & Lentils
Lentils are sold in 1 lb bags. At Publix they were $1.39 and Walmart $1.12 /lb. The Indian core diet of rice and lentil / gram bean dishes runs out to about $1 / person / day (at USA prices).
Pinto and similar beans:
Publix 1 lb 2 lb 4 lb $1.69 $3.00 $5.69 $1.69/lb $1.50/lb $1.42/lb Walmart 1 lb 2 lb 4 lb $1.57 $3.05 $5.98 $1.57/lb $1.52/lb $1.50/lb
OK, what can see learn from this? First off, Walmart isn’t always the cheapest, but when Publix is cheaper, it is usually only a little bit cheaper. You get a lot more “gain” out of going to larger sizes; at least for beans. There is an 18% ‘gain’ between the smallest and largest sizes at Publix. (Even larger sizes, with even more “gain” can be had at places like Costco or BJ’s). Even with the highest price choice, it is only $1.70 / day (allowing a penny of spice ;-) to live on ‘just beans’. You can sprout beans to get a fresh vegetable too!
In California when I’d done this, Pinto beans were cheaper than lentils. Here, lentils are cheaper. It pays to compare in your area. In this case, lentils are a full 50% cheaper than the most expensive beans, by the pound.
If you have a bit more money, you can ‘move up’ to things like “red beans and rice” using actual red beans. At Publix, the other kinds of beans were:
$3.39 / 2 pound bag of black beans. $3.89 / 2 pounds bag of red beans. That’s $1.70 and $1.95 per pound respectively. So it’s nearly a 60% “uplift” in bean cost to have “red beans and rice” instead of “lentils and rice”. Nutritionally they are about the same. Yet in absolute terms, it’s only about 42 ¢ to have a pound of red beans and rice (as only 1/2 of it is the beans) instead of lentils and rice. Is it worth that 42 ¢? Depends on if you have it or not…
14 oz 1 lb 2 lb 3lb 5 lb 10 lb 20 lb 20 lb P 1.15 1.29 3.49 $10 10.00 1.31/lb 1.29/lb 1.16/lb $1/lb 0.50/lb W 1.16 2.16 2.16 4.48 13.66 10.98 1.16/lb 1.08/lb 0.896/lb 0.68/lb 0.549
In many ways this is a more interesting chart. First off, rice runs less than beans. Nice to know. Then there are some “odd bits”. That 14 oz package of rice at Publix, for example. It looks almost like a 1 lb bag, but isn’t and is the same brand as the rest of them, Mahatma. It’s not a lot more expensive than the pound bag, on a per pound basis, only 2 cents. Yet what purpose can it serve? At Publix, the 20 lb bag of rice costs less than one of the 20 lb bags at Walmart, yet Walmart also has a “Water Maid” brand at almost as cheap. Why two different 20 lb bags? Who knows. (It might be long grain vs short or some such, I didn’t look that closely).
Now notice the range. A full 2.62 x as expensive, highest to lowest. I could use 2.5 x more food for my $$…
Yes, you need to buy the 20 lb bag to get that benefit. I’ve been known to buy a 50 pound bag at Costco. Just put it in jars and it keeps for years. No jars? Well, start off smaller then, and work your way up. I’d likely go with the 5 pounder from Walmart. Over time, save jars for ‘canisters’ from things like pasta sauce or pickles or jam… Heck, you save $10 on 20 lbs, so you could even buy $10 of canning jars with that and still be money ahead. But you can be patient and only use ‘found’ jars.
That 50 ¢ day base cost can add up to a lot of ‘head room’ for adding other things to the meal plans. Like some shrimp on the paella ;-)
At Publix, the base House Brand price is $1.19/lb for spaghetti and other noodle shapes. At Walmart, their house brand runs $1 / lb. Is 19 ¢ worth it? Is 19% worth it? That 19% can let you add some olives and mushrooms to the sauce, and put on a bit more cheese…
The higher end brand at Publix is $1.49 / lb, with lasagna noodles at $2.19 / lb and “oven ready” lasagna at $2.19 for ONE HALF POUND, or a full $4.38 / pound. Since you can make other “al forno” (from the oven) noodles in the same style, I see no reason to pay extra for lasagna noodles. “Oven ready” is just for lazy people. Just thinner noodles that you can put in the lasagna uncooked. I’m happy to boil the noodles for 10 minutes in exchange for twice as much food.
