copyright 2012 by Ben Fink

Recently I gave my kids a mini lesson in economics. When we were travelling in Utah last month for our summer vacation, a typical lunch for the four of us in a restaurant cost close to $50. One day we stopped at a market and bought the makings of a humble lunch – bread, peanut butter, bananas, tortilla chips, and nectarines – which we ate outside at a picnic table. The food stretched for more than one meal yet we spent less than $20 for all of it.  I wanted the kids to understand what an indulgence it is to eat in restaurants and how it can easily cost at least double if not more to do so.

Melissa d’Arabian grew up as the child of a single mom who was putting herself through school, and who had to find ways to feed her family on a very tight budget. Melissa, now a mother of four young girls ages 5 (twins), 6 and 7, was the winner of the 5th season of Next Food Network Star (one of my family’s favorite shows!), and turned those budgeting and cooking skills (along with her charming personality and her marketing and business savvy) into a successful show on the Food Network as well as a bestselling cookbook, both called Ten Dollar Dinners. [See the end of this post to learn how to win a copy of her new book.]  

Melissa’s first book is chock full of beautiful photos of her food and family, a range of simple and tempting recipes, and dozens of practical tips for feeding your family very well on a budget. I also love her focus on reducing food waste and making healthy family meals a priority.

Melissa and I talked recently about how she made the transition from high-powered business executive, to stay-at-home mom, to busy travelling professional cook, and how she still manages to make time to bring her family together in the kitchen and at the dinner table.

Aviva: How do you make family meals a tradition with your busy schedule?

Melissa: As women we can be too hard on ourselves. I give myself room to do something imperfectly. On a busy night we’ll sometimes do sandwich night. I cut the sandwiches into 6 small pieces (which we call soldiers), and put them out on a tray. I focus on the fact that we’re sitting down together as a family.

If I had to choose between serving my kids a homemade meal every night that had every vegetable and nutrient, but I wouldn’t be there to sit down with them, I would choose sandwiches and sitting down with them every time.

Have 3 or 4 recipes up your sleeve that don’t take a lot of time, like my 4-step chicken (in her book) or an omelet. Fast food truly isn’t more convenient than making a homemade meal if you have a few recipes up your sleeve.

Aviva: What do you do to make your family meals special?

Melissa: One of the things that we do is to have one child present the dinner every night to the family (actually, we have one do it in English and one in French because their father speaks to them in French and we have a bilingual home). What that means is that they tell everybody what is on the table and describe a little bit about it.

I’m a big believer in raising young women who have positive relationships with food. That’s a bigger goal for me than them eating enough vegetables today. It’s important for them to feel good about what food is, what it does for them, how it nourishes their bodies and to understand the connection between how they feel and what they are eating.

I also don’t want to raise people pleasers. If they don’t like broccoli, then that’s allowed. Otherwise they might get the message that their opinion doesn’t count, they can’t speak up, that they can’t say no and express their opinions. I want them to know that home is a place where their opinions matter.

Aviva: How do you get your girls interested in cooking and eating well?

Melissa: Once a week, each girl gets to pick one full menu with a main dish, vegetable and a dessert. Mommy gets to approve the menu (and add up to 2 dishes) so I can help them understand what makes a balanced meal. Cooking with them when I’m not rushed is the best strategy. You have no idea how many special moments have come out of us cooking together.

Aviva: What are your top tips for reduce your family’s food budget, while wasting less food and still eating delicious meals?

Melissa: Shop in the produce aisle first. Some very compelling studies show that all grocery stores have to do to get you to buy more, is to provide bigger carts. We can’t stand the idea of empty space. Take the smallest cart you think you can get away with and start in the produce aisle so you can make your cart feel fuller before you head into the processed food aisles.

When it comes to produce, what is cheapest is also what is best because it’s likely to be in season. We are used to paying more money for higher quality. But when there is an overstock at the factory, the prices get slashed, even when the factory is Mother Nature.

There’s a lot of money to be saved in how you manage your “inventory” or ingredients. Do the five-minute menu plan before you go grocery shopping. Check your cupboard, fridge and freezer, pull anything forward that needs to be used up and start there with the menu. Jot down approximately what you are going to make before going to the store. If it takes any more than five minutes, you probably are not going to do it.

Melissa shares her recipe for a Classic Apple Tart with Kitchen Explorers. She says, “Apple tart is my family’s favorite dessert. I love it because it makes the house smell amazing and the tart looks so polished and beautiful (taking a few extra minutes to fan out the apples makes it look like it came from a bakery!). This is a French-style apple tart, not an apple pie, meaning a wedge of the tart is thinner and neater than a slice of all-American apple pie. Try it topped with ice cream for that delicious à la mode taste. Rolling the dough for the tart makes for a finer-textured crust, but on many occasions I have simply pressed the crust into place with great results.

