I’ve been working on this post for a full week longer than I meant to, and this morning I decided just to put it up the way it is. There’s so much to say about this that it could easily grow into a whole cookbook, and there’s no sense in waiting for that to happen.
Several different things inspired me to write this post. First of all, I’ve been working on our budget for the year and thinking a lot about how we need to spend as little money as possible on food (preferably growing it all ourselves), cause man oh man, my bank account is pathetic looking right now. Last week there was also a great event called Food Bloggers against Hunger, inspired by the film A Place at the Table, which is working to bring awareness to the issue of hunger in America. One in four children in the United States don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, and food stamp participants only receive $4 a day for food. To cook three meals a day using $4 is already a virtually insurmountable challenge, but the food stamp program (SNAP) is at risk for severe cuts which would greatly affect millions of families across America. Please take a moment to click this link and send a letter to congress to tell them that we need to protect the federal nutrition programs that help feed the nations children.
Another thing I should mention while I’m on this subject: the Ukiah Farmers Market has a fantastic food stamp matching program which has a big fundraiser going on. The program helps both shoppers and vendors: a customer with an EBT card (food stamp/calfresh) can swipe the card at the farmers market manager’s table for up to $15. The customer receives $15 in market tokens plus an additional $15 in tokens because of the program. Customers get extra fresh produce, vendors get the additional income which helps support local farms, and we all can go home happy. To read more, click here. There’s a 5K race on May 4 which fundraises for this program, and it’s really easy to donate. Just click this link and scroll down to farmers market food stamp matching program.
So, with all that said….
I’ve been brainstorming meals that are really super cheap to make. It can be so easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re on a tight budget, but it’s kind of silly because there are a lot of options. Last night, getting my grocery list together for the week, I checked this list for some ideas. I’m hoping that other people on a budget can bookmark this to get some inspiration for dinner too. (I don’t know that it’s so helpful for me to include a lot of recipes for all this stuff, so I haven’t. Most recipes are just a quick google search away….)
We all know how cheap it is to cook a pot of beans. Plain old beans and rice can get really old, really fast, though, so here are some other ideas:
- Top beans and rice with some fresh cilantro, salsa and sour cream. Add eggs to make huevos rancheros.
- Make Daal & steamed white rice for an Indian twist. Chutney from the pantry adds bonus points.
- Beans & Bones: add a bone leftover from a roast to the pot of dried beans while it’s cooking to make a wonderfully rich stock. Serve with cornbread and greens to make this meal extra amazing. (Split pea soup is in this category….)
- Puree leftover cooked beans into a spread to put in pita sandwiches with some sliced vegetables, use it as a filling for vegan quesadillas, or serve with chips for a snack.
- A pot of garbanzo beans can turn into Chickpea curry or hummus.
- Entree salads: Cold leftover beans are wonderful tossed with some chopped red onion, olive oil, lemon juice and some random other veggies from the fridge or garden. (Cherry tomatoes and cucumber are great with this!).
- Chili, of course
- Beans are amazing in all sorts of Mexican inspired dishes: tacos, burritos, empanadas, chilaquiles, enchiladas.
Eggs are hands down the cheapest source of organic animal protein, so if you’re on a tight budget, they’re perfect. I love eggs — they’re these perfect little servings of protein and vitamins.
- egg salad
- egg in a basket/toad in a hole/ whatever you want to call it
- savory bread pudding: add some random veggies or breakfast sausage to make a fantastic casserole
- egg sandwiches with sliced tomatoes
- breakfast for dinner is always cheap and simple
- potato pancakes (make them huge and fancy them up with canned applesauce from the pantry, sour cream and sliced scallions),
- baked potatoes topped with random vegetables and cheeses from the fridge
- potato soups
- hash browns with some onions, bell pepper and scrambled eggs
- mashed potatoes with sausage gravy and greens.
- Roasted potatoes topped with some shredded cheddar cheese and dipped in homemade ketchup taste amazing.
is an obvious cheap dinner….
- buttered noodles topped with parmesan and chopped parsley
- tossed with herb pesto (it doesn’t have to be just basil!)
