The simplest way to get your budget back on track? Stop eating out. Americans now rely on someone else to prepare food for them at least four to five times a week—between restaurants, fast-food joints, or the grab-and-go section of the grocery store. And the average cost of those meals? About $12.75 a pop.
Which isn’t a crazy amount, but over time it can add up—especially if you’re taking the whole family out to eat. Instead, save your money for something fun (new shoes, a vacation, 19th-century chateau in the French countryside, you get the gist) and cut your spending in half with these inexpensive and filling meals, all ringing in at $5 or less per serving.
Our favorite on-the-cheap recipes
For most of these recipes you’ve probably got most of the ingredients in your pantry already! If you don’t, start to pick up spices like cayenne, turmeric, garlic powder, curry, chili, and sea salt here and there. The up-front cost is worth it, as you’ll get hundreds of uses from a single bottle.
You’ll notice that so many of these recipes are heavier on the veggies and lighter on the meat; seasonal produce is typically less expensive than meat or dairy. But don’t worry—with the right recipe, a head of cauliflower can be just as filling as a piece of chicken breast! Experiment with whatever fruits and veggies are in season to keep costs lower, and feel free to sub in similar items within each recipe.
This recipe comes together just by opening a few cans from the cupboard. But don’t be fooled by its basic appearance—full-flavored sardines and artichoke hearts add tons of complexity.
Super-thin, savory buckwheat pancakes a la Brittany make a perfect base for veggies, cheese, and meat. Add whatever you’ve got in the fridge—we’re partial to veggies with goat cheese.
So easy and so yummy. Coconut flour is one of the less expensive non-wheat flours, and its consistency makes it ideal for dredging and frying. The result? A crispy, filling chicken wing with some added fiber.
Fragrant rosemary and tender mushrooms add big flavor without a big price tag. The poached egg on top is sheer perfection, adding an instant sauce and a little extra protein.
We love this version of cream of tomato soup because it doesn’t require any heavy cream or dairy—costly ingredients that expire quickly. Instead, add chickpeas to the pot to pump up the fiber and add a thick, velvety texture.
Perfect for fall and winter, squash soup uses inexpensive veggies that have tons of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. You can swap in pumpkin or any other gourd, all of which have a multi-month shelf-life—and it’s easy to freeze any leftovers and reheat in the spring.
Potatoes are always a solid grocery store purchase—they’re versatile and easy to cook. Upgrade your spud game with these sweet potato pancakes, which easily become a full meal when topped with a fried egg or smeared with goat cheese.
Even if you aren’t a top chef, you can whip up tomato sauce–poached cod for a gorgeous dinner any time. Just grab a few spices and the $5 pasta sauce from your pantry.
Basic formulas for inexpensive dinners
Not a rule follower? Ditch the recipes and make your meals based off these simple formulas.
Noodles + olive oil + garlic + veggies + cheese
So simple, so inexpensive, and perfect for a weeknight. Use your favorite type of noodle as your base, then fry up garlic in olive oil and add a hearty serving of veggies that wilt or sauteé well like kale, spinach, squash, tomatoes, peppers, artichokes, mushrooms, onions, carrots, and eggplant. Top with the cheese of your choice—goat, feta, and parmesan are all good options because a little goes a long way—and mangia!
Super simple stir-fry
Thinly sliced meat + veggies + coconut aminos + red pepper flakes + green onions
Hearty and satisfying, a stir-fry is the perfect post-workday meal because it takes all of 10 minutes to cook and devour. Invest in coconut aminos as a gluten-free substitute for soy sauce, which often contains genetically modified soy and wheat.
Breakfast for dinner
Eggs + leftovers + salt + pepper
Once you master perfectly scrambled eggs, they’ll become your go-to dinner. It’s so easy to add leftover veggies or grains to the skillet to stretch a meal. Plus, they’re loaded with healthy fats and proteins.
Jar of pasta sauce + meat + or roughly chopped vegetables
When our food editor Merce Muse whipped out this braised cauliflower dish, we were floored. So obvious, but so genius! Save the spaghetti for another day and instead use that jar of tomato sauce to braise your favorite cut of meat, any heartier veggie, or a mixture of the two.
With these 12 recipes, you’re well on your way to saving tons of money on meals this year. And at Thrive Market, the essentials are always up to 50 percent off retail price!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont