If you’re like most families on a budget, then there are times when you are looking for the cheapest meal ideas possible. Keeping a stash of cheap recipes on hand can help you through these lean times. Just this week, I made the decision to focus on cheaper meals to help cover the added cost of taking one of our pets to the vet. This allows us to stick to the same budget without having to make up funds that were pulled out for the vet.
Below are some of my favorite meals when I want to feed my family (three of us now that the oldest lives on her own) for $20-$30 for the week. These assume that you also have some things in your stockpile, as I’ve been telling you to do, and some freezer meals, etc. If you don’t, then it may run you a bit more.
My Go-To Cheap Meals
There are always some super cheap meals that you can use that are filling and will stretch your budget. You may have many of these items already on hand.
- Eggs and toast – eggs are inexpensive in most cases. Even if you buy cage free eggs, you should be able to get a couple of meals out of a $3 carton of eggs. If you have a garden and have any veggies on hand, you can throw those in there for an omelet, too.
- Pasta – Pasta is one of those things that you can find cheap, even buying it at the dollar store. Of course, if you want more whole grains or something with a bit more protein, it will cost more. However, like eggs, you will still get a lot of bang for your buck. Unless your family is huge, you should be able to get a couple of meals out of a box of pasta. Add frozen veggies and alfredo or a simple tomato sauce.
- Rice and Chicken – You can usually grab a bag of frozen chicken on sale or buy a whole chicken and cook it in the crock pot. Rice is super cheap. Chicken thighs are on sale for .79 a pound at JayC this week, which I realize not every area has, but you likely have an Aldi’s or some other grocer running a promo on chicken. You can also use canned chicken, but I don’t think it tastes quite as good. Still, in a pinch, it saves money and gives you some protein.
- Beans – If you cook beans from dry, you can serve a very inexpensive meal and have plenty of leftovers.
- Iceberg Lettuce – This isn’t my favorite lettuce variety, but it is cheap! You can buy a head of lettuce or even a bag of pre-washed (wash it again anyway!) for $1.00-$2.00 most of the time. If you have any leftover bits of meat, lunch meat, hard boiled eggs, bacon, etc., throw it in there for a tasty and filling meal.
- Stir Fry and Leftovers – When I have just a little extra meat, but it isn’t enough for a meal, I do one of two things. I throw it into a big stock container I keep in my freezer to use in stew, or I freeze it and save it for stir fry or a pot pie, etc. You can buy a bag of frozen stir fry vegetables for under $2 (get the store brand). You’ll also need soy sauce and some type of meat.
- Pork Loin – Buy when on sale. You can easily get 3 meals out of one, even with a family of four. Cook in the slow cooker with just salt and pepper. The first night, you can cut a 3 oz. piece for each family member. Add their sauce of choice (BBQ, ranch, etc.) The second night, take half of the remainder and shred it, add BBQ sauce and buns for pulled pork sandwiches. The third night, shred the remainder of the pork, add tortillas and create carnitas. Yum!
Roundup of Cheap Recipes I Use
There are some recipes I love because they are delicious and the ingredients for them are cheap. I have saved these on my desktop so that I can pull them up and use them over and over again. Here are just a few of my go-to favorites.
Taco Soup Supreme
I love this recipe and it is one of my go-tos – and not because it is cheap, but because it is delicious and easy to make in bulk. If you make your own beans from dry, you can make this even cheaper. Buy ground beef while it is on sale. You also can half how much beef you use and not impact the taste too much.
Pick up a $1 bag of generic corn chips to serve with this soup. Yum!
Wild Mushroom Cheddar Burgers
When you need to cook something fairly cheap, burgers and hot dogs fit the bill. Plus, they are very easy to make. Forgo the premade patties for ground beef and make up your own patties to save the most money. In a perfect world, we would always be able to afford the healthiest foods, such as grass fed beef. However, in reality, that may be out of the budget sometimes. I do recommend you try to get the leanest cut of ground beef you can afford, but if that is only 80/20, then that is what it is. You can pat some of the grease off after you cook them.
This recipe makes these burgers seem more like a gourmet treat than a budget item. Hopefully you have some cheese on hand as that can get expensive, and it is fine to sub out canned mushrooms if that is what you can afford.
White Beans w/ Ham & Cornbread
One meal I truly love is great northern white beans with ham and onion (let cook in slow cooker all day or simmer on stove top for a couple of hours. I don’t make my cornbread from scratch. I use two boxes of Jiffy mix, which is still under $1 for both, even if you count the eggs and milk you need to add. However, if you are good at making cornbread, you can likely make your own very inexpensively.
Vegetable Fried Rice
If it is summer, or you planned ahead and froze your summer vegetables, you can easily make some fried rice very inexpensively. I mentioned before that rice is one of the cheapest things you can buy. You also use a bag of frozen peas in this recipe.
Chicken Ramen with Mushrooms
Ramen is a well-known staple among broke college students and 20-somethings just starting their careers. Because of this, there are a number of recipes out there to dress up this basic noodle and make it a bit more appetizing. Below is one of the recipes I like in particular because it incorporates mushrooms. However, you also could use whatever leftovers you have on hand to make it more than just ramen.
