“a helpful & lucid review site for all things budget” — the new yorker
Home » blog

Cheap meal ideas

Cheap Dinner and Lunch Ideas and Recipes

Posted on 7/15/2011 10:54 EST

Oh, for a delicious, nutritious, cheap meal. Is such a thing as elusive as the perfect pair of jeans? Healthy foods like farm-fresh produce and organic milk can be frightfully expensive. But a little creativity and a few kitchen staples will go a long way towards dreaming up, and then delivering on, cheap meal ideas that are also good for you.

Photo by bochalla

We did a bit of hunting around for sources that can jumpstart your cheap meal ideas adventure. Cooks.com is an excellent resource for cheap dinner ideas. Recipes are accompanied by readers' ratings and comments, which may include suggestions for tweaking the preparation here and there. One highly-rated recipe is the Cheap & Easy Chicken Casserole, which home cooks say is simple, tasty, and a good way to use leftover chicken. One post recommends adding French-fried onions for a crunch effect and Velveeta instead of regular cheddar for a smoother texture. Another suggests adding veggies to beef up the nutrition content. Recipe.com features a cheap meal ideas section with recipes for dishes such as Beef Strips with Vermicelli. Cheap dinner recipes like this rely on canned vegetables, which are way less expensive than fresh or frozen, and note that pricier ingredients like Parmesan cheese and fennel seed are optional.

The BabyCenter.com forum includes good ideas for concocting family dinners with ingredients already in your pantry or fridge. Tuna, soup, pasta, beans, and canned or frozen veggies form the basis for tasty and thrifty casseroles, chilies, burritos, and lentil dishes. Commenters offer tips for making your own pasta sauce with what you have in the house: canned tomatoes, olive oil, onion, parsley, basil and oregano seasoning, salt and pepper, and sugar -- cheaper than buying the stuff in a jar and the sodium content is likely to be lower. 5 Dollar Dinners supplies heaps of cheap dinner recipes that cost little more than pocket change to whip up. Prices are listed for each ingredient - one cup of brown rice in the breaded tilapia with sauteed zucchini and tomatoes recipe, for example, costs 40 cents - so you can be sure the total cost sticks close to the $5 range. (We did notice, however, that the cost of one lemon was listed as 10 cents. When was the last time you paid 10 cents for a fresh lemon?) The site also posts coupons for more savings on the fixings for your cheap dinners. There are also weekly meal plans (with grocery lists) and tips for maximizing trips to the farmer's market and drug store to score cheap foods. Still more frugal recipes can be found at Cook Eat Share and Big Girls Small Kitchen, which offer cheap dinner ideas for hosting guests.

Let's not forget that pasta is a cheap meal lover's best friend. It's low-cost, varied in size and texture, and increasingly available in nutritionally-bulked up formats (think whole grains and calcium). One night might be veggie lasagna with produce from the farmer's market and another could be penne with a cheap can of chickpeas. Frozen veggies, beans, canned tomatoes, salad dressings, soup mixes, and leftover protein (chicken, for example) are just some of the penny-wise ingredients you can incorporate from your larder.

Photo by sushi♥ina

Herbs and spices should round out your arsenal of cheap ingredients for cheap meal ideas. They add flavor and variety to what might otherwise be a staid lineup of bland dishes - and can compensate for a loss of flavor if you cut back on the salt. Chicken as the foundation for several cheap meals each week can take on Asian, Mexican, or Italian overtones with a few flicks of the spice jar. You can nab $1 seasonings, such as cumin and Italian herb blends, from the supermarket, or use cheap salad dressing and canned soup to add a new taste to the same old meat; try marinating chicken breasts in salad dressing or a bottled sauce you already have on hand and then grill. As one post on the BabyCenter forum on cheap meals points out, you can buy a whole roast chicken and serve it with lemon pepper seasoning one night, use it in fajitas the next, and slow cook whatever remains into a soup.

Then there's lunch. How many tuna or PB&J sandwiches can you eat? Eating Well offers tips for cheap lunches -- $3 per serving -- that you can take to work. Recipe ideas range from curried red lentil soup, to tofu salad on bread to spaghetti frittata, which gets four stars from readers, including some who were pleasantly surprised by the tasty results. Again, many of these recipes feature ingredients you might already have in your pantry.

Photo by kthread

A CafeMom forum dishes on cheap meal ideas for kids' lunches and provides suggestions for meting out portions over the week when they go off to summer camp or a playgroup (or school, when September rolls around). One mom makes Jell-o or pudding in small plastic containers to avoid the high cost of individually-packaged portions at the supermarket. Other lunch and snack ideas include tuna on a veggie tortilla wrap, cut-up veggies with homemade dip and crackers, homemade hummus, and trail mix thrown together from bulk bags of nuts, raisins, dried fruit, and dark chocolate chips.

By stocking up on cheap, versatile foodstuffs for your fridge, freezer, and pantry, and checking in with a few recipe-laden websites, coming up with an ever-changing list of cheap lunches and dinners will be easy as pie.

Filed in: Cooking, Dining, Food, Groceries, Kitchen
Cheapism.com on Facebook