- pasta primavera with random garden vegetables
- macaroni and cheese
- pasta with red sauce
- tuna noodle casserole
This should be a subcategory of pasta, but it deserves it’s own heading, don’t you think? I know it has MSG in it and tons of sodium, but sometimes if you’re broke, you’re broke, and ramen’s kind of delicious. I like to add any or all of the following to pretend that I’m not eating something so processed:
- an egg
- dried seaweed
- sliced scallions or leeks
- steamed vegetables
- leftover sliced meat (pork or beef, usually) from a dinner the night before
- homemade pizza is dirt cheap, as are calzones, both of which can use all kinds of random things for topping/filling
- homemade biscuits and gravy with a salad
- grilled cheese and soup
- peanut butter and jelly
- open faced sandwiches with random veggies and cheese
- scones, either savory or sweet
- cornbread topped with mixed vegetables or beans
- homemade bread is hard to beat, especially with some fruit and cheese
- fried rice with random vegetables from the fridge or garden is one of my favorite way to use up leftover random vegetables
- rice and beans, steamed grains (quinoa, brown rice, etc.) topped with stir-fried vegetables or vegetable stew, sprinkled with cheese if you have it.
- grain salads: mix some cooked grains with chopped fresh or dried fruits, nuts, or random vegetables
- polenta topped with eggs/sauteed vegetables/roasted vegetables/butter, or, in the same vein, all kinds of variations on grits. A bowl of warm cooked cornmeal topped with some butter, a sprinkle of cheese and fresh herbs is dirt cheap and delicious. Top it with a poached egg and it turns into something a hipster restaurant would have on the menu for a lot of money.
Ground beef and beef stew meat are always quite affordable at our farmers markets, so I end up making things like…
- beef stew
- grilled kebabs with garden vegetables
- beef stroganoff using ground beef is fast and delicious…
Roosters… If you raise your own chickens, you know you can end up with too many roosters that end up terrorizing the hens. Instead of having a nightmare in your coop, turn them into:
- Chicken and dumplings
- Chicken pot pie
- Stewed chicken for burritos or tacos
Wild game is another great option. We barter eggs and jam with hunters who we know, so we don’t actually have to go out and get the meat ourself.
- With just a quick walk to the garden to pick whatever you have, you can make a whole array of soups, pasta dishes, stews, stir-fries, curries, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, casseroles, and salads. (Check out this saucy summer vegetable dish that’s a staple in our house).
- Vegetable tarts and galettes are a great meal option, and can be made with either pie crust of puff pastry.
- In the summer, if you have access to cheap produce, stuffed zucchini is a delicious, really cheap entree.
- Tomato sandwiches, as simple as they are, are divine with garden fresh tomatoes. I also am quite fond of grilled eggplant sandwiches… especially with some tomato jam and goat cheese.
- Pesto can be made with pretty much any fresh herb (just google for some recipes) and is good on pasta, chicken, fish, pork chops, tofu, etc.
- If you don’t have a garden, hit up the farmers market in the last fifteen minutes that it’s open, and you’re sure to score some great deals if you haggle a bit with the farmers. If you get to know the farmers at the market, on bad weeks for your wallet, you can say “I’m super broke this week. What can I get for $2?” and they’ll probably hook you up. We do this with our market customers, at least…
The last things I remind myself when I’m trying to cook for next to nothing are probably obvious, but worth saying:
Grow the food myself.
Never throw away anything. Herb scraps and slightly past their prime vegetables can always find their way into something good.
If there’s ever extra, can it! (or freeze it, or dehydrate it, or ferment it….) We’ll be happy that it’s there later on.
Be creative. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it has to be boring. I made this split pea soup last week that was a nice example of how to spruce up a basic cheap meal…. Instead of just a ham bone and green split peas, I added cubed butternut squash from our pantry, frozen corn from last summer, some wilted parsley from the fridge, and a few random fresh veggies we had on hand. It was delicious. It fed us for many meals, and I really couldn’t think of a better lunch.
If you have any favorite cheap dinners, feel free to mention them in the comments. There’s obviously a lot more recipes than I’ve mentioned here, but like I said…. this could easily turn into a cookbook that I could work on for several years. There’s a lot to be said on the subject.