When I was in college I had cheap cooking down to a science. I had to; I was on an extremely tight budget and the money had to be intelligently allocated. Back then, dinner was number four on my list of priorities, right after tuition, beer, and rent. In that order.
Many people on limited incomes pride themselves on their ability to create some truly delicious and cheap dinner ideas.
I remember my grandmother, who was born in Italy, always being on an extremely tight budget.
I also remember a dish Grandma used to serve that was nothing more than white rice mixed with her leftover homemade spaghetti sauce. Some people call that dish “red rice,” but Grandma just called it “rice with sauce.” Clever, huh? My grandma, God rest her soul, really had a way with words.
I recently polled a few coworkers and personal finance blogger friends for some additional cheap cooking ideas that they use today or that their family served to them back when they were kids. Some were apparently more delicious than others. Here’s a summary of the results:
Coconut Cream Rice
Craig from Money Help for Christians lives with his family in Papua New Guinea. He passed along this tasty tip for a meatless meal called coconut cream rice they have once a week – South Pacific style: My wife heads down to the market and buys a bundle of greens, four or five sweet potatoes, and a coconut. Including the cost of rice, we feed our family of five for about two dollars. The best part is that it tastes great, and all the food at the market is fresh and organic! Sounds delish!
My friend Dr. Dean from The Millionaire Nurse Blog shared this great story that his father told him long ago regarding a cheap meal that his grandfather, who was a sharecropper, used to make: When the men (and boys if they worked hard enough) had finished their field work for the week, they rode the mules to a local creek. They usually had a little homemade whiskey. They fished and sipped all day. They then fried the catch on an open fire, by dipping the fish in fresh milk then cornmeal. After finishing the fish, they poured the grease out of the pan, leaving a small amount of lard, with the left-over cornmeal that had settled to the bottom of the pan. They cut up a few old onions, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, or whatever else they had scrounged up from his mom’s garden, and cooked them until they were done; they served that beside the fish. When everyone had their fill they spread out their blankets and slept by the fire — after telling a few lies I’m sure. Nothing was store-bought about that meal, except the frying pan, purchased from the traveling salesmen.
I’m not a big fan of eggplant. First off, could anybody have picked a worse name for a vegetable? Why not name it something like “tastyplant” or even “meatplant?” Second, the darn thing is purple. If you ask me, when it comes to food, purple is a color that should be reserved solely for fruits.
The nicest thing I can say about that vegetable is that I once found an eggplant in the produce section of my grocery store that bared a strong resemblance to Richard Nixon. I bought it just to show my friends. Sorry, I digress.
According to Amanda from Frugal Confessions, “Eggplants are pretty cheap, definitely cheaper than meat. For eggplant Parmesan all you need is the eggplant, some tomato sauce, cheese and seasonings.” That does sound good, Amanda, but I think I’ll pass anyway.
I love sloppy joes. Or as my mother-in-law calls them: “sloppy yos.” Heh. For those who get tired of the same old Hamburger Helper all the time, it doesn’t get much better than a little seasoned ground beef in tomato sauce on a bun. If you really want to splurge, top it with a slice of cheddar or American cheese; we do at my house.
For those who want to save even more money, Jesse from PF Firewall adds this tip: Substitute oatmeal flakes for beef. They are a bit more sloppy, but very inexpensive – three to four dollars for the whole meal including buns.
I used to eat lots of ramen noodles when I was just starting out on my own. I used to buy them at my local grocer for nine cents a package. Nine cents! Even today, you can take a package of ramen noodles and dress it up with an egg and some fresh vegetables for less than a buck a meal.
The great thing about ramen is that you can add just about anything and it will taste great. Mark from Buy Like Buffett even adds hot dogs to his ramen.
For those who are concerned about the high sodium content, Maximizing Money wisely suggests using only a portion of the flavor packet.
Quesadillas are another one of those foods I used to make a lot of in my college days. One of my classic quesadilla dishes that I learned from my sister was her world famous “pizza quesadillas,” which were nothing more than a folded flour tortilla filled with a little spaghetti sauce from a jar and shredded mozzarella cheese. Warm them up on a flat skillet or heat them in the microwave and you’ve got a very quick and tasty meal.
Jeff from the Sustainable Life Blog agrees. “Quesadillias are notoriously cheap,” he says, “Cheese, tortillas, canned black beans and corn, and a green pepper will get you a lot of quesadillas, with room for leftovers.”
Tuna Bread Salad
Jeff also passed along an inexpensive dish he enjoys called “Tuna Bread Salad.” Really? Has anybody else heard of such a thing? Obviously, the dish was named by the same folks who came up with the term “eggplant.”
Elle from Couple Money remarked that stir fry meals were a quick and inexpensive college staple for her. “Stir-frys are incredibly cheap and versatile,” says Elle. “I (add) garlic, olive oil, and oregano for a little Italian flair.”
Meanwhile, Forest Parks from Frugal Zeitgeist suggests his own budget-friendly stir fry: “Uncle Ben’s 2-minute rice mixed with cabbage, onions, soy sauce and a little sugar, fried in the wok for a few minutes.” Sounds good.
Finally, for those of you looking for a little Mexican kick, Eric from Narrow Bridge even suggested a fajita stir fry.
Macaroni and Cheese
According to the Chicago Tribune, Kraft debuted its boxed macaroni and cheese dinner back in 1937 during the Great Depression. They sold 50 million boxes during World War II and it’s been a hit with consumers the world over ever since.
Today I make my own mac and cheese using a simple stove top recipe, but in my college days I used to fortify those inexpensive boxed macaroni and cheese dinners with cut-up hot dogs.
If hot dogs aren’t your thing, Crystal, from Budgeting In the Fun Stuff, told me that she often stretches that meal by adding a can of tuna and some green peas.
Besides being extremely inexpensive, the great thing about pasta is it can be dressed up in hundreds of different ways. Craig from Free from Broke suggested using butter, a little olive oil, and a pinch of salt.
Personal finance blogger Barbara Friedberg recommends mixing pasta with an inexpensive sauce made from olive oil, garlic salt, canned spinach, cream of mushroom soup and a bit of water – then top it with lots of Parmesan cheese.
To save money, Khaleef at KNS Financial prefers to mix his plain pasta with tuna. “It’s very cheap and quick to prepare.”
Finally, The Saved Quarter shared a family favorite at their house: Pasta with three-bean salad, a little olive oil, and tuna or sardines (capers are an optional, but yummy, addition). This is under $3 but super tasty and easily feeds four!
Beans and Rice
Beans and rice are a tried and true low-cost staple and, like pasta, there are many variations. Forest Parks says, “I used to make boiled rice and tomato sauce with kidney beans added as a quick meal.”
Heather Sokol, who is the founder of the frugal blog Inexpensively, says, “We add a leftover grilled chicken to rice & black beans for an easy, inexpensive meal.” Now that sounds yummy.
Spaghetti in the Oven
One of my coworkers who grew up dirt-poor said his mom used to make something they called “Spaghetti in the Oven.” His mom would cook up some spaghetti, place it in a casserole dish, then mix it with a couple cans of cream of mushroom soup and toss it in the oven for a half-hour or so. He said he absolutely hated it. I don’t blame him but, then again, it could have been much much worse. At least the recipe didn’t call for an eggplant.