Foods that Make Recipes Expensive and Frugal Substitutes

This is a Guest Post!  Shaun is the author of the blog Smart Family Finance, a site dedicated to exploring the challenges of family finance; from starting a marriage to starting a family, from teaching your children about finance to helping them pick a college, from single income to multiple income. The intricate world of family finance unlocked, one post at a time.

On average, the third largest expense for a family is the food bill. Getting your grocery spending under control requires little more than simply setting a weekly limit. However, this will only get you so far and unless you plan on introducing more Ramen into your family meals, you may need to come up with a different strategy.


The problem is that setting a weekly limit on your grocery spending does not translate well into how we buy and prepare food. We don’t always eat the entire package of a purchase. If you are cooking, you are mixing many different foods together. Some meals produce more servings and leftovers than others. Put it all together and it can be hard to translate a weekly limit into a grocery list that fits well with the recipes we’ve planned.


When there is a surplus, food is wasted and when there is a deficit, families resort to over-spending by eating out, abstaining from some meals or downgrading dinner quality. There are many different approaches that can be used to tackle these issues. For example, my family budgets food by cost per serving. However, one simple step that can help you bring your food budget even lower is to be able to identify foods and ingredients that make your recipes expensive. If you know which foods are hiking the cost of your favorite dishes, you can look for frugal substitutions to lower your overall food bill.




Sorry steak and potatoes fans, it doesn’t get much more expensive than beef. According to the USDA, the national average price for ground beef is $2.88/pound and the cheapest cut of steak is top round at $4.72/pound. If you find yourself eating beef more than once a week, you can find dramatic savings by finding alternatives or substitutes. One of the cheapest beef substitutes is to find a cheaper meat. You likely find the largest cost difference in whole chicken.


The national average price for a whole chicken is 1.31/pound – less than half the cost of ground beef. Cooking a whole chicken takes time and advanced preparation, but chicken meat freezes well. Plus, many meals that typically use ground beef also tend to have chicken versions. Chicken tacos and chicken chili are not radical ideas. Plus, the bones from a whole chicken can be used to make homemade stock and soups.


You can also cut back on the amount of beef you use in soups, stews and casseroles by introducing beans. Beans are a great compliment to beef in taste, protein and fiber. It’s also healthier to eat beans instead of beef, so don’t feel ashamed if you are only using half the beef you once used. In order to make beans a complete protein, remember to pair with a grain such as rice.

Fresh Tomatoes


For me the high cost of fresh tomatoes is difficult for me to bear. The USDA reports that over the last year tomatoes have priced as high as $2.79/pound. It doesn’t sound scary until you realize that a single vine ripe tomato weighs about a third of a pound and it takes 2 or 3 pounds to make your favorite marinara sauce.


I love tomato based sauces, so I’ve struggled trying to find frugal solutions. The easiest solution is to buy canned tomato products for meals that will be flavored heavily from other ingredients. For example, there is so much flavoring in chili from meat, beans and chili powder; there isn’t much of a taste benefit for using fresh tomatoes over canned tomatoes. Eat more tomatoes when they are in season and less when they are out of season.


The most expensive average price for tomatoes over the last year was $2.79/pound in March and the cheapest was in July at $1.15/pound (they are currently averaging $1.79). That’s quite a large difference thanks to seasonality. You can also find cost savings by getting your tomato supplies somewhere other than the grocery store. Starting your own garden, shopping at farm markets and participating in food co-ops will all effectively lower the cost of tomatoes



One of my favorite breakfast dishes is egg bake.  Thanks to the astonishingly high cost of cheese, it is strictly holiday fare. At a national average of $5.70 per pound for cheddar cheese, cheesy recipes can be a challenge for the frugal food budget. Thanks to high food and transportation costs associated with cattle, most dairy products join beef as being a lavish ingredient for your recipes. Unfortunately, they are also the hardest to find substitutes.


