Menu math results

Yesterday, we took a day off of Saxon math to calculate the cost of a few of our favorite meals. Don’t be fooled by the fact that our household is mostly small and female. We are hearty eaters (a mother of 4 teenage boys told me so), and most of the main dish numbers are for recipes that make 12-16 servings. A vegetarian dinner is a foreign concept to us. Sorry y’all. More confessions: we used canned cream of mushroom/cream of chicken soups, and canned spaghetti sauce and canned beans. I used to cook my own beans when we were city folk and it worked just fine. When we moved out here I tried cooking beans and after 3 days they were still rock hard. Strangely enough, our water is also rock hard. I feel sure there is a connection. Yes, I tried baking soda and didn’t add any acid or salt. So we buy canned beans.  update: we now cook our own beans from scratch.

First, we wrote on the whiteboard a short list of some of our favorite and most frequent main dishes, lunches and breakfasts.

Then we worked together to figure the cost/unit for several common ingredients and pantry staples, and wrote those on the board as well:

  • bread (whole wheat; we aspire to make our own but rarely do so) – $1.30
  • eggs – $.16 each (just under $2/dozen)
  • grated cheese (mozzarella or cheddar) – $.70/cup ($2.80/lb at Costco – savings on cheese alone more than pays for our annual membership!)
  • ground beef – $1.60/lb (the cheap stuff at WalMart in the 5 or 10 lb. tube)
  • sausage – $1.18/lb (we just switched from The Good Stuff to the cheap stuff. at twice the price, The Good Stuff simply wasn’t that good)
  • milk – $.23/cup
  • flour – $.09/cup
  • sugar – $.20/cup
  • butter – $.44/stick (this is from Costco too. I would hate to pay grocery store prices!)
  • chicken (boneless skinless breasts on sale) – $2/lb

Next, the 4 oldest girls chose from the list of meals. They each picked 2 main dishes, a lunch, a breakfast and a dessert, and they got to work. Many of the main dishes require an added salad, veggie and/or bread.  Breakfasts and lunches are just for the children and me. Hubby eats a separate breakfast early and usually takes leftovers for lunch.

Here is what they came up with:


  • Burritos (beef, bean, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa) – $9.45 This one surprised me. I assumed burritos were cheap, but not when you make them meaty and cheesy and use fresh produce out of season. And canned beans.
  • Lasagne (beef and 3 cheeses) – $8.89
  • Quesadillas (bean & cheese, cooked with butter on the griddle. mmmm. even better w/leftover chili.) – $4.90
  • Mexican casserole – $6.41
  • Hamburger stroganoff (served over rice, though I’m sure potatoes or noodles would be comparable) – $7.81
  • Pizza (5 large w/lots of leftover) – $16.35
  • Spaghetti – $7.50  This surprised me too, since I thought spaghetti was a cheap meal, but we like to splurge on angel hair pasta and meat.  We often use sausage which does help cut down the cost.
  • Chicken pot pie – $7.98

LUNCHES: these sound spectacularly unhealthy, but the girls chose by favorites, not frequency. Honestly. We don’t eat like this every day. Really. Trust me.

  • Maccaroni & cheese (3 boxes) – $2.43
  • Ramen noodles – $.96
  • Grilled cheese sandwiches – $3.59
  • Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches – $2.59



  • Low carb cheesecake (a single small cheesecake for mom & dad) – $4.36 (ouch!)
  • Hot cocoa from scratch – $2.48
  • Wacky cake – $1.19
  • Brownies – $1.65

I learned a lot from this little lesson yesterday, and was pleased at the discussion that was generated. There are some more recipes that I would like to see numbers on, so I think we might be doing this again today. I am also feeling motivated to start a price book. I shop mainly at WalMart and Costco and used to know all the prices but they are changing so quickly these days that when I searched my memory I often found myself floundering for the current numbers.


