Food & dining

Family of frugal foodies says it’s possible to make gourmet meals on a $5 budget

Hugo and Carol Rizzoli’s beef chili.
Christine Hochkeppel for The Boston Globe   
Hugo and Carol Rizzoli’s beef chili.

Eating dinner as a family is important: It’s a way to reconnect after a busy day, hopefully with something homemade (or at least home-heated). But what happens when the kids grow up and leave home? What’s a well-meaning parent to do — especially one who loves to cook?

Launch a meal-planning website, of course, and ask the kids to chip in. Just one thing: Make sure the recipes are affordable.

Retired innkeepers Carol and Hugo Rizzoli run The $5 Foodie with Carol’s grown children, Ethan Eron, 41, and Lucy Holland, 39. Eron and Holland live in San Diego; Eron is a systems engineer and Holland is an art educator at the San Diego Museum of Art. The Rizzolis, who once ran a Maryland bed and breakfast, now live in Barnstable. The family conferences every Sunday to plot recipes for their new website, which features tried-and-true family favorites — French onion soup; penne with smoked gouda, bell peppers, and spinach — that cost $5 or less to create.

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The mission? To go on a grocery bill “diet” and “feast like a foodie,” says Carol Rizzoli, helping others along the way.

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“We’ve always been into great food. I grew up in a house where we cooked and ate, sat around for hours, and bonded over food,” says Holland, who began appreciating food in earnest while studying art in Italy. “We want to start a movement and build a community of frugal foodies. We hope to attract people like us who like good food, who don’t want to spend a lot, who don’t want to drain their paycheck, and maybe don’t know what to make for dinner.”

Her mother, meanwhile, had grown tired of the recipe websites touting delicious dishes that were unaffordable or complicated for most families.

“I think ours is honestly a budget website. I don’t see other websites do it the way we do, with really curated, fall-down delicious recipes, where you’re making pizza for your family and not getting a skimpy little slice,” she says. “I’ve looked at thousands of budget recipes. Some of them use way too many ingredients that will break the budget. One stick of lemongrass!”

Megan Caper
Carol and Hugo Rizzoli with Carol’s children, Lucy Holland and Ethan Eron, at Holland’s home in San Diego.

Here, prices for each ingredient are meticulously noted in the recipe, right down to drops of olive oil, and are based on US Bureau of Labor statistics or prices at the family’s favorite grocery stores, such as Trader Joe’s. Many of the recipes are vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free.

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And lest you think you’re just browsing some well-meaning family’s dusty recipe trove, think again: The Rizzolis are pros. Hugo Rizzoli is a former chef who trained at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md., and worked outside of Washington, D.C., at restaurants like Old Angler’s Inn. He handles quality control for the site, phrasing the family’s recipes with extra polish. (“If you want to sound professional, you should ‘season’ meat before putting it in the oven, not ‘salt and pepper’ it,” he says good-naturedly.)

Carol Rizzoli previously worked at the National Gallery of Art, where she edited “The Artist’s Table: A Cookbook by Master Chefs Inspired by Paintings in the National Gallery of Art,” which came out in 1995.

While working at the gallery, she noticed how many artists depicted food and the rituals surrounding it.

“An idea coalesced in my mind: Why not invite master chefs to respond to this great art with a menu and recipes? I selected and sent reproductions to chefs here and in France and Italy. Julia Child was the first to respond,” she says. She organized the testing of each recipe in home kitchens by home cooks.

“I’ve applied that same principle to the recipes we’ve created for our website,” she says. Her most recent book is “The House at Royal Oak,” a chronicle of life running an inn.

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“There seems to be an insatiable interest in what it’s like to run a bed-and-breakfast,” she says.

The family brings that transparency to The $5 Foodie.

“The thought really came to me during the last recession,” says Carol Rizzoli, now retired. “There was so much hardship. We were talking about ‘what if’? What if our livelihood should be jeopardized? I began to think: ‘What would we do? We would economize on food and cooking,” she says.

