The Ka-Ching of Kitchen 'Rithmetic

Back in April, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the cost of food was higher for the first quarter of 2008 than all of 2007, our ears began to perk up. In this space, readers got together and shared their kitchen tips and tricks on getting thrifty.

Flash forward six months, and the economic climate is darker still, as the future of the world’s financial health hangs in the balance. Good thing someone out there isn’t just getting thrifty; he’s actually doing the math to show us the money. Culinate contributor Hank Sawtelle gets an A for doing his homework on the real dollars-and-cents savings of buying a whole chicken and cutting it up ($8.45) versus buying parts separately ($14.73)

If you're thinking yeah, right, easier said than done, take a look at the following video, which walks you through the steps of cutting up a whole bird. And if the idea of a knife is daunting, consider this training wheels method using a pair of kitchen shears instead.

Sawtelle's math lesson got me thinking about other easy cost-cutting kitchen tricks, such as growing your own herbs, bringing lunch to work at least three times a week, buying a pound of coffee beans or a bag of loose tea and brewing it yourself versus the 3, 4, 5 bucks a day at the coffee shop or making your own bread (or slicing a loaf in half and immediately freezing for later). Anyone out there keeping tabs on the savings?

After all, this is what chefs do to keep their restaurants afloat -- they track food costs on a daily basis. Why not home cooks too? Who knows, if we paid attention, we might have enough in the kitty for a bottle of wine, a new skillet or dinner prepared by one of those buget-savvy chefs.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 31, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Cooking on a Budget
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I make my own bread every weekend - 2 simple, rustic, crusty loaves. I immediately put one in the freezer, well wrapped and labeled with the date. The unfrozen loaf easily lasts the week (2 dinners for my small family - we don't have bread every night). Anything left over by Thursday night gets whizzed into bread crumbs. Friday night, I pull the oldest loaf out of the freezer for the weekend. It's a simple system that works for us.

A one-pound loaf of bread (that's good, crusty, artisinal bread) costs me about 70 cents to make. I haven't priced bread in stores lately, but I would guess it's about $3.00? Maybe more? Either way, I know I'm saving money, and, more importantly to me, I know exactly what my family is eating.

(For what it's worth, I have a full time job, I'm the mother of a three-year-old, and I'm a part-time grad student. If I have time to make bread, anyone does.)

Posted by: paulje | October 31, 2008 8:23 AM

paulje -

Would you be willing to share your recipe for the bread you bake?


Posted by: goodwater1 | October 31, 2008 8:46 AM

Baking bread is a good one. I will make a variety of breads, but always have on hand sliced bread in the freezer. It's the white loaf bread from "Baking with Julia", though I frequently vary the recipe (honey or maple syrup to start the yeast, olive oil instead of butter, etc).

The biggest expenses in my kitchen are eggs and cheese (and if this counts, good craft beers). Much of everything else is made from scratch. Kim is right in that the more you do by yourself, the cheaper food is, though for the extra change I'll usually go for the dried pasta than make my own. I will go out for dinner/drinks once or twice a week, but the trade-off is that I rarely eat out at lunch and bring in my coffee (to be honest, my leftovers are usually better than take-out sandwiches, so it's not a temptation).

The thing that bugs me most is the price of a drink at a bar these days. A beer typically goes for $6 in the Washington, DC area. I'm paying more attention to happy hour now.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | October 31, 2008 8:55 AM

We bake our own bread too, and I can calculate ingredient costs easy enough, but how to figure out the fuel costs for baking bread?

Posted by: fran426 | October 31, 2008 9:12 AM

I used to love all those pre-packaged cut up veggies: broccoli florretts, diced potatoes, diced butternut squash etc. But the cost compared to buying the whole veggie is out of control. So goodbye convenience hello a little more prep work in the kitchen.

Also, instead of cutting up your own chicken just keep an eye for when chicken pieces go on sale and buy more then and store in freezer.

Posted by: sjcpeach | October 31, 2008 9:22 AM

Along the same lines is making beans from dried beans instead of canned. I did the math recently, and canned beans are 3 1/2 times more expensive than dried. And with dried beans you can control the salt content as well.

About once a month or so I cook up about two pounds of beans and store them in my freezer. That way I can make quick, inexpensive meals all month long.

Posted by: mollyjade | October 31, 2008 10:35 AM

My grandmother taught me to shop for bargains for I'll buy things like chicken or entire pork loins when they are on sale and chop a $111 loin into several roasts and many chops.
Knowing that I love to cook but can be entirely lazy, I've also invested in a stack of the on sale "healthy" frozen lunches (ever read the nutrition labels on those things? At least the portions are small) -- I use these for the days when the boyf eats my lunch as a late night snack.

