The $20 Challenge: Shopping the Sales

Several months ago I challenged my three boys, ages 10-15, to plan, shop, and prepare a meal, for our family of five, for $20 or under. Each of them stepped up and did an awesome job!

At that time, I encouraged them to come up with a meal and create a shopping list in order to keep them on task while at the store. A plan and a list were helpful tools for the first round of our little challenge. The only drawback was that the boys’ plans were kind of set in stone, and they didn’t want to make adjustments. Some of the boys had a difficult time keeping within budget, and when we had to make substitutions and minor changes in order to come in under $20, they were not too happy!

The take away from round one was that the boys realized that food was far more expensive than they had originally imagined. They also realized that in order to fit dessert into the budget, they would have to handle things differently.

For this round of the challenge, I told the boys that there would be no planning permitted. No lists. No meal idea set in stone. They were going to shop the sales. Let’s face it, don’t many of us do that nearly every time we head off to the food store? I’d love to have salmon, shrimp, lobster, and bison (my favorite) on the menu every week, but a little thing called my budget, simply won’t allow it! In order to feed a family of five (which often feels like a family of ten due to teenagers) I have to see what is on sale and make it work.

Aaron, who is the most flexible of the crew, was more than a little excited to take on the challenge. I handed him $20, and we were off to the store. As we were driving I asked him if he had any particular meals in mind. He was thinking of chicken parmesan, chicken paninis, or meatloaf but was flexible. Our game plan was to head to the meat department first. Chicken breasts were on sale for $1.99 a pound. I told him that that was a good price that he may want to consider. He then went over to see how much ground turkey was. It was about $4.25 for a 1 1/3 pound package (we would need two). He said that he really wanted to make meatloaf and potatoes. He then noticed the family size package of ground turkey. He ran over to the price checker and found that a three pound package was $7.99. Into the basket it went.

We went off to the produce section where he picked up a bag of potatoes for $2.50 and three cucumbers for $1.99. He planned on making our favorite cucumber salad.

After calculating his items he realized that he may just be able to make dessert. His original plan was to make blueberry crisp (oh, yes!), however, the berries were too expensive. He discovered that organic apples were on sale for $1.49 per pound. He decided that apple crisp would be equally delicious and weighed out 2 1/2 pounds. Next he grabbed a 1/2 pound of butter and exclaimed, “I think I am under budget! How?”

After a quick calculation, I told him, “Yes, you are.” A big smile stretched across his face. I then explained that in order to stretch a dollar, you have to be willing to make adjustments and be willing to use sale items. You can make something incredibly delicious with just about anything in any department. Personally, I always feel like a meal tastes far better when I know I was able to create it on a humble budget. I think Aaron felt the same.

So, Aaron and I spent about an hour peeling, cutting, mixing, and laughing. He did the majority of the work; I was just on peeling duty. The result, a humble, yet delicious dinner of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, cucumber salad, and apple crisp!  And, I’d like to think there were some new lessons learned as well!  Good job, bud!

Oh, and there were leftovers!  No leftover apple crisp, though!

food 008food 004    food 005

Basil, Beans, and a Buck Too Much: The $20 Challenge


With one round of our family’s $20 Cooking Challenge in the books, we sought out our next recruit.  My eldest son stood up and took the challenge.  My oldest son is very organized and to his testament has proven himself to be quite wise with his finances, albeit his limited finances.

In preparation for our trip to the store, my son had prepared a detailed shopping list.  Very good.  Lists are helpful.  They keep us on track.  He knew exactly what he would prepare: chicken, basil, and mozzarella panini  sandwiches with white bean dip and fresh vegetables.  Although not on his list, he was holding out hope that somehow he would be able to manage to sneak dessert in there.  I was not so optimistic about dessert becoming a reality.  With $20 in hand and my wallet at home…yes, I decided I would leave my wallet home…we set out for the grocery store.

First up, bread.  Normally, I purchase a round loaf of Italian bread from a local bakery.  Unbeknownst to my son, I typically make that purchase directly from the bakery, with a coupon, making it half the price of what he was about to see at the supermarket.   He picked up the familiar loaf, looked at the price tag, glanced at me, and said, “$4.50?  Really?”  Into the basket it went.

