Thrifty and tasty

Stretch food dollars with economical main dish ideas

Stretch food dollars with economical main dish ideas

March 04, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

When I was little and only one of my parents was working, mom had to creatively stretch her food budget.

So she would plan meals where she only used $1 worth of meat to feed us, a family of four.

Of course, back then -- it was the early 1970s -- you could buy a pound of ground beef for less than $1. Today, a pound of ground beef costs about $3.

But in hard economic times, families are forced to find ways to stretch their food dollars.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the cost of feeding a family of four on the "thrifty plan" in December 2008 ranged from $120.60 to $138.70 for a week. That's $17.29 to $19.81 per day.

The thrifty plan was used to determine the maximum food stamp allotment and still provide a meal plan that is healthful, according to a copy of "Thrifty Food Plan, 2006" at


But let's go ahead and say you have $20 to plan a meal for four. We've got a few recipe ideas for main dishes. With each, we've included the cost of main ingredients. We didn't include the cost of staple ingredients most cooks will already have on hand, such as ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper or basic cooking spices.

You could add salad to the meal for $3 to $4. Either purchase a bag of prewashed lettuce with vegetables, or buy a head of lettuce and add precut vegetables from the grocery store's salad bar.

To find more low-cost recipe ideas, try these sites:

o The U.S. Department of Agriculture's recipe finder at

o The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cost of Food site at Scroll down under "Archived Publications" and click on "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals."

Baked lemon chicken

Cost of chicken, onions and two lemons: $8.12

3 1/2 pounds chicken, skinned and cut into 10 pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 1/2 thinly sliced cloves of garlic or 1 teaspoon garlic powder

4 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 cups thinly sliced onions

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 lemon sliced into 10 slices, seeds removed

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Lay chicken pieces into an 11-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. Combine salt, pepper, garlic and thyme. Sprinkle seasonings over chicken.

Combine onions, stock and lemon juice in a sauce pan. Heat to a boil. Pour hot lemon mixture around chicken. Top each chicken piece with a lemon slice.

Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown and juices run clear.

Serves 5.

- Recipe courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Baked fish and vegetables

Cost of food ingredients, using flounder: $11.57

4 frozen 4-ounce white fish fillets (flounder, cod or perch)

16 ounces frozen mixed vegetables

1 small diced onion

1 teaspoon lemon juice or fresh lemon, sliced thin

1 tablespoon parsley flakes, dried or fresh chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Tear four 10-inch-by-12-inch squares of foil. Separate and place fish fillets in center of each foil square.

Combine frozen vegetables and diced onion in bowl and mix. Spoon vegetables around fillets.

Sprinkle with lemon juice (or top with lemon slice) and add parsley on top. Fold ends of foil together and crimp to form leak-proof seal.

Bake for 10 minutes. Serve.

Serves 4.

- Recipe courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Hobo Stew

Cost of ground turkey and pork and beans is: $4.22

1 pound ground turkey

16-ounce can pork and beans; remove chunks of pork fat

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 tablespoon mustard

1 teaspoon pancake syrup or a pinch of brown sugar

In medium-sized skillet, brown ground turkey until no longer pink. Add pork and beans, ketchup, mustard and syrup. Mix contents. Turn heat to low, stirring often until sauce thickens.

Best served with a piece of buttered bread.

Cook's note: Baked beans can be used instead of pork and beans. To spice up recipe add 1 cup of diced onions while burger is browning. Cook until onions are clear.

Serves 6.

- Courtesy of Lifestyle Assistant Editor Crystal Schelle; the recipe's name comes from the fact that hobos were known to warm up pork and beans over the campfire. Meat would have been an extra special addition.

Veggie bean wrap

Cost of all ingredients: $10.59

2 seeded and chopped green or red bell peppers

1 peeled and sliced onion

15-ounce can of black beans, drained and rinsed

1 chopped mango

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons dried cilantro

1 peeled and diced avocado

4 10-inch flour tortillas

In a nonstick pan, sauté bell peppers and onion for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add beans, stirring well. Reduce heat to low and simmer about 5 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine mangos, lime juice, cilantro and avocado. Reserve 1/2 mixture for topping.

Fill warmed tortillas with 1/4 bean mixture and 1/4 mango mixture.

Fold left and right ends of the tortillas into middle so they almost touch. Roll up from bottom to top to make wraps. Plate veggie bean wraps and top with remaining mango mixture.

Serves 4.

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