An interview with Erin Chase, author of The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook

There’s a quote I love by – L. M. Boyd that really sums up the dinner grind: “Anyone who eats three meals a day should understand why cookbooks outsell sex books three to one.”

Getting yourself organized to cook for the week, let alone a month, is quite a feat…that has to be repeated again, and again, and again every Sunday (or whatever day you plan on).

A little inspiration is a welcome thing.

And that’s why I was thrilled to have met Erin Chase, author of $5 Dinners and founder of at the Blissdom conference. She delivers more than just inspiration in her latest cookbook. She dishes up strategies for savvy shopping, couponing and meal planning, along with 200 delicious and healthy recipes – that really are pretty easy to make. Armed with this book, you’d be surprised at how straightforward it is to get a low-cost dinner (for 4 people no less!) on the table.

We had the good fortune to talk to Erin a little bit about her book, which is out now.

Below are the highlights from our conversation.

Q: For readers who might not know about your site, tell us a little bit about the $5 Dinner mission and why you decided to start the blog and eventually write the book?

It all started in the summer of 2008, when gas prices skyrocketed. We needed to cut back on our total budget, and the grocery store was really the only place we had any room to cut. So, I started implementing a few strategies. I was surprised at how much I could save by doing just a couple of different things. I started sharing those on my family blog, and then eventually decided to start a dedicated site Pretty quickly after I started that, the site took off. I eventually decided to write a $5 Dinner cookbook. Not only was it an opportunity to share the concept with a wider audience, but books can be a lot easier to navigate than a blog. I could put everything in one place – and in a physical format that is ideal for practical use in the kitchen.

Q: We write a fair amount about “organizational inertia,” (i.e. it’s so overwhelming, where do I start?). Do you think that concept extends to meal planning and prep as well?

Absolutely. Getting it going is the hardest thing, but once you get the planning going, it’s a lifesaver. For example, I knew when I woke up today what I was having for dinner. I know I have the ingredients that I’ll need on hand. And if I want to change it up a little, I know I can do that too. It’s very liberating. I hear others who have read my blog or the book say “oh, now I know what I’m having for dinner!” It’s a huge relief from that constant daily stress. I’m just glad I get to be a voice encouraging people that you can do it and showing them how.

Q: What advice would you give to someone struggling with meal-planning inertia?

The first thing I’d ask is: what are you eating already? Plan out the first two weeks based on those meals. Then get a recipe list and keep it in one place. Add those new recipes into your plan gradually.

Another great thing to help you get over the planning hump: themed nights. Consider making Mondays all about chicken and rice, Tuesdays about pasta, Wednesdays about fish, Thursdays about slow cooker meals, and Fridays pizza night.

I also recommend doubling up on things. For example, if you have a favorite family dish that you know you’ll be having often, make more than one batch the next time you’re cooking it and freeze the extra batches in meal-sized portions. Those really come in handy when you’re short on time or energy.

Q: How long does it take you to make a weekly menu plan?

About five minutes. I keep a running list of favorite recipes and new ones I want to try handy and then do it all online. I also do a monthly plan, which takes about 30-45 minutes. That means I have my weekly plans in place, so the five minutes I spend each week is really about making sure I’ve got the recipes I want ready and the ingredients I need on hand.

Q: What is the most important place to start when it comes to planning inexpensive meals effectively?

I would say step one is get the grocery store circular with meal planning a close step two behind it. If you don’t get a newspaper delivered, you can find the circular online. If you do that, bookmark the page, or sign up to get the circular delivered right to your inbox.

Pay attention to the deals advertised and make your lists from that. You’ll be able to see immediately what is on sale. For example, last week, I was able to get four packages of chicken, which is one month’s worth of chicken for us, for more than half-off the regular price. That obviously makes a huge difference when it comes to sticking to (or beating) your budget.

Q: Is there an 80/20 rule for getting a $5 dinner on the table? Where should someone focus their energy to get the biggest savings when it comes to dinners?

I’d say the biggest bang for the buck is going to come from making meal plans based on the circular or on what you’ve bought already. Figure out what you’re shopping for and then make a plan. Then you can shave money off each meal opportunistically by using coupons.

Q: How difficult was it for you to change your old shopping and meal-planning habits?

I’m fairly “Type-A,” so it was pretty easy. Plus we really had no choice – we had to save that money. If you don’t have that kind of pressure or are a little more free-form, try making it a game. I loved thinking about this as a challenge: how little could I spend at the store.

Thank you so much Erin for taking the time to share your wisdom with us.

If you don’t have it yet, do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly and enter to win it in the Buttoned Up $5 Dinner Giveaway (and if you can’t wait for that, run to your nearest bookseller and get it).