February 2022 Mealtime Memo: Cost-Effective Meals: Strategies for Making the Most of Your Food Dollars

February 2022 Mealtime Memo: Cost-Effective Meals: Strategies for Making the Most of Your Food Dollars


Cost-Effective Meals
Strategies for Making the Most of Your Food Dollars

Serving healthy meals to children on a budget is possible, and choosing more nutritious foods gives you the most value for your dollar. To make sure you are spending wisely, follow these tips as you shop at your favorite food store:

  • Compare food items using the unit price.
  • Purchase budget-friendly and healthy foods.


Compare unit prices to find the best dollar value. The price label on the shelf includes a lot of helpful information, including unit price, which can help you compare similar items of different weights and amounts. Let’s take a look at the information on the price label.

Figure 1

Retail Price:
This is the price you pay for the item.

Unit Price:
This price tells you the cost of one item, or unit of measurement, in a package (e.g., pound, ounce, quart, etc.). For example, in a 24-oz container of sour cream, an ounce is the unit of measurement. In a 5 lb bag of potatoes, a pound is the unit of measurement.

The unit price is ideal for comparing similar items sold in varying weights and amounts. For example, Figure 1 shows two different price labels on a grocery store shelf. Based on the unit price, the 32-oz container is a better buy because the unit price is $0.05/oz, whereas the unit price for a 6-oz container is $0.12/oz. You get more for your money with the larger container.

Calculating Unit Price

If the unit price is not listed on the price label, it is easy to figure it out using the following calculation. To find the unit price, divide the total cost of the item by how many units are in the item.

Total Price ÷ Number of Units = Unit Price

Example for fresh apples:
3-lb bag (# of Units) costs $5.97 (Total Price)
$5.97 ÷ 3 lbs = $1.99 per lb (Unit Price)

Purchase Budget-Friendly and Healthy Foods

Choosing foods that are full of nutrients yet affordable will give you the most for your money. Follow these tips to help you save money.

Look for Sale Items

Buying what is on sale is a great way to save money and get variety. Grocers change sale items periodically, so look around to discover new sales. However, you will need to be flexible when shopping. If a similar item to what is on your planned menu is on sale, consider buying the sale item. Remember to mark the substitution on your menus.

For example, fresh grapes are on the menu, but pears are on sale. You may purchase the pears and then change the grapes to pears on the menu.

You also may save money by purchasing store-brand items, which often are similar in taste and quality.

Buy in Bulk

Save money by buying larger quantities of foods that will store well, like whole grains, canned or dried beans, and frozen vegetables. However, do not overbuy foods that you may throw out later.

Make Items from Scratch

Many homemade foods cost less than their processed counterparts. Making foods from scratch may take a little more preparation time, but with a little planning and practice, you will save money. Plus, many commercially prepared foods are high in fat, salt, and sugar. When you prepare meals from scratch, you know exactly what is going into the dish, and you can make a healthier version.

Budget-Friendly Foods

Meats/Meat Alternates

Serving meat alternates (dried beans, lentils, eggs, etc.) in place of higher-cost meats (beef, poultry, and fish) not only saves money but serves as a healthy, vegetarian option. Try serving a meatless meal 1–2 times per week. Get recipes at the ICN Child Nutrition Recipe Box, and look for more vegetarian ideas in a future Mealtime Memo.

Low-Cost Meats/Meat Alternates

  • Beans, peas, and lentils, such as kidney beans, lima beans, split peas, and garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • Canned tuna
  • Eggs
  • Peanut or other nut butters

Vegetables and Fruits

Vegetables and fruits are often viewed as high-cost foods, and some people may limit variety because of this belief. However, some veggies and fruits may cost less than other snacks on a per-serving basis. Although retail prices for vegetables and fruits might appear high on a per-pound basis, remember that a pound provides 3–5 servings. Therefore, the price per serving is much lower.

