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Everything is expensive. Housing is almost out of reach, education puts us in massive debt, and even things we need like food and utilities are starting to cost more and more. But there’s a way to cut back on at least one of those things (albeit the cheapest one, but hey every little bit helps, right?). So here are some ways to get cheap food and lower at least one of those expenses.
The Best Ways to Get Cheap Food
At The Grocery Store
The absolute best way to lower your food costs is to buy groceries and cook at home. So let’s talk about how to get the best prices on food at the grocery store. There are quite a few ways to save money on groceries, but if you’re looking for the cheapest of the cheap for food, here are a few extra tips.
First, is buying generic. Yes, that’s on the other list, but seriously, you can get some amazing food for incredibly low prices if you don’t worry about name brands. You can get a huge box of generic cornflakes for 99 cents, whereas the same box from general mills is over three bucks!
Not all generic items are created equal. There are definitely certain name brand products that are worth the extra price. However, swapping out a few generic products will save you a bundle at the store.
Check the Clearance Section for Cheap Food
Sometimes, you can find incredibly cheap food in the grocery store clearance section. I’ve found bag of bell peppers for forty cents (when a green pepper itself is usually a dollar, and the red and yellows are even more!) and packs of chicken legs for eighty-two cents.
You can find some stellar deals on clearance items, but remember that they are probably on clearance for a reason. Use or freeze any perishables in a day or two so they don’t spoil before you get the chance.
Buy Things that are Generally Cheap
There are some grocery store items that are just cheap in general. Dried goods, such as rice or beans, cost a buck or two per pack, and each pack makes a ton of food. You can also buy a sack of flour and make pancakes, crepes, breads, and other filling carbs with just a handful of other ingredients.
Use What You Have at Home
Outside of the grocery store, you can get cheap food by using what you have at home wisely. The pantry challenge is a great way to explore that, but you can also be creative in the way you use leftovers.
For those of you who want to use what you have at home but aren’t sure how to get started with these cheaper ingredients, we also have a few recipe ideas for you using what we got at the grocery store!
Most of us have cupboards full of staples at home, but aren’t always sure how to use them. You may already have flour, and rice, and pasta sitting in your pantry.
The idea of a pantry challenge is to use only what you have at home already to make a few meals each week. This might mean finding a use for that can of tomato sauce that you’ve had sitting there for months (I’ve had success in turning tomato sauce into a decent marina sauce with just a few spices!), or finding new ways to cook those beans. Sometimes a pantry challenge forces you to be creative, but it’s fun to see what you can come up with.
Be Creative with Leftovers
Another area that lends itself to creative cooking is with leftovers. You can easily turn certain leftovers into a whole new tasty meal! My favorite leftover creation is to turn taco night into cheesy taco casserole the next day. I usually have plenty of rice and a little bit of meat leftover from taco night, and I combine all of that into a casserole dish, add some cheese and beans, throw some tortillas on top, and voila! A tasty new meal.
I’ve also added noodles to leftover turkey to create a Thanksgiving casserole, and used leftover meats of all kinds to experiment with crock pot creations. Not only are these great ways to use leftovers, but they make for easy dinner ideas as well.
What Can I Cook for $5?
Sometimes, we only have a few bucks left to tide us over until our next paycheck. What can we cook for under five bucks?
The cheapest thing to cook if you have a tiny budget is top ramen. At thirty-three cents a package, it is the ultimate cheap food. I like to buy the frozen veggie medley and throw a handful of veggies in the pot with it, to add a little flair and flavor. You can usually get a bag of frozen veggies for a dollar, and you can make quite a few bowls of ramen with the one bag. Others like to add an egg to their ramen for some extra flavor, and at two bucks for a dozen, you are still under that five-dollar mark if you go this route.
But eating ramen all the time gets old, and it’s pretty unhealthy. There are quite a few other things you can cook for five bucks. You can pick up a box of pasta for a dollar, and a jar of sauce for two or three bucks. You can get chicken legs or chicken thighs for a few bucks a pound, and a bag of rice for a dollar or two. The best thing to do when you are low on funds is to check your local supermarket for deals.
Cheap Dinner Ideas
To get you started, here are my five favorite low-cost dinner ideas. You might be able to incorporate some of these recipes in your weekly meal plans.