  1. mom2fur,
    We get our butter at Costco. I am so thankful for their prices on cheese and butter! Otherwise our diet would be very different.
    We always buy the cheapest pasta. I’ve had the more expensive stuff on occasion but never noticed a difference.
    I do think some foods are cheaper down here in S. Texas, but others are not. I really miss Aldi’s, where I shopped in Ohio!
    I guess on the East Coast nearly everything costs more, doesn’t it?

  2. You’re paying less than two dollars a pound for butter–which is about half what the normal price is, at least up here on Long Island. Good for you! I refuse to pay $5/lb. for the stuff, but we do use it a lot. So when it goes on sale, I stock up and freeze it. I usually have enough on hand to last until the next time it’s on sale!
    And it isn’t just the meat making spaghetti expensive. I refused to buy Barilla the other day, even though it was on sale. The ‘sale’ was 8 for $10, meaning over a dollar a box. It used to be about 80 cents on sale! Grrr! I ended up with the store brand at half the cost and you know what…it was just fine! I’m not necessariliy brand loyal, but I do buy what we like. I’m glad I had an opportunity to try the store brand spaghetti. At least now I know it’s good–not too sticky or starchy. I guess it’s just trial and error.
    My kids have eaten ramen noodles and the blue-box mac & cheese (although I make killer mac & cheese for dinner from scratch) for lunch for years. Balanced with salads and other healthier foods, they’re doing just fine. I’m sure your kids are, too!

  3. My local HEB has ground turkey in the frozen section for 99 cents a pound. (And it has stayed this price for the past few years, remarkably.) Compared to 1.50 for ground beef, and i can barely tell the difference.

  4. Hey, sorry I’m late on this. If someone else has already shared this, sorry again. 😀

    The beans: I understand. Sometimes I can’t cook beans for nothing! But, I can them myself and they are much cheaper and cook just fine. I soak them overnight, drain, add more water, and bring to a boil. Put them in pint jars to within one inch of the top and pressure can at 10 lbs. for 90 minutes. TA DAH!

    Just a suggestion, if you are into canning…. 😀

  5. Ahh, I see!
    I do not use all the butter in mine which probably makes not as tasty, but the boys do not complain!
    That helps too.

  6. The kids and I did this a few months ago and had so much fun with it. We only did breakfasts but did a 3 way comparison to drive home the point about how much comparison shopping helps with the budget. We calculated at the best price ( loss leader price), the average price and the price you would pay at the store closest to our house ( expensive). The difference really made a impression on the kids. I like quite a few canned items also, they make life easier.

  7. Qtpies7,
    Thanks for the egg drop soup idea – I’m going to try that!
    When it comes to burritos, I learned long ago to stir the meat into the refried beans. It’s much easier to stretch the meat out and regulate proportions that way. With tacos, I often stir a couple of cans of cookedblack beans into the meat. With a little extra taco seasoning, they blend in well and add some visual interest.

  8. Martha,
    We buy the cheapest mac and cheese, but we added the cost of the butter and milk that goes into it.
    I think I pay 70 cents/lb for angel hair pasta, but with 3 lbs of that plus ground beef and 3 cans of sauce, the total begins to add up. I haven’t priced the bigger cans from Costco – I guess I need to check!
    My pressure cooker died long ago and I haven’t replaced it, but I am going to give beans another try. The ones I was cooking were several years old and my mom told me that sometimes they just…well, *petrify* so that no amount of cooking will soften them. My hard water certainly doesn’t help, but maybe it’s not the entire problem.

  9. Well, pasta must be extremally expensive where you live, I guess! If I bought the most expensive Mac and cheese, I would still spend like .60 a box. Angel Hair pasta at the most $1 a pound and that is pretty expensive, it is normally like .60-80 a pound. Do you use whole wheat pasta? You must buy your sauce? I do not like store bought sauce, but I am Italian and have to make my own. It is really cheap when you buy the # 10 cans from Costco.
    Have you tried pressure cooking beans?

  10. Oh, and we make ramen noodles healthy by adding eggs and vegetables and having “Egg drop soup.” Mix the egg in with the noodles and stir a bit, it will cook up quick while the noodles are cooking.

