This week, I am reviewing $3 Meals, and the publisher, The Lyons Press, has graciously agreed to sponsor a GIVEAWAY for one lucky blog reader to win a copy of the book!
How to enter:
- Do one or more of the actions below.
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- Leave a comment here with your favorite cheap, healthy dinner.
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The book’s structure
Now for the review! The book’s full title is $3 Meals: Feed Your Family Delicious, Healthy Meals for Less than the Cost of a Gallon of Milk, and its author is Ellen Brown. I came across the book at my local library, where it was featured, and checked it out. After reading through it and trying a few recipes, I was really impressed.$3 Meals is divided into several sections: an introduction, a chapter called “Strategies for Shopping and Cooking,” 7 additional chapters of recipes, and two appendices covering conversions and weights and measures of ingredients.
The “Strategies for Shopping and Cooking” is well worth reading. In this section, Brown lays out the way you need to think to stick to an affordable grocery budget, while eating healthy, delicious foods. Her pointers cover:
- Making a weekly plan – including how to inventory what you’ve got and put leftovers together
- Shopping – which aisles to hit and why
- Saving – how to squeeze out the biggest savings (such as getting a coupon buddy to swap coupons you don’t need)
- Understanding bargain options – from bulk buying to price comparison to working directly with a real, live butcher
- Store alternatives – from online to farmer’s markets to discount stores
The recipe section starts with a chapter on basics. The chapter has a nice introduction on why you’ll want to make basics — from making stock from frozen bits to preparing your own vinaigrettes and sauces — as well as how to do it efficiently. Brown includes several salad dressing variations, barbecue sauce, cocktail sauce, tomato sauce, aioli, tartar sauce, stocks and more.
Some of these sauces might not be worth preparing yourself, cost-wise. If you are a couponer, you might be able to get BBQ sauce or ketchup or other condiments for $1 a bottle or for free. If you are comfortable with the ingredients of the bargain brand, that’s great! On the other hand, some sauces have tons of sugar, preservatives or unpronounceable ingredients, in which case you might want to make it yourself. That also applies if you follow dietary restrictions that make store-bought varieties challenging.
The following chapters include recipes organized by style — meals in a bowl (soups and chowders), seafood, poultry, meats, vegetarian, and baked goods. Each category includes food from different ethnic backgrounds — Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese.
As well, the book includes a lot of traditional recipes that you might have eaten growing up. In fact, some of them might be nostalgic, frugal staples. Within this category, I literally stunned my husband into silence one night when he came home, sniffed the air and asked, “What are you making for dinner?” and I replied, “Tuna casserole.” I have never made this kind of dish before, but he grew up on it (and would not mind if he never saw it again). I’m not a fan of casseroles, cooked tuna, or creamy white stuff, but I had to give it a try. He was utterly shocked, which was a pleasure in itself, as he is nearly impossible to surprise.
Every chapter begins with an introduction that incorporates tips on buying good-quality meat or other ingredients, and how to get the most from what you buy (such as buying a whole chicken and cutting it yourself, rather than paying a premium for pre-cut chicken).
What I tried & cost analysis
I tried five recipes from the main dish sections. Here’s how they worked for me and what they cost me. Brown did clarify for me that the cost ($3) is per person, for the whole meal, including side dishes and dessert.
- Chicken and cheese enchiladas – This was the recipe I played with the most. I was eager to make enchiladas, so my first batch included lots of leftovers. The introduction says “they can be vegetarian, or contain meat, poultry or seafood,” and I substituted cooked butternut squash (from last year’s garden) and leftover corn for the chicken. I didn’t have Monterey Jack cheese, so I used half shredded mozzarella and half sharp, dry cheddar. I also might have (Mr. Cheap says I did) used Ethiopian berbere powder instead of chili powder (can I help it if his spices aren’t labeled?). The tortillas were old and a bit dry. I used frozen green chiles from our CSA instead of canned, and a serrano pepper from our garden instead of a jalapeno. Finally, I used one of my favorite tips from The Tightwad Gazette and for the half-and-half the recipe calls for, I used a cup of 2% milk with 1/3 cup dry nonfat milk stirred in (this cuts the fat, raises the protein and lowers the cost from about $1.19 to $0.20). The sauce is really, really good, and the dish was delicious. If I’d made it per the recipe (using natural chicken and organic butter, as well as purchased chicken stock and purchased half-and-half), my cost would have been $8.74 for the dish or $1.46 per each of 6 servings for this entree; my changes brought it to $4.67 total or $0.78 per serving. Not bad! I made this again later for a potluck, and used rice flour instead of wheat to make it gluten-free.
