Cooking on a budget

Several recipes and ideas for stretching your food dollar and cooking on a budget.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

My parents are no strangers to making a dollar stretch, both of them being children of the Depression and having raised six kids on a teacher’s salary. Some of my favorite recipes on this site are those inexpensive dishes that my folks made for us practically every week when I was growing up, like baked chicken, chili beans, tuna macaroni salad, enchiladas, or hamburger and macaroni.

Even today, if you popped in for dinner unexpectedly, likely one of those would be on the menu that night. And if you were me, you would be darn pleased. Cooking on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice flavor or nutrition.

Some of the themes that mom and dad have perfected over the years in their practical budget-mindedness when it comes to food and cooking are:

1 Chicken

Buy it bone-in, skin on. It’s cheaper. Buy thighs. More flavor and meat for the money. Save the bones, either before cooking or after a meal. Freeze and use later for making chicken stock. Not only is the marrow from bones incredibly good for you, but if you already have the bones, the stock you can make from it is practically free.

Chicken Stock

2 Mexican food

Corn tortillas and beans are cheap, and combined make a complete protein. The beans are especially economical if you buy them dry and cook them yourself, instead of using them from a can. Add some rice and salsa and you have a filling, nutritious, delicious meal.

Refried Black Beans

3 Eggs

Great source of inexpensive protein. Make hard boiled eggs for sandwiches or scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Egg Salad Sandwich

4 Use cheaper, tougher cuts of meat

Make stews with beef chuck roasts or pork shoulders. Low and slow braising completely tenderizes the meat, and the flavor is amazing. You can also brown a rump roast on high heat and then lower the heat for low slow cooking for roast beef.

Roast Beef

5 Turkey legs and thighs

Best deal out there. You can braise them or make turkey stew.

Turkey Stew with Root Vegetables

6 Potatoes, rice, pasta

Make your meal go farther with starches like potatoes, rice, pasta, or tortillas.

Those are just a few of the ideas I’ve observed from my parents. Personally my favorite budget meal is a peanut butter sandwich. Do you have a favorite tasty and nutritious “budget” menu? If so, please let us know about it in the comments. (By the way, check out the Budget Recipes category on the site!)

If you make this recipe, snap a pic and hashtag it #simplyrecipes — We love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter!

Showing 4 of 118 Comments

  • Gary in Massena

    I was raised by first generation Americans of Slovak peasant stock (I’m proud to say). Our menu was strongly influenced by heritage and contained a lot of simple, hearty (and especially carb loaded) foods. Now that I think about it almost every meal was comfort food and every meal also was cooked on a budget.

    One of my favorites has always been sauerkraut soup over smashed potatoes.

    To start make Zaprashka (Roux) and use it to thicken sour kraut into a soup, seasoned with garlic (always a lot), salt and pepper. Serve over basic smashed potatoes.

    If you want to get fancy – mix sliced sausage or kielbasa in too.

    Now that I think about it, I have not made this in a while. With cool weather setting in in northern New York it is time to put this back into the menu.

  • Jeni

    We eat tons of rice and beans. Grains in general are pretty cheap (as long at you tend toward the “oats” end of the spectrum and away from the “purple wild rice”). Lots of bread, too; good for you and calorie dense. We eat eggs at least once a day and save meat of any kind for special occasions. Fruit and veg from the local farms is cheaper than the store. As my husband says, we’ve become “quasi-loca-flexitarian.”

    We, in making a small budget stretch, have found that starting with whole, unprocessed foods that you cook yourself is wayyyy cheaper than buying anything “convenient”.

  • Annie

    I am arguably the queen of the quick and cheap one-pot meal. Frozen veggies are my friends. Pressure cooker lentil soup with spinach – might work in the slow cooker with the defrosted spinach added when it’s done. Brown rice cooked with chicken and salsa, broccoli added at the end. My friend’s zucchini corn saute or spinach and beans (works with broccoli, too!), recipes here, served over brown rice. Pasta al aolio (sauteed anchovy, garlic and hot pepper in olive oil) with spinach. Homemade hummus w/raw veggies blended in on the sly served with whole wheat pita. Spaghetti and meat sauce with spinach mixed in at the last second. Chicken thighs cooked in brown rice with oyster sauce, broccoli added in last. Chicken breast and sweet potato cooked in curry sauce over brown rice. And on those days when my brain totally fails, mac and cheese with egg and broccoli mixed in. If you have such things nearby, shopping for veggies at the Asian grocery (we have no local farmer’s markets) and spices at the Indian grocery does save plenty, too.

  • Sylvan B.

    I recently remembered and cooked up a specialty from my barely-post-depression youth, probably originating with my southern-born, po’folks, dad’s side of the family: Ham, potato, & green bean stew. Ham hocks are really cheap and have a lot of flavor….No recipe, but here’s what I did:

    Heated up a couple quarts of water. Simmered a ham hock until the meat was tender, fished it out and trimmed of the bits of meat, then threw everything else back in the pot (if you cook the meat the whole time it will lose its flavor). Simmered for a loooong time, skimmed off some floating fat. An hour before dinner I quartered some white potatoes and an onion, cut fresh green beans into bites, and into the pot with the veggies, plus a bay leaf, a smashed garlic clove, and some pepper corns. Simmered VERY gently; added the meat bits back in and tweaked the seasoning a few minutes before serving. Everything gets tender and hammy-flavored. (This is the only time it’s OK to cook green beans past the bright and crispy stage!)

    Dish up into a bowl with a very little broth, and chow down with hot cornbread — the kind with more cornmeal than flour and hardly any sugar, not the muffiny-stuff you get these days; you heat up an iron skillet in the oven with some bacon fat and pour the batter in to sizzle and bake up crumbly and brown. Butter some to eat alongside, and toss some in the bowl to soak up broth, and have the rest with lots of honey for dessert.

    The stew is just succulent and filling and yummy and incredibly cheap! Memories of a very very poor time that makes today’s poverty look rich….

    Another quick, vegetarian, southern sort of meal-for-one — steamed kale and a baked (or nuked) sweet potato. Butter with the potato and vinegar on the kale.

    Another thanks, Elise, for a website that’s fun to read and recipes I actually use!

  • glittergirl

    I loved the post and everyone’s comments. I’ve got some good ideas, so thanks!

    I was wondering if you’d ever do a special post about crock pots, or maybe add a category. I’m obsessed with mine these days!

    I got the 3 in 1 set at Target so there are different sizes for different recipes.

    One of the best, cheapest and most simple recipe is rosemary lemon chicken.

    2-3 chicken breasts (skin on, bone in) rinsed and patted dry
    Juice of 1 lemon
    3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
    2-3 tablespoons of *smoked paprika
    Salt and freshly ground pepper

    Place chicken into crockpot (2 quart small size). pour lemon juice over chicken and sprinkle with paprika, salt and pepper. top with rosemary sprigs. cook on low for 4 hours or high for 3 1/2 (temp should reach 180 degrees.) serves 6. Yummy!

    I have used cheaper cuts of chicken and it works great.

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