Next on the list, chicken.  This was going to be expensive.  Chicken was not on sale, and I knew that he would need at least three chicken breasts for his meal.  We scoured through the packages priced between $9.00 and $12.00 and quickly determined that chicken breasts were going to break the bank.  I pointed out other options.  In addition, I told my son that he could change his menu around, taking into consideration some meat options that were on sale.  Nope.  Chicken panini sandwiches were going to happen…somehow.  We finally decided on a hefty package of chicken tenders that was within his price range.

We scooped up a smaller than anticipated block of mozzarella along with two cans of white beans.

“Are you sure you need two cans of beans?  They’re inexpensive, but will you really need that much dip?”

My son responded, “Yes, we really like the dip and the beans are cheap.  One extra can of beans won’t be a big deal.”

Maybe. Maybe not….

Our last stop was the produce section.  I don’t normally purchase much produce from the grocery store.  The majority of our fruits and vegetables come courtesy of a local co-op group, so I knew that my son would really be taken back by the price tags in this aisle.   To boot, it’s February in the Northeast.  Produce prices are at their highest and selection is at its lowest.   He rounded up a bag of mini carrots, a red pepper, a cucumber, and a package of grape tomatoes.  I stopped him and encouraged him to add up the items in his basket.  After weighing the pepper and determining its cost to be roughly $2.00, my son’s total calculation came in over $25, and he had not even picked up basil yet.

“Mom, do you have any extra money on you?”

“Why, as a matter of fact I don’t;  I seemed to have left my wallet at home,” I replied.

With head lowered and eyebrow raised, he asked, “Now what?”

“You can change the menu, trim it down, or make substitutions,” I said.

Well, substitutions would become the word of the day because, again, we were going to have those panini sandwiches tonight one way or another.   So back to the bread aisle we went to discover that two thin baguettes would be $1.50 cheaper than his original loaf.  Score.  We exchanged the original package of chicken for a slightly smaller one.   Back in the produce section, we put back the pepper, exchanged the bagged mini carrots for full sized carrots that were cheaper, and then turned out attention to the basil.  It was $3.29.  Ouch!  I told him that he could probably get away with using dried basil instead, and that would be under a buck. “No way” was the response I received.  I knew that my son would only need about half of the package of basil for his meal.

“If I had my wallet with me, I would offer to purchase half of your basil.  I could use it at another meal.”

Quick thinking as my son is, he responded, “You have money in the van.”


“In the cup holder.  I saw a few quarters.  I’ll be right back.”

I stood there waiting and watching the produce manager pass me yet again, likely wondering what in the world was going on…I had been there a long time.  My son returned with five quarters.  We picked up the basil and did a little happy dance knowing that now we were slightly under budget (courtesy of my basil offer).  We made our way to the cashier but decided to take one more look at the chicken to see if we could save a bit more.  I kid you not, as we were looking at the chicken, I heard the familiar sound of coins hitting, what I thought, was the floor.  I turned to my son who informed me that two of the quarters fell into the front grate of the meat freezer…into the abyss…gone for good.

No way!  What to do?  Laugh, that’s what you do.  With that I told my son that he needed to have a plan in the event that we didn’t have enough money to pay.  He decided that he would put back the second can of beans if we were over budget.

As we waited in line, I leaned over to my son and asked, “Can you buy me a package of candy?”


When all was said and done, the bill came to $20.13.  With my purchase of half of the basil, my son would come in under budget.

I was exhausted.  In the time it takes me to do an entire food shop, we shopped for one meal.  But what fun the two of us had.  My son learned the art of finding suitable substitutions.  He actually did a fantastic job making his plan work.  On our drive home he asked me if I always spend twenty dollars on our dinners.  I told him that I typically spend less.  I also told him that I tend to shop the sales.  Normally, I never would have purchased chicken that week because of the price.

Making good choices is important, not just at the food store but clear across the board in life.  Even though my son was determined to make his panini sandwiches, he may have needed to change his plan.  There are too many people walking around who have the mentality that “I am going to get what I want, no matter what”.   I told him that we can’t just walk through life determined to get what we want, when we want it, regardless of the price.  Sometimes the price is big…and I am not referring to the price tag at the store.

Who knew there would be so many practical lessons and discussions that would ensue from this little experiment.

As for dinner, the “panini” sandwiches were delicious (but were no longer paninis due to the bread exchange).  The dip was spot on and the veggies just right.  Again, I enjoyed a wonderful time shopping, preparing, and cooking alongside my son.