cheap food

Cheap Food: 18 Cheap Meal Ideas to Help You Eat for Less

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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.

Buy Generic

The first and easiest way to save on groceries is by 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!

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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 a bag of bell peppers for forty cents (when a green pepper itself is usually a dollar, and the reds 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, bread, 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!

Pantry Challenge

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 crockpot 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?

Ramen

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 of veggies. 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.

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.

Pasta

Pasta is a relatively inexpensive meal option. A box of generic noodles costs a dollar or two, and you can get a cheap can of sauce for about two dollars. You could also try making your own marina sauce with that spare can of tomato sauce you’ve been hoarding and the spices in your spice rack!

The great thing about pasta is you can make a lot for a little money. One box can feed a small family in one evening for less than five dollars. 

Chicken & Rice

Chicken is more expensive than pasta, but if you want to add a little protein to your meal it’s the best option. You can find packets of chicken legs or chicken thighs for between two and three dollars. The disadvantage is that there isn’t a lot of meat in each packet. It’s great if you’re feeding yourself and just one other person, but if you have a larger family to feed, you might need to buy more. 

However, if you stick to the one package and get a pack of white rice to go with it, you’re meal costs will be less than five dollars. 

Hot Dogs

Hot dogs are the staple of easy, cheap food. You can buy a package of eight hot dogs for a dollar or two, (the dollar ones aren’t the greatest, but if you’re on a tight budget, you have to do what you have to do) and a pack of buns for a similar price. 

 

Four dollars for eight hot dogs is a great deal. Experiment with different ways to cook them (frying pan, steaming, boiling, boiler) to mix it up a little. 

Oatmeal

Oatmeal is a relatively inexpensive option for breakfasts and will do in a pinch for other meals as well. A tub of oatmeal only costs about three dollars, and there are 13 servings per container. 

All you really need is the oatmeal and water, but if you have a little extra money you can spice it up by substituting milk for water and adding butter, brown sugar, or even fruit. 

Cheap Meal Ideas

The five-dollar meal ideas are meant to hold you over until you get a little more money in your budget for food. There are tons of other options for cheap, easy meals that might be a little more expensive than that, but are still relatively cheap.

Here are my five favorite low-cost meal ideas, to give you an idea of some of the things you can make.  You might be able to incorporate some of these recipes into your weekly meal plans.

Cheap Breakfast Ideas

Avocado Toast

Can you believe that avocado toast is on a list of cheap meal ideas? The truth is, all the scorn millennials face about avocado toast is silly. It’s a cheap, healthy meal option. 

I can get two avocados for five dollars at the store. I like to spice my toast up with rye or wheat bread, which might cost another two to three dollars. But, I only use half of an avocado for my toast and one slice of bread. Although the overall cost was about eight dollars, two avocados and one loaf of bread will make 4 servings of avocado toast. That’s only two bucks a breakfast, which isn’t bad at all. 

Cottage Cheese & Fruit

My go-to breakfast solution is cottage cheese and blueberries. A tub of cottage cheese and a basket of blueberries cost about three dollars apiece. I stretch both of these items to make them last most of the week, so The six dollars I spent ends up being about a dollar a day for breakfast. 

Prices vary depending on the season and the type of fruit you get. Sometimes I substitute blueberries for strawberries, but they typically don’t stay fresh for as long. 

Egg Sandwich

A dozen eggs cost about three dollars, and you can get a cheap loaf of bread for two dollars. This means you can make about 6 or 7 breakfast sandwiches for under five dollars. 

I like to pan-fry my egg over easy or sunny-side up, and put mayonnaise on the bread, so that when the gooey yolk mixes with the mayo I have a wonderful flavor parade in my mouth. You can also spice up your sandwich by adding cheese or bacon, but those will increase your overall costs. 

Cereal

Cereal is a breakfast staple because it’s cheap and easy. All you need to do is buy the cereal and some milk. 

Name-brand cereals are getting prohibitively expensive. I’ve noticed some big brands costing four to five dollars for a small box! Many are also just boxes of sugar cosplaying as healthy breakfast options as well. Try choosing generic brands and healthier options to get the most bang for your buck. 

Cheap Lunch Ideas

Sandwiches

Sandwiches are a lunchtime staple. Throw some meat and cheese between two slices of bread and you’ve got yourself a meal!