However, I do have a few suggestions. Take advantage of cheaper cheeses. Cottage cheese is much cheaper than ricotta, so the next time you are making lasagna, try switching for the less expensive cheese. Use more flavorful cheeses, like parmesan. The more flavor you get, the less you need to use. Finally, you can try to substitute for cheaper dairy products. Put a little more sour cream on your Mexican and a little less cheese. Cheese sauces use less cheese and more milk.



On average, all cereal and baked goods have increased in costs by 5.6 percent over the last year, but bread is far above average. An outlook report from the USDA has bread up by a steep 7.3 percent. I won’t even bother to discuss the even higher cost of buying artisan bread. The good news is that there are many excellent grain options for bread in your recipes. The obvious first choice is make your own loaves of bread.


A bread machine makes this task as simple as putting ingredients in a basin and turning on the machine. When the largest ingredient is flour, you can be sure that baking your own is a potential solution. The same thing can be said of pizza crust. When using bread for sandwiches, embrace the open- face style. You cut your bread usage in half, plus I’ve noticed that I usually don’t miss the second slice. Pizza doesn’t have two crusts; do your sandwiches need them? Experiment with other substitutes. Just because a sandwich has always been about having two pieces of bread, doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge tradition.


There is a whole world of possibilities that could ultimately save you money. For example, lettuce wraps are a cheap alternative and healthier for you as well. Some dishes could just as easily be poured over rice or noodles as it can rest on a slice of bread. Admittedly, I haven’t found a way to substitute the bread in grilled cheese, but there are often options to cut back on eating bread so long as you are up for trying something different.


The point of all of this is not to cut back on the taste or quality, but to find ways to eat what we want to eat, but for less. If you want to lower your food budget further, then focusing your efforts on foods that make your recipes expensive is a good place to spend your time.




  • Evan /

    As for meat I have found such a difference in price due to cut…one of my favorite cuts is actually one of the cheapest.

    Get a little skirt steak rock it out with garlic and sea salt throw that baby on the bbq! I haven't bought since the mid fall but I think I bought a package for like 6 or 8 bucks and it fed 4

  • I like fish the most, also a lot cheaper than steak in my opinion, I'm starting to drool thinking about it now.

  • YFS /

    Skirt steak is a good alternative but, for some reason I just don't like it. Maybe it's my approach to cooking it or how people have cooked it for me in the past. I might have to try your way in the future. Because, like you said it is a very cheap alternative. You definitely made me wish it was summer time so I can go out and grill something.

  • Skirt steak in fresh lime juice, garlic & cilantro then grilled/broiled topped with fresh pico is a great & simple way to go. I don't buy much of it though, since it's now $9-10 a pound down here.

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  • I too have not been a huge skirt steak fan. However, one other option that I failed to mention; down the street form me is a cattle farm. They do some of their own butchering and sell on premise, cutting out the middlemen. The prices are great!

    However, I know that is not an option for the world at large.

  • I too have not been a huge skirt steak fan. However, one other option that I failed to mention; down the street from me is a cattle farm. They do some of their own butchering and sell on premise, cutting out the middlemen. The prices are great!

    However, I know that is not an option for the world at large.

  • hahaha. I wish I lived closer to the costs where fish is much cheaper. Fresh fish locally is usually more expensive here. Luckily, just about everything else is cheaper.

  • Planning meals is more than just putting together a list of items. You have to be cost conscious and plan how you will use the items. We use the leftovers for the next day's lunches. We plan menus that are healthy, cost conscious and interesting.

  • It sounds like you and I would get along. I plan meals out a month in advance and know the per/serving costs of my recipes. Additionally, I have a few tricks for making tomorrow's meals with today's leftovers.

  • re: cheese

    We love cheddar. It costs money – no avoiding it and no real substitute IMO.

    What we try to do is buy old or very old cheese – it packs SO much more flavour than mild or medium cheddar so you can use less to get the same flavour punch!

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