lasagnaThis weekend I was given a challenge: Cook at Christmas dinner that would feed a family of five for under $50. I accepted! And I knew immediately what the key to this mission would be. I had to move MEAT from a starring role to a supporting role in the meal.

Meat tends to be the most expensive ingredient in a dinner. So I decided to use something high-quality and special, but just use less of it. My family likes lamb for Christmas, so I thought, why not make a Christmas lasagna with ground lamb instead of the usual beef? Of course, if your family isn't into lamb you could use Italian sausage (YUM!) or just ground beef. Here's what else I made for our under-$50 meal.

Menu:

  • Spinach salad with slivered almonds and blackberries
  • Christmas lamb lasagna
  • Gingerbread cake with vanilla ice cream

Grocery bill:

  • 1/2 pound butter $2.64
  • 32 ounces of ricotta, $7.62
  • 1 ball fresh mozzarella $2.44
  • 32 ounces pasta sauce $1.82
  • 1 pound ground lamb $8.08
  • About 1/4 cup blanched and slivered almonds $1.07
  • 1 lemon $0.60
  • 1 bunch of spinach $2.17
  • 1 small cup of blackberries $4.95
  • 1 bunch parsley $1.60
  • 1 quart vanilla ice cream $5.14
  • 1 box lasagna $3.00
  • Corn syrup $2.00
  • Total: $43.13

PLUS!

  • Flour, bulk spices (ginger, cloves, cinnamon), honey, and olive oil from my pantry.
  • Milk and egg from my refrigerator.

So yeah, I saved some money here by having a lot of these ingredients already in my pantry. I also saved by purchasing almost everything at my local food coop. A lot of these ingredients were organic -- but I figure I pay close to conventional grocery prices for those organic foods at the coop. I'll be interested to hear how those prices compare with the same foods at your stores.

For the salad I bought a whole head of spinach instead of bagged spinach. It's a little more work to deal with, but bagged spinach costs almost twice as much! I saved by buying just a tiny bag of almonds from the bulk aisle. That left enough to splurge on the berries, which make the salad extra special. Then I saved even more money by making my own dressing -- or actually, directing my son in making our dressing.

Lemon Honey Salad Dressing

  • Juice from 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey, by taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or other light salad oil

Put all ingredients in clean, empty jam jar. Close lid tightly and shake vigorously. I used only half of this dressing for the salad, so now I have more for another salad later this week.

I made a gingerbread cake based on a recipe from one of my favorite books, Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking. It's made with an expensive British import, Lyle's Golden Syrup. But you can swap in corn syrup to make it more economical, and I really hope Laurie isn't rolling in her grave at that suggestion. If anything, the cake is sweeter that way. This gingerbread is much softer and delicious than that sheet rock usually used for building gingerbread houses. I love eating it and baking it -- and that's a lot coming from someone who hates holiday baking. Serve with a little scoop of vanilla ice cream and it's the perfect dessert.

gingerbread cake

Gingerbread Cake, adapted from Laurie Colwin's recipe in More Home Cooking

Ingredients:

  • 9 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups corn syrup
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/ 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake tin.

2. Melt butter with corn syrup.

3. Sift together dry ingredients.

4. Pour syrup and butter onto dry ingredients and mix well.

5. Add beaten egg and milk. Beat well.

6. Pour into cake tin and bake about 55 minutes until middle is just set. Cool cake in tin for 10 minutes before turning out.

How much do you think you'll spend on your family's Christmas dinner this year?

 

Images via Adriana Velez