Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In a perfect world, healthy and delicious food would be all around us. It would be easy to choose and easy to enjoy. But of course, it’s not a perfect world. There are thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes. Money just needn’t be one of them. Eating on a limited budget is not easy, and there are times when a tough week can turn mealtime into a stressful situation.
Just as a good meal is best shared with others, so is a good recipe. I may not be able to share a meal with you, but I’d love to offer a few ideas. What’s for dinner that I can afford?
Here are some of my answers:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 bananas mashed
- 2 eggs
- 1½ cups milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 bananas sliced
- butter for cooking
In a medium bowl, add the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Mix thoroughly with a spoon.
In another bowl, add the mashed bananas (or just mash them in the bowl), eggs, milk, and vanilla, then mix.
Add the dry mixture from the other bowl into
the second bowl. Gently stir it with a spoon until everything just comes together.
Tender pancakes come from not over-mixing the batter.
If there are still a few pockets of flour, don’t worry about it.
Let the mixture sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
Place a non-stick or cast-iron pan on medium heat.
Once it’s hot, melt a small amount of butter, about ½ teaspoon, then ladle some pancake batter into the center of the pan. You can make your pancakes as large or small as you like. A normal amount is about
1/4 to 1/3 cup of batter. If it’s your first time making pancakes, make them smaller: they’ll be easier to flip.
As soon as the batter is in the pan, place 3 to 4 banana slices atop of the uncooked side of the pancake. Once the edges of the pancake start to dry up and you can see the
middle start to bubble, flip the pancake over.
Cook until it is browned on both sides. Stack the finished pancake on a plate in a warm oven and repeat the above process until you run out of batter.
Serve hot, with butter and syrup.
Embrace meal planning.
Planning meals and snacks ahead is essential. We talk all the time about having a mindful plan for your meals and your groceries, and for good reason — it’s so simple, yet the payoff is huge. When you have a plan, you’ll cook smarter, create more focused shopping lists, and have an easier time staying within your budget.
Cook with what’s in season.
I love cooking with fresh produce as much as I can, but there are certain times when it just doesn’t make sense — like cooking asparagus in the middle of February. While I may be able to track it down at the grocery store, it’s going to be pricier than when it’s in season, and it’s probably not going to taste as good. Stick with using in-season produce. It’s readily available and usually less expensive.
Keep an organized fridge and pantry.
Leftovers are always great, but it totally defeats the purpose if they get lost in the back of the fridge. Label leftovers and keep your fridge organized to help minimize food waste.
Embrace chicken thighs (and other inexpensive meat).
Cooking on a budget doesn’t mean you need to cut meat out of your diet altogether; it just means you need to be smart about the cuts you buy. Even if I wasn’t cooking on a budget, chicken thighs would still be at the very top of my list. Whether you buy them skin-on or skinless, bone-in or boneless, chicken thighs are inexpensive, meaty, full of flavor, and really versatile. Other smart buys include meats for braising, like pork butt, where the investment of time makes inexpensive meat delicious.
Regularly cook down the pantry and freezer.
Right now, sitting in your pantry and freezer, you probably have the makings of more meals than you realize. Last week I read an article that told how her family saves money by eating through their freezer twice a year. Most of us could probably go one week without grocery shopping, cooking meals based on what we have handy.
Look for sales, and plan meals accordingly.
If your local grocery store offers a savings card, be sure to sign up and check the weekly circular to see what’s on sale. Instead of shopping for groceries based on your weekly meal plan, consider planning your meals around what’s on sale.
Buy spices, baking supplies, and other dry goods from the bulk section.
“Lots of stores are adding bulk buying sections and you can get pasta, grains, nuts, dried fruit, and baking goods. It really cuts down on the costs.”
Embrace whole grains and beans.
Beans and whole grains, like quinoa, freekeh, and brown rice, are an inexpensive and tasty way to bulk up meals and can even be a meal in themselves.
Sticky rice, vegetables, and soy sauce
This meal, shared by Leslie, is pretty simple and similar to something I used to cook up during my college years with an unhealthy amount of soy sauce. Using the ingredients below, you can whip up a delicious dish in minutes.
All you have to do is steam some rice, dump a can of vegetables (or a bag of frozen veggies) in a microwave-safe bowl and heat them up, then mix the vegetables and rice together with just the right amount of soy sauce. These three ingredients may not make a flashy meal, but the concoction is fairly healthy, cheap, and easy. (Next time you order take-out, save any extra soy sauce packets to make this dish even cheaper.)
- 2 cups of uncooked rice: $1
- Canned or frozen vegetables: $1.19
- Soy sauce: $1.99
Total: $4.17 (makes six servings)
Price per serving: 70 cents
Black beans and rice
Black beans and rice, suggested by Angela and others, is one of those easy, cheap meals almost everyone loves, and a staple dish of many cultures. This recipe only requires a handful of inexpensive ingredients, yet is full of flavor.
