What's your cheapest, most well-balanced meal?
Lately, we've been trying to invest our moo-lah more wisely and also save for our upcoming honeymoon in August. And I've discovered that I don't cook well cheaply! I just cannot come up with fresh, exciting ideas that are also reasonably priced. So, I'm wondering what you guys depend on for a inexpensive meal? I've exhausted the breakfast route, the taco route, and just about exhausted the pizza route. Hotdogs also! I don't want to sacrifice on quality, but I just about had a panic attack the other day when I bought olive oil! Any exciting ideas out there?
I make lamb shoulder chops quite a bit. They're the cheap cut of lamb, and many people say to use them in stew, but I find them to be too fatty for that. I just season them w/ s and p and broil them. Serve over jasmine rice with cauliflower or greens of some sort (mustard, turnip, etc.) A hearty and relatively inexpensive meal. We also have boiled chicken once a week (it doesn't sound too good but my husband grew up on it and our family really enjoys it)- it's just the cut up chicken used to make chicken soup. I'll take the chicken and veggies out of the soup and serve them with roasted potatoes and challah.
One of my favorite inexpensive meals for 2 consists of salmon patties, some nice vinegary cucumber and onion salad and some canned Heinz vegetarian beans. The salmon patties are made from canned skinless and boneless salmon, an egg, a packet of dry onion soup mix and breadcrumbs (or just plain breadcrumbs and some finely chopped onion, if I don't have a box of onion soup mix handy). The condiment for the salmon patties is Heinz ketchup.
Don't ask why that particular combination - it's something my mother made when I was a kid and it was always the same menu. The only variable was the dessert - sometimes brownies, sometimes ice cream, sometimes angel food cake or pound cake if someone had visited my great-aunt and brought home some of her fabulous goodies.
There are so many ways to save on good tasting food. Soups are a great way to save. For instance go to a place like Smart & Final, at least out here in california or a similar store, get a large can of mixed vegtables, large can of tomato juice, barley, add water, a little salt and simmer all day, you can add chicken if you like, a great soup, should last all week and soup is the one thing that gets better every day you heat it up. You can also go to Costco and get a large meaty already whole cooked chicken for 5 bucks, probably would serve two dinners for two people, and don't forget Stouffers Lasagna, over 6 pounds for around 9 bucks. Use a little imagination and the choices are endless. Look for cheap roasts on sale, get a small freezer and stock up, get a pressure cooker add a little water, couple of beef bouillon cubes, cook for an hour and you've got a tender flavorful roast, serve with instant smashed potatoes with the au jus liquid from the cooker poured over, a little salad and you're in business, for cheap.
if you don't already own it, go have a look at the Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen. this mostly vegetarian book was the bible for just about everyone i knew in the lean years after college, but i've recently dug it out again and realized how fantastic the recipes are. i especially recommend the spinach-ricotta pie, the pickled vegetables, bean dip, popovers, and salad dressings.
Eat like a peon, say once a week.
Get a supply of black beans from wherever they have them cheapest in bulk. Buy Trader Joe's cheapest tortillas and keep them in your freezer. Buy a bottle of Tapatia salsa picante. Stock up on those 8-oz cans of tomato sauce which go on sale ridiculously cheap from time to time.
There! You have the basis for lots of cheap meals. Think tacos, tostados, quesadillas, huevos rancheros, etc.
I love to make gazpacho. Take 1 quart of V-8, 12 oz. spicy V-8, 1 cup of your favorite salsa and place in a large pitcher. Add finely diced green/red/yellow/orange peppers, 1 sweet onion, 1 cucumber, some cilantro (if you like it), cumin, garlic, salt and pepper. Be creative. I practically live on this during the summer, and it's great when the veggies go on sale. I usually double the recipe and put it in a 1-gallon pitcher...and then eat it all week!
I'm going to go against the great advice already given to you, and say: don't constantly think bulk. Bulk buying and cooking is cheap, but I find it takes the joy out of eating.
I just don't want to eat the same thing three meals in a row. Yes, you can do a lot with beans, but they're still beans, and will get boring if you try to eat two pounds of beans in a week. I buy things like cereal, grains, flour in bulk, but I usually cook them in small quantities, and I always make sure to buy some luxury items in small quantities. This might seem counterintuitive (expensive products, in small amounts) but it keeps my diet interesting and varied and HEALTHY.
