Lists of super easy meals?
June 7, 2008 12:24 AM   Subscribe

Any lists of super simple meals?

I suddenly find myself with no money and rising food prices. I am not a chef, and I either eat out or eat frozen meals. I know, I know. Anyway I am looking for lists of dinners / entrees with 2-4 ingredients so I can save money. Bonus points if they can use store-brand items.

Fettuccine Alfredo (the grownup Mac & Cheese!) (Got 4 meals out of $3, whereas the frozen one I used to buy cost $6 for one meal)
Peanut Butter & Jelly, obvious staple for lunch
Taco - Tortillas, ground beef, cheese.

I found a lot of websites with "simple" recipes which have more than 6 items and lots of steps to do with them. I made cookies the other day and it cost $15 and took 2 hours. I need to save money and time and eat on the mediocre side for a while.

Thanks for any suggestions or lists! I never did the poor college student thing so I have no idea what to buy. So I am hoping somewhere out there is a list of cheap & easy meals that really are cheap and easy, and not $20 worth of ingredients and 1 hour to make.
posted by jesirose to Food & Drink (43 answers total) 185 users marked this as a favorite

I'm a fan of fried spaghetti with "stuff" mixed in. A regular favorite is canned tuna and frozen broccoli and diced tomatoes.
posted by SansPoint at 12:37 AM on June 7, 2008

There's always Ramen noodles for 16 cents at walmart.
posted by uncballzer at 12:49 AM on June 7, 2008

Response by poster: DH likes Ramen but I don't. Actually he only likes one flavor. I forget which.

The Summer list has a lot of stuff that sounds very expensive. Lobster, mussels, steak, salmon...but it had a few in there I added to my list. Hot dogs :) lol.

I've never heard of fried spaghetti, sounds interesting. I googled it and found some quick instructions :) Thanks!
posted by jesirose at 12:59 AM on June 7, 2008

Spaghetti Bolognese: simple, cheap, delicious, easy, you can modify if over time. You can really just throw everything in and let it boil, but with the right order it can be amazing.
posted by farishta at 1:01 AM on June 7, 2008

Do you have a rice cooker? If so, put brown rice and water in, then add frozen vegetables and seasoning (soy sauce, bouillon powder, whatever you've got). In 30 minutes you have a reasonably healthy meal.

I also enjoy couscous because you just add boiling water. Then you can add whatever veggies you have, seasoning and a can of chickpeas. Broccoli is good this way. You can nuke it from frozen.

(I live alone so I have an excuse for this avoidance of cooking. It's just not fun.)
posted by loiseau at 1:09 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Egg Lemon Soup (for a few servings):
1/2 cup brown rice
~ 4-5 cups water
2-3 eggs
1-2 lemons

Put the rice in the water. Let the water boil, turn it down. Let the rice cook.

Beat the lemon juice & eggs together.

When the rice is cooked, add a little bit of the water from the rice to the egg/lemon mixture & mix it in quickly. The idea here is to get the egg mixture to roughly the same temperature so it doesn't separate when you add it in.

Add the mixture in, stirring constantly as you add it. If you're worried about raw eggs, you can let it simmer for a bit longer, but keep stirring it. Add a little bit of salt if you want.

It's great with paprika. You can sub in veggie broth or chicken broth (or even stock) for some/all of the water.

Total cook time is 30-40 minutes, but actual kitchen time is under 10. It refridgerates incredibly well, especially if you leave the rice a little underdone.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:30 AM on June 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, you can get veggie broth powder, which is incredibly cheap, and while not as good as the canned/boxed stuff, still remarkably good.

And, if you haven't discovered it yet, nutritional yeast has a decent amount of protein & some vitamins, isn't very expensive, and tastes great.

Disclaimer: I cook regularly for a co-op house of ~50, so I have a lot of quick prep/low req recipies, if you're interested in more similar suggestions.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:34 AM on June 7, 2008

Oatmeal, for breakfast. Costs almost nothing. I sweeten it with fruit and/or stevia. Chopped walnuts add a lot to it, raisins also.