  11. We have a pretty large family, too, and I am thrilled with feeding my family a meal for under $10! That is what we usually spend on just the MEAT portion. I need to check out our taco nights, because if we are only spending around $10, I’m going for it more often!
    We have 3lbs of beef (which is NOT enough) with canned refried beans, cheese, salsa, lettuce that few eat, sour cream, black olives and tortillas. We never have left overs. I was thinking it was costing me closer to $17 for it. Our grocery store charges $8 for a 3lb thing of beef. I prefer Walmart, but if I am out, it isn’t worth the gas to go that far for a meal.
    I DO spend less when I plan well and shop well.

  12. Kim,
    Where, O Where, would we be without Costco? That is my source for milk (some organic and some not), butter and cheese. Once I started comparison shopping between Wal-Mart and Costco on a few items I was floored with the price savings of Costco. And it’s usually better quality to boot.

    I’m not sure how much you spend there, but we purchased the Executive Membership ($100) where you earn cash back. Hubby figured even if we earned $50 back it would still be the same as the regular membership and was worth it. This past year alone we earned $106 back. We did, however, purchase a camera, but even if we hadn’t, we still would have done great. Just some “food” for thought! yuk!yuk!yuk!

  13. Kim we do ramen noodles too (or hubby and kids) except we cook 10 or 12 at once in a big pot of water when done pour out all the water add the flavor packets, then mixed vegetables, and either tuna or canned chicken.

  14. i used to know all the prices for things at walmart… and like you said, the prices just keep going up and up, it’s harder to keep up!
    we save on our Beef by spliting an entire cow with one or two families… you get all the ground beef, roasts, steaks, short ribs, etc… and after the cost of the cow and butcher, everything is about $2/lb. that’s a wonderful price for a big fat steak that’s usually $5-6/lb 🙂
    so now i’m inspired to stay up and calculate! 🙂
    (great blog, by the way)

  15. Kim you have inspired me to figure out how much meals cost us now. You really got my curiosity going. And the ramen, I am a sucker for them too. I try not to eat them too often and sometimes I add frozen veggies to them so that I can um… make them healthy. 😉

  16. *Ü* Just saw your explanation of the mac & cheese above.

  17. I’ve done this a few times and always find it very interesting…I find my recipes tend to ‘drift’ over time with additions/deletions of ingredients, and I’m surprised sometimes to find that a previously frugal dish has somehow become not-so-much!

    And how do you get away with only THREE boxes of macaroni and cheese for your family? 😉 My five year-old and two year-old more often than not finish one box on their own!

  18. Laralee,
    Bottled water would probably solve our problem, but I rarely go into Bandera so the cost of gas would offset the savings. Even WalMart priced water would probably make dried beans a better buy than canned, but I’m not sure the difference would be worth the added hassle.
    We like Sun Harvest produce too, and they often have very good specials on meat as well.
    Oh, and the maccaroni & cheese: that’s just to feed the kids who like it. I can’t stand the stuff and some of the older children are developing more refined taste too. We go scrounging for leftovers on those rare Mac & Cheese days. That’s why a scant 3 boxes will do the job. Unfortunately I still have a weakness for ramen noodles. They sound like pure junk, but I can’t resist the smell, the broth, and the shiny white carbs. ugh. What’s wrong with me?

  19. I have never thought of doing that…thank you so much for sharing that tip!!

  20. We’ve been doing the same thing at our house. Figured the meals cost @7-10.00 dollars each. Breakfast is always cheaper (for us), so once a week I make a ‘big’ breakfast for dinner. That usually runs us @5-6.00 dollars.
    We have a ‘boy’ family. I am vastly out numbered:) We have (low carb dieters-cover your eyes) homemade bread/rolls with every meal. The boys get to punch and knead the dough-good for all that aggression on Northeast winter ‘cabin fever’ type days.

  21. Maybe our budgets are closer than I think……hmmm…

  22. Waving Kim : )

    If you fix 3 boxes of macaroni and cheese for your family’s lunch, then our family eats double what yours does!

