HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Low Budget Cooking/Costs

Can't locate my original post with low cost meals, oh well. Anyway, I will begin my cooking for a women's shelter next week. I need to submit a grocery budget, as low as possible, to cook for 23 women. Question, what shall I prepare and how much will it cost? It's for one meal per week (dinner). Thanks.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. are you cooking bfast, lunch or dinner? that would help with suggestions. thanks, and thanks for helping out the shelter!

    1. Minimal meat and fresh veggies cut costs, not healthy, but cut costs.

      Spaghetti with meat sauce
      Garlic bread (using regular bread)
      Salad with sliced tomatoes

      1 package of spaghetti @ 1.00 (feeds 4 per package) x 6 packages=6.00
      10 pounds of ground beef=16.00
      1.00 Jarred pasta sauce (1 jar feed 3 people) x 8 jars=8.00
      1.00 Bread for garlic bread (1 loaf feeds 15 people) x 2 loaves=2.00
      2.00 for bag of salad (feeds 4 people) x 6 bags=12.00
      4.00 for tomatoes=4.00
      2.00 for each bottle of salad dressing (5 different bottles)=10.00

      Total estimated cost for 23 people: $58.00

      I praise you in your work for these people. Keep up the good work and post here if you need more help. I will post more ideas when time permits.

      1. WOW, this post is sure nice to find. I did finally find my original post to look at low cost menu ideas. I decided on Baked Ziti, which looks right along the same lines that BellaDonna suggested. The pricing really helps. Thank you so very much. I'm sure this will get easier as I continue to cook for these ladies.

        1. I'm just curious to find out if you are the only one cooking for all 23 women. I've been in the same boat. If you are doing it solo...the most difficult thing I realized was that I didn't have enough pots and pans to cook everything with and I had a difficult time keeping things warm to bring to the shelter.

          Another simple and low cost item would be a big pot of chili and cornbread:
          To make 3 pots of chili- -
          3 cans of diced tomatoes @ 1.25 each x 3=3.75
          3 cans of crushed tomatoes @ 1.25 each x 3=3.75
          10 pounds of ground beef=16.00
          6 cans of kidney beans @ 0.65/each=3.90
          6 cans of pork and beans @ 0.65/each=3.90
          3 large onions=3.00
          chili powder=3.00/bottle
          Fresh habernos=0.50
          Jiffy cornbread mix 0.33/box (one box feeds 4 people) x 6=1.98
          Total cost approx. $40.00

          Chicken Soup (4 pots)
          4 fryer chickens @ 4.00/each=16.00
          4 bunches of celery=5.00
          4 bunches of carrots=5.00
          5 cans of chicken broth per pot x 0.40/can x 20 cans=8.00
          10 pound bag of potatoes=5.00
          Approx. cost $39.00

          My calculations may be off as it is very late in my time zone.

          1. If you start by checking the sales and bulk items and make your menu's around that you may do better on pricing. You can usually get lower priced items for braises. Pork roasts are usually pretty cheap. Sometimes you can get chuck roasts on sale and they are fabulous for stews and pot roasted stuff.

            1. Do you have to submit a budget prior to your first serving? I think it might be interesting, if possible, to ask the women what they would like to eat, and then maybe try and work in some of their preferences...

              1. I'm going to prepare Baked Ziti/Salad/Bread. I estimated it at $50.00. What I did to double check costs, was to go to Safeway.com (grocery store) and shop online to get a cost. Then subtract a bit considering I will probably go to Trader Joes's for the lower prices.
                I figure once I cook, I will see what the kitchen has in the way of bowls, pots & pans, etc. And also, I'll get to talk with the women for menu preferences.
                Thank you very much for the input - helps!

                1. you're figuring about $2 pp, which is extremely high for this kind of cooking.

                  using belladonna's amounts (just as an example) she's figuring 1/2 pound of meat pp, which is an awful lot. buying bags of salad will save time, but are astonishingly expensive for this type of large-scale charity cooking. i'm in wintery new england, so wouldn't waste money on out of season stuff like tomatoes, but would bulk up on carrots, parsnips and celery, which go much further and cost much less.

                  don't forget eggs! they are one of the cheapest and most compact forms of protein available. an 18-pk of my market's brand large is $1.89, which is less than 11 cents per egg. a nice strata or frittata would go a long way too.

                  definitely keep your eye on local circulars. most markets will do a loss-leader meat every week, so build your menu from there.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Noodle, so do you think $50.00 is too high ??? Thx.