If you have a blender, and ice in the freezer, make some smoothies. They aren't exactly cheap if you make them with high quality ingredients but they're a fast and easy meal.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:47 AM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've got the Mexican food trio, I see, which can be spruced up into a variety of meals. Don't forget taco salad served with some chips which is nice when the weather heats up. Speaking of chips, you might want to try making your own salsa. Use a large can of diced tomatoes and add chopped onions, cilantro, hot pepper (take your pick), garlic, salt and lime juice or vinegar. It stores well in the fridge, makes any combo of beans, beef, cheese and tortillas taste like Mexican food and it's great for snacking. It may not win a sheer pound per dollar contest with those gallon jugs of salsa, but it wins hands down in the satisfaction per dollar category.

Try tuna salad: lettuce, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, tuna and Italian dressing (or a simple vinaigrette) and bean salad.

There's always casseroles, which might take a while in the oven, but it's time you can spend doing other things. See this list and search for "quick" for plenty of examples. Basically any sort of veggies you throw in dish with any sort of sauce and something to absorb that sauce will turn out fine. You'll have leftovers, too.

Speaking of leftovers you could always make big meals on the weekend and freeze the leftovers. Chili is pretty simple, tasty and easily frozen.

Spanish foods tortilla and gazpacho are both pretty easy. (well, gazpacho's only easy if you have a blender) I wouldn't personally vouch for that gazpacho recipe, mind you. I always de-seed and peel the cucumber; it doesn't cause indigestion that way. Also, substitute red wine vinegar for the lemon juice and consider adding green peppers and chopped up pieces of bread. A variant with hard-boiled eggs and ham is called salmorejo. Tortilla is basically a frittata which is basically an open-face omelette. They're very easy and accept all kind of fillings.

You could also get some corn meal so that you can make polenta. To make it, you only need to boil it for about five minutes. Throw it into the bottom of a casserole dish and you can top it like a pizza. Or you can stick it in the fridge and cut it into smaller pieces you can fry and then top. See recipes here and here. The bonus: you can make grits for breakfast!

This article on cooking with the microwave might be of interest to you. Mr. Bittman, AKA The Minimalist, has a whole series of videos on the NY times website that may be of interest. Some of them may involve some more expensive or uncommon ingredients, but usually he lives up to his name.
If you're into the whole microwave thing, there are a few recipes at Microwave cooking for one. It's mostly promoting a book, though.

10 things you can cook in your dorm room. (Included since you missed out on this peculiar aspect of American life; they aren't particularly impressive.) Of note, however, are two things that haven't been mentioned yet, stir fry and soup. Experiment with soups; they're just as easy as casseroles, but wetter. One could use a bag of chopped vegetables (given the right blend) for stir frying, casseroles, soups, burritos or side dishes. It's very economical.

Googling "one pot meals" bring up some pretty interesting results.

Also, there's been some literature contributed to the subject previously. The "recipes" tag is your friend.

Bon appetit!
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 2:14 AM on June 7, 2008 [12 favorites]

Working for less than minumum wage in London a couple of years ago, the staple of my diet was flapjacks. Not so nutritious, but very high on the edible×price×calories index.

Haven't made them myself, but you could try.
posted by monocultured at 2:26 AM on June 7, 2008

Lentils soup is super easy, super cheap, and very healthy. It has been a hearty food for the poor for centuries.

Basically, if you boil the lentils for 30-40 minutes, and add some salt, pepper and (optional) curry you are done. As mentioned here, you can add olive oil and some onions and make it fancier.
posted by lenny70 at 2:28 AM on June 7, 2008

Btw, that's the British oatmeal flapjack, not the pancake-thing.
posted by monocultured at 2:32 AM on June 7, 2008

To add to lenny70's advice, brown rice takes about as long to cook as lentils, so you can throw them in together for tasty results. Throw a chicken bone in there, you got a stew goin'.
posted by farishta at 2:39 AM on June 7, 2008

The World's Healthiest Foods site has a list of recipes for meals using simple and healthy ingredients. Most of them have few ingredients and are relatively cheap.
posted by arianell at 2:48 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you buy bags of chick peas you can make falafel pretty easily by soaking them for an afternoon, sticking them in the blender with any kind of other beans or veggie-matter you like, rolling them into balls and frying them. Bonus that it tastes like yummy junk food.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:33 AM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you want the most calories for the least money you can buy a McDonald's double cheeseburger for 99 cents or a Little Debbie Fudge Brownie with walnuts for 50 cents.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want good nutrition for short money, I would go with:

Protein: Biochem 100% Whey Vanilla Protein Powder This may seem expensive, but works it works out to be way cheaper than McDonald's double cheeseburgers for the protein you're getting. Mix with water and it tastes great. Can't get any simpler.

