Cooking on a budget and looking for ideas for super cheap meals?
Learning to cook well, and knowing what to cook on the cheap, can be a difficult challenge. For many people, cooking is an expensive and time-consuming hobby that just doesn’t fit with everyday life. However, cooking meals for yourself and your family can be dirt cheap and easy.
These meals are affordable, easy on the budget and they taste great. Many of them require few ingredients and minimal prep time, so that you can feel good about what you’re putting into your body. Eating well doesn’t need to break the bank. Here are some delicious meal ideas you can try.
Meat is often one of the most expensive ingredients in cooking dinner, so vegetarian meals are a fantastic option when you’re tight on budget. A can of beans costs less than a dollar and is packed with protein despite being very cheap. Here are some dirt cheap and easy vegetarian meals to try:
Gallo Pinto, roughly translated as “spotted rooster” is a traditional dish from Costa Rica. Composed mostly of rice and beans, this meal can’t get any cheaper.
To make Gallo Pinto for dinner, you combine cooked rice and cooked beans, along with any extra ingredients to add flavor. Some options for flavoring are garlic, onions, bell peppers, chili powder, cumin, paprika, or cilantro.
Rice is easy to cook; just mix one part rice to two parts water. You can do this in a covered pot on the stove or in a rice cooker.
You can boil beans or buy pre-cooked canned beans. This is my favorite method, since canned beans are so easy and dirt cheap. I cook my rice, then add the beans. Leave some bean juice to add flavor to the rice. Season to taste and enjoy!
Experiment with different types of beans and varieties of rice to find your favorite combo.
Though slightly more expensive than rice, quinoa is packed with nutritional value and well worth the extra cents. This grain is protein rich and tastes delicious.
For a one-pan Tex-Mex Quinoa, add one cup of uncooked quinoa, one cup of broth, one can of tomatoes, one can of beans, and one can of corn. Let simmer until the broth is gone and the quinoa is cooked through.
For added flavor, you can saute onions, garlic, bell peppers, and jalapenos or poblano peppers in the pot before adding the other ingredients. I love the added heat from chilis and often add some cumin and chili powder to add even more flavor.
Tex Mex Quinoa can easily be made ahead and stored in jars or containers for easy meal prep for dinner.
Fish is a little more expensive than other meats, but you can’t ignore the health benefits. Fish is filled with Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B, calcium, and phosphorus. Some fish can also be dirt cheap, like canned tuna and cod. Check the fish aisle regularly for great deals on some other kinds of fish. Keep in mind that frozen fish tends to be cheaper and still tastes great.
Homemade Mac n’ Cheese with Fish Sticks
It’s surprisingly easy to make your own fish sticks for dinner. Cut pieces of fish (I usually use cod) into thin strips. Dip the strips in egg, flour, and then breadcrumbs. You can fry your fish sticks in oil on the stove or bake them in the oven. I tend to bake because it’s easier and less hands-on.
For homemade mac n’ cheese, all you need is noodles, cheese, milk, butter, and a bit of flour. Start by melting about a tablespoon of butter. Add flour, just a teaspoon at a time, until you have a thick paste in the pan. Begin adding milk and shredded cheese, alternating between the two, and stirring constantly.
If your cheese sauce is too runny, add more cheese. If it gets too thick, add more milk. Season with salt and pepper and add to your cooked noodles. Serve with the fish sticks and you’ll have a dinner meal your kids love that is dirt cheap but much healthier and tastier than the store-bought equivalent.
Who doesn’t love mac n cheese? This dish pairs well with fish for a tasty treat you and the kids will love!
Tuna Sushi Pucks
I love making sushi pucks. As long as you have rice and tuna you can make this sushi-like dinner meal. Start by cooking your rice, remembering to use one part rice and two parts water. Next, make a spicy-tuna mix by combining canned tuna with mayonnaise and sriracha.
For an added punch of flavor make a salad mixture with cubed cucumbers, diced tomatoes, and minced onions. If you want to make this dinner meal a little fancier, add cubed mangos, apples, or avocado.
Using a metal measuring cup, create your sushi pucks. First, cover the bottom of the measuring cup with the vegetable/fruit salad. Next add a thick layer of tuna. Finally, fill the rest of the measuring cup with rice. Pack it down tightly and flatten it across the top.
Quickly flip the measuring cup onto a plate and use a spoon to tap the edges of the measuring cup to loosen the sushi puck. Lift it slowly and gently so that the sushi puck is left on the plate. For a beautiful presentation, drizzle your sushi puck with soy sauce, sriracha, or spicy mayo and sprinkle sesame seeds over it.