These recipes should get you started. Get creative and come up with a few of your own that have inexpensive ingredients. Or, adapt a recipe so it is cheaper to make.
Leftover Pot Pie (Turkey or Chicken)
There are so many times when I have just a little bit of chicken or turkey or whatever left. It isn’t enough to feed everyone again, but it is too much to just toss out (like my frugal self can stand that anyway!). Enter, the traditional pot pie. For $1.99 (as of 2017), I can buy two refrigerated, ready-made pie crusts. Add a can of cream of chicken soup and a can of mixed veggies (I try to get them with potatoes in them). I also add some things I always have on hand (splash of milk, salt, pepper). So, even if I pay full price for everything (not happening), this meal costs $4 or $5 and will feed my family with enough left for lunch for two the next day.
Additional Ideas When You’re Desperate
First, if you are truly desperate and don’t even have $20 to buy groceries, take a deep breath. A lot of us have been there at some point. You’ll get back on your feet, but for now you have to figure out how to feed your family. Here are some ideas that may help you get through this week:
If you are down on your luck, even temporarily, call local churches and organizations to see who has a food pantry. While you might not be able to get everything at one, you might be able to get all you need by visiting two food pantris. At least it will be something you will have for your kids and yourself. You can’t pull yourself out of debt or a financial hardship if your basic needs aren’t met.
Animal shelters and rescues may help you with food if you don’t have any on hand for your pets. I actually feed my dog one meal of dog food and one meal of healthy human food. I do this for her health, but it is also a good way you can use up those extra bits of chicken and such (never give an animal cooked bones as they can splinter off and get lodged on their insides. Be sure to read up on what is and isn’t toxic to your pets. Dogs should never have grapes, onions, and a slew of other foods. Cats are even more sensitive, but less likely to try to eat things they shouldn’t.
Family and Friends
Great Aunt Mary has called you five times in the last month wanting you to come for dinner. Take her up on it. You can return the favor another time, but for now it is a free meal when you desperately need one. For those you are very close to, be honest about your problems. They have an extra lasagna in their freezer they will give you, or produce they can’t use up before it goes bad, or a huge bag of rice they bought at the wholesale store and then realized they couldn’t use. Our pride keeps us from asking, but wouldn’t you want to help a family member when they most needed it? Don’t rob them of that blessing of helping you.
Use Up What You Have
More than likely, you have some canned tuna, cans of green beans and then frozen items in your freezer. I like to make up what I call hodge podge meals so I can use all these items up and not waste anything. When the kids were little, I would take muffin baking sheets and would put a little of this and that into the tins to use it up. A meal of nuts, cheese, pickles and frozen peaches can taste pretty good and be easy to throw together.
Hunting and Fishing
If you have skills to hunt or fish, there is no reason for your family to go hungry. Head out with your fishing pole or rifle and get the meat you need to get through the week. While I love animals and I don’t like it when people hunt just for fun, I do think it is perfectly okay to go deer hunting, etc., if you plan to eat what you kill. If you know what you are doing, you can also hunt for mushrooms, field greens, and root vegetables. Who knows, when the zombie apocalypse happens, you might be the only one able to fend for yourself.
There are times when there really is such a thing as a free lunch, particularly on the weekends. You can use this trick to stretch your budget or keep from starving. First, check out the promotions local radio and TV stations have going on. They will sometimes set up in a bank or grocery parking lot and give out free promotional items along with hot dogs.
Sam’s Club and even grocery stores often give out free food samples on the weekends. Without planning to, I have walked through Sam’s on a Saturday and filled up on those samples so we didn’t need to eat lunch. My frugal brain immediately decided this could be my new Saturday lunch when I’m going there anyway, but you could also just go and eat. Don’t have a membership? Ask for a one day pass at the service desk so you can check out what they have to offer.
Have you ever read the folktale about the stone soup? (You can read it here.) The man comes into town with some stones. He throws them into a pot of water. People start adding things. Pretty soon, they have an amazing stew that they all share. You can do something similar by hosting a get together and asking everyone to bring a side dish. Provide an inexpensive main dish, such as spaghetti. While I think it would be pretty rude to ask people to leave their leftovers, most people will offer them, especially if they know you are on a budget. Say yes when they do and you should have enough food to get you through the work for the cost of about $5 worth of pasta and tomato sauce.
Do you belong to a local church? Most churches offer pitch ins and meals from time to time. If you are baptist, probably more often (and I’m allowed to say that since I am) ha ha! So, you may need to make a side dish to take, but you’ll get a full meal out of sharing that one dish. Choose something inexpensive to make, such as fresh corn from your garden, a big watermelon you cut up, pasta salad, an iced cake (couple of bucks) etc.
Hopefully the ideas in this article have helped you figure out how to get through your budget crisis or maybe just save a little extra money on your food costs. Now, it is time to start planning ahead so you don’t run into this situation again. Learn how to save money at the store every single week, build a stockpile and always pay the least amount possible for the food your family eats most often.
In the meantime, grab grilled cheese and soup or peanut butter sandwiches for cheap meals and let us know what your favorite cheap recipes turn out to be.