Cash Diet

Americans spend thousands of dollars dining out—here's how I made boozy brunch for $5 a person

Collectively, Americans spend a lot of money eating in restaurants.

Young people in particular get a bad rap for wasting money dining out, particularly on overpriced brunch. One millionaire went as far as saying that frittering away money on avocado toast may be the reason millennials can't afford to buy homes.

I happen to be one of those brunch-buying millennials. After living in New York City for the past three years, I've figured out how to navigate the city on the cheap, but I've also shelled out more than I'm proud of on omelettes and mimosas.

When I was challenged to cook brunch for five friends and myself on a budget of $30 — $5 per person — I was intrigued. Is that even possible? Would my friends want to come over to my tiny apartment for brunch? Would they be willing to trade in the perfectly poached egg for for whatever I managed to whip up on a tight budget?

To find out, I needed a plan. And, since I'm not much of a cook, I needed some guidance. So I called up an expert: Joel Gamoran, National Chef for Sur La Table and host of the cooking show "SCRAPS." He's been cooking professionally for the past 14 years and is a pro when it comes to turning few resources into delicious meals.

The challenge allowed me to use any ingredients I already had in my kitchen, which wasn't much: eggs, blue tortilla chips and tequila.

Joel told me to build on the tortilla chips by making chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican dish that layers corn tortillas, salsa and eggs, as the main course. He also suggested homemade yogurt, which can be made with just a half gallon of milk and about a half cup of yogurt. Finally, he said, I could serve chorizo as a side and use my tequila to make margaritas.

I spent just under $30 on my ingredients. Here's a breakdown of what I bought:

  • 1 can of salsa verde
  • Feta cheese
  • 1 pound of chorizo
  • 1 carton of raspberries
  • 1 mango
  • 1 cup of yogurt
  • 1 gallon of milk
  • Lime juice
  • 3 limes

The actual cooking process turned into a bit of an ordeal: There were fire alarms and tears, and I had to toss my "yogurt" down the drain.

But in the end, most of the food was edible and my friends were impressed. My first attempt at homemade brunch may not have been as "Insta-worthy" as $16 avocado toast, but everyone was well-fed and happy, and my friends didn't spend a penny.

Here's what I learned after turning $30, plus pantry items, into a three-course boozy brunch for six:

1. Get creative with what you already have. Plan your meal around what's already in your kitchen. As I learned, even if you don't have much in your pantry, a little bit of creativity can go a long way.

2. Make a grocery list and stick to it. Once you've planned out what you're going to cook, make a list of the ingredients you'll need. Then, when you're actually shopping, stick to the list. No impulse buys!

If you're trying to stick to a specific grocery budget, try going cash only. Determine how much you want to spend on food for the week or for that specific grocery trip and withdraw that amount of cash. When you head to the store, leave your plastic at home so you're not tempted to use it.

3. Homemade yogurt, if done correctly, is a great money-saving hack. Yogurt is expandable, so you can turn just a half cup into a large batch. There are a bunch of step-by-step recipes online, but the gist of it is: Heat the milk to right below boiling, add yogurt with active bacteria to the heated milk and let it set for about four hours in a warm area.

I took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, but it you do it correctly, you can take $5 worth of ingredients and make way more for less.

4. Keep it simple. When you're hosting a bunch of people, simplicity wins. Complex meals with a lot of spices or sauces can get pricey, not to mention time consuming and stressful.

While the yogurt may have been overly ambitious for me, in general, my menu was simple and didn't call for too many ingredients. And since I didn't need to dish out too much on my main course, I could afford to splurge on colorful fruit garnishes and fancier deli chorizo.

Chilaquiles is just one of many simple and tasty options. If you find yourself hosting brunch, try something like french toast, pancakes or an egg casserole.

5. Cooking may take more effort than dining out, but the savings are huge. Prepping food for six in a tiny New York City apartment was not easy. It took a lot more planning than I anticipated and five stressful and sweaty hours in the kitchen.

But the savings are completely worth it. The typical boozy brunch in New York is going to set you back at least $30. I managed to feed six for the same amount of money. Say you skipped four $30 boozy brunches per month and replaced them with $5 homemade meals. That's a savings of $100 a month, or $1,200 a year … just on brunch.