My big “Ah-ha!” moment came when I calculated the cost of my first few recipes. I was always very mindful of how much I spent per week at the grocery store, but it was seeing the breakdown of each ingredient cost and how they related to the total volume of food that truly revolutionized my way of cooking.
Seeing how much each ingredient contributed to the total cost of a recipe helped me learn how to tweak recipes to make them more filling for less money, while maintaining maximum flavor. I learned that scaling back just a little on the most expensive ingredients (nuts, cheese, meat, etc.) dramatically reduced recipe costs, but didn’t have a huge impact on flavor. Likewise, I learned which inexpensive ingredients helped give my food a big flavor kick for pennies (green onions, cilantro, freshly cracked pepper, dried herbs, etc.).
When I got a request from Raquel to do a tutorial on how to calculate recipe costs I was definitely on board. Calculating recipe costs isn’t as hard as it sounds and you don’t have to do it for every recipe to benefit. Do it once or twice and your eyes will be opened. So, using my latest recipe Creamy Tomato & Spinach Pasta, I’m going to walk you through the steps I take to calculate my recipes costs.
I hope you like math… ;)
How To: Calculate Recipe Costs
Step 1: Write down your ingredients and their quantities.
If you have a recipe printed out, this step is already done for you – just use the ingredient list. I write mine on paper because I build the recipes as I go while I’m in the kitchen. After I’m all finished cooking, I go back in and write all those ingredient costs on the right hand side. So, imagine they’re not there for the moment. (Don’t make fun of my scribble-scrabble hand writing. My brain works at typing speed and my pencil doesn’t.)
Step 2: Fill in prices for ingredients that were used “whole”.
These are items that I used in their entirety and I can just transfer the cost straight from the receipt. This is my receipt for the items I purchased for this recipe (the blurred items are things that are not related to this recipe, and all the other ingredients I already had on hand). The only ingredient that I used “whole” was the can of tomatoes for $0.59. So, I write that onto my ingredient list.
Step 3: Calculate partial items.
Working our way down that receipt, let’s start with the spinach. The entire bag of spinach was only $0.99 (I know, HUGE sale, right?). Spinach is hard to measure because it can be packed or loose and just uncontrollable. I just eye-balled half of the bag and entered a price of $0.50 onto my ingredient list. If you want to be extra accurate, you can use a kitchen scale to weigh out 4.5 ounces because, as you can see on the bottom left of the bag, the whole bag weighs 9 ounces. (You can bet your bottom I’ll be adding spinach to everything until I finish the rest of that bag. I don’t like to let things go to waste.)
I used the same method for the pasta. The whole bag is one pound (or 16 ounces) and cost $1.77. I used half of the bag (8 ounces), so I divided the item cost in half. $1.7/2 = $0.89 for 8 oz. Write that on the ingredient list.
The cream cheese comes equip with a handy “Easy Measuring Guide” so I simply cut on the 2 oz. mark. The whole block is 8 oz. and cost $1.93. I used 1/4 of the block, so $1.93/4 = $0.48 for 2 oz. Enter that onto your ingredient list.
For things like tomato paste, olive oil, and parmesan, you’ll use the total item cost, the serving size, and servings per container to calculate the cost of the amount that you used. This information can be found on the Nutrition Facts label on the back. We’ll use the tomato paste as an example. The whole 6 oz can cost $0.57 (from a different receipt). You can see that the serving size is 2 Tbsp and there are 5 servings per can. I used 2 Tbsp, so I took the total cost of the can and divided by 5. $0.57/5 = $0.11 per 2 Tbsp.
It’s important to note for sauces, canned goods, and other liquid items that the ounces listed on the front of the label is usually a weight measure and not a volume measure. So, even though this can of tomato paste said 6 oz., that does not mean that it equals 3/4 cup in volume. If the measure on the front of the container says “fluid ounces” or “oz fl” that is a volume measure. If it says “oz wt” that’s a weight measure. The serving size, on the other hand, is usually given in volume and will be easier to use (unless you have a kitchen scale and want to weigh it).
My olive oil was $5.40 for a 16.9 oz. bottle (generic brand). The Nutrition Facts label on the back says that there are 33 Tbsp in the whole bottle. So, $5.40/33 = $0.16 per Tbsp.
Parmesan is a little trickier, because the serving size is given in teaspoons, and I measured in cups. So, I have to do a little converting between teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups to get what I need. The cost of the container of parmesan was $3.15 and the label on the back says that there are 45 servings of 2 teaspoons in each container. That’s 90 teaspoons per container. I know that there are three teaspoons in every tablespoon, so that means that there are 30 tablespoons in the entire container (90/3 = 30). So, take the total container cost divided by 30 to get the per tablespoon cost: $3.15/30 = $0.105 per Tbsp. Now, there are 4 Tbsp per 1/4 cup, so simply multiply $0.105 x 4 = $0.42 per 1/4 cup. Tada! … I love doing conversions (and chemistry for that reason!).
Bagged produce is super easy. The 3 lb. bag of onions was $1.50 and there were six onions in the bag. So, $1.50/ = $0.25 per onion. The garlic was calculated similarly, but with a slight estimation. My bulb was $0.64 and I estimated that I would get about 8 good sized cloves out of it, so about $0.08 per clove. Since garlic size varies a lot, I pretty much use $0.08 per clove as an across the board price estimation in all of my recipes.
Taking a look back at the ingredient list and what prices we’ve filled in already, we can see that all we have left are the oregano, basil, red pepper, freshly cracked pepper, and salt.
Herbs and spices don’t have serving sizes and servings per container listed on the back like other items, so that makes it really hard to calculate. All you have to go by is the total weight listed on the front of the bottle. To get an exact calculation you’d have to use a kitchen scale to weigh out the fraction of an ounce used for every teaspoon, half teaspoon, or other small quantity. That’s just a little too nit-picky for me, so I just use a generous estimation of $0.05 per teaspoon for most herbs and spices. For more expensive herbs, I use an estimation double of that, $0.10 per teaspoon. Cuz let’s just be real. I’m not about to weigh out all my salt or pinches of red pepper flakes. That’s just redonk.
Step 4: Add it all together!
So finally, we have all of the prices of the ingredients filled in. Now just simply add them all together and then divide by the number of servings and you’ve got the price per serving.
As you can see, it’s not an exact science, but it will definitely shed some light on your situation. I hope you try it out at least once just to see how it goes. If you want to do it on a regular basis, you can start a spreadsheet with price per unit information for your pantry staples. This way you’ll have a record of the price for items that you may only buy a few times per year (and probably won’t have the receipt handy). Luckily, my blog acts as a “record” of these prices, so I can quickly refer back to my last purchase price.
Handy Conversions for Calculating:
- 3 tsp = 1 Tbsp
- 4 Tbsp = 1/4 cup
- 2 Tbsp = 1 ounce (volume)
- 16 Tbsp = 1 cup
- 2 ounces (volume) = 1/4 cup
- 8 ounces (volume) = 1 cup
- 16 ounces (weight) = 1 pound
NOTE: I use the same method used by restaurants and other food service operations for calculating recipe costs. This involves using the price of the portion used of an ingredient, rather than the total purchase price of the used and unused portions. It is assumed that the unused portions will be included in other recipes, where the cost will be accounted for. The only difference is that in food service operations they track, calculate, and subtract the cost of waste from their bottom line. I simply try to keep waste to an absolute minimum and have no doubt that my bottom line is not in the red.