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$10 meal for four

On the latest episode of Top Chef (Wednesday nights on Bravo, 9 pm CST), the elimination challenge was to cook a healthy meal for four with a budget of $10. There was quite a bit of grumbling about the size of the budget, and my husband and I looked at each other and just shrugged. $10 a meal is probably high for us most nights, actually! But we are big pantry/freezer cookers...

I was wondering what was the Chowhound's best idea for a $10 meal for four. No limit on cooking time, so braising or slow-cookers are ok.

My thoughts:

*Buy a cup of bulk polenta, some chicken thighs, some tomatoes (probably canned), and a small amount of cheese. Use the polenta as the base of a cacciatore-inspired casserole.

*A tortilla soup in the crock pot - my husband always calls it "soup of can" because everything is pre-made. Not the fanciest dish by any means, but tasty and hearty. Two boneless, skinless chicken breasts, one can of beans (rinsed), one can of diced tomatoes (drained), one cup of salsa (we use the home-canned from our garden), two cups frozen corn, chili powder, and some cumin & other herbs/spices to round it out. Cook all day on low.

Anyone else?

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  1. Arroz con pollo
    Pasta with tomato sauce
    Chicken noodle soup with salad.

    2 Replies
    1. re: ldkelley

      I saw that episode...was surprised that no one made chili. You can certainly make a big pot with ground meat and serve with rice, cornbread and fixins' for $10.

      1. re: susan1353

        I wonder if there wasn't enough time to make a really good chili? I don't remember how long they had, but I've always found that chili is much better the next day when the flavors have more time to "meld."

    2. Shepherd's Pie (I make mine crustless but flour etc would be cheap enough)
      Pork and Sauerkraut w/ Onions and Apples
      Pancakes with fruit topping and eggs

      1. A few homemade pizzas, including dough though could use canned tomato sauce. Light on the meat and cheese, heavy on the veggies.

        1. Quick, simple, and cheap - Stoffers Lasagne, Salad, and dinner rolls.

          2 Replies
          1. re: malibumike

            I'd rather starve than eat a Stouffer's lasagna. You can make your own which would be tastier and cheaper than that frozen crap.

          2. To me, the surprising part was not the budget (as you said, $10 for a meal for four seems pretty reasonable), but the fact that they were shopping at Whole Foods on $10. I can never get out of Whole Foods for less than $50.

            4 Replies
            1. re: maxim0512

              I know - I was thinking the same thing. Whenever I buy chicken at Whole Foods (2 breasts with bone) it's easily $8-$10. Maybe they get a discount...

              1. re: Obessed

                Me three. Whole Foods on a budget? No wonder they had problems stretching their $10.00.

              2. re: maxim0512

                You'd have to check out the sales--they have pretty good deals sometimes. And, I find better prices on flour and milk than I do at other stores.

                Having just shopped there and made dinner for the family, probably under $10, not counting pantry items, I roasted eggplant and tomatoes and made a tomato sauce. Cooked up chicken. Made whole wheat pasta and put all that together w/ pantry items, like olives, seasoning, herbs. Topped w/ parmesan cheese. Everything I used was on sale.

                1. re: maxim0512

                  oh my-- you can just look at stuff at Whole foods and spend 10 bucks-- I think you would have to go heavy on rice and canned beans-- use the 360 brand and totally bypass the produce, meat and cheese section:)

                2. My butcher has organic whole fryer chickens on sale this week, so about $3.50 for 4 lb. whole chicken. Corn is on sale for 8 for $2. Strawberries are buy one, get one free.

                  How about a BBQ chicken dinner, corn on the cob, a green salad, and strawberries for dessert. That should just about come to $10.

                  Now if you are talking Whole Foods, whoa, their chicken is 3-4X more expensive than my butcher. But imported cheese, olive oil, certain specialty foods are loads cheaper. You just have to know the price of your grocery list. A homemade pasta sauce with cheese and green salad might just be done for $10 @ WF.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Diane in Bexley

                    Wow, $3.50 for a 4 lb chicken is an amazing deal. I think it was more than that per pound at WF but I can't remember for sure.

                    1. re: chowser

                      Yep - our chickens usually run us $12 or so.

                  2. Over the long term, the cost of stocking/restocking the pantry/freezer has to count as part of the cost of meals. I just reorganized my pantry and realized I have a lot of stuff I can use up (I have enough canned tomatoes to make pasta sauce for an army), which is going to reduce my out-of-pocket costs in the short term.

                    I think my dinner last night cost less than $2.50 -- a baked potato, steamed crookneck squash (those two items cost $1.08 -- both were organic), an Italian sausage ($2.99 for a package of four = 75 cents each), diced up and mixed up with the scooped out potato and squash, a couple of tablespoons of light sour cream (also organic, $2.49/pint = 15 cents), some chopped fresh thyme from my window box and some garlic salt (negligible). Made a delicious, quick, healthy one-dish meal. Oh, and some lemon sorbet for dessert: 1/2 cup @ $1.99/pint = 50 cents. Total: $2.33.

                    I'm assuming that the Top Chefs -- like a lot of people -- based their choices in part on what was on sale when they got to the store.

                    1. I love your polenta idea, but I'd do a poached or fried egg instead of the chicken. Actually, any egg dish is cheap and healthy (assuming you don't pack it with bacon and cheese).

                      My mom makes a savoury rice "pie" - basically, cooked brown rice mixed with eggs, grated zucchini (a cheap veggie), and a small amount of grated cheese, then packed into a springform pan, covered with breadcrumbs and baked until set and crispy.

                      Souffl├ęs are actually super cheap to make - just eggs, minimal milk and flour, and some vegetable (use an affordable one like carrots).