Low-Cost Fresh Fruits

Low-Cost Fresh Vegetables

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Papaya
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Watermelon
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Dried Beans and Lentils
  • Green Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Seasonal Veggies and Fruits: Buy “in season” fresh produce, which is usually less expensive and at peak flavor. Try to buy only what you can use before it spoils. Past Mealtime Memos list seasonal fruits and vegetables each month, so check those out for ideas of what to buy.
  • Canned and Frozen Veggies: If you can’t buy fresh produce, canned and frozen may be inexpensive choices. Choose fruit canned in 100% fruit juice and vegetables with “low sodium” or “no salt added” on the label. These products are nutritious and often cost less.


Like fruits and vegetables, whole grains are often thought of as expensive. However, many whole grains are affordable and priced at or near the same cost as refined versions—meaning you get more nutrients at little or no extra charge. While at the store, do some comparison shopping (using unit prices), and if whole grain items are on sale, buy extra. Bread can be frozen and thawed at room temperature when ready to use. Uncooked brown rice, dry pasta, dry oatmeal, and dry popcorn kernels can be stored in the pantry for up to 1 year, so you can stock up when they are on sale. Be sure to always check the “Use By” date on the package to ensure you use the product while at peak quality.

Affordable Whole Grains

  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat pasta

Popcorn is an inexpensive yet creditable whole grain. Purchasing popcorn kernels instead of microwave-ready popcorn bags is often less expensive and is lower in salt. You do not need special equipment to air-pop popcorn kernels.

For more tips for every aisle to fill your cart with budget-friendly and healthy options from each food group, check out Shop Simple with MyPlate.

Budget-Friendly Menu Ideas


1% Milk


Fiesta wrap (see recipe below)
(black beans, quinoa, whole wheat tortilla)
Green pepper slices
1% Milk


Cucumber coins


Chickpeas and Tomatoes

This affordable USDA recipe for Chickpeas and Tomatoes serves 6 and can be used to fill tacos, burrito bowls, or taco salad.

get this recipe

Fiesta Wraps

Try USDA’s Fiesta Wrap for 25 or 50 servings that incorporates black beans, quinoa, and whole wheat tortillas.

get this recipe
Get Recipes on the Child Nutrition Recipe Box


Institute of Child Nutrition, Child Nutrition Recipe Box. (2021). Chickpeas and tomatoes – USDA recipe for family child care. https://theicn.org/cnrb/recipes-for-homes/chickpeas-and-tomatoes-for-home/

Institute of Child Nutrition, Child Nutrition Recipe Box. (2021). Fiesta wrap – USDA recipe for child care centers. https://theicn.org/cnrb/recipes-for-centers-sandwiches/fiesta-wrap/

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. (n.d.). Spend smart. Eat smart. https://spendsmart.extension.iastate.edu/plan/

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2016, February). The cost of satisfying fruit and vegetable recommendations in the dietary guidelines. https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=42904

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2019, August 20). Fruit and vegetable prices. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fruit-and-vegetable-prices.aspx

U.S. Department of Agriculture, MyPlate. (n.d.). Eat healthy on a budget.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, MyPlate. (n.d.). Shop simple with MyPlate.

About Mealtime Memo

Mealtime Memo (MTM) is focused on nutrition and wellness in child care settings and is specifically intended for use by child care professionals who participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The objective is to provide research-based best practices for planning, preparing, and/or serving nutritious, safe, and child-friendly meals in child care settings operating the CACFP.

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Please note: To ensure MTMs provide the most accurate, up-to-date information, any references to Federal regulations, nutritional standards, and other best practices are considered current at the time of publication. Please be advised that this information is NOT updated to reflect any changes/revisions beyond the publication date. In addition, all MTMs published prior to 2017 have been archived and are no longer available on our website. If you need access to an archived MTM or for questions on the latest regulations and standards, please contact ICN’s Help Desk at helpdesk@theicn.org or 1-800-321-3054.

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2022-06-07T10:25:42-05:00February 1st, 2022|

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