Carbohydrates: Frozen Vegetables (often better nutritionally than fresh vegetables as they are fresh frozen instead of shipped from Chile or wherever)

Fat(and you do need fat, monounsaturaed is the best for you): Unsalted nuts (very cheap in large containers), Olives(Trader Joe's is great for olives at good prices), maybe avocados or guacamole if you find them on sale.
posted by Rafaelloello at 4:14 AM on June 7, 2008

When you have a basic supply of dry goods, you need to buy only maybe one to three fresh items from a store and you can cook good meals (usually variations of spaghetti bolognese) that can be re-heated for many days. These have been my staple for many student years:
  • Few powdered spices -- nothing exotic that you don't know you need or how to use. Black pepper, white pepper, paprika, basil, curry.
  • Red lentils and ground dark soy to continue or replace meat, when you feel like you've had too much of that lately.
  • A big bottle of sweet&sour thai sauce, you can add it to almost everything that is frying on a pan and it is good.
  • Few bulbs of garlic. These last for ages.
  • Olive oil or sunflower oil for cooking.
  • Various kinds macaroni, spaghetti and rice.
  • Spare boxes of crushed tomatoes. You will use lots of them.
The point is that once purchased, these last for tens of meals. For one meal, you only need to buy some fresh stuff: minced meat, (or chicken, tuna or extra vegetables, can of kidney beans) and maybe onion, tomatoes, cucumber or what you think you want to make it fresh. Cream with tomato sauces and yoghurt with chicken also goes well.

You need one kettle for macaroni/rice, and a frying pan for meat and sauce. Cooking macaroni and rice doesn't need any attention at all, so these should be done simultaneously. When you have fried onions and meat (start with oil), you add everything else: liquids, lentils and spices and let it boil at low temperature (barely boils) for 5-20 minutes. Whole operation takes from 20 to 40 minutes. I usually follow recipes for four persons and get enough food for three meals. When you have cooked and ate, pour everything into kettle and put kettle into fridge. Re-heat when necessary. Everything with lentils is more yummy at second serve.
posted by Free word order! at 4:39 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Why not check out CookingByNumbers? You click a list to say what you have in your cupboards, and it suggests recipes based on that.
posted by Solomon at 5:42 AM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Four Ingredient Cookbook. I think you might find this useful.
posted by crios at 6:00 AM on June 7, 2008

Best answer: Here is some cheap food that I eat on a routine basis; the cost per serving ranges from probably a few cents to maybe a couple of dollars.

Breakfasts -- oatmeal and other hot cereals (regular, not instant); pancakes (don't buy pre-mixed -- it's only flour, eggs, baking powder, milk (which can be instant milk, too)); fried potatoes and eggs; toast; omelet; breakfast burritos (flour tortillas, salsa, and anything like eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, etc).

Lunch and dinner: A basic strategy is to cook for leftovers (eg a big pot of chili costs maybe $15 to make (if you use meat) but can be frozen into 10-15 servings). For non-leftover meals, some examples are: ultra-basic spaghetti sauce (Bittman has some good recipes for this, with lots and lots of variation, that are better than anything that comes out of a jar, and that take only a few minutes longer than opening a jar of Ragu); tacos/burritos/enchiladas/etc involving tortillas, salsa, meat, vegies; sandwiches (can be cold, open-faced, grilled, pressed between two hot pans, etc); arroz con pollo (find a really simple recipe -- there doesn't need to be 20 ingredients and 15 steps to a basic dish like this); rice plus something tasty (like fried sausage, or stirfried vegies, or whatever, sometimes plus beans; fritatta; tortilla espanola; and on and on and on.

Basically, the way to think about it is that you are borrowing from what you might call "poor people's cooking" -- the almost universal way poor people around the world cook. You base the meal on a cheap staple (pasta, potatoes, rice, bread, beans, tortillas, cornmeal, etc), add vegies for nutrition, and add small amounts of meat and eggs, if available, for flavoring and protein. This keeps the cost per serving really low, while maintaining really good nutrition and flavor. It's amazing how flavorful dishes made with just a few ingredients can be, if you remember to use chili flakes, onion, bullion, and other basic flavorings.

