By Emily Lugg, Cheapism.com
One way to keep your dinners cheap and healthy is to select a few "pantry" items that you can use in many different ways. Choose staples such as eggs, cheese, milk, noodles, and bread and plan your meals around them. And while you're charting a week of meals, try to account for any leftover ingredients from previous nights. Or consider buying just a little more of something, knowing that you'll use it in an upcoming meal. A few minutes of planning can save you time and keep you healthy, while also keeping your food budget within bounds.
Monday: Angel hair pasta with fresh vegetables. A box of noodles (doesn't have to be angel hair -- use whatever you have on hand or is cheapest at the market), some garlic, oil, and sauteed veggies and you have yourself a fresh, healthy, cheap dinner. The best part about pasta is that it goes a long way. A 1-pound box costs as little as $1 and can easily feed a family of four (even more if there are young children at the table). As for the veggies, the season's harvest is beginning and July is the month for good buys on summer squash, tomatoes, green beans, and corn. If you keep a vegetable garden out back, dinnertime is cheaper yet. Popular home-grown vegetables include tomatoes, zucchini, squash, and peppers. Anything goes for this versatile meal.
Tuesday: Fajita Quesadillas. The leftover sauteed veggies from your pasta dinner are quickly transformed into a Mexican feast by pulling the cheese and tortillas ($3 for a pack of 10) out of the pantry. Grill all the ingredients inside the tortillas in a skillet on the stove top, a counter-top grill, or even on the outdoor grill. Be sure to use your spice rack to liven up the Mexican flavors; chili powder, paprika, onion powder, and cayenne pepper work nicely. Serve up a side of Mexican rice or chips and salsa to round out this inexpensive dinner.
Related: Best cheap cookware recommendations
Wednesday: Adult Grilled Cheese. A loaf of bread costs about $1 and serves many purposes. In this case, add sliced cheese of your choice (a half-pound brick of mild cheddar costs about $3) and you have the makings of a dinner that is both yummy and budget-wise. The bread and cheese combo is probably enough to satisfy the kids, but for bigger folks, some embellishments will enhance the appeal. Use any veggies left from earlier in the week, or turn to bacon (about $6 per pound, but a few slices will do), avocado, and pickles (not necessarily all on the same sandwich). Get creative with this one. Ingredients already in the pantry or the fridge keep your dinner cost extra low.
Thursday: Chicken Kabobs. You get a lot for your money with frozen chicken, largely because there's less risk of waste. A 3-pound bag of frozen chicken generally costs less than $10 and can be used for multiple meals. (Keep your eye out for sales so you can stock up on this pantry staple.) Thaw a couple of pieces, cut into cubes, fire up the grill, and flesh out the kabob sticks any way you like. Italian dressing ($3.60 for 16 ounces) is an inexpensive marinade that keeps the chicken tasty and moist. Adding pineapple, mushrooms, peppers, onions, or any other vegetable already on hand makes the chicken go further. You don't need much to accompany the protein, and a can of pineapple chunks (less than $1) and two green peppers (less than $3 total) make for a tasty meal.
Friday: Grilled Chicken Wraps. Thaw more frozen chicken and use more tortillas from the pantry for chicken wraps. Set out an array of condiments and let your family do the filling and wrapping. Some may want just chicken and cheese ($3 for a bag of shredded Monterey Jack, or use what was left from the grilled cheese), while others might want to add jalapenos, lettuce, mayo, barbecue sauce, tomatoes, or even feta and black olives (less than $2 for a 6-ounce can). Each wrap can have a totally different flavor with very few ingredients, and can be served hot or cold, depending on the ingredients inside. If there's lettuce in the fridge, serve a simple green salad alongside. Repurposing ingredients will keep you well within your food budget for the week.
Saturday: Baked Tilapia. Frozen fish is also very affordable and makes for very healthy and easy meals. Tilapia (about $10 for 2 pounds), especially, takes on any flavor profile you want. You could go with chili and lime, salt and pepper alone, or fajita seasoning from earlier in the week if you're craving more of a kick. With instant rice, preferably brown (less than $4 for 28 ounces) to up the health quotient, and a veggie side -- maybe a steamed head of broccoli (about $3) -- your dinner ingredients stretch far on very little money or effort.
Sunday: Chicken Fried Rice. The box of instant rice used on Saturday is sufficient for a second meal (and perhaps a few more after that) -- this time larded with Asian flair. Add all sorts of goodies to the rice -- veggies, leftover chicken (or from your frozen stash), eggs -- to mimic your favorite Chinese take-out at a fraction of the price. The best way to get that Asian flavor is to use soy sauce ($5 for 1.25 quarts) generously. As it starts to cook off, add a little more, and then set the bottle on the table. To stay within healthy limits, consider springing for low-sodium soy sauce, which is about double the price.
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