Hank Sawtelle is a former engineer and patent attorney and a recent culinary-school graduate. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, daughter, KitchenAid stand mixer, and Vita-Prep blender.

Save money by making your own grain salads

Good-sense savings in the kitchen

December 3, 2008

When it comes to buying prepared foods at the grocery store, there’s always a trade-off between convenience and added cost.

There seems to be an ever-growing selection of “value-added” prepared items presented in refrigerated cases at the store. While some prepared foods might be labor-intensive, demand exotic ingredients, or require dirtying extra kitchen appliances, others — such as pasta and grain salads — are relatively quick and easy to make at home.

So how much extra do we pay for the convenience of picking up a pre-made lunch entrée or side dish for a family meal? I decided to do the math and find out. (Yes, I am that kind of nerd.)

Using the ingredient list posted by the store (and printed on the price tag/label), I threw together a lemon-orzo salad very similar to the one sold at my local grocery store’s prepared foods counter for $5.99 per pound. (I have seen prices on prepared salads much higher at high-end local and national chains, but this is a good baseline example.)

I’ve listed the approximate weights and retail prices (from the same store) for the ingredients in the table below:

PriceValue of Ingredients
(if purchased separately)
Orzo (1 cup/5.5 oz. dry)12.5$0.27/oz. (dry)$1.47
Pine nuts0.5$1.31/oz.$0.66
Italian parsley0.1$1.49/oz.$0.15
Olive oil0.5$0.53/oz.$0.27
Canola oil1$0.22/oz.$0.22
Lemon olive oil0.1$1.40/oz.$0.14
Lemon (juice and zest of 1)1.5$0.75 each$0.75
Salt and pepperTo taste$0.01
Totals16.2 oz$3.66
Prepared salad price/lb.$5.99
Markup percentage64%

So at this market, I am paying well over $2 per pound, or a markup of more than 60 percent, for them to make me a simple pasta salad.

The amount of labor involved in making these kinds of dishes is relatively light. In fact, if you’re already set up to cook something else (like dinner), it’s very easy to add on a grain or pasta salad. Just measure out the water and bring to a simmer, and once your grain or pasta is done, it’s a matter of tossing with the other ingredients (many of which can be cribbed from your dinner prep) and adjusting the seasonings.

Simple ingredients for orzo salad.

Most of these salads eat well hot or cold, so you can serve some as a side dish with the meal you’re cooking, and cool and store the rest for later. In addition, when making these dishes at home, you can include personal tweaks. Maybe you love toasted pine nuts or hate dried currants, for example.

The one advantage the grocery store has over the home cook is variety. Because of the volume of business they do, markets can afford to have large batches of lots of different salads on hand. (Cooked grains really don’t keep for more than a week in the fridge, so this is hard to duplicate at home.) You can pick up a container of three or four different prepared salads to enjoy throughout the week instead of ending up with many servings of the same salad. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth the steep markup, not to mention all of those wasteful plastic containers.

Here are a few Culinate recipes to get you started trimming some serious fat from your grocery tab: Farro Salad with Tomato, Red Onion, and Green Olives, Orzo and Asparagus Salad, and Quinoa Salad with Lemon Dressing.

There are 7 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Dec 4, 2008 at 8:26 AM PST

Hank - I like it when you include the recipes!

2. by anonymous on Dec 4, 2008 at 7:49 PM PST

I am absolutely in favor of preparing food at home versus paying exhorbitant prices for having someone do it. That said, although there is a growing focus in the U.S. on increasing the amount of grains (preferably whole grains) in our diet, there still seems to be much confusion regarding what a grain actually is. Orzo is not a grain. Orzo is a type of pasta. I am not trying to nit-pick. I truly feel this is important.

3. by Hank Sawtelle on Dec 4, 2008 at 10:22 PM PST

Anon, the orzo example is specifically referred to as a pasta salad in the article. But I do encounter confusion about orzo also, and couscous.

4. by Minda Redburn on Dec 18, 2008 at 11:48 AM PST

Well . . . Orzo is a processed grain, right?
Anyway, thanks to Hank for calling our attention both to the financial and to the planetary costs of buying prepared food that we could make easily at home. Who needs more of those petroleum-based plastic containers?
This could be a good post for the Sierra Clubs Green Living newsletter.

5. by anonymous on Dec 18, 2008 at 6:28 PM PST

Orzo is pasta. It is not a processed grain.

6. by Hank Sawtelle on Dec 18, 2008 at 7:21 PM PST

anon, I think Minda’s point was pasta = flour = processed wheat = grain

7. by Minda Redburn on Dec 18, 2008 at 7:30 PM PST

Yup, thanks, Hank. That was my point. But now I’m very curious. What is your point, anon? This seems to be important to you. Can you say why?

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