And you keep things cheap by buying, say, a big bag of potatoes on sale, and then using them almost every day for a week in a bunch of different recipes (and you keep things different so it's not boring). Day one might be fried potatoes, day two is tortilla espanola, day three is cream of potato soup, then you roast cut up spuds with a couple pieces of chicken that were on sale, then you have baked potatoes with a side of chili or something else flavorful, and so on. Even with the price of rice having risen, the cost for a one or two cup serving is really, really low. A cup of rice plus a can of beans (on sale at $0.79 or less) plus some vegies (maybe a couple of dollars if things weren't on sale) makes a really cheap meal.

There was a recent AskMe about multiple day cooking, which can work out to very cheap per meal. The common example is to roast a chicken on the first day, use the chicken meat in something the second day (eg enchiladas), and make chicken soup the third (and there should be enough chicken soup to freeze some for later, so really you get four or five days out of that bird, plus some lunch sandwiches and the like). So the first day might be pricey (I payed $8.70 for a chicken the other day, not on sale) but if you price that out per meal over three or four days, that is really cheap eating. And roasting a chicken is painfully easy. Bittman has a good recipe, and so do classic cookbooks like Joy of Cooking -- you remove the giblets, rinse, (optional: put garlic and butter under the breast skin), plop in a roasting pan breast-up, put potatoes and other root vegies around the chicken, sprinkle some salt and pepper on top, and roast until done. Every recipe has a strong opinion about temperature, but honestly anything from about 350F to 425F will produce a perfectly edible bird; I preheat the oven to 450 and turn it down to 375 when I put the bird in, but just cooking it at a simple 375 works fine. Any recipe that wants you to do complicated things like trussing, brining, basting, etc should be skipped for a simple week-night roast chicken -- save those recipes for a weekend when you have the time and energy for that kind of work.

The point being, eating cheap does not mean eating unhealthy or eating bland, or eating weird processed prepared foods. It does mean being careful about waste, and learning to use a short list of ingredients in a bunch of different ways. It also means learning to really read recipes, and see what the fundamental process involved is, and how you can alter the recipe to suit your needs. Often recipes in books and magazines take something really basic and tart it up with complicated ingredients and steps -- you can often backwards engineer that recipe to find the essential parts and just make that, skipping all the extra fluff.
posted by Forktine at 6:12 AM on June 7, 2008 [19 favorites]

payed --> paid
posted by Forktine at 6:17 AM on June 7, 2008

Chicken Almondine (ooh, sounds fancy!)
Chicken Breasts
Cream of Chicken Soup
Slivered Almonds (just a handful)
preheat oven to 375 F
Mix a can of cream of chicken soup with 1/2 a can of water (this makes enough sauce for 2 chicken breasts) put the chicken breasts in a glass baking dish, and pour the soup over them. Sprinkle the almonds on top. Bake for 2 hours. Serve over mashed potatoes, rice or noodles, with a veggie of your choosing on the side (i like green beans)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:34 AM on June 7, 2008

The Hillbilly Housewife has amazingly cheap and yummy recipes. The site appears to be down right now (I linked to the Google cache of today's page), but it's definitely worth checking out.
posted by walla at 6:51 AM on June 7, 2008

Oh, and chocolate milk gives you a big bang for the buck in calories, fat, protein, calcium, and yumminess; I like my oatmeal (store brands are about a buck for a couple week's worth of breakfast) with honey, cinnamon, salt, and allspice (add ground flaxseed for Omega 3), and a big pot of turkey chili is easy to make, delicious, and can last a long time, longer if frozen.
posted by walla at 6:58 AM on June 7, 2008

Yeah, anything like chili, soup, stew, pasta sauce that you can set time aside and make from scratch in big batches and freeze is usually pretty good for stretching a buck.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:07 AM on June 7, 2008

Quick, easy and cheap recipe (that's as much of a name as I've given it)
1 5oz packet of yellow rice
1 can of chickpeas (drained)
1 can of chopped tomatoes
1 tbs olive oil

Optional ingredients:
sliced onions from salad bar (because I'm too lazy to slice a whole onion and when I need just a handful of rings, it is cheaper to buy off the salad bar)
lemon juice
sliced green olives

Drain juice from chopped tomatoes into a measuring cup, add water and lemon juice till you have 1 2/3 cups liquid (I like it lemony so mix the tomato juice and lemon juice only, no water)
Pour liquid into pot, boil
Add rice, tomatoes, chick peas, oil and any optional ingredients you want, stir it around once
Cover and simmer for 20 minutes

This recipe shouldn't cost more than $6 (much less if you are buying store brand beans and tomatoes), and will be good for 3 - 4 meals (depending on your appetite).
posted by necessitas at 7:33 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'll add a tip...if you have a muffin pan, pour things like tomato sauce into it and freeze, then pop them out into a ziploc or something for the long term. When you need the sauce for a small serving, grab one, two, or however many you need for the meal.