This small amounts thing is actually a good way to save money; whether you're talking about beans or steak, just eat less. Don't tell the person at the fish counter you want enough fish for one; portions in this country are out of control. Rather eyeball it, show them with your hands how much you want. Stuff like that's done by weight, not bulk, anyway. You don't need a massive steak to meet your body's needs for protein, and definitely not to feel full. I have smaller portions of expensive foods, but make sure I cook them well. Half a piece of 'American-portion-sized' salmon, with some wilted greens and rice is, I find, delicious and satisfying. And that way I get to eat salmon more regularly!
Similarly, I regularly buy loose shitake mushrooms; three small ones, cut into feathery slices, with a spring onion, some garlic, mirin and soy are the basis for my favourite light dinner omelette. It won't break the bank, and I appreciate every last bite.
Like dieting, it's about small changes, not radical dietary transformations!
I guess maybe I came across as more pathetic than I meant to in my original post! It's not necessary for us to survive on beans and rice for three meals a week... I'm just wanting to cut back a "little" bit! I have found that it makes much more sense for us to buy just as much hamburger or whatever at the meat counter that we need rather than to buy the pre-packaged meats and such... it costs less and we actually use all of it... shocking for us!! Plus, I figure if I cut back on expenses with groceries than we can afford to eat out at nicer restaurants on a more regular basis.
re: Katie Nell
I think it's because so many people got on the rice-and-beans bandwagon in response. I have a big tupperware of beans in the fridge right now that frankly I want to see the back of. Hence the "No more beans! God, please, no more!!!" kneejerk response on my part!
I find it's the eating out for lunch thing that kills me. Unless I get Indian food. It's so rich that I find a nice takeout box of curry in my fridge lasts three meals.
Good luck with the saving, and have a wonderful honeymoon!
What could be more well balanced than a Tortilla Espanola with a green salad? That's a favorite in our house and my go-to recipe when I want to make something simple, healthy and delicious. (I don't use excessive amts of oil in the tortilla; I modify one of Martha Stewart's recipes and add a few tbls of veggie stock.)
Do you have a crockpot? Because if the budget can stretch for a crockpot ($20 at Target) you'll find yourself wanting to cook cheaper cuts of things because they're better in the crockpot. Some of my standbys:
Boneless skinless chicken thighs with enchilada sauce in a crockpot for about 8 hours -- shred, and serve with corn tortillas for tacos (I buy the frozen thighs at Trader Joe's).
Taco Soup: Brown a pound of ground beef or turkey (whatever's cheaper) with a chopped onion, add 1 can undrained pinto beans, 1 can undrained black beans, 1 can undrained Rotel, 1 can undrained diced tomatoes, 1 c. frozen corn, 1 package taco seasoning and 1 package buttermilk ranch dressing mix. Simmer for 1/2 an hour. It sounds semi-homemade and awful, but it's quite good (and you could adjust the seasonings if you're inclined, and it makes HUGE amounts of food -- freeze some and eat leftovers later.
I also make red beans and rice often, and pot roast.
Agree with the chicken thighs or make up a mess of chicken wings. I'll buy turkey breast or turkey legs on sale. I'm a sucker for those packaged meats that are on their last day of sale with a $2 off label.
I buy pork chops on sale. If I have leftovers, I'll chop up the meat in lieu of bacon for spaghetti carbonara. Or I'll buy just 1 or 2 slices of bacon.
Homemade meatballs; my recipe uses 1/2 # each ground beef, pork, veal.
I'll use leftover steak for cheesesteaks.
Crepes are a good and tasty way to get those veggies in. Stuff tomatoes or peppers with tuna.
You don't have to go on a strictly beans and ramen diet. Little treats are deserving. I'll occasionally buy, say 1/4# of precooked medium/large shrimp for at-home shrimp cocktail. Or a centimeter thick slice of pate. Find lobster at $6.99/#.
yesterday I had proscuitto, provolone, and tomato sandwiches. The butcher could only eke about 1/8# out of the ham butt. So I used epi as the bread. couldn't stuff it full of fixings, yummy, a nice mix of bread and fixings.
Just chiming in late with another second to the rice & beans idea. I do red beans & brown rice, and my kids love it: I cook brown rice in the microwave (1 cup rice in 2 1/2 cups boiling water in a lidded casserole for 30 mins, then let stand). Add 1 can drained beans and some salsa. Top with more salsa, a little sour cream & shredded cheddar.
Another good variation on this theme is lentils & bulghur. I use the french green lentils, simmered around 20 mins. Add carmelized onions, a little tamari, and bulghur, and let stand for 20 mins for bulghur to soften. [my recipe is from the Kripalu Cookbook, but it seems to turn up in variations in most veg cookbooks] A little feta on top and a green salad on the side - yum!