How about the sauce? Jars of marinara vary dramatically. There are 2 relatively cheap brands, Prego and Ragu, that come in larger sized jars.
45 oz P Ragu 3.68 0.082 Prego 3.79 0.084 66 oz W Ragu 2.98 0.066 4.18 0.063 Prego 2.92 0.065 4.33 0.065 House 2.08 0.046 3.18 0.048
So Walmart 66 ounce jars are MORE per ounce than the 45 ounce jars. Yes, not by much, but it also means no reason to buy them. The Prego ’66’ is really 67 ounces, per the label. There is a very small, but not really significant discount on the Ragu 66 ounce. But what this really says is that the economies of scale are pretty much all in by 45 ounces. Since it is only an ounce or two per serving of noodles, the difference of a couple of 1/10ths of cent between Ragu or Prego just doesn’t matter. Buy what tastes good to you. Heck, even the 2 to 4 ¢ per serving to have an ‘uplift’ from Walmart house brand (Great Value) to a ‘name’ doesn’t really matter. Let taste be your guide. But it’s a nearly ‘double’ to go from Walmart brand to Prego at Publix. A full $1.70 / jar. That buys a pound of pasta…
But that 48 ounces will go moldy before you can eat it all. So be prepared to pour it into tubs or freezer jars and freeze it in portion sizes you use.
Now notice that a pound of noodles at Walmart for $1, with even 4 ounces of sauce from Walmart is about 25 ¢ for a decent brand. For $1.25 / day you can have noodles. No, I’m not advocating all noodles all the time. I’m just showing how you can find a meal that fits the $1 / meal method pretty easy. If it’s 45 ¢ / meal of plain noodles and marinara, then some OTHER meal can be $2, or you can have some bread and butter with the meal (and less noodles); or add a side of green beans.
Now you know why so many people in the world eat diets based around beans, rice, noodles…
A “special mention” for eggs. Today I ‘price shopped’ 3 pages of different things. It would take me several more hours to put it all in this one posting, so I’m going to spread it out. Things like “wings” of chicken costing almost $4/lb at Publix (“Buffalo Wings” and football…) while you can get a whole chicken at Walmart for $1.09 / lb. Almost 4 times as much chicken, and much better ‘cuts’ available. Learning to butcher a chicken pays off. A lot. (Or just roast it and go ;-)
But what will fit in this posting is a mention of eggs. Sometimes called “liquid chicken” by commodity traders, they are a great cheap protein source.
Mixing eggs with grains or breads is a classical “eat well but cheap” strategy. So an egg is added to Asian fried rice. It’s about 15 ¢ for an egg, so 1/2 pound of rice (cooked it’s a lot more…) plus an egg and some seasonings is still well under $1 at about 40 ¢. That leaves 60 ¢ of vegetables, spices and oil to add and still stay under $1 for the meal. With protein, vegetables and starch.
With French Toast, I usually use one whole egg per slice of bread. Sometimes the bread is thin and it won’t soak up a whole egg. Still, it is cheap. Figure about what, 25 slices to a 20 ounce loaf? I make that about 6 ¢ for the bread per slice, or 18 ¢ for 3. Add in 45 ¢ for eggs, you have 63 ¢ for 3 large egg rich slices of french toast. (you can use a bit of milk with 2 eggs for a more typical recipe, and at slightly lower cost; and a touch of vanilla extract – just a drop). Now I like to soak mine in real maple syrup and real butter. About 25 ¢ of real butter and about 75 ¢ of real maple syrup. Yup, that real syrup costs more than the French Toast. That’s why you never find it in restaurants.
Living cheap, you can use the (IMHO inadequate and way too thick / sticky) imitation maple syrup. Even some margarines are OK (look for those with Palm Oil and without the word “hydrogenated”). Avoid anything with “hydrogenated” in it. IMHO, trans-fat clogs up your fat metabolism and leaves you hungry, while natural fats are turned to energy and leave you feeling full. Also I suspect trans-fat bonds to cholesterol and doesn’t want to let go; turning a fat moving molecule into an artery clogging broken thing (but that’s speculative). At any rate, IMHO, while it is important to look at all costs, some costs are “worth it”. You want to be frugal, not “stoopid cheap”… You can save most of the cost of butter by shopping. $2.50 / lb at Walmart vs $5 / lb at higher end places (Publix has a decently cheap house brand of butter too). Shaving that 25 ¢ of butter to 12 ¢ would be better done by using less than by swapping to margarine and making the flavor “just not quite right”. YMMV.
So, some late night comes and you need a cheap dinner. Consider “breakfast for dinner”. Pancakes, French Toast, hashbrown potatoes, etc. All fast, cheap, and a decent meal. Or make some eggs into a dinner omelet or quiche. How much do egg prices vary? Well, one bit I’m not going into right now is the size of small vs medium vs large vs extra large vs jumbo. It DOES matter, but it’s late. So I’m just going to compare the two most common bought. Mediums and large. Sometimes you can get more lbs of eggs per $$ in X-large or Jumbo, but you have to “do the math” and I don’t know the sizes right off. I tend to buy large or X-large just because I like them larger and about 20 years ago they computed out to the best price / lb then ;-)
Medium Large X-Large P $1.79 $1.87 $2.85 $2.00 $3.00 $0.15 $0.16 $0.16 $0.17 $0.17 EB: $4.00 $0.22 W $1.74 $1.88 $2.78 $2.08 $3.08 $0.15 $0.16 $0.15 $0.17 $0.17 30 Count Flats: W $4.28 $0.14 P $4.69 $0.16
A couple of things. This really ought to be to 3 decimal places to show when 16 cents is really 16.4 or so. Since most of the differences are in the rounded position. Publix is not significantly different in price from Walmart on eggs. (On meat prices they are way different…) The “best deal” is Walmart 30 egg flats. The next nearest is the 18 count house brand Large at Walmart. Medium eggs are not great shakes, at 15 ¢ at either place (and you can get Large eggs for 15 ¢ each at Walmart in the 18 count carton). Going “upscale” to “Eggland’s Best” is expensive. $0.22 / egg. Extra Large at 17 ¢ / egg is likely more cost efficient, but really needs to be computed based on actual weights. While Publix was cheaper than Walmart on a carton basis by about 8 cents, it is lost in the rounding error per egg for X-Large.
My flat of large eggs says the serving size is 1 egg, 30 grams. That’s about 1.06 ounces. Call it an ounce. (Hey, I never get everything out of the shell anyway….) That makes a pound out of 16 eggs. About $2.40 / ‘wet pound’. A decent price compared to most meats, though a roast chicken is cheaper. It’s just a bit easier to mix eggs into grains and such to improve their flavor and texture. Still, chicken Alfredo is a good idea too.
Tonight, I make 4 hard boiled eggs into Deviled Eggs. Yokes in a bowl and whites cut into halves. A couple of table spoons of mayo and a tiny squirt of mustard at only a few more cents. Cream it all together. Scoop back into the egg whites. That’s 8 “1/2 eggs”. A very rich meal. Cost? 64 ¢ and some mayo. Maybe $3/4 all told. A bit of salt and pepper on top. (A dash of Mexican hot sauce can be fun too ;-) I added two quesedillas ( at 32 ¢ / tortilla as I was using fancy ones, but it could have been 1/2 that with cheaper ones; some cheese and canned refried beans). I’d guess about $1/2 to $2/3. So all in all, about $1.50 for a dinner that left me stuffed.
Yes, 8 deviled eggs and 6 ‘wedges’ of cheese and beans, in 2 tortillas. That will fill you up. 3 proteins (eggs, beans, cheese), 2 starches (tortilla, beans), added fats (mayo) and loads of minerals and vitamins (egg yolks). Now the spouse can only eat about 1/2 that much. (I’m over 100 kg / 220 lbs). So for her it would be closer to 75 ¢ to $1 for dinner. The tortillas were the ones with spinach and such in them, so technically a ‘vegetable’; but would have been a better balanced meal with a side vegetable. Even just salsa and chips (and maybe one less quesedilla). In any case, this is NOT some “deny and starve yourself” meal. It’s a very rich and filling meal. Very cheaply.