For example, pasta is easy to measure-out how much you need, but if cooking for one, a whole can of sauce is too much. By freezing the sauce in smaller portions, you can stretch it out further.

A little pasta, and some sauce, maybe throw some green pepper and/or tomato on, and you've got yourself a dinner.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:47 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I like oven-roasted potatoes. Chunk up potatoes, add @ 1/2 - 1 Tb. corn oil per potato, some crushed rosemary, red pepper flakes, or herb of choice, plenty of seasoned salt, toss well, bake at 400, tossing at 15 min. intervals, for 1 hour. They should be very brown. I often add kielbasa or other sausage. No salt if you add kielbasa. My son loves it. Takes an hour, but is easy. I usually serve w/ salad or steamed broccoli, cause it needs something green and fresh on the side.

Italian sausage is on sale a lot. Shred it out of the casing, brown well, drain fat. Add a jar of spaghetti sauce. Simmer for an hour, until the sausage is really tender.

Roast a chicken. 1 meal is roasted chicken, next meal or 2 is something with chicken in it, then make stock from the carcass for soup.

A lot of cheap/tasty meals rely on long, slow cooking to make the best of cheap cuts of meat. This works well in winter when the extra heat warms the house.
posted by theora55 at 8:14 AM on June 7, 2008

Tonight's "I'm totally lazy and don't want to cook" dinner:

Fresh tomatoes, chopped.
Fresh basil, chopped.
Fresh mozzarella, chopped.
Bow tie pasta cooked al dente in salted water.
Mix all of the above with some olive oil to taste and throw it in the fridge.

Voilà - cold pasta dinner. Or lunch. Or breakfast. :D

Another cold pasta with one less ingredient:

Large can of tuna.
Celery, chopped
Spiral pasta cooked al dente in salted water.
Mix it all up, throw it in the fridge. I eyeball the mayo - you can either add a ton for creamy artery clogging goodness or just enough to coat the pasta. You can also add some salt & pepper and/or a smidge of mustard if you have it on hand.
posted by romakimmy at 8:15 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Another super-easy option if you have a steamer (or are willing to buy one, should be able to get one cheap if you look around), is toss a chopped-up potato into the steamer, browse MeFi a bit, add a fish fillet, browse MeFi some more, add some greenery such as broccoli, browse MeFi some more. Add some lemon juice, and/or salt and pepper. Enjoy. With a steamer, it's almost difficult to overcook something beyond eat-ability unless left for an insane amount of time.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 8:25 AM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The bulk aisle is your friend, seriously, if you have a local store that has one. All sorts of grains, pastas, nuts, cereals, and spices that don't generally come in store-brand format. Spices in particular can be about 1000% cheaper bought a few scoops at a time from the bulk bins rather than in nice glass jars with fancy labels. Whole grains like brown rice, barley, quinoa, amaranth and spelt are wondrously inexpensive, bulk up by about 3x when cooked, and are actually good for you. Ditto oatmeal for breakfast. I think bulk rolled oats are something like 0.69/lb, and a pound of oats gets you pretty far. Fruit and vegetables that are in season and come from relatively nearby will (generally) be less expensive due to reduced transportation and storage costs, so it helps to keep that in mind when perusing recipes. Or just buy what's cheapest when you're in the produce section and plan your meals around what you can get. I tend to keep onions, garlic, celery, carrots and canned tomatoes on hand at all times -- they're core staples of my cooking. YMMV, but they're also all things that store really well, so you buy a bunch and use 'em over the course of a week or two, depending. Those green vegetable storage bags can really extend the lifetime of produce in your hydrator, btw, keeping celery stalks crispy far longer than normal.