    We, too, buy many things at Costco. I rarely shop WalMart anymore as HEB’s produce is so much better. If I can get to a Sun Harvest, then I will buy some produce there as well. I try to buy only what’s on sale or reasonably priced. Hard to do anymore!

    We do make homemade hot cocoa, but we also splurge for ovaltine for those fast hot cocoa needs. I can’t wait until the goats kid so we can stop buying expensive milk at the store!

    Have you tried cooking dried beans in a gallon of bottled water? If you have your own container, it’s only .20 a gallon at Super S or Pico in Bandera. Best price I’ve found for drinking water.

    If I find a clearance deal then I buy as much as I can. Recently HEB had canned pumpkin for .25/can instead of .99/can. I bought all 65 cans for a savings of about $45 with a $16 output. So, we’ll be eating lots of pumpkin baked goods or pumpkin yeast rolls for a while. Today I actually found reduced green and red peppers at HEB ~ .99 for a bag of 4-6 peppers. I bought 5 bags and will cut them up and freeze them for future meals.

    I’d love to compare shopping notes with you and see if we can help each other out with local deals.

    Recording the Faithfulness and Provision of God for Future Generations

  23. MamaArcher,
    We rarely buy soda or juice. We do drink mostly water and milk. We eat fresh fruits, but try to stick mainly to those in season. Right now we’re eating tons of bananas and a good bit of citrus. In the fall we eat a lot of apples, and summertime was made for melons. Other fruits are a bit of a treat when we find them at a reasonable price.
    For veggies we eat a lot of carrots year ’round and salads. I love fried cabbage. We also eat a lot of canned corn, green beans, and frozen veggies.
    I would love to have a garden but between the soil conditions and the wildlife I’m afraid it would an exercise in futility. I’ve seen my mom put in too many fruitless hours only to have the deer eat it all in one night.
    We do include all the pet items and non-food items in the grocery budget, but don’t forget: I admitted that the budget has crept far past our $600/month of a year or two ago.

  24. I’m lucky to ground beef for less than $2/lb. But I can get a dozen eggs at Trader Joe’s for $1.19. And milk seems to be more expensive here in California than other areas, which is ironic considering the amount of milk produced in CA.

  25. I’m interested in your hot cocoa from scratch recipe. Buying store-bought sure adds up!

  26. your grocery bill smaller than ours! How do you do it?! Amazing how prices differ so much in different areas of the country. Except for the eggs…EVERYTHING on your list is MUCH cheaper than what I pay, and I DO shop at Walmart! I would love for our ground beef to be $1.60/lb…it’s $2.89 here! Occassionally it’s on sale for $1.99 or $2.19/lb. Our 2 cup bags of grated cheese are $2.20 at Walmart (for store brand). Milk is $3.40/gal. Everything is climbing so fast, it’s hard to keep up or afford a lot.

  27. Wow Kim, we spend twice as much on groceries as you do! We do purchase 93% lean meat though, drink a lot of diet coke, and have fresh fruit added in there. We also include TP, diapers, dogfood into our grocery budget. Do you includew those things in your grocery budget? Do you only drink water?????? Just curious for comparison reasons.

  28. Unless I find a better price, we get our ground beef from WalMart in the 5# tubes. I go back and forth between ground chuck and plain old ground beef – which I assume is made from ground kidneys, lips and tails. :p
    Our eggs usually come from Costco or WalMart, but maybe you misunderstood: that was 16 cents per egg. We broke down the price to make it easier to use in calculating the cost of recipes. We pay nearly $2/dozen.

  29. Where do you buy your meat from? Where do you get your eggs from? Just curious, my beef is much more than that and so are my eggs….thanks for the tip!

  30. Hey Kim could you send me the recipe for Hamburger stroganoff. Please.

  31. Excellent work!

    I’ve found that calculating my menu prices has really helped with planning and seeing where my grocery budget goes.


  1. […] children had so much fun doing Menu Math the first time, the very next day they calculated the cost of a new set of meals.  I’m not […]

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