So she and her husband set out to experiment, eating for a week on $5 per day, per person.

“There are no children here any more, so we mostly cook and eat at home. Going out is a special occasion,” she says. “And if you’re careful and frugal, it can be done,” especially by pre-planning meals. The family ate poached eggs with cinnamon toast and an orange for breakfast; for dinner, a chicken stew that could stretch into three meals or lentils with brown rice, yogurt, and crispy onions.

“There are all sorts of things that are amazingly inexpensive,” she says. “I think the demographic is people like my kids, people in their mid-30s and mid-40s, who have grown up with good food. Ethan likes to eat at home because he can save money and eat better than many meals that he’s subject to at these glitzy restaurants where the computer people hang out. Until you have a family, you don’t think about how much you spend on food,” she says.

She was right. Her daughter, Lucy, who has young children, became curious and started asking for advice.

“She asked me: What did you do when we were young? I started giving her recipes. She was used to going out to eat when she wanted, buying what she wanted, but with a family, she had to look for economy, too,” her mother says.

Holland and her husband were fed up with their grocery bills, shopping aimlessly without budgeting.

“I was coming straight home from work, stopping at the store, buying whatever I could think of, spending too much,” Holland says. “We have two small kids at home. I work in an art museum. Or budget is tight, and our time is even tighter. Finding a way to cut back on costs and enjoying healthy, good food became a project.”

She and her husband would sit at their kitchen table, adding up the cost of each home-cooked meal just for fun.

“Some meals were just ridiculously cheap, which made it taste better than ever. We’d silently congratulate ourselves as we indulged. For example, our spinach crepes cost $1.06 per crepe. We felt so content to be eating well and saving money,” she says.

Hugo and Carol Rizzoli’s farmhouse-style vegetable sausage soup.
Christine Hochkeppel for The Boston Globe
Hugo and Carol Rizzoli’s farmhouse-style vegetable sausage soup.

Next, her brother, Ethan, the systems engineer who was tired of dining out, got involved. He built a website for the family to begin sharing recipes in earnest. Now they video conference on Sunday afternoons, starting with a dozen recipes and building from there. It was a bonding experience, generating happy memories of the family dining together, Eron says.

“We wanted to capture the hearts and stomachs of a larger audience,” he says. “I can remember clearly for me, the whole dynamic and concept clicking into place. We were sitting around the dinner table at a family gathering, and we had prepared this pretty elaborate multi-course meal. Everyone had done a different course. The main entree was a tri-color pasta. We’d made each sauce from scratch. . . . And I thought: Let’s figure out a way we’re not just doing a ‘foodie’ website. Let’s make it challenging, a problem,” he says.

So the family began to collaborate on other beloved recipes, adding up the cost of each one.

“Then we showed it to friends and got a response,” Carol Rizzoli says. They add new recipes every week, and now readers contribute their favorites and weigh in with their reviews.

But $5? Really? If such a slender budget sounds overwhelming, Holland has advice.

“We’ve learned tricks to save money,” she says. “We do a lot with inexpensive staples like potatoes, pasta, and rice. We use meat sparingly, which is healthy and more sustainable anyway. Our meals are focused around vegetables. We make a lot of soups, using remnants from the fridge. The key is not to waste any food,” she says.

Eron has also grown savvier when it comes to food shopping.

“Go to farmers’ markets toward the end, when vendors are looking to offload as much produce as possible,” he says. “They’ll give you a good deal, and you’re doing them a big favor, helping them not to have to pack their stuff up.”

And the endeavor has brought the bicoastal family closer together, just like a family meal should, Carol Rizzoli says.

“Day in and day out, we cook. The food is generally better, it’s generally healthier, and it’s far less expensive. We love it, too, because it’s always been a point of family coming together. It has everything to recommend it,” she says.

Visit the family’s website at www.thefivedollarfoodie.com.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com.