To be eligible to win one of 3 copies of Melissa d’Arabian’s new cookbook, Ten Dollar Dinners, please leave a comment below telling us how you save money on food for your family. Please leave your comment by 11:59 PM PST on Friday, September 14th, 2012. Only one entry per person, please. Winner will be chosen by Random.org on September 17th.

Recipe: Classic Apple Tart

  • Prep Time: 40 min(s)
  • Cook Time: 60 min(s)

Reprinted with permission from the book Ten Dollar Dinners. Copyright © 2012 by Melissa d’Arabian. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.

Ingredients

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes, plus
  • 1 tablespoon, melted
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 Granny Smith apples
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Instructions

  1. Set the cubed butter on a plate and place it in the freezer for 15 minutes. Fill a cup with ice and water and set aside. Place 1 1/2 of the flour, 1⁄ 8 teaspoon of the salt, and 1 tablespoon of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Take the butter out of the freezer and add it to the flour. Pulse the mixture until it looks like wet sand, about 10 seconds. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the ice water and pulse until the dough comes together into a ball.
  2. Lightly flour your work surface and place the dough on top. Then lightly flour the top of the dough and roll to about a 10- to 11-inch circle, sprinkling more flour under and on top of the dough as necessary. Gently drape the dough over the rolling pin and transfer it to a 9- or 9 1/2-inch fluted tart pan (ideally one with a removable bottom). Fit the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan as evenly as possible and press off excess dough from the fluted rim. Set the tart pan on a baking sheet and place in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Peel, core, and quarter the apples and then thinly slice them lengthwise. Place the apples in a large bowl and toss with the lemon juice, the cinnamon, and the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and 1⁄ 8 teaspoon salt. Remove the baking sheet with the tart shell from the refrigerator. Arrange the apples in concentric circles so they overlap slightly. Brush the edges of the crust with the melted butter and then bake until the edges are golden and the apples have cooked down, about 1 hour. Cool for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

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  • Kat

    I freeze leftovers a lot to make sure they don’t go to waste and make the food stretch farther.

  • Erin

    I’ll buy a whole chicken and then get many meals from the meat and even homemade stock out of one purchase – it works out great for us!

  • Michelle

    I make a menu plan at the beginning of the week and do all my grocery shopping in one day. When I plan exactly what means we are eating at home and have dinner ready, I have cut our meal spending. And, using and sticking to a grocery list has dramatically cut the grocery spending!!

  • Rona

    I use The Six O’Clock Scramble and ZipList to plan weekly meals. I end up buying only what I need and saving money. I also use coupons when I can.

  • Marisa Scala-Foley

    Planning out our week’s meals (school lunches and dinners) on Sundays, and making sure to incorporate leftover veggies, etc. into future meals.

  • Lorrie B

    I buy on sale and freeze. I also grow my own garden. I also find the six o’clock scramble to be a HUGE time saver and I’m not buying “extras” that don’t go w/ the menu

  • Randi

    I try to make as much from scratch as possible. My new thing is baking all of our bread. Not only is it cheaper, but it is healthier because I know exactly what is going into everything. I have started making bagels for breakfast and those are much cheaper then buying them at the bagel shop.

  • Leslie Hodgen

    This year we started our own organic garden, it has been saving our family about $30 a week on produce this summer! And I also try to use everything when I cook, for example making chicken stock from the bones when I roast a whole chicken.

  • http://chattywomen.com/pennythoughts Hedy @ Penny for my Thoughts

    I save money by buying dried beans & chickpeas rather than canned.

  • Sue

    I am trying to stop wasting food. So if we buy a cooked chicken one night, that becomes a pad thai the next day and eventually, a soup.

  • courtney

    Menu planning and shopping with a grocery list. I buy just what I need and nothing else.

  • Julie Mills

    We make a menu at the beginning of the week. My DH scans ads and coupons. We often spread ingredients out over the week to save money.

  • Katie S

    I take a hearty soup and serve it over rice or pasta noodles to make one can of soup me a decent meal for our family of three. Probably costs less than $5 for the entire dinner!

  • Darcee Johnson

    I buy chicken and ground beef in large amounts when it’s on sale and cook it and freeze it for quick dinners. I make tacos and spaghetti sauce with lentils instead of beef. I make my own “taco seasoning, ranch dressing seasoning, fajita seasoning” etc and keep them in old spice containers. I always buy the canned goods I use often in bulk when on sale (“cream of” soups, tomato sauce, veggies). And I make almost EVERYTHING from scratch (except chicken nuggets….my lazy luxury).

  • Jenny

    I save by doing only 1 big shop per week and using a master list. It keeps me from feeling tempted by those impulse buys!

