Cheap Cooking: Fantastic Frugal Meal Ideas from Past and Present

Photo credit: K.I.T.

I was on an extremely tight budget when I was in college, so I had cheap cooking down to a science.

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.

My grandmother, who was born in Italy, was always on a tight budget. One of my favorite dishes that Grandma used to serve 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, well, “rice with sauce.”   Clever, huh?

I recently asked a few friends if they would be willing to share any cheap dishes 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 used to live with his family in Papua New Guinea where they used to enjoy coconut cream rice.

My wife would head down to the market and buy a bundle of greens, four or five sweet potatoes, and a coconut. Including the cost of rice, we could feed our family of five for about two dollars. The best part is that it tastes great, and all the food at the market was fresh and organic!

Swamp Gravy

My good buddy 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, a sharecropper, used to make:

When the men had finished their field work for the week, they rode the mules to a local creek. They fished and sipped homemade whiskey all day. They’d fry their catch on an open fire by dipping the fish in fresh milk and then cornmeal. After cooking the fish, they’d save a small amount of lard from the pan and the left-over cornmeal that had settled to the bottom. Then they’d cut up a few old onions, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, or whatever else they had scrounged up from his mom’s garden, cook them until they were done and then serve 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.

Eggplant Parmesan

I’m not a big fan of eggplant. Not only is the name unappetizing, but I refuse to eat purple vegetables; purple is a color that belongs on fruit.

One person who isn’t intimidated by them is 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.    

Sloppy Joes

I love sloppy joes. Or as my mother-in-law calls them: sloppy yos. (Just kidding, Mom.) 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.

If you want to save even more money, Jesse from PF Firewall passes along this little 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 buy ramen 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. For those who are concerned about the high sodium content, Maximizing Money wisely suggests using only a portion of the flavor packet.


When we were kids, my sister used to make “pizza quesadillas” that were absolutely delicious — and easy to make. She simply folded a flour tortilla that was filled with a little spaghetti sauce mozzarella cheese, and then warmed it up on a flat skillet or in the microwave.

Jeff from the Sustainable Life Blog has his own inexpensive recipe:

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.”

Stir Fry

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. I add garlic, olive oil, and oregano for a little  Italian  flair.

Meanwhile, Forest Parks from Frugal Zeitgeist suggested his own budget-friendly stir fry:

Uncle Ben’s two-minute rice mixed with cabbage, onions, soy sauce and a little sugar, fried in the wok for a few minutes.

Macaroni and Cheese

Kraft debuted its boxed macaroni and cheese dinner back in 1937 during the Great Depression. 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.

And 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.

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.

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. It’s inexpensive, 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. Heather Sokol, who is the founder of the frugal blog Inexpensively shares her favorite way to enjoy it:

We add a leftover grilled chicken to rice & black beans. It’s an easy, inexpensive meal!  

Spaghetti in the Oven

A colleague where I work shared a recipe for something he used to eat as a kid. His mom would cook up some spaghetti, then place the noodles in a casserole dish and mix them with a three cans of cream of mushroom soup. She’d then toss the mess into the oven for a half-hour or so.

My colleague said he absolutely hated the stuff.

I don’t blame him. Then again, it could have been much worse — at least the recipe didn’t include an eggplant.

Photo Credit: K.I.T.


  1. 1


    Oh my gosh, eggplant has creeped me out my entire life. The texture, the color, the everything. Blech.

    I too love sloppy joes, and I make giant batches of it as the kids like them in their lunches for school. (Slap some sloppy joe in a tupperware, but a bun in a bag and send them on their way. They do heat it up at school of course.)

    I never had a Ramen Noodle, which is shocking since we didn’t have much money, and I was flat out broke in college. I hadn’t heard of them until about 8 years ago. I missed out.

    Great post.

  2. 3


    Quesadilla’s, pasta, and bean and cheese burritos is what I lived on in college. I wasn’t much of a Ramen fan, just too darn much salt, but I knew plenty of people who lived on it for just pennies a meal!

  3. 5


    This brings back some great college memories.

    We used to make Hawaiian Style Tuna Casserole, which was just a can of tuna mixed with mac and cheese. Back in the ’80s, you could get the mac and tuna for about a buck and it would feed three or four guys.

    Our friends from Hawaii taught us how to make this when they would surf Cali and stay with us. It’s the same recipe as Crystal’s, without the peas. The peas cost an extra fifty cents and we were spending that on beer.

  4. 6

    SuzieQ says

    Please consider that ‘cheap’ doesn’t have to be unhealthy. I see a lot of cheap meal recommendations that include such things as Ramen noodles, hot dogs, etc. It won’t be so cheap when you’re paying for doctors visits and medical costs due to poor health.

    Try to eat as much unprocessed foods as possible – and they can be very inexpensive. Buy fruits and veggies in season or when on sale. There’s so a variety that there is always something that is cheap.

    Also, I personally think cheese is expensive (and too much is artery clogging) so omit and if you miss the flavor then add spices and herbs, where a little goes a long way in providing flavor.