And for those left over crusts of bread from your homemade loaf? Cut them up, dry them in the oven/toaster oven (energy efficiency: when you're cooking something else) and either food-process them into bread crumbs (add some spices) or use them as croutons/stuffing mix. The more varied your breads/bread crumbs, the more tasty your bread crumbs. Start now and you won't need to buy stuffing for thanksgiving, you'll have made your own!!

Posted by: capecodner424 | October 31, 2008 10:49 AM

Getting a little out of control here -- that would be a loin on sale for the slightly better bargain price of $11.

Posted by: capecodner424 | October 31, 2008 10:51 AM

All of the above suggestions are good. The secret to cutting up a chicken is to have a good-quality knife that's sharp. With a little practice, a whole chicken can be turned into 12 pieces in under a minute (I like to make four breast pieces).

If I may rant a litte, I'm blown away by the $8 sandwich. It's a one-meal sandwich! For the same money, one could buy a whole chicken, a few veggies, and have a family chicken dinner, a pot of soup or stew that will feed one or two people for several days, or all of the above (roast the chicken, use the meat for a meal; use the bones and backs for soup. Remember home economics? Lost arts.

Posted by: davemarks | October 31, 2008 11:22 AM

Dave, I too cringe when I pay for an $8 sandwich. I made a killer grilled cheese yesterday w/ roasted peppers and kale and thought to myself how much this would cost if I had walked down the road and had someone else make it for me. I think in these times it's about being more selective -- is that grilled cheese out a chance to meet up w/ a friend, for example? I too like to make four breast pieces, and I like bone-on, which is why I shared this particular video.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | October 31, 2008 11:37 AM

Capecodner424, thanks for mentioning morphing leftover bread into croutons or bread crumbs. This one is no-brainer -- and you're so right -- do it now and you'll have plenty for Thanksgiving stuffing.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | October 31, 2008 11:45 AM

My husband and I enjoy cooking, and are often willing to pay a little more for good ingredients (e.g. organic, etc.). However, like everyone else, we're looking to cut costs where we can. Here in Atlanta, we have the wonderful DeKalb Farmer's Market, where we can buy fresh veggies, high-quality meats - Bell and Evans chicken, free-range beef - and most other pantry staples at bulk prices.

We recently discovered a line of Indian dishes that are sold in the dry goods section for around $2 a piece. Vimal is the brand I think. There are all vegetarian, like dahl, curried eggplant or palak paneer. They are spicy and/or packed with flavor, low in sodium and fat and perfect on a chilly night. The packages are foil-sealed, and you drop them in boiling water for 5 min. or so. With two of these and some basmati rice, our meal costs $5. We've started putting these in the weekly rotation, sometimes two or three nights. Oh, and did I mention the convenience of the 10 min. prep-time??

Posted by: vjld | October 31, 2008 12:18 PM

I used to go to the DeKalb Farmer's Market in 1987. What a great place! I remember buying goat meat there. It's huge, and seemingly every ethnic option is available.

Posted by: davemarks | October 31, 2008 12:48 PM

We're kicking around the idea of a regular Kitchen 'Rithmetic feature -- maybe twice a month. You folks game? Send your thoughts and ideas.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | October 31, 2008 12:48 PM

Many great ideas already - I would love to see this as a regular blog topic.
One other thing that I do is to buy yogurt - Trader Joe's Greek style which is much cheaper than Fage, and then portion out a serving to take for lunch or snack at work. I also bring in cans of soda which I buy when on sale. I am unwilling to pay $1.25 for a can of diet coke which costs me less than 20 cents.

Posted by: NewtonMom | October 31, 2008 1:14 PM

I think it's a great idea. The Baker's Banter blog on the King Arthur web site frequently does a Bake vs. Buy analysis when they're replicating a storebought goodie. I'd love to see a similar feature here.

Posted by: paulje | October 31, 2008 1:19 PM

Here's a few cost savers in my household:

Ditched the coffee shop and formed a coffee club with immediate co-workers. We pick up the coffee and milk at one of the discount clubs (cough cough Costco). It runs about $5/month per person, compared with $10/week from before.

Make my own ground beef from whole chuck. Cut it into large cubes, trim the fat, and freeze in one pound amounts. It costs less than the grocery store and I think it's better.

I've also substituted meals at home for going out. Splurge a little on the ingredients and a nice bottle of wine. Dinner for several still costs less than going out for one.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 31, 2008 3:13 PM

A question for the earlier poster who mentioned basmati rice: Do you use the REAL thing (from the Dehra Dun region of India), or the inferior California long-grain rice that masquerades as basmati? It's like serving André instead of real Champagne. Indian basmati, aged for three years, has a texture and perfume that don't exist in its imitators.

Posted by: davidlewiston | October 31, 2008 7:16 PM

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