I got the idea for this recipe from the Ultimate Healthy Eating Bundle. This bundle is filled with meal plans, cookbooks, recipes, and everything that you will ever need to eat well and keep your meal planning organized. Get on the waiting list for when it becomes available again!
Anyway, this meal is super cheap and easy. All you need is a package of sausage (about five dollars), a half a cup of rice (about a dollar for a pound), a half a cup of lentils (about two dollars for a pound), and a bell pepper (a buck for a green one). That’s a total of nine dollars and you will have extra rice and lentils to use with something else!
Brown the sausage in a frying pan, then add the rice, lentils, and chopped up pepper, plus 1 2/3 cups of water (or chicken broth for extra flavor if you have it), mix it all together then cover and reduce heat to low for 30 minutes. The rice and lentils will fully cook, and it will all combine to make a wonderfully delicious skillet meal.
Cheeseburgers are incredibly easy to make, and cheap too! Get a pound of ground beef (the 80 percent one is usually the cheapest, you can often find it for about five bucks a pound!), some cheese (you can have the deli slice you as little as a quarter pound for two to three dollars, depending on what kind you get), and a pack of buns (you can get the cheapest buns for a buck or two). The total cost is only about ten bucks. You may also want to get chips or fries to serve with your burgers, which will cost a few dollars more.
The trick to doing this is to not use all of the ground beef. If this meal is for two people, you don’t each need half pound burgers, right? And four people don’t each need quarter pound burgers. Put about a quarter of the meat aside for tomorrow’s meal, and freeze the buns that you don’t use for your next cheeseburger night.
I know you were wondering about tomorrow’s meal, and this is it – potato tacos. Potatoes are very cheap and filling, and perfect for tacos. I like to cut the potatoes into cubes and deep fry them in oil, but if you don’t have the tools for that you can fry them like hash browns in a frying pan (but cut them into cubes, the shredded potatoes don’t taste as good in tacos).
Since you already have the meat leftover from cheeseburger night, the only other things you need to buy are tortillas and any other topping that you like. I usually just go with cheese and sour cream, but tomatoes, lettuce, onion, and taco sauces are all reasonably priced as well.
For my fourth night of dinner, I’d usually turn the leftover taco stuff into a casserole, but since we already reviewed that, let’s go with something different.
One of the go-to cheap meals in my house is stir fry. The beauty of it is that it’s so versatile. You can use a variety of meats and veggies in this dish. When chicken is on sale, we use chicken. When beef is on sale, we use beef. The same goes for vegetables. Sometimes we add broccoli and zucchini, other times its summer squash and carrots. When I’m feeling fancy, I’ll cook it in sesame oil, but if you don’t have that on hand, olive oil (or even generic cooking oil) works just as well. The only thing I add to every stir fry meal is soy sauce, and you can get that for about two dollars at your local grocery store.
Stir fry is easy to make even if you don’t have a wok. Just throw everything into a frying pan. The only thing to remember when making stir fry is that certain veggies take longer to cook than others. I always add the broccoli and carrots first and let them cook for a while, before adding the meat and any squashes. The order will vary based on what you have, but keep that in mind.
Frozen Meals – The Ultimate Cheap Food
Yes, adding processed foods to the meal plan is kind of cheating. But we all have nights where we are too busy to cook, and these freezer meals are perfect for that. I usually have at least one frozen pizza a week (the cheapest brands are less than five bucks!) and sometimes I’ll even buy a frozen lasagna.
These may not count as healthy dinners, but cheating like this every now and again can save us a ton of time. It’s fine to add these easy options to your meal plan every now and again. It’s cheap food that’s easy to make.
I get it, sometimes you don’t have the time to cook at home. When you are working forty plus hours a week and commuting to one or even two jobs, the amount of free time you have to prepare food is non -existent. Picking up something cheap and easy is all we have time for sometimes.
You will still get the best bang for your buck using the “dollar menu” at fast-food restaurants. I used quotes because most dollar menus have been turned into “value menus” because you can hardly find anything for a dollar now-a-day. But still, if you want a few tacos or small cheeseburger and fries to hold you over to the next meal, these are your best choices, as unhealthy as they are.
Even Cheaper Food
If the ideas on this list are still too expensive, check out how to eat on twenty dollars a month. That’s definitely not the ideal situation, and you can’t eat healthy on such a small budget, but if you need to get through a week or two on a super low budget, it might give you some ideas.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.