                      Potatoes are my go-to cheap food. You can make them kinda lowbrow - hash browns, mashed potatoes - or super fancy, in a tart or gratin.

                      1. Hands down: a cheese souffle. Add a plain green salad with a simple vinaigrette, and a loaf of good crusty bread. The most elegant dirt cheap meal in Western cuisines.

                        1. Well, the frst thing I'd do after walking into Whole Foods would be to walk out the back door and head someplace where I can get a whole fryer for less than the price of gold. I think it would have been a lot more challenging to have to prepare dinner for four adults than for four kids. For adults, I would French the chicken, broil it with a nice Dijon "mayonnaise" a la Julia Child forty years ago. I've been making it that long and everyone loves it.

                          However, for kids, I would have taken the chicken and headed south of the border. Either chicken enchiladas Suiza, or chicken tacos. Most kids I know love the tactile sensation of holding their food in their hands, so it would probably be tacos. If I could squeeze it out of the budget, maybe a nice flan for dessert.

                          1. Tonight I took a large 'steamed' baking potato, cut it open, scored with criss-crosses, and put on some Smart Balance, salt and pepper...
                            Then some grated parmesan--- then most of a can of Hormel meatless chili, then some more parm, and topped it off with a handful of shredded Mexican cheese blend and a drizzle of EVOO...

                            Baked it for 20 minutes or so, and I freaked out how delicious it was...

                            I agreed that next time I'd make the chili, because this really worked...

                            The potato, maybe because it cooled in the fridge for a day or three was less starchy and a lil' more waxy that I expected, and texturally was wonderful...

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Mild Bill

                              You can get basically the same thing by going to Wendy's and getting a baked potato with cheese, then top it with a ninety nine cent cup of chili. Tastes good Top with (free) sour cream and chives if you wish. A favorite lunch for broke college kids and working women. And it's a LOT less trouble!

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                I'm not going to debate whether the quality of a Wendy's baked potato/cheese/chili can come close to what I could make at home, because taste is purely subjective. But I will point out that this is the Home Cooking board, and eating at Wendy's is not what this board is about. We WANT the trouble :-)

                                1. re: Chris VR

                                  LOL! And opening a can of chili is "home cooking?" Shirley you jest!

                            2. How about pasta carbonarra (classic recipe-no cream), a fresh bagette, and a tossed salad......

                              not sure about the prices in the States, but here in Luxembourg, it would be less that 8 euros!


                              peace, jill

                              1. Chicken Thighs, Bone-in, is one of the best values available, You can typically get them for $1-$2 per pound. This is my favorite cut of Chicken. Marinated and grilled, cacciatore, almost klimitless ways to cook it. Add to this Saffron rice, and any selection of vegetables.

                                Saffron rice:
                                1 C rice (Basmatti preferred, or white)
                                2 C broth
                                2 Tbsp butter
                                Generous shakle of garlic powder
                                Generous pinch of Saffron

                                Boil 20 min for white or 10 for Basmati

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: johnecampbell

                                  Any saffron I've seen has been $10 for a teeny vial :)

                                  Although to be fair cooking 4 meals for 4 for $40 is a heck of a lot easier than cooking 1 meal for 4 for $10. I love saffron rice, with dal (almost free) and vegetable curry it would be a hearty balanced meal.

                                  1. re: hsk

                                    Saffron at Trader Joe's is about 2.99 for a vial.

                                2. When I am low on cash and there's not too much in the house, I get a lb of pasta, some olive oil, butter, garlic and red pepper flakes, and sometimes add broccoli or canned chopped clams

                                  1. going vegetarian can make things a little easier. two ideas: tofu stir-fry over brown rice (you can buy tofu for four for under $2, and bok choy and scallions are pretty cheap, as is rice in bulk); anything involving chickpeas, the wonder food! Marcella Hazan has a wonderful recipe for a rosemary-chickpea-tomato soup; throw it over quinoa and you're proteined, fibered, and ready to go!

                                    1. I rered this and one of my favorite cheap dishes is - one can chickpeas $1.50, one package of scallopine chicken breast $4.00, one package chorizo -$4.00. sear the thin chicken breast, then throw in chick peas and chorizo. Once chicken is done. Place chickpeas and chopped chorizo on plate and top with one cutlet. Delish!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: jhopp217

                                        Funny, before I signed onto the computer I was calculating the cost of our yummy (if not that visually appealing) dinner: Mollie Katzen's Scheherazade Casserole. A cup of bulghur wheat (bulk purchased), a bell pepper, an onion, 3 cloves garlic, a small can of tomatoes, a squirt of tomato paste, a can and a half of beans and some feta cheese (the most expensive ingredient, by far). Bulghur is soaked, veggies are sauteed with herbs/spices, then all is mixed together and baked. Delish, especially with a dash of Tobasco. I figured that the whole pan of this came out to roughly $8-9, and some of the ingredients were organic.

                                      2. I just made a big batch of chana masala, put that with some basmati rice and some whole wheat pita bread and that's a great dinner for me. The pita bread may sound odd with Indian food, but throw a pita on your stove top, get it nice and warm, and you'll be surprised what a great substitute it is for naan. I spend about $9 to make a double batch of the chana masala.


                                        1. I do pasta with feta, spinach and olives. It is pretty cheap. Not sure about whole foods prices.

                                          I also do Orzo with spinach, tomatos, olives and feta. It is pretty lovely.

                                          1. I make a great pasta for the family with spicy tomatoes, spinach and either garbanzos or white beans (not particular what kind I use). It's inexpensive, nutritious, and delicious. It would be great with maybe a rhubarb crunch if rhubarb is in season; if not, maybe an apple crisp. Salad optional.

                                            Another option would be brown or wild rice and sausage stuffed in a butternut squash. Then either a salad or a side of sauted chard or escarole.