I like to buy deli cheese because I can get a quarter pound of Swiss for about two dollars, which is a better deal than most of the pre-packaged cheeses. Deli Turkey is also a good choice, it seems fresher than the prepackaged versions and is less expensive. 

If you’re on a really tight budget, you can opt for bologna or peanut butter and jelly instead. There’s a wide variety of options for cheap sandwich ideas. 

Veggies and Hummus

My favorite lunch idea is veggies and hummus. I usually buy a packet of carrots for a dollar (the normal carrots are much better than the pre-cut baby carrots – they are cheaper and they taste better too!) and a bunch of celery for two dollars and cut these veggies up on Sunday night. I store them in a resusable ziplock bag for the rest of the week and can have a wonderful veggie and hummus lunch all week. 

If you have a little extra money, you can buy cucumbers and tomatoes as well and have a full-on veggie bowl for your lunch. 

Soup

Soup and other canned goods are cheap, easy meal ideas. A can of decent soup costs about three dollars, and it’s a good hardy lunchtime meal, especially for the colder months. 

If you are on a very tight budget, you can go even cheaper with the dollar canned soups. These aren’t as hardy, but they are cheap and will do in a pinch. 

Cheap Dinner Ideas

Sausage Lentil Medley

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!

meal bundle

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 they will all combine to make a wonderfully delicious skillet meal.

Cheeseburgers

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.

Potato Tacos

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.

Stir Fry

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 it’s 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.

Crock-Pot Creations

One of my favorite go-tos, when I need a cheap meal that will last a few days, is my crockpot. There are so many wonderful things you can make with it. I’ve mixed lentils and chicken for a tasty lentil stew, combined a chicken breast and salsa for delicious burritos, experimented with an assortment of beans for various types of chilis…the possibilities are endless. 

The important thing to remember when making food in a crock pot is that over time, it can melt your veggies and less sturdy items. Things like noodles and cabbages only need to be in for a short time. It’s much better for things like beans that need to soak a awhile, root vegetables that are sturdy, and slow-cooking meats. 

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 a cheap food that’s easy to make. 

Eating Out

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.

Cheap Groceries

Here is a list of 30 cheap foods you should buy when you are broke. These items are staples and can be cooked or combined in a plethora of ways to help you feed yourself and your family. I’ve also included some ingredients that will allow you to add flavor to your meals. 

Many of these items already made an appearance in this post in the different meal ideas, but can be used in a variety of other ways as well. 

  1. Flour
  2. White bread
  3. Chicken legs or thighs
  4. White rice
  5. Beans (packaged dry beans are cheaper than canned beans)
  6. Lentils
  7. Pasta 
  8. Pasta sauce
  9. Pork
  10. Eggs
  11. Potatoes
  12. Carrots
  13. Celery
  14. Onion
  15. Head lettuce
  16. Oatmeal
  17. Frozen veggie medley
  18. Blue box mac & cheese
  19. Hot dogs
  20. Canned veggies
  21. Butter
  22. Sugar
  23. Salt
  24. Pepper
  25. Milk
  26. Peanut butter
  27. Apples
  28. Generic, plain cereal 
  29. Garlic
  30. Cheese

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. 

What are Your Favorite Options for Cheap Food?

What is your grocery store staple that I missed? Tell me about your favorite ways to eat well for less in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Cheap Food: 18 Cheap Meal Ideas to Help You Eat for Less”

  1. On buying generic: also worth noting that while it’s not always the case, a lot of the time the generic version of an item is made by the same place that makes the brand name. When I was in university, I spent a couple summers interning as a buyer for a grocery store warehouse and I was shocked to find that in many cases, the store brand of certain items came from the exact same company that made the more expensive, brand version.

    Now, that’s not always true and in those cases, you’re right: not all are created equal (for example, I definitely would not recommend dollar store Mac and cheese. It’s…not good haha)

    Also, this was my first time hearing of potato tacos and after reading the description, I am legit wondering how that’s even possible. They sound awesome. Will have to try that sometime!

    1. Potato tacos are soo good! My aunt made them one day because she was craving tacos but didn’t have any meat – now they are a family tradition!

      1. That makes it even more shocking to me that I have not tried them since I’m a vegetarian! We typically use lentils or a bean mix in tacos instead of beef but I honestly never thought about potato before. It sounds amazing, though!

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