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Newsletter: April 2024

Family Dinner Has Gotten Expensive

“I know you just bought groceries, obviously, but is there any chance we could get takeout from Sonia’s this week?”

My 14-year-old son is known for his habit of begging for takeout, despite the fact that we almost never say yes. Still, I think this was the first time he’d ever asked for his favorite takeout while he was actively helping unload the grocery bags for the week.

My husband poked his head around the pantry door to give his usual response: “You paying for it?”

The teen rolled his eyes and plopped a bunch of bananas into the fruit basket. “You really need me to foot the bill for some sandwiches?”

Seizing the moment, I fished the grocery receipt out of the bottom of a bag and handed it to him. “Here’s what it just cost me to feed you people for the week. What do you think?”

And my child, ready to argue, looked at the receipt. Then did a double take. Then said “Dang” under his breath. And then passed it to his older brother, who read it and laughed, groaned, and said “I think you need to stop asking for more food.”

I know we’re not alone in feeling like our grocery dollars just don’t stretch as far as they once did. Despite the fact that overall inflation is coming down (prices for gasoline, cars, appliances, smartphones, and health insurance all fell this year), food companies are making record profits right now by combining “shrinkflation” (sneakily downsizing their packages) with price increases. Labor shortages, ongoing disruptions to the supply chain, and climate-related challenges like drought are just some of the reasons for higher prices across the board. Everyone is feeling the pinch at the checkout line – and, judging from the uproar on social media, no one’s feeling particularly enthusiastic about “solutions” like the one offered by the CEO of Kellogg’s Corporation, who suggested we should all just eat cereal for dinner to help us deal with rising food costs.

Bottom line: Family meals are expensive right now. Short of actually defaulting to cereal, what can we do to try to keep family dinner affordable?

  • Stretch, stretch, stretch. Mom of five Beth Swanson once told us she fed her pack of teen boys partly through stretching meals with always-available noodles, bread, fruit, and baked goods. It’s a smart, low cost way to make a meal go further – you can serve stews over bowls of rice or noodles, add toasted bread croutons to soups, or employ my great-grandparents’ old Depression era trick of serving everyone half a peanut butter sandwich alongside the meal on offer. Other cheap ways to stretch meals include adding a can of chickpeas or beans of your choice to soups, stews, casseroles, or curries; offering baked white or sweet potatoes as an additional filling side dish; and making staples like spaghetti sauce more filling by slipping in a high-fiber food like pureed lentils or white beans.
  • Reduce and replace. Reduce your grocery budget by lowering the amount of high-cost items, like certain meats, you cook with. If that seems easier said than done, consider swapping boneless skinless chicken breasts for cheaper thighs, or buying whole chickens on sale. You could also reduce your meat consumption through replacing half of the meat in certain recipes with vegetables or legumes instead; for example, you can replace half the chicken in a curry, soup, or pot pie with cubed potato or cauliflower, or switch out half the ground meat in a casserole, taco, or sandwich filling with cooked lentils or mushrooms. As for expensive items like fruits and vegetables, keep them on the menu by swapping out fresh for frozen or canned wherever possible, and consider serving vegetables with a longer shelf life, like winter squashes, root vegetables, and hearty greens, more often than delicate items like salad greens and asparagus.
  • Reuse. Yep, we’re talking about leftovers. In tight budgetary times, keeping food waste low is even more important than usual, and smart use of leftovers avoids waste while allowing you to cook less frequently. But you don’t have to just reheat last night’s meatloaf and peas to let leftovers reign. Chop up leftover vegetables and stray bits of cheese to add to omelets or frittatas, set up an at-home salad bar, throw odds and ends into a pot of broth for soup, or let family members get creative using what’s on hand to top their own nachos, rice bowls, or pasta salads. Try planning at least one “what’s in the fridge?” night each week – no cooking means no spending.
  • Be creative, but not too adventurous. I love experimenting with new recipes, spices, and ingredients as much as anyone; but the reality is that when dollars count, you can’t take too many chances on specialty items or new flavor profiles your family may not like in the end. At this moment, I’m far more in favor of channeling creativity into finding ways to use up scraps and make our meals go further. Take stock of the meals your family likes, identify the cheapest ones (or put some of our tips into practice to bring the costs down), and keep them heavily in the dinner rotation.
  • Bulk up cheap convenience foods. There’s no denying that often, the cheapest items at the store are less likely to be highly filling or nutritious. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to help build affordable meals. Skip the seasoning packets and add frozen vegetables, eggs, and a sprinkle of soy sauce to ramen noodles. Mix a family sized box of bargain mac and cheese with leftover chili or frozen broccoli and some shredded chicken. Add canned or frozen stir-fry vegetables to a packaged rice blend. Use the giant bags of chicken nuggets or frozen meatballs you got on sale to make a quick parmigiana with a jar of sauce and shredded cheese. Or grab canned tuna or salmon to add to a budget-friendly pasta dish, or use it to make melts.

Prices fluctuate, and the odds are that things will ease up soon – history shows that consumers have always had to weather ups and downs, lean times and plenty. But until that happens, we can all use some tricks to help us keep dinner affordable and manageable. If you’re looking for more inspiration, try checking out our Budget Friendly program, which offers sample meal plans and shopping lists for 5 days’ worth of dinners at an average of $2 per serving.


This Lentil Sloppy Joe recipe from our book Eat, Laugh, Talk is an economical twist on a family favorite. You can also replace half the lentils with ½ pound of ground turkey or beef if you’re trying to win over meat-eaters!

Lentil Sloppy Joes



Help the whole family understand what goes into your grocery budget with a round of The Price Is…?

The Price Is…?


For many families, simply stretching the grocery budget isn’t enough. Talk about the problem of food insecurity with your family using these conversation starters.