Using Food Subsidies at Home

Something I'll surely be talking about later is food subsidies. I often hear the argument that people can't afford to eat well. I understand that money is tight but I also understand that when the cost of each plate is important (as apposed to the monthly food bill) and the cost of each ingredient on that plate is known you have a lot of power and flexibility to afford better food. Maybe I need to explain.  In the restaurant business inventory cost is everything. You can't just make great food and send it out the door without knowing what it costs and one of the tricks to providing a great meal for a profit is to know the cost of *everything* on that plate. If you go out to dinner at a decent restaurant and you analyze the food on your plate you'd think that a bit of meat, some veggies and a starch is a balanced meal but you may be surprised to know that the items on that plate have little to do with nutrition and a lot to do with economics. Restaurants are in business to make money, not go broke. 

Let's take a closer look at what they do. I've somewhat randomly picked a menu from a local Seattle restaurant – The Pink Door. A swanky Italian/American restaurant with no visible name to be exact just a.... wait for it.... pink door in Post Alley near the very famous and tourist infested Pike Place Market.

Example Food Subsidy

We'll take a look at a few items on their dinner menu.

b u t t e r n u t s q u a s h r a v i o l i d e - c o n s t r u c t e d burst in your mouth mushroom consommé ravioli over creamy squash purée & fresh herbs 19

Let's assume they're going to give you 1.5 lbs of food here and we're going to divide the weight into pasta and squash since the latter is not only the filling but has it as a base too. That leaves us with ¾ lb of pasta dough and ¾ lb of butternut squash. Naturally the squash is going to have some herbs and spices in it which we don't know but they will be mere fractions of an ounce in weight so for our purposes negligible. We also see that we have a mushroom consommé in the filling. The material cost of making a pound of pasta is roughly 60 cents. The cost per pound for butternut squash is about $1. We don't know the mushrooms used but just for the sake of argument they're Portobella which usually run about $7/lb. That's a lot of money in comparison to the rest of the meal but if we only have ¾ lb of ravioli filling then the amount of mushrooms is probably in the 2 oz range or about 45 cents. Add in a half an ounce of fresh shaved cave aged Parmesan ($25/lb) and we're sitting squarely at $2.50 cents for this meal. If you want to really do it up some nice home baked rolls would be great. That would bump the cost to a whopping $2.75.

  • ¾ lb pasta - $.90/lb

  • ¾ lb squash – $1/lb

  • 2 oz Mushrooms - $7/lb

  • ½ oz grated Parmesan - $25/lb

Total material cost is $2.75. How do they get away with charging $19 then? Part of it is to cover the cost of the building, wages for the chefs and wait staff, profit for the owner and so on. We made a dish with $25/lb imported cheese and fairly expensive mushrooms by subsidizing the cost of the expensive items with the cost of the cheap ones. In this case pasta, squash and bread are the cheap items. I'd bet that part of this dish also subsidizes more expensive dishes. That's right, not only do we have subsidies going on within a dish but between them. Let's do another one with even more specialty items. More after the jump.


r i s o t t o exotic & foraged mushrooms, shaved parmigiano & fried herbs 1 9 .

  • exotic & foraged mushrooms - $15/lb

  • shaved parmigiano cheese - $25/lb

  • risotto – $.35/lb

Starting to see the pattern? Really expensive flavor with a cheap vehicle. Let's try one with more specialty items like meat and wine. This is from my own recipebox.

Chicken Marsala - Grilled chicken breast, Portobella Mushrooms, Pancetta in an Italian Marsala wine reduction with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes.

  • ¾ lb chicken breasts - $3/lb

  • 2 oz Portobella Mushrooms - $7/lb

  • 1 oz Pancetta - $20/lb

  • 100 ml imported Italian Marsala wine - $10/bottle

  • ¾ lb Yukon Gold potatoes - $1/lb

  • garlic, parsley, butter etc - $2/lb

Total material cost about $4.50. This is an expensive meal. One that would cost you $20 if you went out though. Granted I use a lot of wine in this meal but a restaurant would drop it in half resulting in a cost under $4. If someone goes halvsies with Portobella and Crimeni mushrooms, cuts the wine in half, and buys split chicken breasts and debones them at home they can get this meal down to about $3 ea.


So how do you use food subsidies at home?

You have to keep track of how much everything costs and pair cheaper items together like starches and vegetables to offset the costs of the premium items. Category one would be cheap starches – rice, bread and potatoes are great examples of inexpensive starches coming in at about 30 cents per lb. Even expensive versions of each come in under a dollar per pound. Category two would be more expensive vegetables like peppers, Fennel, garlic and most fruits and occupy the $2-$4/lb area. Cheap meats like pork and chicken also fall into this category. Category three would be more expensive vegetables like mushrooms, exotic fruits, premium cuts of meat, domestic cheese and seafood. Category three spans $5-$10lb. Category four would be very special items like imported cheeses, wines etc/ and range from $11 - $20/lb. There is one more category you may not have expected – Category 5 – spices which are priced beyond $20/lb. Saffron runs $500-$5000/lb and I use it in my inexpensive cooking!


My typical formula

Category One – ½ meal weight

Category Two – ¼ meal weight

Category Three – ¼ meal weight

Category Four – fractions

Category Five – fractions

If we had a 1.5 lb meal it would cost us roughly $3 and that includes items that might cost double digits per pound!

Effectively using food subsidies at home

In order to capitalize on this at home you need to keep a table of food costs by measurement and where you can get them. Below is a sample of mine. I know what the item is, what the measurement is and how much that measurement costs and where I can get it for that cost locally. This way I can quickly scan a recipe and come up with a per recipe cost. If the cost of the recipe is too high I push up the Category One/Two items and push down the Category Three's. I also keep track of cooked food costs because they change drastically for things like rice, beans and pasta. One pound of any of these becomes two or more pounds after being cooked so a good deal becomes a great deal.


If however, you don't care enough about having money to take a trip to Europe every other year (saving $3 a day on food) then perhaps you can just follow a few simple rules.

  1. Include a starch in your meal, it could be potatoes, rice or bread.

  2. Include vegetables. Even expensive vegetables are reasonably priced.

  3. Include a salad with your meal, generally lettuce runs about $1/lb. It doesn't matter if you think it's filling or not because you could buy 4 lbs of lettuce for the price of one lb of meat

  4. Shop the asian markets for produce.

  5. Start an herb garden

That last two will be the subject of a later article but for now let me say that I can buy a giant bundle of basil at the Asian market for $1. If I go to any grocery store I'll pay $2.25 for the tiny plastic package. If I have a nice meal that needs Rosemary, Thyme and Sage I've just spent the cost of the whole meal on herbs.

Not everyone can start an herb garden and maybe not everyone has a green thumb but let me sum it up economically for you. You can buy live herbs for the same price as the little pastic packages. If you keep it alive one month and use it for a couple of meals you saved 3x over buying them at the grocery store. And what's more important is you gained a bit of freedom. I cannot stress this enough. If you're short on money the last thing you want is for someone to take the one true pleasure away from you because you don't have a couple of bucks for that one herb you need. Having your own plants gives you the freedom to cook great food and save money at the same time.

And how raising our herb garden relates to the food subsidies topic at hand – herbs are expensive! Have you checked the price of herbs in those little packages? Roughly $30/lb! Even the cheap stuff at the Asian markets run about $4/lb. Growing your own means you won't have to subsidize the expensive stuff as much.


Why not just eat the subsidies?

True, I can make a meal for 50 cents. I can also make a very lively kick butt dish for $1. However, it's probably not that great for you to sit around eating starches all day. It also gets to be a bit boring. I can make a big pot of Potato Tika Masala with homemade Chapati for about 50 cents per person but look what you're eating – potatoes, rice and bread with some tomato cream sauce. Not exactly balanced. This isn't a nutrition article so I won't dwell on that but suffice to say if you use food subsides wisely you can have great restaurant quality food for a couple of bucks a person.