How these easy, cheap meals beat anything processed or prepared

November 2, 2022


A few months ago someone asked for $40 to pick up fast food for her family, as emergencies had tapped out her account. She wanted them to eat something “fresh.” (Before you get all bent out of shape about the “ask,”  it is a community where people in need of a temporary cash infusion can ask for help.)

Some background: There were times in my life that I was short. And there was a day when I worked more than full time or two jobs, and didn’t want to slave over a hot stove at the end of the day. So I learned short cuts. How to save time and money.

The post got me thinking.

I wondered why a fast food meal would be considered “fresh”?  If you want to eat “fresh,” why not make something fresh?

Also, $40 was a lot for one family meal–I wondered if she could do better with a quick home made recipe. If the money would go further. And so I did some calculating with easy recipes we have at my house all the time.

The result? These ideas for cheap eats that are not only much more affordable than fast food, but easy to fix and much better for you. Plus many can be made ahead and simply reheated on those nights when we don’t have time or energy to cook. *Pricing is several months old based on affordable grocery stores online sites, but still makes the point

Baked chicken breasts sliced over a pasta

easy-cheap-mealsThis easy one dish meal is hearty and delish, plus so healthy!  And while it’s not a lot of work at all, it’s the most work and the most expensive meal in this post, the rest are even cheaper and simpler to prepare. Although really, this isn’t hard.

Bake 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts… at Target: $11 or use dark meat–thighs and legs, even cheaper
1 lb. spaghetti OR other pasta: $1.59 max or even cheaper–like 99 cents or less.
24 oz. Prego spaghetti sauce: $3.29 or buy store brand for less
Package Birdseye brocccoli florets at Target: $2.00 or buy fresh
Package Birdseye beans  atTarget $2.00 or buy fresh
Fresh carrots are 5lb for $2.00 so a few for one meal is under a dollar: $0.50

Slice the cooked chicken. Use any combination of frozen or fresh steamed vegetables: broccoli, green beans, zucchini, carrots—covered with a decent bottled sauce. Dinner can be on the table within an hour. About $20 for a family of four. Or less.

You might even have leftovers for another meal. Or double it up and reheat later in the week, even if it’s without chicken, only veg. We do that all the time!

easy-cheap-mealsPizza! Who doesn’t love it?

Had a rough day at work? Pop a good frozen pizza or two in the oven. We just had one at lunch. It was $5 with our customer card at  Safeway, their brand, tasty. And $5!!!! We bought one for the freezer, too. Because, well, $5!  I added a green salad, but you don’t need to.

Even if you needed two pizzas for a family of four, it’s only $10, a far cry from $40. Which would buy you at 8 pizzas!  You can even add a big bottle of soda or even better, bottled or filtered water. Or make iced tea. I make a gallon using one teabag! Yummy stuff. This is affordable and appealing to most kids.

Hearty Chili

1 lb. lean ground beef cooked on top of stove: $7
3 cans chili beans: $3-6
28 oz crushed tomatoes (Walmart): $1
Package of chili spice: $1.50
Half onion, chopped & sauteed:$0.60

Put it all in a big pot (including cooked beef) and heat up for 20-25 minutes

Make some Fleischmann’s cornbread mix, with egg, milk butter: $2.50 and you will have leftovers for yet another dinner. The whole thing: $18. And you can make it on the weekend and just heat it up after work. Or make a double batch, freeze it and have another already-made meal. My husband LOVES this.

Meat Loaf is even cheaper to fix!  Burgers, even if you buy a bag of chips and some pickles and soda. Hot dogs–I know, I know, they’re not good for us but some kids love them, they’re cheap and easy and fast in a pinch..


Another cheap egg meal.

Eggs, toast and fried potatoes—just eggs, a bag of potatoes you cut and fry up, onion, butter, bread. I priced at Walmart.

Egg prices vary by state but let’s say 8 eggs, about $3. A 5-pound bag of potatoes at Walmart is under $3. You wouldn’t even use half, so let’s say maximum of $1.40. One onion, 99 cents or buy a bag and it’s less. A pound of butter, $4, would you even use a quarter pound at $1? A loaf of bread is $1. You have an entire meal for a family of four for under $8. How easy is that? Do you need $40 to feed a family of four?

And if you don’t want to take time to make potatoes, buy frozen. Walmart sells frozen hash browns for about $2. Cheap enough!

Pancakes and syrup.  Many mixes only require water added and are about $3. So is syrup. A meal for $6. Is there anything quicker or easier? Frozen waffles are $6 a family pack. Again, so easy.

Did you know you can buy a ham steak for between $5 and $7? Add some easy sides….like a baked potato. Or baked yams. Or corn, which is cheap in summer.

cheap-easy-mealsWhy not make a salad? Lettuce is cheap. And good for us. Add carrots, tomatoes or even grapes, some cuke. Or some chicken or egg for protein. Or if you have a can of tunafish. This is not heavy lifting. You can boil up an egg in 10 minutes and refrigerate for later. How about egg salad for sandwiches? Eggs and mayo.  So easy!

See what I mean? No one has to buy over-priced fast food when we can quickly fix a tasty, nutritious dinner in less than an hour (sometimes WAY less)

If you’re on a budget or running short this month, these can be easy ways to put a good meal on the table.

Are you vegetarian?

Black Beans and Rice

3 cans of black beans: under $3
One onion: $1.20
Uncle Ben’s boil-in bagged rice: 2 bags: $1.75 (one box with 4 bags is $3.50)

Saute chopped onion in big pan. Add beans and heat through. Turn to low for 5-7 minutes. Make rice on stovetop. You’ll probably have leftovers. This is another one you can make on the weekend. But it really only takes about 20 minutes max.

Umm…that’s only $6. And there will be leftovers for another dinner. We just had it the other night and we love it!  Splurge on a loaf of French bread to dip in: $6 max, which makes your total $12. Or a small tub of sour cream and some cheddar you can shred on it. Or buy rolls cheaper. There are so many options for this.

I’m not sure if young people today just don’t know that they can usually make something quick and delicious–for far less than buying fast food. Or maybe they don’t want to cook? or even HEAT UP?

I’m here to tell you that making pancakes is hardly cooking. Same for black beans and rice.

And before you assume I’m being elitist, I’ll remind you that I learned all this because yes, for a very long time, I needed to budget both time and money. Just like everyone else. And that’s how I learned these great short cuts to easy, cheap meals.

And oh, gosh, don’t forget my shop, here:


8 comments on “How these easy, cheap meals beat anything processed or prepared
  1. Lynda Beth Unkeless says:

    So practical, thrifty, and delicious!

  2. Alana says:

    In addition to families: This is exactly the kind of education high schoolers need to get in school, so they can stop the cycle of fast food dependency. Canned tomatoes, especially, can be the budget person’s best friend. Also (if the family isn’t allergic) eggs, although their price has skyrocketed. Although many nutritionists would steer past the pizza (high sodium), it’s a good alternative for the time-crunched cook, especially one working two jobs.

    • Eggs really have gone up a lot. Yes, nutritionists don’t like a frozen pizza but on those crunch nights and also when you have kids who are fast foodies, it can be a lifesaver. And so cheap!

  3. I prefer fresh to frozen and homemade to bottled, but if you’re looking for quick, inexpensive meals, you’re right, even using packaged products is going to get you a healthier meal than fast food.

  4. Linda Hobden says:

    I love to cook. Curries, casseroles and pasta dishes are my go to. If I am really in a hurry – jacket potatoes in a microwave (6 mins for a large potato) and topped with grated cheese or baked beans or tuna in spring water mashed with mayo or homemade chilli….

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