I'm deliberately omitting some ideas to avoid repeating previous posts.
If you have a stocked pantry, you can make tons of things to jazz up leftovers or less exciting meals.
You can make crepes, dumplings and low-fat crusts/doughs to hold or dress up basics like chili or stewed veg.
Potatoes are cheap, healthy and versatile (sweet potatoes too). You can bake and stuff them; scallop them; mash them; make them into scones, flans, soufflés, soups, pancakes, patties and salads.
Cabbage is great too, as long as you don't overcook. It's especially great in saucy casseroles. Google "pierogi casserole" for one of the cheapest comfort foods ever.
Couscous and bulghur are cheap, quick and healthy. You can use them like rice or pasta, or for stuffing.
The trick is: buy ingredients as little processed as possible. The processing is what makes them both expensive and unhealthy.
my very cheap and filling staple is a bastardized version of "huevos a la cubana". it's basically fried eggs on rice with tomato sauce, simple and surprisingly good!
i use whatever tomato sauce i have in the fridge, fry up two eggs, throw them on top of some warm rice, add the tomato sauce to the warm skillet that you made the eggs in and once warm pour it over the eggs. it's low on dishes to do too!
I echo what other people have said about cheap cuts of meat cooked for a long time in a crockpot. On sale, you can get big hunks (several pounds) of beef or pork for under $5, throw in some potatos, onions, carrots and you have a dish for several meals.
Some other cheapie ideas that I use:
- Tofu with meat or mushrooms. Tofu on sale at Asian markets can be $1 or less! I saute a variety of mushrooms with or without some ground meat, top the tofu, and serve all over rice. If I'm just eating by myself, this usually lasts me 3 meals
- Asian veggies can be cheap and a nice change of pace. I've been known to fry or steam an egg, boil/saute some chinese choy and eat with rice.
- I sometimes sautee chopped garlic in oil and put it on top of canned wild salmon that I have already poured soy sauce on (the oil makes a nice sizzling sound). Eat with rice and chinese veggies again. You can do this with shrimp too, but canned salmon is cheaper!
- Fried rice. Chop leftover meat (or, you can even use canned salmon) and stir-fry it with leftover rice and a fried egg. My mom will sometimes throw in a package of frozen peas or napa cabbage if she wants to mix in some greens.
- Lentils. Nutritious, so cheap, and filling! My BF dumps pretty much anything into the pot to make lentil soup/stew and it usually turns out okay.
Chicken Teriyaki, Steamed Veggies, Steamed Rice, Fresh Fruit.
Chicken thighs, boned and skinned, cut into 1-2" pieces, marinated in teriyaki. Skewer and grill, pan fry or roast in oven.
Steamed Veggies: Green Beans, Baby Bok Choy, Broccoli, Asparagus. Cut into 2-4" pieces, steam or blanch, dress with oyster sauce cut with chicken stock.
Fresh Fruit: Strawberries
My favorite inexpensive meal is caramelized onion quiche with a huge green salad. I make a crust from scratch, use a few dollars worth of onions and eggs, and I've got a great meal for four people. (Or 2-3 meals for two people.)
You could vary the quiche idea by throwing in almost any type of cooked vegetable. And definitely make your own salad dressing!
Pasta! You can make endless varieties of sauces, for very affordable prices. I would suggest getting Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking -- every single pasta dish in there is excellent, and the recipes rely upon very simple, mainly affordable, ingredients. I made one of my favorites last night -- the sauce was garlic, anchovies, red pepper and cauliflower. We fed 6 people for about $10.
Egg-based dishes are a great way to economize as well. A dinner of omlettes and salad can be made for less than $10 for two.
In college, I used to make a vegetable soup in a crockpot. I'd get one of those large containers of veggie or chicken broth and pretty much just cut up whatever veggies I had or were on sale (cabbage, carrots, etc). With a simple seasoning of salt and pepper, I had a great and nutritious soup. I'd always freeze some, so I'd always have something to eat when I was hungry (instead of ordering in).
I recently also tried a turkey chilli recipe. Just some ground turkey, two types of beans, onions and some salsa. I froze a couple of those and had lunch/dinner for the week.
Both are easy on the wallet and are fairly low-fat as well!
Hope this is helpful, good luck with everything!
I'm not proud. I was very low income for quite a few years - throughout my 20's, really. And as i've always loved to cook, and cared about nutrition, I may be the queen of home cooked, healthy but cheap - good eats. I even like to entertain - so I've thought about that angle too.