As long as you have rice and canned tuna, you can mix and match what other ingredients you want to put in your Tuna Sushi Pucks.
Chicken is one of the cheapest proteins available in most places. It’s low in fat, which makes it an especially healthy option. This is also a good choice of go-to meat because it can combine with many different flavors for plenty of unique and affordable dinner meals.
Chili Lime Chicken
Using a slow cooker is one of the easiest ways to cook on the cheap. You can start cooking before leaving for work in the morning and come back to perfectly prepared chicken when you come home. Slow cookers are also great because you can cook from frozen.
Chili Lime Chicken is almost unbelievably easy. Place frozen chicken breasts in the crock pot. Add a few tablespoons of water to cover the bottom of the pot. Next, add a cup of your favorite tomato-based salsa. Finally, add at least a tablespoon of lemon juice, or more for a stronger citrus taste.
For frozen chicken, cook on high for at least four hours or low for at least six hours. I’ve found that leaving the slow cooker on low for a full eight hours also works well. The salsa and lemon juice keep the chicken from drying out too much.
You can serve these chicken breasts with rice and beans or you can shred the chicken and serve with tortillas. I sometimes make several chicken breasts at once and use the leftover meat for recipes throughout the week.
This chicken is unbelievably simple and tastes like it came from a five star restaurant.
Aztec Casserole is like an easier version of enchiladas. You’ll need cooked and shredded chicken, tortillas, a tomatillo-based salsa, sour cream, and cheese (queso fresco works great, but pretty much any cheese will work).
Using a square glass pan, place a layer of tortillas. Next, add a layer of chicken, followed by a generous helping of the green salsa. (For a creamier salsa, mix sour cream into your green salsa before adding.) Add plenty of cheese, then another layer of tortillas, chicken, salsa, and cheese.
Depending on the size of your pan and thickness of your layers, you can keep adding layers until you run out of room or ingredients. Top the casserole with plenty of cheese and bake until the cheese has melted. Service with sour cream and additional cheese if desired.
Aztec Casserole is best with corn tortillas. The fresher you can find them, the better!
My tip for making beef more affordable is to buy ground beef rather than expensive cuts, and to allow yourself some fat. You may find a good deal on lean beef, but in general you don’t need 90% lean meat in order to make a great meal. Beef is versatile and incredibly easy to use. Here are some meal ideas.
There are a few ways to make Shepherd’s Pie, but this meal can be made on a tight budget. The ingredients you’ll need: beef, worcestershire sauce, frozen vegetables, mashed potatoes, and cheese.
Brown the beef and season with salt, pepper, and plenty of worcestershire sauce. If you have onions or garlic on hand you can mince those and cook them with the beef. While the beef is browning, you can get started on the mashed potatoes. You can boil and then mash potatoes, soften potatoes in the microwave, or use mashed potato flakes.
Microwave or boil the vegetables to thaw. My favorite veggies to use are peas, carrots, and corn. Add these to the bottom of a casserole dish, followed by the beef. Top with mashed potatoes and a layer of cheese.
Put this all in the oven at 350 degrees until the cheese is melted. Take out and enjoy!
Shepherd’s Pie is a favorite in my family, and it’s so dirt cheap to make!
Sriracha Beef Bowl
I’ve seen versions of this recipe labeled as both Mongolian Beef and Korean Beef. No matter the origin, there’s no denying that sriracha and ground beef are a great combo.
This meal is pretty simple and can easily be made to taste. For the sauce, you can use sriracha, soy sauce, sesame oil, honey, and sesame seeds. Using mostly soy sauce and sriracha, you can add some of the other ingredients until you find a combo you love.
Serve over rice with vegetables such as broccoli or shredded carrots. I also love serving this beef over ramen noodles with either a fried egg or a hard-boiled egg, broccoli, and roasted cashews.
Though this meal is easy and dirt cheap, you can play with the presentation to make it feel like a luxury meal.
Pork isn’t always dirt cheap, but you can get great deals by buying in bulk. There’s a lot you can do with pork, so don’t be afraid to buy whatever cut is cheapest. Here are a couple of ideas for recipes using pork.
Honey Glazed Pork Stir Fry
If you find a cut of pork that isn’t as pretty on it’s own, you can cut it into strips or cubes and add it to a stir fry with vegetables like carrots, celery, and onion. Start by browning the pork and seasoning with salt and pepper.
Add the vegetables and cook until tender. When the vegetables are almost done, add a half cup of honey or more to cover all the pork and vegetables. Also add ginger powder or freshly grated ginger, garlic, and a teaspoon of soy sauce.
Mix until the pork and vegetables are coated in honey, lower the heat and let simmer for a few minutes. Serve over rice or noodles.
Stir fry is one of the fastest meals to make. Bonus: it uses hardly any dishes.
Pork chops are often dirt cheap because they come with the bone. This isn’t a bad thing, though! The bone brings some additional flavor and is easy to eat around. You’ll still get plenty of meat by buying bone-in pork chops.
For thin pork chops, you can sear each side for five to ten minutes and use a meat thermometer to make sure the pork is cooked through. For thicker pork chops, you’ll want to sear the edges on high heat for one or two minutes a side. You can then bake the pork chops in the oven to finish cooking.
Pork is a meat that goes especially well with sweet and fruity flavors. Bring your pork chop to the next level by making a fruity sauce. In a saucepan, heat up jelly or jam with a liquid such as balsamic vinegar or wine. You can add herbs such as basil or rosemary to break through the sweetness.
Pork chops pair well with a variety of flavors. Fig? Honey ginger? Chipotle? You name it!
Budget Tips For Cooking on the Cheap
Here are a few more budget tips for saving money in the kitchen and stretching your budget. With these recipe ideas to get you started, and these tips to keep you going, you’ll be cooking on the cheap like a pro while meeting your budget.
- Buy in bulk whenever possible.
- Compare brands and stores to find the best budget deal for your go-to items.
- Learn to replace ingredients and modify recipes to include cheaper ingredients and items you already have at home.
- Eat healthy as well as cheap. Though fast food and junk food might seem cheaper on the budget, they’re usually not much cheaper than the ingredients for a healthy meal like the ones listed above.
- Focus on complete meals instead of unhealthy snacks throughout the day. Eat better, not more!
- Find recipes with few ingredients instead of buying products you’ll only use once to stretch your budget.
- Use spices and herbs to pack in flavor without adding significant cost to your budget. Building up a spice cabinet is expensive if you do it in one go, but can be dirt cheap if you fill your spice cabinet gradually and intentionally.
10 Ways to Keep on Budget When You Cook
Did you know that one of the biggest expenses for most families is food? The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average family spent almost $8,000 a year on food. If you manage to cut that by just 10%, it can save over $700 a year, and this can be a huge difference in your budget. The following tips will help you keep on track and cut your ongoing food costs.
- Get in the Habit of Making Meal Plans
One of the biggest things you can do to cut your meal costs is to lower your ingredient costs. If you can get into the habit of buying inexpensive foods, you can stretch your food budget more. Start by putting together a meal plan. Make a list of all of the meals that you want to make for the week, and then create a grocery list of ingredients you need to make it happen.
The grocery list will help you focus and stay on track while you shop because you have certain items you need to get instead of wandering aimlessly around. A list can help get rid of a lot of unplanned food purchases. You could even do a grocery pickup to help avoid temptation.
- Shop at a Discount Store
If you find a discount grocery store by your house, taking advantage of it and shopping here will make the whole grocery buying experience much cheaper, even if you pick items that aren’t on sale. Fareway, Lidl, and Aldi are all good examples of discount grocery chains, and they have a reputation for having lower pricing.
If you have one close, make it your primary grocery store and supplement your grocery run with other stores if the discount one doesn’t have everything you need.
- Pair Low-Cost Staples with Sale Food
Grocery stores usually run weekly sales that feature different foods for a deeply discounted cost. You can make a great cheap meal by pairing a low-cost staple like pasta, beans, rice, apples, bananas, spinach, or peanut butter with whatever produce or meat item is on sale.
So, if the store is having a sale on tomatoes, you could try to make a meal that incorporates tomatoes with pasta to give you a cheap meal. If you notice peppers or mushrooms are on sale, add some rice and make a filling stir-fry.
- Cook Large Meals and Freeze Them
For a lot of different meals like casseroles, stews, and soups, it’s relatively easy to cook a big batch of it at one time instead of using a smaller quantity. If it’s easy to freeze the leftovers, you could make a big batch of food and portion the rest into meal-sized containers before freezing them.
This allows you to purchase ingredients in bulk to save money, and it gives you convenient and inexpensive leftovers that you can pull out of your freezer and heat up after a long day of working in your garden.
Vegetable Selling by Isriya Paireepairit / CC BY-NC 2.0 Growing your own vegetables or fruits is a fantastic way to cut down your grocery bills, especially if you take steps to preserve them by canning.