- Updated Tuna Noodle Casserole – This was the dish that surprised Mr. Cheap, but it surprised us all by tasting pretty darn good. Mlle. Cheap really liked it. It is “updated” in that you make your own white sauce, and the dish is filled out with onion, celery, mushrooms and an optional bell pepper (which I added). Brown notes that you can substitute salmon, or substitute chicken or turkey for more of an “a la king.” I followed the recipe, but in the interest of frugality, I did substitute Sun Chips for potato chips because we had a few snack-size bags on hand left over from a soccer game. Counting those as free (since we would’ve just snarfed them down otherwise), my cost was $5.26 for the dish or $0.88 for each of six servings. If I’d had to buy chips and buy tuna at the store (I had a stash of lower-priced tuna from Costco), it would have been $6.66 or $1.11 per serving. I did note that active time (cooking noodles, chopping an onion, celery and a pepper, and wiping, stemming and dicing mushrooms, as well as making the white sauce, then mixing everything together) took me closer to 30 minutes than the promised 15 minutes.
- Tex-Mex Tamale Pie – This dish was very good. We made it with ground organic bison instead of ground chuck. You could easily make it vegetarian by using beans or meat substitute. I loved that it has cornbread right on top, in one dish. My cost (with the bison, which was $5 per pound) was $8.64, or $1.44 per serving. You could lower cost to around $1 a serving by avoiding the pricey meat. Again, the active time says 15 minutes, but you would have to work mighty fast to complete these tasks in 15 minutes: brown meat, chop all veggies (these could happen simultaneously); cook veggies for 3 minutes “or until onion is translucent” (in our kitchen, translucency doesn’t happen for at least 5-6 minutes); stir 1 minute with chili powder; add tomatoes and beef and bring to a boil, then simmer 10 minutes, preparing topping while it simmers; then add corn, simmer 5 minutes, spread in the pan and bake 15 minutes. You will have some time to do other tasks near the kitchen, but expect to be basically active for most of an hour.
- Linguine with White Clam Sauce – OK, we don’t live near the sea, as Brown fervently hopes readers do, so I had to make do with all canned clam product, which accounted for $6 of this dish’s nearly $11 total cost (and the wine for the sauce was more than $2 more). My family loved this dish, and we thought the sauce would also be lovely over mussels. The total cost of $1.82 per serving makes it a little more “special,” but it could go with just a salad or a simple green vegetable to keep it in the price range.
- Mexican Spaghetti Squash Au Gratin – This dish from the vegetarian section takes slightly more preparation time, though not active time, because you must bake the spaghetti squash, then add it to the casserole and bake it all together. Brown suggests you also could sauté some zucchini or yellow squash instead, and if you aren’t into the Mexican flair, you could use Italian seasonings instead of Mexican. We really liked this dish, too, and thought leftovers would be a great veggie enchilada or taco filling. My cost was $5.86 total, or $0.98 per serving. If I’d had to buy green chilis (we have chilis from our CSA) and buy spaghetti squash, it would have cost $7.88, or $1.31 per serving. I counted $3 ($1 per pound) for the spaghetti squash, but I almost wouldn’t count that cost, as without a yummy-sounding recipe jumping out at me, I might not have used the spaghetti squash, which is not our favorite food.
As you might have noted, each of these recipes includes extras like general serving suggestions, variations with other spices, or alternative fillings or tastes. Every recipe we tried was really tasty. And Brown throws in extra bits of information throughout the book — for instance, a recipe for making your own chili powder instead of buying a pre-packaged mixture. (Unfortunately, the “extras” aren’t always included in the index; fortunately, the book is just 242 pages long, so you can skim for them.)
Maybe I am not the fastest chopper, but most dishes took more prep time than stated. I didn’t mind, because I enjoyed the opportunity to try out new recipes and new, from-scratch ways to make some classic dishes. (And if you’ve been intimidated by things like making a roux or making your own white sauce, Brown walks you through the steps so nonchalantly that you’ll be using a roux without even knowing you’ve done it.)
Some readers have complained that they normally spend less than this on dinner. But for a hearty entree, made healthy with good protein, healthy fats and plenty of vegetables, I think the cost is reasonable. To stay in budget, be sure to heed a sound principle for frugal cooking and a healthy weight — note the number of servings and only eat one. Then most families will have leftovers to eat the next day or another night, saving even more.
The cookbook has recipes for classics like Turkey Tetrazzini and Beef Stroganoff, but it also has Vietnamese Pork Loin and Caribbean Curried Black Bean Soup. I can imagine making nearly every dish in the book — in fact, I have not been cooking from it only because it’s been sitting on my desk awaiting this review, rather than in the kitchen!
If you’ve tried this book, please share your opinions — and if you’d like to win, sign up below!