If meat is a requirement for your diet, the best way to get it on a budget is not to buy the high-fat, hyper questionable ground beef that you can fry-up on demand, but rather to buy the larger, tougher shoulder roasts, briskets, stew meat, etc. They take longer to cook, to be sure, but it's mostly unattended, requires little prep other than browning and seasoning, and in addition to being charry-roasty-yummy, they provide leftovers for several additional meals, if planned properly. You might also consider buying a cured ham and whittling away at it over time.

You don't mention nutrition or quality in your question, just cost effectiveness and simplicity of preparation. I would encourage you to be mindful of nutrition, because if you focus solely on convenience and the bottom line in American grocery shopping, you're probably going to wind up eating a lot of canned, prepared, terrible-for-you food. Refined starches, cheap cheese and 20% fat ground beef do not treat a body kindly.

You may not want to hear this, but if you're serious about eating on a budget, you may have to explore recipes that are a bit more involved than two to four ingredients. Not that you'll always need to, but if you're in a mental place where you're willing to devote more time to food prep, you'll do a better job and appreciate the results more. It doesn't mean that the total ingredients will be more expensive, but your end product will often be more delicious. Budgetary constraint drove me to learn to routinely cook ever-more complicated, more vegetarian-oriented dishes, for which I'm ultimately thankful.
posted by mumkin at 8:40 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

My favourite meal that my grandmother made me as a kid and is still my favourite meal today is pasta and chick peas. Elbow (macaroni) pasta, a can of chick peas, garlic. Heat a pan with oil, toss in the garlic, toss in the can of chick peas (liquid and all), toss some chili flakes in if you like some heat, and let it simmer as you boil the pasta. Mix the stuff in the pan with the drained pasta, and boom: you've got what my grandmother refers to as "a pogey meal" because it's so damn cheap. It looks pretty sad but it's delicious and total comfort food for me.
posted by pised at 9:08 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Grilled cheese sammiches and tomato soup!

Also, learn to make tuna salad and chicken salad. You can spend twenty minutes making them in bulk and then not have to cook for three or four days. Plus, it's summer, and a cold salad plate is a nice dish after a hot day. And if you sub plain yogurt for mayo, it's not that bad for you, either. Here's the tuna salad recipe (the chicken salad recipe is a zealously guarded family secret):

canned tuna, drained
diced celery
diced onion
diced apple
sweet pickle relish
dill pickle relish
diced hard-boiled egg
brown mustard (I use Gulden's, you can use dijon mustard if you prefer)
lemon juice
salt & pepper

I'd give amounts, but it varies by taste. Use a sharp onion to contrast with the sweet apple, don't overdo the relish, and realize that this recipe scales up -- it's easiest to make a big batch all at once. And never ever ever use yellow mustard.

That's a lot more than 2 to 4 ingredients, but I've found that I can make tuna salad in under twenty minutes, and only get a cutting board, a knife, a spoon, and a bowl dirty. And then I've got sandwiches, salads, and tuna melts.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:27 AM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

nthing "get a rice cooker". Easy and fast.

One cheap dish I like to make is chicken Katsu:

1. Pound a chicken breast until it's 1/4" in thickness
2. Dip in flour, then egg, then japanese panko bread crumbs (or normal breadcrumbs will work too)
3. Fry in 1/4" vegetable oil until both sides are golden, approx 4-5 minutes per side
4. Cut into strips, serve with rice and bulldog Katsu sauce

Per meal, the cost is about $1 above the cost of the chicken breast (get a bulk pack of frozen ones)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:49 AM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I almost never, ever spend near $10 bucks for a full meal to feed a family of four, and we eat really well, I think (caveat: I do love to cook). Our standard Friday night dinner is homemade pizzas, and it's super easy and much cheaper than ordering out. For two: Either find a recipe for pizza dough (the cheapest) or buy dough from Trader Joe's or a local grocery store-not someplace like Whole Foods, of course. You can often get it cheaply from your local pizza parlor-buy several balls at once, put the extra in ziploc bags and freeze.

Roll out the dough as thin as you can. If you have a pizza stone, preheat it when you preheat the oven, to 375 or so. Take the stone out and sprinkle with cornmeal. Put the dough on it. Brush with pizza sauce and/or olive oil. Either buy a can of pizza sauce for a buck or so, or doctor up tomato sauce with some garlic and oregano. Sprinkle with grated mozarrella, parmesan, cheddar, or no cheese at all. Throw on your favorite toppings-we often just do olives and whatever veggies we have around, but use what you've got: leftover sausage or ground beef, broccoli, ham or bacon pieces, diced onion. This is a great way to clean out your fridge and make sure you're not wasting food (a key to eating cheaply is cooking based on what you have left in your fridge so you minimize waste).