I did add a desert (about an hour later ;-) of a 1/2 pint of canned nectarines. I canned them last week. I’d bought the nectarines for 97 ¢ / lb or some such. Canned with syrup that was 2/3 water and 1/3 sugar at about 50 ¢/lb for the sugar. So my desert was about 45 ¢. All up, with desert, still under $2 for a very satisfying meal. That $2 would buy about 2 ounces of a fancy beef steak. Barely one appetizer.
The French make many fine egg dishes. This is because they had a lot of eggs on French Farms for not too much money. Well worth investigating French egg dishes along with other ethnic styles.
BTW, to get hard boiled eggs that do not stick to the shell, use old eggs. I buy eggs in the 2 1/2 dozen flats (and repack them into old saved styrofoam packages). When I get down to the last 1/2 dozen, I go buy a new flat. That last 1/2 dozen gets hard boiled and I re-load the old packages. (Sometimes when in a hurry I’ll just buy a dozen or 18 ct package. Then save the carton when it’s emptied. I usually had enough to repack 5 dozen count cartons from Costco when the whole family was home. Now I think the 2 1/2 dozen flat is enough for one person alone; so I only need one 18 ct and one dozen carton.) So no worries about the eggs sitting around the fridge too long and getting old. As they start to spread out and run too much when being fried, they are also becoming best for hard boiled eggs.
I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to calculate the cost of a ‘deviled egg sandwich’ for lunch, or of a cheese omelet for breakfast. It’s down in the pennies in any case. Add a bowl of oatmeal to the breakfast or a side of pasta salad to the lunch and you too can be happy and stuffed for cheap and with a fair load of calories for energy.
(Yes, I know I’m deliberately showing high calorie content examples. For a “starving student”, they need the calories. For rich folks with too much food, you can go on a diet that buys a lot of food with not much in it for too much money… As long as your fat metabolism isn’t clogged up with trans-fat you can burn the oils and fats for energy anyway, and that makes you feel satiated and removes hunger feelings. Yes, that is a personal observation from personal experience. I.e. not just theoretical. So ‘pancakes and eggs’ with butter is just fine. Grampa ate that on the farm and lived to 90 something – though he added lots of ham and beef and cheese too…)
I’ve also put hard boiled eggs into vegetarian lasagna to get a meat alternative into it (for ovo-lacto veg.). Just layered them in as whole peeled eggs during the assembly. It was nice (creamier than usual…)
We’ll have a similar look at meats and canned goods and more in coming days. For now, with rice, beans, breads, cheese and eggs; there are dozens of meal plans you can make. All very reasonable. Honey Nut Cherios runs out at $4 / 12 1/4 ounces at Publics. That is $5.22 / lb. More than pork chops or fried chicken. Even more than Beef Chuck Roast. Grits runs $2.38 for 5 (dry) pounds. That’s 48 ¢ / lb. Cherios costs you a good 11 times as much per pound. For what? Polenta with butter and syrup is a very nice flavor… Flour costs even less and little beats biscuits and gravy for breakfast. (The pan drippings to make it being basically free.)
But you want something sweet and milky? OK. Generic oats cost $2.48 for 2 lbs 10 ounces. That’s $0.94 / lb. Still less than 1/5 the price of that packaged processed cereal. Add a pat of butter, milk, and some sugar; you will not be hungry for hours. With the savings, buy some raisins to toss into it. Oh, and you will use a lot less milk in the bowl. Frankly, I think you save enough on the milk to cover the cost of the oats, so essentially the oats are free. Don’t like it “mushy”? OK, use whole grains (oats, barley, wheat, rye – they even sell them mixed at Whole Foods) and put them into a rice cooker. Yes, it takes a while to cook. But you get a chewy bowl of very filling grains that are great with milk and sugar. Cost? Somewhere around 20 ¢ / bowl.
They point? Shed the “Branding” habit. Find real, basic, commodity foods. Take the time to prepare them well. Learn to know your ingredients and the cost per pound. Once the core is low cost natural low processed foods, then you have saved enough money to add in interesting treats and to go more ‘upscale’ on some meals. In short, ask yourself which you want more: a pound of sugar puffs or 4 pounds of roast chicken?