  • Janell

    I review the sale circular before planning my weekly menu. That helps me get focused and let’s me take advantage of sale items The big key…stick to the list!

  • Emily Luker

    Coupons!! Buy on sale and match it with a coupon!

  • Kate

    I plan at least a few dinners in advance and always shop from a list.

  • Jennifer M.

    I try to use coupons and plan meals around what is on sale.

  • http://michelescafe.blogspot.com/ michele

    My top 3 $ saving habits are
    1. I watch portions. My mother used to say don’t let your wants exceed your needs…or your eyes are bigger than your stomach.
    2. I always buy what’s on sale…even for holidays…I plan ahead. Get rain checks and that sort of thing when the stores run out. So I watch the circulations the stores put out.
    3. I keep my list of what we planned as a group my 2 older daughter (20 and 18) and I stick to it.
    I usually cook from scratch too about 75%

  • Jen

    I use a meal planning tool, right now its the scramble. I plan meals weekly, try to have a leftover meal, vegetarian meals, sometimes breakfast for dinner, in-season veggies, fruits, and store brands when I can’t tell the difference.

  • Jolee

    I plan my meals around the sales in my local grocery circulars. I also try to avoid pre-packaged food as much as possible and stretch proteins over multiple meals.

  • Melissa

    I go grocery shopping on a weekday morning so I can get in and out faster, and that’s when they often mark down the meats. And I buy all the marked-down meat i can and freeze it. This is especially useful in the winter when I make lots of braises, roasts and stews.

  • lissaemtb

    coupons matched with ads (purchase ahead on non-perishables)

    Watch for sales on freezer stuff (purchase ahead when ad/coupon/ and space allow)

    Garden produce is a wonderful thing from the in laws!

  • http://www.tealightfultreasures.net/party Lisa

    I save money with coupons, but I also cook smart. I live alone, but for dinner I always cook for two so that I have a good meal to take to work for lunch the next day!

  • Kandace

    I do the bulk of the grocery shopping once each month, and I meal plan. We rarely throw away food. It’s a lot of prep but it helps so much.

  • Lara Larsen

    I save money by planning our meals, having a leftover surprise night and buying the sale items.

  • Cathy

    I grow my own herbs and lettuce – less expensive and no pesticides

  • Krista

    My family buys food at the local farmer’s market on the last day when everything is on sale. You get great quality food at great prices!

  • Sherrie

    We have a “Bean Night” once a week where beans &/or Lentils are cooked from dry, not canned (extras put into freezer bags for later usage) and we make soups from any veggies that are starting to age before they spoil. We try never to throw any food away. All leftover food is either frozen for a later meal or made into a different recipe for next night’s dinner. I have learned all these shortcuts from watching and learning from Melissa’s TDD Shows.

  • Lisa J.

    I buy proteins like chicken and meat on sale. I also don’t waste food. I used to be a big food waster, would always be throwing out food because it had expired. So now I have to be organized to see what is expiring, and I have times where I try to use up what is in my pantry and freezer and just cook what is already in my kitchen before I go to the market.

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    I save money by only shopping when the fridge is really empty!

  • Kathryn Howell Dalton

    I menu plan by the week, working in seasonal recipes and ingredients I need to use from what we already have. I also freeze a lot — one leftover serving plus a few veggies quickly becomes lunch another day!

  • Jeanie Stone

    I try to cook what’s on sale

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    I have started doing a meatless night and it have been very interesting how much my kids love beans!

  • madna

    I use ingredients that are in season or are on sale. Makes me be creative but saves a lot of money!

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    One way in which we’ve saved money on meals as a family is to eat vegetarian. We have saved, on average, $40/wk.

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    Knowing where my meat comes from and how it was raised is important to me, so I like to buy my meat from the farmers’ market. However, it’s more expensive than the meat at the grocery store. To balance out the cost, I make meat more of a side item rather than the main dish.

  • Alison B

    I try to cook what’s on sale, especially in the meat/protein areas!

  • http://www.scarehaircare.blogspot.com Scarehaircare

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    I stock the freezer and plan menus before I shop.

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    I only buy meats that are on sale and often enough for several meals. Sometimes I freeze the extra to use in a week or two so we have variety. I also try to make enough of everything so we can have leftovers on those 2 or 3 nights when we are running to and from various lessons and practices. Then when the kids say they are too hungry to wait for dinner, I can heat it up in a flash and avoid the fast food they were begging for.

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    sweetinsahmnity at gmail

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  • Scott D.

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  • Carol L

    I always try to plan my meals and make menus based on what produce,fruit,fish and poultry is on sale.I use coupons as well.Thanks so much for this opportunity.
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/heather.monger.norero Heather Monger-Norero

    Oh man, i feel like such a shlub. I’ll have to use some of her family techniques