Convenience Foods Are Costly, But Can You Make Dinner without Them?

My last grocery bill got me thinking. There was a $2.49 line item for a box of instant brown rice. (I always keep a box on hand in case I forget or am unable to make my weekly pot of rice.) Putting it away, it was such a lightweight, especially compared to the bulk bag of organic brown rice I had also gotten. I ran some numbers to see just how much I pay for the privilege of convenience:

$2.49 buys me

1 box of instant brown rice = 6 cups of cooked rice (enough for about 2 meals)


2 1/2 lbs. of bulk brown rice = 20 cups of cooked rice (enough for 6+ meals)

That’s a pretty dramatic difference, and likely as not, the same ratio applies to most other packaged foods in the store. So why are convenience foods like instant rice flying off the shelves when we’re all being squeezed by high grocery prices? Simple: because they’re so darn convenient! Who’s got time to cook from scratch?

There’s the rub. It would be nice to save some money at the grocery store, and cutting back on convenience foods is an obvious target, but how can we possibly assemble decent dinners without a convenience crutch? Here are three strategies that work for me: Strategic Substitution, Stretching and Simplifying

Strategic Substitution

Strategic is the key here, i.e., where can significant price savings be had for little or no extra time? If you’re hankering for something like tamales or sushi or ravioli, making your own probably doesn’t make sense. But things like rice, beans, meatballs, fish sticks and chicken nuggets are all so easy, why should you pay someone else to make them?

Rice is perfect example. The preparation time is identical: Mix water, rice and salt in a pan and put it on the stove to cook. The only difference is the cooking time: You can’t wait until 10 minutes before dinner to cook regular brown rice. Instead, get in the habit of making a pot of at the beginning of each week. Then it’s just a microwave away from being ready. (In case you don’t use it up, just freeze it.)

How To But what if you don’t know how to cook rice except from a box? Or beans, fish sticks, chicken nuggets or meatballs? Jump to these links:

  • How to Cook Rice
  • How to Cook Dried Beans
  • How to Make Fish Sticks
  • How to Make Chicken Nuggets
  • How to Make Basic Meatballs

More Numbers Here are some more numbers to justify cooking outside of boxes:

  • Dried Beans: $1.00 of dried beans produces the same amount as $6.00 worth of canned beans. Think of the additional savings if those beans serve as a protein substitute for meat!
  • Breaded Fish Fillets: Gorton’s Crunchy Breaded Fish Sticks are $7.49. A 10-minute substitute, using the same kind of fish, costs $3.08, less than half.

More Good News

  • Healthier Cooking lower on the convenience chain not only saves money. It results in meals built from real, straight-from-the-earth foods, without gratuitous additions for fat, salt, sugar, colorings, preservatives and flavors.
  • Tastier Better yet, those real foods taste a whole lot better than cheap, mass-produced factory-made foods.
  • Kinder to the Planet And the icing on the cake: look at all the packaging that’s avoided, the dyes and inks that aren’t being used, and the energy that isn’t being devoted to shipping frozen foods around the country. Hooray!

Ready for more strategies? Read on. . .


Sometimes our hand reaches for packaged foods at the store because we’re not too comfortable in the kitchen. The thought of making something completely from scratch sounds impossible. So buy a convenience “starter” but stretch it, and while you’re at it, use healthy “stretchers.”

Soups are a great example. Imagine Foods and Pacific Foods both make pureed soups in large, 1 quart sizes, which are just about half the per-ounce cost of smaller canned soups to begin with. With great flavor and a healthful vegetable base, they are a perfect backdrop for all sorts of easy and equally wholesome “stretchers.”

Remember the pot of brown rice I suggested cooking and keeping on hand? It makes an easy and inexpensive addition to any soup. Ditto the dried beans you’ll want to start cooking once a week to have on hand. Leftover chicken would also taste good in practically any soup.

Now bring in some vegetables. Chard is an easy to prepare, fast cooking and usually pretty cheap option, as are broccoli (be sure to use the stalks, too), spinach and zucchini. Red peppers and snowy white cauliflower are great for color. Frozen vegetables are especially good in winter or when you’re particularly short on time: chopped spinach, peas, corn and diced green beans.

Let color be your guide when deciding on combinations. Imagine golden butternut soup, for instance, with kale and white beans, or deep green broccoli soup with rice and cauliflower florets. You get the picture. . .

In the end, enjoy an easy meal had inexpensively and without sacrificing great flavor or health.


No doubt time is a another big reason we keep gobbling up packaged foods despite their price tags. While picking out my box of instant rice, a hurried mom grabbed a box of scalloped potatoes off the shelf next to mine then darted off for the next aisle.

She was right in thinking there wasn’t time to make the traditional bubbly baked potato dish. But a box isn’t her only option. “Simplify” and more alternatives present themselves.

In the same amount of time that it takes to make a packaged potato mix, you could simply scrub and microwave potatoes and top them with grated cheese for a tastier and fresher alternative. For just 5 extra minutes–and half the cost–you could make another simpler option: the microwaved Cheesy Potato Casserole recipe below.

Betty Crocker’s Scalloped Potatoes (including added milk and butter) = $2.70

Homemade Cheesy Potato Casserole: = $1.39

Here’s the Recipe:

Cheesy Potato Casserole

  • 1 ½ lbs. potatoes (about 6 sm-med)

Scrub and puncture several times with a fork to prevent them from exploding. Microwave three minutes, turn each potato and microwave another 3 minutes. Repeat this process until potatoes are soft when squeezed.

While potatoes cook, combine sauce ingredients in a small, microwavable bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

  • 2 oz. cheddar cheese, finely shredded (about 1 cup)
  • 2 Tbsp. low-fat sour cream
  • 1-2 tsp. stoneground mustard, more or less to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. milk

When potatoes are done, microwave sauce 20 seconds, then whisk to combine. Repeat this process 2-3 times, until sauce is smooth. Avoid overcooking or sauce will become stringy.

Assemble the casserole: Butter a 9” x 5” loaf pan. Slice potatoes about ¼” thick. Lay half of slices in the loaf pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with half of the cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining potatoes and sauce. Eat immediately or, to better meld flavors, microwave entire casserole 30 to 60 seconds.


We’d all like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent beings, but we’ve been hoodwinked by food marketers. We’ve been hoodwinked into believing we’re too busy or stupid to make anything on our own. Of course marketers want us to believe that. It’s the only way we’ll buy inferior-tasting convenient foods.

So stop believing the marketers. With just a bit of courage and willingness to try, we can do this food thing on our own. Not only will we save money and end up with better–tasting and more wholesome food, it’s very likely we’ll find that being self-reliant is pretty rewarding.


2 Responses

  1. Great post – I loved your price comparisons. I’m inspired to be more conscious of the convenience foods I buy and how much I’m really getting (or *not* getting).


  2. […] by freezing extra portions for nights when you’re in a hurry.)  However, as a previous post revealed, we pay a threefold markup when someone else precooks, seasons and boxes up our rice in […]


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