Dilutions of Grandeur: Stretch Your Food at Every Meal


When I was kid, the chocolate milk mom served always looked suspiciously pale in my glass. It was as if somewhere between the carton and the table, the ratio of chocolate (good) to milk (not-so-good) had been tampered with in a very unholy way. Of course, now I understand that mom was exercising one the fundamental methods of frugality — dilution.

Today, so many of our foods and beverages are rich — so overly sweet, overly sour, or overly salty that diluting them seems more a matter of taste than a matter of money. Let’s take a look meal-by-meal at how a little creative diluting can stretch your food budget without sacrificing taste or nutrition. (See also: Organic Groceries on a Budget)


Fruit juices and flavored waters can be taken down a few notches on the sweetness scale by adding one part water to every two parts of the original drink. Dilute a 6 oz. glass of chocolate milk with 2-4 oz. of skim for a lighter, cheaper, and ultimately healthier drink. Super-sweet (and super-expensive) brand-name cereals or granola can become “deluxe topping” for less-expensive bran flakes, oatmeal, or even yogurt.


Adding extra beans to chili or a cup of rice to tomato soup or stews can stretch a meal while stretching your budget. Even everyone’s old college friend, ramen noodles, can be added to a variety of dishes to make meals more substantial and far less expensive. Dilute two parts iced tea or lemonade with one part water for better-tasting drinks without the sour-face.


A dear friend of mine was raised by his Polish grandparents during the 1980s and 1990s. He remembers his grandmother’s approach to serving meat during meals: Back in the lean years of her youth and early marriage, meat was used as flavoring in other dishes rather than as the main course itself. Cuts of beef, pork, and chicken were essential parts of generations-old recipes that used more expensive ingredients to flavor less-expensive but nutrient-dense foods.

Dilution is simply about using less and wisely stretching what you have so it lasts longer. Sharing is another way of exercising the same basic principle — diluting contents or reducing portions so smaller amounts can be enjoyed by more people. When I travel with friends, I often suggest splitting the price of a 12 oz. coffee and asking if the barista will put 6 oz. in two separate cups. You might be surprised that this usually works without any trouble at all. We each get a more reasonably sized cup of coffee, pay less, and waste less.

What are some ways you exercise a little friendly dilution without your kids catching on? What are the best recipes you’ve come up with that use these same principles to stretch your food budget without sacrificing culinary kudos? How does the art of dilution apply to other areas of your household?


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Andrea Karim's picture

I remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and being impressed that the mother knew how to save money buy using day-old bread to supplement meat dishes. It's not something that I have tried, but I don't often cook dishes using ground meat, so I don't have the occasion for it (also, as a diabetic, it wouldn't be good for me). But I can see that being a good option.

Guest's picture

Indeed. I always dilute any drink I have, simply because my family can't afford several cartons/bottles of juice/cola/etc each week. Just add some water and wala! You got yourself a whole glass of whatever, with just a bit and on top of that your glass of whatever has less sugar content in it than a typical glass of out-of-the-box 'undiluted'.

As long as I can taste a bit and have enough of that sugar to keep me going I'm fine with it.

Guest's picture

I dilute hand soap and shampoo. I experiment with products to see how little I can use and still get a good result. I've eliminated many products that I just don't find necessary ~ fabric softener, all fabric bleach, hair conditioner, windex and dishwasher rinse aid (I use vinegar).

Meg Favreau's picture

One of my mom's treats for me when I was growing up was "healthy soda" -- half orange juice, half sparkling water. At the time I considered it the poorest of excuses for Sunkist, but now the mix is one of my favorite drinks -- OJ is too sweet on its own.

Guest's picture

just don't ever dilute baby formula. Your baby won't get the nutrients it needs!

Guest's picture

Great post! I always try to bulk up meals with bread or cheap veggies. Whenever I make single-serve desserts like cookies or brownies, I will either form them small or cut them into small bars after they're baked. Most of the time, people just want one cookie, regardless of how large it is.

For meatballs/burgers/meatloaf type dishes, adding breadcrumbs certainly helps the meat go further without sacrificing much flavor if you add enough seasoning.

I also always dilute dishwashing detergent. It comes so concentrated in the bottles, you only need a small amount anyway.

Guest's picture

To stretch beef stew, try ladling it over white or brown rice. Of course homemade stew offers the very best savings, but even Campbells Chunky Sirloin Burger is more affordable (and just as yummy) with this trick!

A great way to stretch (and boost nutrients of) spaghetti sauce is to add a cup or two of fresh pureed spinach. Whisk with an immersion blender and your kids won't even know they're getting green veggies.

Guest's picture

@ MARY OSTYN... I love the spinach idea... Might get some veggies into my granddaughter who absolutely refuses to eat her veggie. He parents allow her to eat what ever she wants but I think if I do that she will not know & will help some... At least make me feel better knowing she gets some in her on the weekends.
I also stretch my meats out by adding some bread or rice to ground meats... My kids grew up on it & still love it...

Guest's picture
Guest Lollybaby

Do you realize you can buy 50 lb bags of whole wheat or corn meal or millet at you local feed store that can be used to feed your family? Your price for this wonderful food is pennies on the doller compared to what you pay in regular stores! Yes, you need to look over the product before you cook it . But you do this when you pick over dry beans before you cook them! Same thing... I have done this for years and the savings is BIG.

Guest's picture

When I was a kid, my mom used to dilute orange juice and it RUINED it. So we got her to stop by pouring it down the drain every time we found it diluted. Better full strength and used than diluted and wasted!