Last Updated Mar 4, 2010 8:06 PM EST
That's not as much as you spend on your mortgage or taxes, to be sure, but it's also an expense that's at least partly in your control. If you can find a way to shave that cost by just 2% or 3%, you're suddenly going to have more money for fun or to address other bills.
This week I'm launching an occasional feature designed to help cut the food budget by tackling what's likely to be your most costly meal--dinner.
The challenge is to make a meal that's healthy and delicious for less than $2 a person. Can it be done? Absolutely. But you may decide you don't want to be that economical every night, because it does require some sacrifices. (Like you'll eat less meat.) Still throwing one or two of these budget meals into the weekly menu won't be too difficult and may save you enough dough to treat the family to a movie.
There are a couple of tricks to making it work, though. (There's always a catch.)
First, you have to kick any addiction you might have to luxury markets, such as Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. Their vegetables are priced like steak and will blow your budget in a nanosecond. When shopping, think Costco, Super King or Trader Joe's.
Second, budget nights are lean on meat and big on pastas, tortillas, vegetables, salads and rice. That's usually better for you, but don't be looking here for tips on cooking a rib-eye. To stay on budget, you've also got to cook what's in season and on sale. So we'll skew away from winter fruit salads and urge you to substitute when appropriate.
Lastly, you're mostly going to cook from scratch. Having somebody else prepare a portion of a meal costs a small fortune and often adds unhealthy extras, like salts and other preservatives. That said, these meals won't keep you in the kitchen all day, either.
Enough of that.
Today's menu:Chicken fajitas, with guacamole
Prep time: about a half-hour.
Cost: $7.38, or $1.85 per person
1.5 lbs Chicken ($1.79 per pound): $2.69
1 onion (bag of 8 for $1.99): $0.25 cents
1 red pepper: $1.12
2 Limes (6 for $0.99): $0.33 cents
1 pack of 10 flour tortillas: $1.00
2 tablespoons of sugar: $0.10
1 tablespoon of oil: $0.10
1 teaspoon of cinnamon: $0.05
1 teaspoon of oregano: $0.10
Main course budget: $5.74
Chop chicken into bite-sized pieces. Wash the limes thoroughly and then grate the lime skin over the chopped chicken to create lime "zest." Cut the now skinless limes into quarters and squeeze the juice over the chicken. Mix in the cinnamon, sugar and oregano. Let marinate.
Coat the bottom of a large frying pan with the oil. Thinly slice and quarter the onion and red pepper and then saute over a medium heat until tender.
Stir in the chicken mixture and let simmer, stirring occasionally until the chicken is thoroughly cooked. (About 15- 20 minutes)
While the chicken is cooking, warm the tortillas in the oven and make the guacamole
1 bundle of cilantro (7 for $0.99) $0.15 cents
1 tomato ($0.99 per pound): $0.50 cents
1 avocado: $0.99
Peel the avocado and cut into pieces. Mash with a fork. Dice the tomato and add to the avocado mixture.
Cut off about one-quarter of the cilantro bundle and chop into small pieces. Mix with the tomato and avocado. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Guacamole budget: $1.64
Total cost for the meal, as prepared: $7.38. But, just in case you want to serve with some lettuce and sour cream, we'll figure that you'll spend at $7.50 to $8 feeding four. (Note: Most of the prices are actual prices paid, but I've estimated with the negligible costs for spices.)
And, please feel free to share your favorite budget recipes. We'll try them; price them and share.