Serve with a salad, sliced apple, steamed veggies...whatever you prefer. I'd say this runs under $5, easily.

Invest in a crock pot so you can cook beans, meats, etc, very cheaply. Also invest in a bunch of freezer ziploc bags or freezer tupperware so you can make large portions and freeze. Buy meat cuts when they are discounted-you can get whole chickens or pot roasts for $2 or $3 on loss-leader sales, keep in the freezer til you want to cook, or throw 'em in the crock pot right away, cook them, and freeze all the leftovers. Make sure not to fall into the trap of buying in bulk to save money but letting food go to waste. Here are some cheap meals that are really delicious, freeze well, and several of them are very healthy, as well:

Ellie Krieger's Nutty Sweet Potato Soup (this is very inexpensive, and incredibly delicious and rich tasting for how healthy it is. It is also vegan).

Lebanese Lentil Soup. Also amazingly rich-tasting. I add chopped carrots-you could add chopped sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, other veggies to up the nutritional value and clean out your fridge. Regular lentils work just fine in this recipe and are usually cheaper. You can add diced chicken after pureeing, too.

Pepperoncini pork. (Apologize for the self-link there). The easiest crock pot recipe ever-get a cheap boneless pork roast on sale. Dump a jar of pepperoncini over it. Cook all day. Shred and serve with tortillas, avocado, salsa, cheese. Fabulous for entertaining and makes a ton.
posted by purenitrous at 12:09 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bean and Hominy Soup made with 2 cans of beans (your choice), a can of hominy and can of rotel tomatoes and chilies. Add a teaspoon of chili powder if you like and a bit of water to thin it out. Make lots and freeze some in individual containers for lunches.

Quacamole Tacos: tortillas, store-bought quac, lettuce, tomatoes (or salsa from a jar). These are awesome. If you learn to make quacamole from scratch, they'll be even better.
posted by found dog one eye at 6:42 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where I live, store-bought rotisserie chickens are cheap enough that I rarely bother roasting my own. The meat is certainly versatile; I personally love to make chicken nachos or quesadillas (chicken, cheese, tortillas, sour cream, salsa).

Look for a “mark-downs” or “manager’s special” section at your grocer if you’re a meat fan like myself; you’ll find an occasional gem that you really ought to use the same day.

Round steak is typically cheap and benefits from braising. Basically you brown it up and let it simmer for awhile; I made this as a kid for the family all of the time:

Carve up the meat into individual servings, trim excess fat and pound it a bit if you have the time, season with salt ‘n pepper
Brown a couple minutes on each side with a little oil in a dutch oven at medium heat
Add rough-chopped mushrooms ‘n onions and enough water to cover everything up
Bring to a boil on high heat and simmer on super-low for an hour or three

You can thicken the liquid at the end to make a bitchin’ gravy for mashed potatoes. Mix a couple of teaspoons of cornstarch with a little water and whisk it in. Bring it to a boil again and voila. Add salt 'n more pepper to taste.

This is good stuff; the meat gets really tender if you let it simmer long enough.

Chuck roast is great too; I like to brown it on the stove but toss it in the oven at 300 degrees for about three hours, wrapped up in foil with the least amount of water necessary to cover the roast. You can season with Mexican flavors (cumin, garlic, lime) and make shredded-beef tacos / burritos / etc.

Roasted potatoes are awesome; the tiny reds can be pricey but I usually pick ‘em up in 5 pound bags for about the same price as the others. Make more than you need and dice ‘em up on the weekend. Brown them in bacon grease…mmm.

I never end up with rotten potatoes anymore; I always have cheese, bacon, eggs, and potatoes around. It takes about a 45-60 minutes to make a kick-ass skillet using these basic ingredients (and some seasoning) each weekend.

Never toss your bacon grease; save it for browning meat, frying eggs, etc.

On occasion I’ll make baked chicken and rice…just requires a whole cut-up chicken, a can of cream of mushroom soup, water, and rice (tarragon is nice too). Google around for a recipe. Super easy; no browning or muckin’ around, just a meal in a pan.

Braising [browning + slow cooking in liquid] is really the ticket to good flavor with cheap cuts of meat and I can’t imagine making a chili or stew without this step.