  5. 7

    SuzieQ says

    Forgot to mention that I just ate lunch – coconut brown rice with EGGPLANT, tomatoes, onions and red beans. Very, very yummy!

    In England Eggplant is called Aubergine…definitely a more exotic name.

  6. 9


    Len, great list-but not sure any of them made me want to run out and prepare them.

    That’s why you want to get control of your money, so you don’t have to live on Ramen, Rice, and Beans-huh!

    Have a great artery clogging week, as I am sure you are going to try each of these recipes this week, as the fearless reporter I know you are!!!

  7. 10


    @Everyday: What! You’ve never had a ramen noodle? They are one of life’s salty simple pleasures! Try some, Kris!
    @Moneycone: I know. Isn’t ramen the bomb? And I love the sodium. In fact, give me more of it!
    @LittleHouse: Why does salt get such a bad name? The health industry has maligned salt now for too long. I say worrying about too much salt is kind of like worrying about having too much money. LOL
    @BIFS: Let me know how it comes out. Barb said it was awesome.
    @Bret: Peas or beer, peas or beer? Yep. The beer.
    @SuzieQ: You’re absolutely right. But I’m still not cutting back on my sodium. 😉
    @Jenna: I could eat soup seven days a week – even in the summer. Unfortunately, the Honeybee holds me back.
    @Dr. Dean: Well, these meals aren’t the height of culinary bliss, but some of them still make my mouth water just the same. I love Sloppy Joes (with beef, not oatmeal though – LOL). Stir fries are tasty good too. I’m not budging on the eggplant though.

  8. 11


    Well just so you know I am now making sloppy joes for dinner tonight. I have not been able to stop thinking about them since I read this yesterday. Fortunately, I am not craving spaghetti and cream of mushroom soup yet.

    A friend of mine says she throws an egg in with ramen noodles or something? Do you boil them? I don’t even know how to prepare them. Maybe I will pick some up and experiment.

  9. 14

    Barbara says

    I just discovered your blog and you have a new reader for life! You’re almost as funny as my husband! Love the info and encouragement you offer.

  10. 15


    I’m still not yet recovered from our eggplant stint when we were poor in graduate school. We got a big box of packaged eggplant patties… and since we were broke we couldn’t not eat them all.

    The thought of eggplant parmesan makes me want to vomit.

    We’ll have our cheap food tips on Monday. It’s much less organized though.

    (I stopped eating ramen noodles in high school… two words: moth larvae.)

    • 16

      Kate says

      I can’t eat noodles, lima beans, or wax beans for a similar reason. One night, when I was a kid, dinner was hot dogs, noodles, and lima beans because that’s all we had the money for. Ghastly. Can’t remember why I hate wax beans, but I will eat them in 3 bean salad.

      This was a great post! Thanks!

  11. 17


    @Jeff: My pleasure! I can’t wait to try your recipe too!
    @Barbara: *Almost* as funny as your husband? Dang! 😉
    @Nicole: Well, I guess I can assume eggplant Parmesan will not be on *your* list. You know, people in some countries would pay extra to add moth larvae to their ramen. LOL

  12. 21

    S.P. says

    Much better version of the last recipe: My grandma (who raised FIVE boys!) would make “Baked Spaghetti” when we visited during summer vacation. Cook a whole box of spaghetti, mix in a jar of tomato sauce (add ground beef if you’re feeling fancy), place the spaghetti mixture In a casserole dish, top with a whole bag of shredded cheddar cheese (mmmm cheese!), bake for ~30 min, and slice and serve like lasagna. It was a special treat because it was so *different* from normal spaghetti…I know now that it was a great budget meal!

  13. 22

    Shirley says

    I always have a package of corn tortillas in my fridge (36 for ~$1.50) salsa (big jars from Sam’s for really cheap), a 2 pound block of cheese from Sams for $5.00) some kind of lettuce or cabbage and onions. I make these tortillas ALL the time and they are SO cheap and yummy! It helps to skimp on the cheese just a little so you aren’t consuming a ton of cheese every day. Any other leftovers ca go on these, too.

  14. 24

    Chris says

    Ramen without the seasoning, can of spicy v-8, and some cut up carrots and peas. Goes good with all the beer you bought with the savings!

  15. 25

    SassyMamaw says

    I remember as a young bride taking the contents of a cabinet: 1 can of tuna, 1 can of green beans and 1 can of mushroom soup. Mixed it together and served it over rice. We liked it well enough that I made it for many years to come!

  16. 26


    TVP (textured vegetable protein) from the bulk store instead of ground beef in chili and pasta sauce. I feed it to company all the time and just don’t tell them.

    Cheap source of protein. You have to add water to it before you add it to your recipe. Just add complimentary seasoning to the water to flavour.

  17. 28

    Doug says

    Salsa Chicken.
    Take a jar of your favorite salsa. Add chicken and simmer until done. Add some spanish rice and a salad. You have a very cheap and tasty meal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *