Friday, June 27, 2014

My $1 Burrito

I was chiding one of my co-workders for going out every day and arguing that they spent a lot of money. They asked me how I was really saving by bringing my own lunch and while I was sure it was cheaper, I could not really quantify the savings. However, my recent stay at Ft. Lee for an Army course, gave me the chance to do just that and the savings were pretty impressive.

The Finds

 On average, I spent $2.22 per meal (total money spent on food divided by the number of meals cooked). The next cheapest option would have been to eat at the Army’s dining facilities (DFACs) where the average cost for three meals per day would be $3.95 ($2.55 for breakfast and $4.65 for lunch and dinner). That’s 44% savings. For the 21 meals that I made in my room that means I saved a little over $36. Not huge change, but not bad for two weeks.

Those figures are also a conservative estimate. In this little experiment I bought some food that I never ate. Had I to shop over again I could have gotten to $1.79 a meal. And of course, the DFAC is the best eating out option – an Army subsidized (nearly) all-you-can eat smorgasbord. Many soldiers opt to spend more money for less food – probably $6-8 for lunch at one of the food courts or even food trucks that can be found on post.

A Chance to Experiment

 At home it is hard to calculate the cost of a meal. Even if I do the shopping, it’s hard to parse out the cost of any one lunch mostly because I do not have time to examine what percent of each line item on the grocery receipt goes to which meal.

2 burners, pots & refrigerator
When I got to Ft. Lee’s lodging though I found that the room was equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, two-burner stove, a 12” skillet, 2 and 4-quart pots, a serrated knife, and a two-dish set (plate, bowel, fork, knife and spoon). I realized this was the perfect opportunity to  try some simple dishes and see how much my meals really cost.

Modest selection of dishes

I settled for simplicity but stuck to fairly standard meals. For breakfast I did oatmeal and lunch burritos. For dinner I went for spaghetti and stir fry. I also got some apples for snacks and salad to add onto lunches or dinners. All told I spent just under $47.

I then parsed out the ingredients by meal to that I could further see the cost per meal. I also kept track of how many times I made each meal.

Costs per Meals


Not surprisingly oatmeal wins by a lot. When I was deployed to Afghanistan and felt like eating break in my room, I discovered that plain oatmeal worked just fine for  me. While it was filling, it also did not sit heavy on my stomach. I can easily eat a cup of plain oatmeal and then go for an eight-mile run. At $2.16 oatmeal worked out to $0.27 per breakfast.


Next was the burrito. For mine I used:

Burrito Lunch

Black beans (2 cans)
Tortillas (Large 8 count)
Brown Rice (1 lb)
1/2 Bell Pepper
Salsa verde
1/2 Onion
No. Meals
Cost / Meal

Start with the rice and green chile sauce

I threw in black beans, onions and peppers

I found mixing it up was a nice finishing touch

Stir Fry

My wife suggested this one and it was a great idea. Admittedly, a little research could probably improve this one immensely but what I did worked well enough. It had the added advantage of using rice which meant I could make a pot of rice every few days and use it for both the burrito and the stir fry.

I went with a pretty basic approach. I first browned the tofu in some hot oil. At the same time I defrosted some frozen vegetables (about 2 min in a bowl in the microwave, stirring halfway through). Then I put the vegetables on the oil. Then I added the tofu and cabbage back in.

Stir Fry

Brown Rice
Frozen vegetables
Soy Sauce
Olive oil
Extra Firm Tofu
No Meals
Cost / Meal

The ingredients assembled 
After browning the tofu I threw everything else in

Just a dap of sauce

Add a few peanuts for garnish


For the spaghetti dinner, I tried mashing peeled tomatoes (to get less sugar and salt that traditional canned sauce). I neglected to use spices. I think next time I will just get one or two dollar spice packs of Italian seasoning. The cost of this per meal could have been lower but I ate out with friends a few nights and never got around to making a second meal.

Spaghetti Dinner

Bell Pepper
Tomatoes (for sauce)
Olive oil
No Meals
Cost / Meal

Closing thoughts

The 1-quart zip-lock bags were great for covering the open cans and storing the vegetables, rice and leftovers. I almost did not get these but a friend asked me to pick up a few for his meals. I was really glad he did.

What was interesting was that I found that I was not hungry between meals. The food was filling as well as less expensive. Those that know me know that this is not a small feat. I was still running between six andnine miles per day this entire time. But with a burrito the size of two fists managed to keep me happy all afternoon.

I was also less stressed than others who had to drive around post, wait in lines and barely had time to make it back to class. I went back to my room, fixed up my lunch and then read for about 20 minutes before heading back to class. I am calling that another win.

Overall it was a fun and successful experiment that I will repeat next time I am at a hotel with a kitchenette. And I can now answer my colleagues with my $1 burrito.

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