Start by heating your oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute for 4 minutes, then add the rice and saute for another 2 minutes. Next, add in the vegetable broth, bring to a boil, lower the heat and cook for 20 minutes. The spices and black beans should be added right before you’re ready to serve.
- 1 Tbsp. of olive oil: 25 cents
- 1 large onion, chopped: 99 cents
- 2 cloves garlic, minced: 50 cents
- 3/4 cup uncooked rice: 50 cents
- 1-1/2 cups vegetable broth: 50 cents
- 1 tsp. ground cumin and 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper: 25 cents
- 3-1/2 cups canned black beans drained: $1.98
Total: $4.79 (makes 6 servings)
Cost per serving: 80 cents
Ingredients (with homemade soup):
- A loaf of bread: $1.99
- Sliced cheese: 50 cents
- 2 15-oz. cans of chicken or vegetable stock: $1.99
- 1 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes: 99 cents
- 1 cup heavy cream: 99 cents
- Fresh basil leaves for garnish: $1.99 (free if you grow your own herbs)
Total: $8.45 (makes four servings)
Price per serving: $2.11
Spaghetti with homemade marinara
Making your own marinara sauce is easy, says Fran, the woman who shared this recipe. All you have to do is saute a large can of tomatoes, half an onion (chopped), and a pinch of garlic together for 10-20 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste. Pour this flavorful, colorful sauce over a package of cooked spaghetti or other pasta, and you’re good to go.
Adding a few pieces of garlic-buttered toast is a great way to round out this absolutely delicious meal — which can fill up a family of four for about $2 if the garden is producing.
- 1 large can of tomatoes: $1.49
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped: 50 cents
- Pinch of garlic: 25 cents
- A loaf of bread: $1.99
- 12-oz. package of spaghetti: $1.19
Total: $5.42 (makes four servings)
Price per serving: $1.36
Ham, white beans, and cornbread
This meal, shared by Amy, reminds me deeply of growing up. Each New Year’s Day, my parents would make an enormous pot of ham and white beans and then invite lots of friends and family to eat with us. My mom would make a huge pan of cornbread and the mixture of the aromas would just fill the house. This recipe will help you whip up a pot of ham-and-beans that won’t be forgotten.
- 1 lb. dry great northern beans: $1.99
- 1/2 lb. cooked ham, diced: $2.99
- 1 small onion, diced: 89 cents
- 1/2 cup brown sugar: 25 cents
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper: 25 cents
- 1 Tbsp dried parsley: 25 cents
- Box of Jiffy cornbread mix: 89 cents
Total: $7.51 (makes six servings)
Price per serving: $1.25
Here’s a recipe that reader Maria shared on our Facebook page: “Take 2 cups of lentils, 1 big can of diced tomatoes, 3/4 of a stick of butter, 1 chopped onion, 1 clove garlic (minced), and 1 Tbsp dried dill. Put it all in a big pot, add some water and then bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and let it simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring to make sure the lentils aren’t too dry. Add salt and pepper to taste at the end.”
We make a stew similar to this in our family crock pot all the time. The house smells incredibly good by the end of the day.
- 2 cups lentils: $2
- 1 large can diced tomatoes: $1.49
- 1 medium onion: 99 cents
- Garlic and dill: 50 cents
- Stick of butter: 49 cents
Chili is one of those great stew-type dishes that you can make a hundred different ways, all of them cheap, and all of them delicious. Here’s a good, basic recipe you can tinker with.
Start by browning some ground beef in a large pot, and drain the fat. Then dump in a base of tomato sauce (or paste or juice), add one whole chopped onion, one large can of diced tomatoes, a chopped bell pepper, a minced clove of garlic, and some salt and pepper.
Add water and a package of chili seasoning (or make your own spice packets) and bring it to a boil. Next, add two cans of black beans or kidney beans. (Of course, you can add sausage, celery, corn, or just about anything else you like, too.) Continue to simmer for 1-3 hours or until you’re ready to eat, then serve over rice, pasta, or tortilla chips.
To make an even cheaper vegetarian chili, omit the ground beef and add an extra can of beans, 2 cups of frozen corn, or a package of soy crumbles.
- 1 lb. of ground beef: $4.99
- 2 cans beans: $1.98
- Large can diced tomatoes: $1.49
- 1 onion: 99 cents
- 1 bell pepper: $1.49
- Pasta or rice: $1.19
- Tomato sauce: $1.50
Total: $13.63 (makes 10 servings)
Price per serving: $1.36
Pot roast with vegetables
This meal is perfect for fall, winter, or any time you are due for some meat and potatoes. To get started, place a small rump roast in your crock pot and cover it with water. Cook on high for three hours then add some chopped-up potatoes and peeled carrots, plus a bit of salt and pepper. Cook for another three or four hours and serve.
- Rump roast: $10
- 6 potatoes: $2
- Small bag carrots: $2
Total: $14 (makes 10 servings)
Price per serving: $1.40