- Start Using a Slow Cooker
One large problem many busy people or families have is that they don’t necessarily have the time to prepare their meals. A slow cooker is one way around this problem, and it also allows you to buy tougher cuts of meat and let them cook all day until they’re tender. All you have to do is put your ingredients into the slow cooker in the morning, switch it on low, and let it cook until you get home.
You’ll have a hot meal ready to serve as soon as you walk in the door. They do a wonderful job of cooking stews, soups, casseroles, and roasts, and you can make enough for several meals worth of leftovers.
- Make Pantry Meals
A lot of people who regularly cook at home find that they can fill up their pantry with ingredients that they end up not using, including herbs and spices. Rather than ignoring them and allowing them to go unused, try to come up with pantry meals.
The goal of these meals is to use up as much of the ingredients in your pantry as possible while minimizing the other ingredients you use. For example, if you bought a bulk bag of rice, try to come up with a few meals that use it. Since you already bought it, it will cut down on this week’s grocery bills.
- Clip Coupons and Look at Weekly Flyers
If you’re just starting meal planning, you can get hints about what to make for the week by looking at your grocery store flyer. There are both digital and paper copies available, just like you can take advantage of digital and paper coupons.
Look for discounts on fresh produce and fresh meat, and use these as the main ingredients in your dishes. Try to take advantage of multiple sales and make a few different meals out of two or three items. If it’s a fantastic deal, you can buy extras and freeze them until you can use them.
- Shop in Season
Usually, some foods taste better and are much more affordable when they’re in season. This helpful chart will let you know when some vegetables or fruits are in their prime during the year, and you can adjust your meal plans accordingly.
For example, you may want to stock up on tomatoes, summer corn, and nectarines during the late summer months. During the winter, stock up on squash and sweet potatoes. If you like to shop through your local Community Supported Agriculture Program or at farmers markets, you’ll be able to look and see which items are in season. The more you buy in season, the better your savings will be.
- Look at Products from Bottom to Top
One sneaky thing a lot of grocery stores do is put the most expensive items at eye level while hiding the cheaper items on the top or bottom shelves. Make sure you take a few minutes to scan the whole vertical length of each shelf before you pick out a particular product.
Make a habit of not grabbing the first thing you see at your eye level because you’re probably paying more. Also, if you shop online or through an app, consider sorting your searches by price. This will help ensure you can get everything without breaking the budget.
- Learn How to Properly Freeze Items
Whether you’re purchasing frozen vegetables, meal prepping, or taking advantage of bulk food discounts or warehouse sales, your freezer is vital. Learning how to preserve and extend the life of your food is critical to saving money on your grocery bill.
Do a little research and find out what is the best way to freeze things like fruits, vegetables, chili, or soups to get good results. One thing you can do is label any leftovers you have with the date you froze them. Also, you can slightly undercook some dishes before you freeze them and heat them up in the oven to defrost and finish cooking them.
Cheap Meal Frequently Asked Questions
Eal prep ideas – meals by Nicole / CC BY-NC 2.0 If you’re brand new to buying and creating cheap meals, it can seem a little intimidating. This is why it’s important that you ask questions and get advice to ensure you have an easy go at this project.
- Does eating cheap mean unhealthy?
Contrary to popular belief, you can eat very healthy without breaking your budget. For example, rice and beans are very cheap, but they’re also excellent sources of protein and very versatile. You can eat healthy on the cheap by creating delicious and filling meals if you put a little planning and effort into it.
- How long can you meal prep for in advance?
Generally speaking, you only want to prepare some foods 3 to 4 days in advance at the most unless you plan to freeze them and defrost them mid-week. Things like chicken, fish, and some other meat items will only last a few days in the refrigerator without issues with bacteria while others can last longer.
- Can you shop at more expensive stores and save money?
It can be trickier to shop at more expensive stores and still save money, but it can be done if you don’t have a discount option by you. For example, you can use coupons and weekly sales to get discounts. Another option is to shop store-branded items as they’re usually much cheaper than name-brand ones.
Preparing and eating super cheap meals doesn’t have to taste bad or be the same things over and over. You can easily meal prep for a week at a time using bulk items and cater to different dietary restrictions and tastes while staying on a budget by using our recipe ideas and tips.
Cailey Johanna Thiessen lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Though born in Colorado, she spent most of her formative years in Morelos and Oaxaca, Mexico. She attended college in Vermont, where she received her Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing and a minor in Foreign Languages from Champlain College. She writes about pest control, travel, gardening, and more. Though currently living in an apartment, she loves caring for her large selection of houseplants and is looking forward to owning her own garden. She’s an avid cook and interested in finding easy and enjoyable ways to be healthier and happier. She’s passionate about writing and creating and seeing finished projects come to life.