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Yummy and healthy, under $21, and NOT fast food!

Posted on: January 25th, 2011 by Lynn

This is the first post in a series for The Family Dinner Project Fast Food Challenge. Over the next few weeks, members of our project team will share recipes for fast homemade meals that can be prepared for less than $21, which is the cost of a typical fast food meal for a family of four. We hope you’ll join in, too! To submit a recipe for the Fast Food Challenge, email ashley@thefamilydinnerproject.org.

We found this recipe in Giulano Hazan’s cookbook of 30 Minute Pastas.  Our son Luca asked for a pasta cookbook for Christmas, and this seemed like a good source. We’ve enjoyed Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks for years (she is Guilano’s mother).

Luca Reading CookbookDinner was pasta and salad, two staples that we probably resort to 2 or 3 times a week.  The particular pasta and type of salad change regularly, but it’s one of the fastest, least expensive options that we all enjoy.

So on Monday, we had pasta with asparagus and prosciutto, and a romaine salad with some buttery, crispy shallots.  Dinner came to $14.06.  We actually had some dessert leftover from the previous night, but you could easily use the other portion of the heavy cream (this recipe calls for only a little) and make some fresh whipped cream to enjoy with berries of one kind or another.  Even though fruit is expensive at this time of year, the total would easily be under $21.  Or you could whip up a batch of homemade brownies for under $6.  I’ve made Katherine Hepburn’s brownies, from the new Gourmet cookbook many, many times and they’re easy, quick, and only require basic ingredients.

PastaPasta with Asparagus and Prosciutto – here’s how the money breaks down:

Asparagus = $1.67/lb – we used 1 lb

Pasta = 4/$5 or $1.25 lb – we used 1 lb

White onion = 1.50 per bag; about 6 onions per bag that’s 25 cents per onion – we used ½ onion

Butter = $2.99 for a box /1 lb = recipe calls for 3 tablespoons or 28 cents

Heavy cream = $2.62 a quart – 2/3 cup = 43 cents

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano $14.85/lb (per Amazon, but this can vary – it can be CRAZY expensive but the good stuff makes a HUGE difference) about an ounce – 93 cents

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Prosciutto $25 lb – again, expensive but we only need 4 oz so $6.25


1 head of lettuce:  $2

Olive oil, favorite vinegar, kosher salt, pepper= 50 cents

Shallot sautéed in butter = 50 cents.

Total cost of dinner = $14.06

AsparagusThis pasta was very simple.  Cut off white bottoms of the asparagus, cook in salted water until tender (5 minutes or so), remove and save some of the asparagus water.  Sauté chopped onion in butter until golden (5 min), add chopped prosciutto and sauté for another minute or two.  Cut asparagus into 1 inch lengths add asparagus and saved asparagus water to prosciutto, loosening the brown bits in the pan.  Cook the pasta in about 6 quarts of salted boiling water. While pasta’s cooking, add the heavy cream to the asparagus and cook until the sauce thickens (1-2 minutes). When the pasta’s cooked al dente (still slightly firm), drain well.  Toss pasta with the sauce, adding in some Parmesan.

ShallotsFor a dressing on the salad, we just went with a very simple olive oil and balsamic dressing.  If you spend a little more on a good olive oil, it can make a huge difference, and you don’t need very much.  I rub the salad bowl with crushed garlic, then let the garlic soak in some olive oil while prepping the rest of dinner.  The shallots are just something different to make the salad a little special (you could also do roasted pecans or almonds, shaved parm, goat cheese, dried fruit, sunflower seeds – we vary it a little bit every time so we don’t get bored with any one presentation).  The shallots are easy, but you have to keep a close eye on them because typically they’re “not done, not done, not done … burnt!”  Nob of butter in a small pan, drop in thinly sliced shallots, and sauté until they’re lovely and crispy brown.

When you’re ready to toss the salad, remove the garlic and throw in your greens.  Add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, then gradually add your favorite vinegar (we used balsamic), tasting as you go along.  When you like the combination of oil and vinegar, add the shallots.

SaladJohn and I talked with the boys about trying to find a meal that would cost less than a meal at McDonald’s, and they were excited by the challenge.  Pouring over the costs of fruits, vegetables and staple ingredients was a good exercise for all of us.  Tano and Luca know that the Parmesan cheese we buy is relatively expensive (they like to eat it in HUGE amounts and we protest vehemently!)  They realized that a little bit can go a long way towards making an otherwise ordinary meal special.  We also talked with them about why we don’t typically eat fast food, explaining that there are many reasons why some people choose to do so.   It’s tricky to establish firm standards for our own children and at the same time, keep them from making judgments about others.

The conversation about nutrition and cost and lifestyle is definitely enriched by the fact that our government is making it a national topic – good to be able to point to recent appearances by Michelle Obama and ask the boys what they think about it all!