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!)

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Showing 4 of 120 Comments

  • Melody Gardner

    MAKE YOUR OWN BREAD! I have been doing this for years, and my family loves it. I use whole grain flours such as barley I buy at the African market, white whole wheat and bread flour from Hudson Mill in KS — local to KC. Store bought bread almost always has junk in it, I also use honey, and organic molasses for sweetener. I make sure it has a nice soak to soften the shards on the whole wheat so it does not cut the gluten strands.
    It is not only cheaper. but soooooo gooood. My family won’t let me buy from the store.

    Also, I make bone broth in my power pressure cooker — I know the fans are here! I buy chicken feet from the Asian market, and add chicken bones from a carcass. It comes out like gold jello, and totally healthy as a base for everything. The left overs I keep a pot boiling for my dogs. I add it to their food, and one 16 yo girl can’t hear, or hardly see, but she can leap tables in a single bound.
    My contribution here!

  • 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”.

  • whitney

    One of my favorite cheap meals is pasta with tomato juice. Everyone always thinks this sounds so weird, but it’s something I’ve been eating my whole life! The best pasta to use is something small–little shells or stars or alphabet pasta, for example. cook & drain the pasta, then add tomato juice (it shouldn’t be too soupy, but it shouldn’t be too thick either). I also like to add a little shredded cheddar or colby-jack cheese on top. This goes great with a grilled cheese sandwich!

  • Lauren

    I’m totally all for budget cooking!! You don’t even have to have a large family to benefit, as any of those dishes you’ve posted can be made in advance & frozen in portions. I did that for a long time when I first moved out of home. I have a recipe for Baked Cauliflower in White Sauce (http://lusciouslawns.wordpress.com/2008/07/24/baked-cauliflower-in-white-sauce-a-family-favourite/) that is really cheap and easy, when when you use produce that’s in season you can get them from farmer’s markets for one or two dollars each! And since cauliflowers are in season in the colder months, this is a great dish to warm your belly.

    Oh and don’t forget budget desserts either! You’ve mentioned eggs & their benefits, and they can also be used to make wonderful custard. I have a recipe here (http://lusciouslawns.wordpress.com/2008/09/27/a-cup-of-caramel-custard/) for a delicious warm dessert using only basic ingredients, and this can be served with any fresh fruit, or canned if that is not available (eg canned peaches or pears, delicious!).

    I think using fresh produce that’s in season is really important, and not only for saving money. Fresh produce it better for you because it hasn’t been in cold storage for 6 months…. Also by buying locally at markets means that they haven’t traveled halfway across the county… Anyway thanks for a great post!!

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