The healthiest things you can eat are fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and low fat protein. Whole grains are also important, but often they taste stodgy, and often better taste and texture will make me choose refined starches.
Let me just start by saying you want to educate yourself about which fruits and veg. are in season during which months. Produce in season will always be cheaper and taste better than the same items out of season. Except for greens, which need to be cooked about a half hour to get rid of bitterness, for best flavor and vitamins, cook you veg. only briefly. Some staple veg. are always pretty low cost, and cheaper but just as good in canned or frozen forms.
Canned tomatoes, frozen spinach, for example. Some vegetables are always low priced - carrots, onions, green cabbage, potatoes, frozen peas and corn. There are a million ways to work these into dishes.
Make the low cost ingredients the backbone of your cooking along with smaller amounts of more expensive ingredients, when that will make a real improvement. Example: corn chowder (make a roux to thicken: oil and flour 1:1. Saute' minced onions, garlic in olive oil. Add cubed potatoes, sliced celery, thyme, water, s & p - simmer until tender and mash up the potatoes. Add frozen corn and maybe half a red bell pep. ($3 a pound) minced for color.
For protein: chicken and eggs are the least expensive. Quiche can be wonderful so many ways. Learn to make a pie crust. It's not hard. A great quiche would be frozen spinach (squeeze out all the water, saute minced onions & garlic, tarragon, minced ham and jack cheese - which is the least expensive cheese and you can use it for so many things).
Everybody loves chicken. It's even hard to ruin.
Think ethnic - easy Chinese is lots of thin sliced veg. and chicken meat stir fried and mixed with cooked ramen noodles with some soy sauce and a little sesame oil added at the end(it burns if you fry it). Or the same method over rice. Italian - chicken cacciatore: brown chix pieces in olive oil, add and saute' minced onion and garlic,add tom. sauce or canned chopped tom., oregano and basil - dried is OK (cheaper), a little sugar and simmer for 45 min. It's important to brown chix but then don't cook it too long or at too high a temp - to prevent dryness.
Starches - always avoid overcooking. Italian pasta is better. TJ's has it for 69 cents a pound. Nothing wrong with bakery thrift stores. Freeze bread. As with just about everything, buying larger sizes will save you a lot of money. Beans are great for adding dimesion to soups and salads. Chili made with ground chicken, cumin, oregano, minced onion, garlic.
Thicken vegetable soups with beans, macaroni and potatoes. Don't add noodles to soup you'll be storing - gets soggy. make noodles fresh each time you serve. make a lot of soups, sauces, and stews and freeze portions ahead - a real money and timesaver.
Shop the sales, shop at ethnic markets in low income neighborhoods, stock up when you find your favorite ingredients on sale. For example, make refrigerator pickled veg. really spice up salads. When mushrooms are on sale I steam a lot of them in a light vinegrette and store in the fridge - they keep a long time, same for other veg. like bell peps or green beans - sometimes you get a great price and sometimes they are $3 a pound, so learn ways to process them for later use. If I can only shop once a week, I'll blanch veg. that I can't use for a few days and then briefly re-heat. They taste better than just letting raw veg. sit in the fridge for 3 days and then cooking. Some staemed veg. such as sliced carrots and green beans taste a lot more delish if you add a bit of butter and sugar.
And keep asking questions here. Best of luck to you. It sounds like you are going to do great! happy cooking!
Don't throw any leftovers away. Either make something completely different out of them, or freeze for future use. Down to the bones, cook with leftover veggies, and make stock. It's actually more creative than just following a recipe, you'll enjoy the process I think.
Along those lines, I use the rinds of parmesan cheese in the water i cook my chickpeas in. I freeze roughly 1.5-2c of the cooked chickpeas and then can easily defrost them and add them to pasta or salads as a low-cost, delicious source of protein. Buying the chickpeas dried and cooking them myself is cheaper, they taste great, and I don't waste any part of the real parmesan I buy (so yes, i still have indulgences).
Using circulars, planning your meals accordingly and using up absolutely everything you buy are all great ways of saving money.
I'll admit, I don't do a lot of money saving now because i don't have a lot of time. In my experience, it's one or the other (you've either got time or money, but rarely both). I've found that the careful planning and cost saving takes more time than I'm willing to give now.
How cheap are you trying to go per meal?
Whole chickens are cheaper than already cut up, plus you can make stock. I buy frozen veggies instead of supermarket fresh produce, as it's cheaper, doesn't go bad, and often has more nutrients.
There are endless variations on rice and beans: Mexican, African, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc. I particularly recommend those little green French lentils-- interesting flavor, fairly quick cooking and they don't disintegrate like many of the other lentils (not always a bad thing).
Make your own bread. By spices at ethnic markets instead of the grocery store. Buy pots of fresh herbs at the garden center instead of those outrageously priced packets at Whole Foods. As the other poster said, trying to save money inevitably takes time and vice versa.
In regards to how cheap per meal, we're not destitute, by any means, but I'm just wanting to start economizing a little bit. I tend to get carried away and want to grill steaks or have crab-stuffed shrimp, (I'm being a little extreme here) so I was just wondering what people's go-to, inexpensive meals were.
re: Katie Nell
re: Katie Nell
I second the turkey chili idea. I make mine with all different kinds of beans, even garbanzo. Lots of green and red peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes. Also tomato paste. I put in a chicken bouillon cube instead of salt if it's not salty enough.
Chili powder (store-bought or homemade), extra cumin and cinnamon. chili flakes, and oregano.
It freezes well and is easy to take to work for lunch heated in microwave. I serve it with chopped green onions and cilantro and shredded sharp cheddar.
Another good idea is soup and something like pakoras. If you just film oil on a non-stick pan, they don't get greasy. Made of besan flour and spices (cumin, coriander, black pepper), garlic, water and chopped veggies of your choice. I always add chopped onions to the mix. Great with chopped eggplant, broc, squash....anything but tomatoes, which are too watery. Serve with yoghurt mixed with mint, garlic, and cilantro.
Carrot soup is especially nice these days while carrots are perfect. I have posted before about a soup (idea from recipe in Chez Pan. cookbook) carrot soup pureed and served with a swirl of roasted red pepper "sauce"...I just heat up peppers with a little water and garlic and sometimes a dollop of butter, then blend and serve on the side with the carrot soup. Plop a spoonful into soup and stir around. Not only deelish, but pretty.
Serve soup and pakoras with a cuke salad.
Making your own bread and pasta (I mean baguettes and ciabatta and not croissants or brioche) is not only a great way to practice your skills to open a boulangerie in the future, but an inexpensive way to get nutrients into your body. Jazz up the bread with a braised dish with sauce or a pasta with a dressing or sauce (it's also cheaper because you're using less ingredients to dress pasta since it really doesn't need much sauce) and you got yourself a great meal. As noted before, lentils, white beans, and similar things are also nutritious and delicious... and flank steak or other similar cheaper cuts of meats are good for a marinade and grill.
Beans & rice are your best nutritional & budgetary friends. Red beans, black beans, lentils, white beans...you can get high-quality protein without spending $$. In my local markets, lentils are by far the cheapest; get indian & middle eastern cookbooks for great ways to turn those lentils into delicious things. A little ginger, some garlic...you're well on your way.
Go back to old-school home ec tips: read the supermarket circulars & buy what's on sale...it can be fun and stimulating to cook with an eye toward the budget. A good rule of thumb is that packaged & processed stuff = not cheap. In other words, potatoes are cheaper than instant mashed flakes.
there are so many things you could do -- great food does not have to be expensive.
Meat is one of the more expensive items you tend to buy (assuming you've given up your caviar and champagne habits). Try buying cheap cuts that require cooking "low and slow" like pork shoulder or stewing beef. These meats are really good, as long as you cook them over long periods of time (which you'll have since you're not going out all the time) at relatively low temps, so they don't get burned or dry. Anything you make it the crock pot is going to be pretty cheap.
You didn't mention pasta, but you can hardly beat it for cheap, plus its quick and easy. Sauteed anything goes well with it, I find. I've been wanting to make the dish people have of pasta with chick peas and spinach. How expensive can that be?
Soup -- I know it will be summer soon, but soups are really cheap and are great to heat up for dinner when you get home from work.
Rice, beans and anything else. Half the world seems like they eat rice and beans constantly, so why not you as well? Rice, beans and some sliced chorizo could do you two dinners for less than $5. Throw together a salad and you're set, plus its really filling and healthy.
I'm sure others will have ideas as well, but food is definitely something you can economize with and not suffer. Also, don't forget to start bringing your lunch to work!
Souffles are cheap as can be (the only ingredients: eggs, roux, milk, cheese/other filling). They just take the skill of setup, but are easy once you get the order of battle prepped. Add a light soup, good bread and vegetables or salad, and you can have a feast for royalty for less than $5 per head.
Quality cheap food of the sort one does not tire of readily requires that most precious resource of all in our current culture: a bit of time and patience.