My personal strategy is to count on making sufficient leftovers so that when I don’t feel like cooking, I don’t have to, and when I do, I feel more like going “all out” and spending some time whipping something together.
posted by aydeejones at 8:39 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I made a very nice meal for two last night that was really simple:

* Take a whole chicken breast, pound it flat, salt-and-pepper it, drag it through flour.

* Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet; saute the chicken 3 minutes each side. Take it out of the skillet.

* Add a chopped garlic clove, 1/4 cup white wine, and 1/4 cup chicken broth; let that all bubble together a bit.

* Dump in a half pound of trimmed asparagus, cover, and let that steam for 3 minutes.

* Pop the chicken and the asparagus on your plate and drizzle whatever is in the skillet over it. Voila.

I also have one classic pasta recipe, and one unusual one...

Classic: Pasta Puttanesca. Your basic red marinara spaghetti sauce, with chopped olives, capers, and anchovies mixed in.

Unusual: heat up about 1/4 cup olive oil and cook 1-2 cloves chopped garlic in it. Towards the end, add a couple chopped-up anchovy fillets; the anchovy will dissolve in the oil. Which is kind of cool. Take off the heat, toss with cooked pasta and mix in about a half cup of chopped walnuts. Unusual, but good.

Then there's eggs florentine: cook up a big mess of spinach, drain it and spread it in the bottom of an oven-safe pan. Allowing 2 eggs per person, make little wells in the spinach, and break an egg into each well. Sprinkle each egg with salt, pepper, parmaesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake at about 350 for 15 minutes.

Then there's frittata: this is basically like an omlette. Take whatever you'd put in an omlette ordinarily -- peppers, ham, just about anything except cheese (that comes later) and cook it in a skillet. Beat a bunch of eggs together with some parmasesan cheese and pour them into the skillet as if you were making a big thick omlette out of them; let cook in the skillet until just set. Then add a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese or some slices of provolone and then stick the skillet under your broiler for a minute or two.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:48 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's vegetarian, but it makes this meat-eater happy when his wife doesn't cook dinner:
  • Put some corn tortillas on a cookie sheet (I prefer the sprouted kind--better texture)
  • Grate your favorite cheese over them (I prefer pepper jack)
  • Hot sauce to taste (I prefer Habanero Tobasco)
  • Broil in the oven 'til cheese melts
  • Right before eating one:
    • place a cold, crisp lettuce leaf on top
    • dust with parmesan cheese
    • fold in half
  • Enjoy (It's cheap, quick, healthy, AND good.)

posted by keith0718 at 9:21 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Hillbilly Housewife site has a $45 a week menu that serves a family of four. I've cooked it, and it's really good. In general, this site could be a killer resource for you.

Tomato and artichoke salad:
- Cut up 4 tomatoes and a can of artichokes. Mix with half a cup of vegetable oil, a quarter cup of red or white wine vinegar, and mix with a tablespoon of dry basil and tarragon.

Chicken with fresh herbs and lemon juice.
- Get some bone in chicken breasts (or whatever is cheapest). Paint the chicken with a lemon, olive oil, garlic, and fresh herb marinade every 5 or 10 minutes while broiling the chicken for half an hour or so. Grilling is great with this.

Skirt steak salad:
- Mix a skirt steak and Romaine lettuce together with some lemon juice. Pan cook the skirt steak for a couple minutes on both sides.

- Cook some tortillas with a little olive oil. Add some cheese, tomatoes, hot sauce, and whatever veggies you like.

The best advice for eating on the cheap though is to simply eat granola and yogurt for breakfast, and a simple sandwich for lunch. Plan your dinner meals for the week in advance. For meat, I have heard the cheapest is to pre-order in bulk and keep in the feezer. Pastas are great. Canned and frozen vegetables are fine and very tasty.
posted by xammerboy at 9:51 PM on June 7, 2008

Oh, and the pizza suggestion is a great one. Look on the hillbilly housewife - you can make homemade pizza for two or three dollars, and eat it for dinner on two days. Now that will save you money!
posted by xammerboy at 9:54 PM on June 7, 2008

when i was a kid, my favorite dinner was kraft macaroni & cheese, cream corn, apple sauce and baco bits all mixed up together. not recommended!
posted by snofoam at 6:47 PM on June 11, 2008

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