Preparing tasty meals at home can be less time consuming and cheaper than you might expect. A common misperception is that convenience and fast foods are the least expensive and easiest meal options. The simple truth, however, is that you don't have to spend hours in the kitchen or a ton of money to prepare tasty, healthful meals.
Simple, Low-Cost Meal Ideas
According to a 2010 study published in the Family Medicine journal, "Diets based heavily on foods from convenient sources are less healthy and more expensive than a well-planned menu from budget foods available from large supermarket chains." Further, a 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture study revealed "that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods."
According to Cutty Strength, tuna tops the list of the cheapest protein sources. Laura Ali, MS, RDN, LDN of StarKist recommends tuna for budget-friendly, easy meal preparation. Ali explains, "Tuna is an excellent lean protein that can be used in place of more expensive proteins in many recipes. It is a good source of high quality protein which helps fill you up. It can also help 'stretch' recipes so you get more bang for your buck."
She continues, "Tuna is a perfect pantry staple to have on hand for those nights you need something fast. Since it is already cooked, you can just open the pouch and add it to whatever you are making. There is no thawing, no baking, broiling or microwaving needed." She suggests, "Add tuna to macaroni and cheese, pasta sauce, use as a salad topper or on crackers for an afternoon snack."
Ali explains, "Due to its relatively mild flavor, tuna works well in place of chicken, beef or pork in most recipes."
- Serve a main dish of tuna pasta salad with crackers, a three-bean salad and cut-up fresh fruit.
- Create herb and garlic tuna wraps to serve with stir-fried vegetables, a side salad, rice or potato chips.
- Create a creamy tuna casserole to serve with crusty French bread and green beans or zucchini.
- Make budget-friendly fish tacos with tuna and serve with black beans, tortilla chips and salsa.
Bodybuilding.com describes eggs as "the ultimate low-budget staple" for protein, pointing out that "an egg costs about 10 cents and has about 4-6 g of protein." They are very easy to prepare and can be cooked several different ways in no time at all.
- Enjoy breakfast for dinner, making a one dish breakfast casserole or combining scrambled or fried eggs with pancakes, grits, fried potatoes, oatmeal, or ham.
- Making quiche, with or without crust, is an easy way to combine eggs with leftovers for an entree that tastes great with a green salad and dinner rolls.
- Omelets stuffed with leftovers are another great meal option for using up leftover vegetables and meat (as well as small portions of salsa and cheese).
- Egg salad sandwiches are a tasty, budget friendly choice for lunch or dinner. Serve with celery or carrot sticks and Ranch dip and your favorite chips.
Pasta is included on the Epicurious list of the top ten money saving ingredients. Averaging less than $1.25 per pound, pasta is one of the lowest-cost and most versatile meal options. It can be used as the focal point of a main dish or featured in side dishes, soups or salads. Not only is pasta cheap, it's just about the easiest dish there is to prepare. You can cook a big batch of pasta one day to use with different sauces and recipes throughout the week for a selection of vastly different frugal meals for several days in a row.
- Enjoy a meatless Mediterranean feast with a cold Greek pasta salad paired with homemade hummus and pita bread; add grilled or roasted chicken if you like.
- Prepare a batch of homemade spaghetti sauce; serve over pasta plain or mix in cooked ground beef, ground turkey or Italian sausage with garlic toast.
- Make chicken spaghetti or a chicken pasta casserole to use up leftover roast or grilled chicken; serve with a green vegetable and dinner rolls for a complete meal.
- Serve baked macaroni and cheese with your favorite low cost meat dish, such as slow cooker round steak and string beans or lima beans.
Main Dish Salads
April Masini, of the Ask April relationship advice column, says "Pasta may be the go to frugal foodie's main course, but the real money saver and waist-line watching meal is a main course salad. Granted, it's less expensive to buy, prepare and serve to a family than to a single person, because the vegetables don't naturally come in single sized servings, and if you get the good stuff, it doesn't last very long. Learning to buy enough - but not too much - produce for each meal, is a skill that you should acquire."
Masini suggests committing to enjoying "a main course salad at least twice a week," noting that salads provide a great way to make meat like steak go further. She points out that when steak is "sliced very thinly (electric knife, anyone?) and topped over a tossed Caesar or other type of salad, is not as expensive as if the steak was the main course."
- Create a taco salad with inexpensive ground beef or turkey or a chicken taco salad; serve over tortilla chips rather than purchasing tortilla bowls to save money.
- During the summer, when tomatoes and cucumbers are plentiful (and cheap!), make a tomato-chicken salad with leftover chicken and serve over French bread.
- Put together a simple green salad with your favorite in-season ingredients and top it with thin slices of cooked steak, chicken, fish, etc. - whatever meat is on sale at the supermarket that week. Serve with croutons and crackers; add a cup of vegetable soup if you like.
- The next time you have leftover chicken, whip up a batch of chicken salad; enjoy on its own, over lettuce with fruit, on a croissant, or any other way you want.
It's important to master a few basic cooking techniques that allow you to make the most of your time in the kitchen, as well as your budget. Avoid convenience foods whenever possible. Items such as canned broth, packaged stuffing, and pre-made pie crust all add to the cost of your meal. Cook and bake from scratch as much as you can.
Use your slow cooker for inexpensive cuts of meat, such as pot roast, round steak and Boson butt and other cheap, easy meals, as well as to conserve energy. Learn other preparation techniques ideal for cheaper cuts of meat such as braising and using a pressure cooker.
Remember that many easy inexpensive meals can be prepared in advance and frozen until they are needed. This provides a great way to save time on days when your schedule is just too hectic to put together an affordable, healthful meal, as well as to make the most of sale-priced ingredients when they are on special.
Meal planning is a critical component of easy, affordable meal preparation for several reasons. For example, organizing menus around items that are on special at the supermarket is a great way to make the most of your food budget.
Additionally, by thinking through main menu items before going to the supermarket, you can be sure that everything that you'll need is on your grocery list. This will keep you from having to make multiple trips to the store throughout the week or - worse yet - ordering take out because you discover at the last minute that you don't have an important ingredient.
The process of planning meals doesn't have to be tedious or time consuming. You can keep a running grocery list on paper or your computer, or even rely on a smartphone app like eMeals, a subscription-based service that costs $5 per month.
As eMeals CEO Jane DeLaney explains, "The app makes it super simple to save money on your food budget by providing you with easy done-for-you dinner plans and corresponding grocery lists. Having a list in your phone at all times and knowing what you should come out of the store with helps you take fewer trips to the store, prepare meals more efficiently, and therefore have less food waste and more money kept in your pocket."
According to DeLaney, eMeals is an ideal tool for people concerned with saving time and money. She explains, "The classic meals average less than $2.50 per person per meal which is less than half of the average fast food meal cost. The average plan can be cooked in 30 minutes or less." The app also keeps you from having to keep track of a paper grocery list and is simple to use.
According to DeLaney, "Just open the app, check off the items on your grocery list as you shop, and then prepare healthy, delicious meals for your family when you get home." The app is recommended by Dave Ramsey, who describes it as a time and money saver.
There are plenty of ways to make home-cooked meals that fit into your schedule and budget. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you don't have time to cook - instead, set aside a little time to plan your menus around sale items and frugal recipes. You'll be on your way to enjoying better meals for less money in the comfort of your home faster than you would have thought possible.