How To: Calculate Recipe Costs

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.

Recipe Notebook

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”.

ReceiptThese 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.

SpinachWorking 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.)

PastaI 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.

Cream CheeseThe 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.

Tomato PasteFor 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

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!).

OnionsBagged 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.

 

Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 9.20.17 PM

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

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.

 

19 Comments

  1. Vickie says:

    Thanks for the tutorial. In general I do not enjoy math, but when it saves me money……I’ll do it. :)

  2. Thank you so much Beth! I can’t wait to try this out!

  3. This is a really useful post! Super interesting to think about actually calculating the real cost of meals. The only problem for me would be remembering how much all my farmer’s market produce cost…

    • Yep, that’s tricky. I’ve avoided joining a CSA because I wouldn’t be able to offer the price breakdown on the blog. If I didn’t have the blog, I would just say “oh well” and join the CSA, but I like to give grocery store prices for reference :P You could always just use an estimate, though. I’m sure it would still be helpful!

      • It would definitely be worth it to join a local CSA. You would be helping out local farmers, eat great fresh produce, & saving some $. You could uses store prices for the blog, making note of them while already shopping for the other ingredients.

        & I have a bacelors in finance so math is my friend :)

  4. Beth! Thank you so much for this!

    Due to some changes in our life, my partner and I are on a smaller budget, but have much more time to cook at home! I’ve been calculating the cost of our meals, and it’s really helped a lot in keeping us on track. Though we still get occasional takeaways (or as you Americans call it, takeout :-)), we’re much less likely to when we see how much it costs compared to a home-cooked meal! My partner is a total convert.

    Thanks for the tip about using the serving sizes on the packet! I hadn’t thought of that before and I’ll definitely do it in future. I have been keeping track of things in a nerdy spreadsheet, haha!

    Thanks again Beth!

  5. twyla says:

    A question. How do you deal with the stuff you have on hand? Do you calculate the cost per cup (eg. flour) when you get it and put a piece of sticky tape on for when you use it in a recipe? I dont understand how to start with a full pantry and freezer. Do you look at a flyer and make a best guess on price or go to a store and price it out even tho you dont need to purchase anything for your meal? And how do you deal with garden veg or fruit trees in your yard? do you keep track of the price of the seed packet, the water, fertilizer you used, the amount of electricity used when starting the seeds under lights, the cost of your community garden plot, etc? example. i got four ice cream pails of raspberries last year because i gave lots away, and six or seven the year before. but i had to pay x40.00 to have them cleaned out last year and paid some amount to haul in fertilizer and bedding this year, and the season is not done for this year so I dont know how many Ill get or how much money Ill spend on the patch. So while the cost of the berries isnt free, it cant be calculated either … So whats my best bet: pick something from a flyer as a best guess?

    • Well, when you’re first starting out I would suggest taking note when you’re at the store of the price, serving size, and servings per container of items that you already have in your pantry (flour, sugar, oil, etc.). You don’t have to do them all at once, just jot down which ones you need for that week’s recipes and do a few at a time. As suggested in the post, you can keep a spreadsheet of these staple item prices so that you can quickly refer back when calculating recipes in the future. Then as you repurchase them, you can enter the new prices to stay current.

      I like to calculate my recipe costs as accurately as I can without pulling my hair out. That means I don’t worry about garden vegetables, electricity costs, or things like that. I do the calculations to give myself a good estimate of what I’m spending and even though it’s not 100% accurate, it’s still very eye opening. I use a lot of estimates in my calculations, like for the spices or garlic cloves, but it’s still very helpful. Personally, I would consider the cost of the garden a “hobby” expense in my household budget and the resulting produce free. :)

      Don’t kill yourself over it, you’ll still be blown away by what you discover along the way! Good luck!

  6. This will help me so much!!! I’ve never really sat down to do a breakdown like this. LOVE!

  7. This website is so, so great. I’ve been bookmarking recipes here and there for years and just wanted to say that your site has been SO helpful for this little family on a budget. The design looks beautiful! (I haven’t clicked out of Reader for awhile til today.)

    Keep up the good work :)

  8. Alfredo says:

    I do the same thing. I like to calculate the cost of a meal and compare it to the cost of having the same meal at a local restaurant. Having done this many times I know I can eat better and healthier at home for less money and minus the costs of driving and the time waiting…awesome post!

  9. Jason says:

    What supermarket do you go to with prices so cheap? My local Safeway and Fry’s food is more expensive

    • Prices definitely vary from region to region. For the past two-three years I’ve shopped mostly at my local grocery store, which is a local chain and the prices tend to be a bit higher than most national chains (Walmart, Target, etc.). It definitely helps to catch sales and explore other stores in your area to compare prices.

  10. My wife (who is a chef) and I play this game whenever we go out to eat for our fancy dinner out, it’s a fun geeky dinner game! I live in Vancouver (BC), so our food costs are *way* higher than yours (I’d say almost double!). You cannot find bags of onions for $1.50 here, the cheapest I’ve ever found was at Superstore and it was a bag for $3. Definitely no chicken for $1.99/lb (we choose local chicken that’s lived outside and eaten normal chicken things, we just eat less of it. But the lowest I’ve found for chicken in Vancouver is around $4/lb.)

    I love love love your blog, it’s so easy to sub things. Your meals also freeze super well (which is pretty much how we are thriving, with me doing crazy full-time shift work and my wife absolutely buried in full-time school). My newly started blog (born out of my co-workers lovingly teasing me about my “super healthy lunches”) features your stuff a couple of times already, and it’s only been up for a week. Ha! :D

  11. austin k. says:

    this thing help me a lot

    thanks>>>>

  12. john says:

    i hope this website helps me because i dont know how to cook right!!!

  13. This is a great start. Do you have any posts that say what you generally have stocked in your pantry? I’m assuming rice, onions, pasta, celery, seasonings (salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, onion powder, chili powder, thyme, rosemary)….

  14. This is a great idea.

    I think the main idea of this can be used on a website I found.

    http://www.cookkeepbook.com

    They are making a scheduler soon that can help you plan your purchases.

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