                    1. re: ChefGirl412

                      Most shelters I know won't let you spend more than $1 per person. You shouldn't be serving more than 3 or 4 z of meat per person. Check into places that collect donated leftover food (in this area we have Island Harvest, there is a similar one in NYC) the food they give is what the shelters base their meals on, you could probably get all your bread and produce through them for free. Also, salad dressing,try to get gallons (check out BJs etc), you don't have to give them 5 choices, 1 or 2 should be plenty. For the same price, you'll get 128 z of dressing. Stuff lasts forever, so you'll only need to buy every few months. Likewise, case of pasta, 20 lbs, costs about $10; get something you can use in soup, under stew and whatever. And do make lots of soup, it goes a long way. You should really go to a place that sells more in bulk, you could hit your budget and have lots of stuff left for next time.

                      1. re: coll

                        Coll, I have to agree with you. I volunteer to cook for a soup kitchen and for the homeless and we are forced to keep the budget at about $.50- $1.00 per person. Meat should be used more as a flavoring and the majority of the meal is usually potatoes, grains, noodles or other form of pasta.

                        There are many businesses that are willing to help, if you make yourself known and are professional about the requests. grocery stores will donate produce, canned goods and often day old items from the bakery. We are often given milk that is a few days from the out-date and other dairy products that might have damaged cartons. The local food bank is a good place to inquire, as are farmers markets and co-ops.

                        Placing a advertisement in the local newspaper to thank the businesses that have donated food goes a long way in developing a long term friendship.

                        Chefgirl412, I want to thank you for donating your time and expertise to this very rewarding cause.

                  2. Hey ChefGirl412, here's your original thread:


                    All the best on your generous endeavor!

                    1. What about splitting it into one baked dish and one stovetop dish so you can handle it yourself?

                      Baking brown rice & lentils for 25 should cost about $10 max.

                      1 cup brown lentils
                      1 1/2 cups brown rice
                      5 cups water
                      2 tablespoon unsalted butter
                      2 teaspoon kosher salt
                      Serves 6 with huge portions
                      Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Boil the water, salt & butter. Pour over the rice, stirr and bake, covered tightly for 75 minutes (for 90 minutes if you triple the recipe)

                      Then a veggie stew for 25 should be about $21

                      three cans of crushed tomatoes = $9
                      Carrots = $3
                      Onions = $2
                      Celery = $2
                      Mushrooms = $5

                      If you have $50 per meal to spend then spend the rest on spices and hotsauce.

                      1. Also, talk to the produce, meat, and canned goods managers of the grocery stores where you shop. I've had good luck getting donations. Of course, you have to be flexible: If the produce manager has tons of cabbage to get rid of cheap (or even free), you need to be able to adjust your menu accordingly. Bakeries can also be a good source of cheap/free food at the end of the day, as can farmer's markets (in season, of course). Just let the folks you normally buy from know what you're doing, and some of them will leap at the chance to help out.

                        1. I belonged to a fruit & veggie co-op this summer. Anybody's shares that didn't get picked up by the end of the weekend were donated. I don't know where you are located, but it might be worth checking out in your area. You might not be able to depend on it every week, but it could be a nice add-on if anything was donated. A pan of fresh roasted veggies is easy and goes with just about anything.

                          1. Oh, and don't forget Costco. You can get deals on bulk amounts there - frequntly cheaper than Trader Joes.

                            1. Laurie Colwin had a great column on feeding a crowd ages ago. I seem to remember she made shepherds pie for a shelter with instant potatoes and frozen vegetables (pea/corn/carrot mix). It actually sounded good, and warming too. Let me know if you want me to hunt down the article (its was in Gourmet and also in one of her books).

                              1. There's a magazine out there called "Taste of Home" that used to have sections, respectively on feeding the family at a very low cost per person for the whole meal and also on "meals for a crowd" - usually potluck style dishes. Those might be useful to you if you can find back copies at the library or something. I've got about the last 4 or so copies around, I'll see if I can find any helpful ideas for you in there.

                                Good for you for taking this on!


                                1. Wow, now I'm embarassed that I submitted $50.00 for the budget. Hmm, this is going to take some real planning on my part. Thanks for the good information.

                                  1. Really it seems you should be asking what budget you should work within. They should know what the budget is, so you don't have to guess and hope you are right.