Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sandra’s Money Saving Meals: A Review

Up until a few months ago, it seemed like TV cooking shows were ignoring the Great Recession. Hosts made few references to money, and most continued to use good cheeses, expensive fish, and upscale add-ons like truffle oil in their recipes. It was as if the programs existed in a vacuum, where no one was unemployed, and the economy was just fine.

Then, in May 2009, came Sandra’s Money Saving Meals.

Hosted by Food Network personality/flak magnet Sandra Lee, SMSM acknowledges the country’s financial issues; that joblessness and debt have restricted our budgets more than normal. Accordingly, it focuses on fast, fresh dishes designed to keep money in our pockets. Using simple cooking methods and seasonal, whole ingredients, Lee is doing her part to help – at least with dinner.

Writing “Sandra Lee” and “seasonal, whole ingredients” in the same paragraph may seem ludicrous, but stick with me here. Eat Me Daily reviewed the program’s debut, and gave out good-to-great marks. “We almost hate to say it,” they admitted reluctantly, “but the show is really well done.” Other reviewers have been less scathing than expected as well, given Lee’s reputation.

Now it’s November. Six months have passed since the debut of Sandra’s Money Saving Meals, which means it’s had plenty of time to hit a groove. The economy’s still toilet-bound, and the show’s subject matter pertains strongly enough to the CHG audience that I thought I’d review it here. Do the recipes look any good? Are the tips on point? Did it make me NOT want to strangle Aunt Sandy with a seashell window valance?

The thing is, evaluating SMSM is harder than it looks. Mostly because there are three ways to look at it.


The first way involves pretending you live in a world where you’ve never heard of Sandra Lee before. In this world, “Semi-Homemade” doesn’t exist, and Kwanzaa Cake is a blessed figment of your imagination. In this world, Andrew Cuomo dates a very nice brunette from Saugerties, and the idea of a tablescape is so foreign to you, it’s practically French.

In this world, Money Saving Meals is a fabulous piece of programming.

Set in a simple, clean kitchen and hosted by a good-looking, low-key blonde, the show is essentially Frugal Cuisine 101. Every episode includes step-by-step cooking instructions, along with frequent price breakdowns and helpful tips. Among its many other high points:

  • There are no secret coupons or special sales involved, so the money numbers are largely true to life.
  • Costs are given throughout the show, for both individual portions and grand totals.
  • The tips and tricks are reiterated verbally as well as graphically.
  • Though not adverse to canned goods, Sandra uses mostly fresh, whole foods.
  • Lee substitutes consistently and to excellent effect. (Catfish for snapper, canola oil for butter, etc.)
  • The recipes make enough for leftovers, which are then morphed into other dishes for variety.
  • Drink recipes abound. As someone who enjoys alcohol, learning to quaff on a budget is appreciated.
Of course, if you’re an experienced saver in the kitchen, you’ve already heard many of Lee’s pointers. Still, it's an excellent show for beginners.


The second way to look at Money Saving Meals is by not suspending disbelief. You’re coming in with all the feelings and prejudices you might already harbor toward Lee. And yes, that includes knowledge of the time she made a cake using a cake.

In this case, the show isn’t as good. As for why:
  • You question the cooking tips, since you know Sandra often cuts corners and isn’t an extremely experienced chef.
  • The affectations (“faaaabulous,” etc.) are toned down, but they still pop up often enough to induce agita.
  • Lee rings somewhat false as a budgeter, given the extravagant, tablescape-y tone of her other show. Granted, she had it rough growing up, but it’s tough taking financial advice from someone who redecorates her kitchen every two days.
  • Previous knowledge of said scapery makes these kinds of statements hilarious: “I like to make the food the centerpiece of my table.”
  • Eat Me Daily was right about the “intolerable cheesy” bed music. Michael Bolton would blush.
  • Yes, Brycer is mentioned. He is the Cody Gifford of the new millennium.
Of course, if you can temper your antipathy towards Lee with appreciation for a solidly made, well-intentioned TV show, there’s a third, more zen way of looking at SMSM that reconciles the extreme views of the first two options.


A great man (er, Bill Pullman in Independence Day) once said, “You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.” And here, that applies like crazy.

Look at it this way: Money Saving Meals goes in with a great premise, executes it skillfully, and mostly manages to sidestep the drawbacks of its host. Sandra seems to know her stuff, and if the show succeeds, her focus on frugality could be taken more seriously by network execs. It’s enough to put your prejudices aside, or at least suppress them for 22 minutes every week.

Speaking of which, I thought these might make SMSM an even more appointment-worthy experience:
  • Dedicate occasional shows to singles and couples, rather than families.
  • Include more healthy recipes.
  • Bring in guest experts, possibly from the interwebs. Money Saving Mom or Coupon Mom (or basically anyone with “Mom” in their name) could really be of use here.
  • Have Lee give a guided tour of a grocery store, and spout off tips throughout.
  • Emphasize the importance of menu planning, list making, and general preparedness.
And that’s it. Readers, have any of you seen Money Saving Meals? What do you think? Have you tried the recipes? Does it ease your hostility toward Aunt Sandy? Would it ease Tony Bourdain’s hostility toward Aunt Sandy? Comment section! Open!


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(Photos courtesy of Hulu.)

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