Dirt Cheap Meals for When You’re Broke
When it comes to budgeting, one of the easiest places to overspend is the food category. We’re so busy running from work to picking up kids to extracurricular activities, it’s almost impossible to find the will or energy to cook dinner every night.
And now that we’re stuck in pandemic mode, it’s even harder. It’s a tough balance between wanting to support local businesses and saving every penny you possibly can.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household spent $3,008 eating out1.
$3000? That’s a reeaaaaally nice vacation, right? Or a heck of a jumpstart on a college fund, retirement savings, or debt repayment. When you give the savings a monetary value, like $3,000, it helps to make it easier to set budget goals and cut back on eating out.
Even if you fight the temptation to eat out, then we have to have meal plans in plan. I don’t know about you, but often it can be tempting to just slosh down a bowl of cereal in front of each kid and call it a day. Especially after a long day at work when my husband’s working late and no one is there to witness my lack of cooking.
What do You Eat when You’re Broke?
The key to keeping costs down is to figure out what foods are the cheapest per serving, and then whip them together into a meal you actually want to eat. Cheaper foods are going to be things like oats, rice, and beans. Using these as staples for your dirt cheap meals will help to cut costs and fill your belly as well.
So how do you feed your family on a tight budget (with no time or energy)? By creating a list of go-to favorite dirt cheap meals that can be made easily with items you always have in stock.
Thankfully, there are a ton of easy dirt cheap meals out there that are quick, effortless and cheap. It’s just a matter of making a quick meal plan for the week and getting the groceries. (Thank goodness for grocery pick up and delivery, right?)
If you’re looking for what to cook for under $10 a meal, I’ve got you covered here with a ton of great dinner ideas to help you save money.
Quick Tips on How to Eat Dirt Cheap
Thankfully, there are a ton of quick and easy shortcuts to make cheap meal plans on a budget. These tips will help you create super quick dinner ideas that can be whipped together in a matter of 30 minutes or less.
Let me be the first to tell you: it’s ok to take shortcuts. If you want to buy frozen, pre-cooked chicken breasts, great. If you want to buy frozen vegetables, do it! It’s impossible to do cheap dinners every night, exactly how you want to. But what you can aim for is to do better than before.
If you went out to eat five times a week, aim to only go out three times a week to start. Doing it perfectly is not going to happen. But doing it better than last week can.
What is the Cheapest Food to Buy?
Some of the cheap food to buy when you’re broke are items like rice, beans, pasta, and vegetables. Cutting out meat for even one meal a week can help you save money. Try picking one dinner a week that can be made without meat and add it to your broke meal plan.
Some foods to consider that will help lower your costs are:
- Eggs (Egg salad sandwiches, anyone?)
- chicken thighs (instead of chicken breasts)
- Blocks of cheese
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
Buy and prep meat in bulk.
For other meals that include meat, find the best place to buy meat in bulk and freeze or prep at once. Some people shop at local farms for larger meat orders. Others use services like the now defunct Zaycon, which I loved and am so sad that it shut down.
Another great idea is to purchase a rotisserie chicken and use the meat in multiple recipes. The hard work of cooking the chicken has already been done for you, so you just need to figure out what recipes you want to use it in.
Consider using frozen vegetables and fruits.
People diss frozen fruit and veggies, but they’re flash frozen which actually locks in more nutrients. Unless you have the time to properly prepare and blanch vegetables, frozen is a great option. Plus, they won’t go bad before you can use them the same way fresh produce does. (I’m looking at you, bananas!)
Get help with trimming your grocery budget and meal planning.
If you still need additional help with cutting your grocery budget, I highly recommend the Grocery Budget Makeover. We were able to cut our grocery budget in half by using the steps in this course to plan dirt cheap menus!
Now that we have some cheap grocery shortcuts out of the way, here’s some quick healthy dinner ideas.
Learn how to coupon.
If you’ve never tried it, couponing can be amazing. It takes some organization and consistency, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never go back. Learn more about how to get the most out of couponing here.
Use cash back apps.
Similar to couponing, using cash back apps are a great way to save money when you just don’t have the time or organizational skills to coupon. It’s an easy hack to still save money on things you’d buy anway. Some of my favorite cash back apps are ibotta and TopCashBack. You can learn more about all of the cash back apps I use here.
Grow your own food.
Learning how to grow your own food has an upfront cost, but once you’ve got your setup in place, it can really pay off. Not only can you grow your own fruits and vegetables, but you can raise your own animals as well. My parents raised turkeys when I was young as well as grew vegetables. It was quite the fun experience!
What is the Cheapest Meal to Make?
Below are tons of great option for what you can cook for under $5 or $10. Whether you’re looking for cheap dinner ideas for two, or cheap meals for a week for a family, these are the best to try out:
Basic Cheap Easy Meals on a Budget
Simple, quick and perfect for a late dinner. They’re easy to adapt to everyone’s preferences and you can even pre-cook the bacon (or turkey bacon) in the oven. Win-win!
Paninis and Sandwiches
Nothing’s easier than making a sandwich (Except maybe cereal…). They’re just so easy to dress up with some nice bread, condiments and sides to make it a filling meal. Throw it in a panini press and it’s a great way to treat yourself after a long day at work.
Whether they’re premade from the deli, or you’ve cooked it all day in your crockpot, soups are an easy and cheap dinner idea. Pair it with a sandwich or a nice crusty loaf of French bread and salad, and you’ve got a really easy and filling meal.
Sausage, Peppers & Onions
A classic and easy meal, just slice and sautee peppers, onions and sausage. From hot Italian sausage to turkey kielbasa, this cheap dinner idea is really versatile. Throw it on a hoagie bun or a bed of rice and you’ve got a meal.
Cheap Meals for Large Families
Figuring out cheap recipes for families – whether small or large – is easy by finding ways to purchase and cook in bulk. Hearty comfort meals that are filling and served family style are perfect for large families:
Chili with Cornbread
The beauty of chili is that it can be cooked on the stove, in a crockpot, or with an instapot. It’s easy to make large batches of, and the ingredients are relatively cheap. It can be served with sides to cater to everyone’s tastes: chopped onions, peppers, cheese or sour cream.
Cornbread is the perfect side to chili and there are a ton of great recipes out there. It can be savory or sweet, made in cast iron or a 9×11 pan. Again, the variations are endless depending upon who you’re feeding!
Potato Sausage Foil Packs
While these usually remind people of camping, they’re an easy way to cook something delicious with easy clean up, which I’m all for!
Traditionally, these are usually potato, onion and sausage. But you can mix it up and add:
- A variety of veggies, like chunks of corn cobs, green beans, or zuchinni
- Herbs, spices or sauces to give it different flavors
- Different meats, such as chicken, shrimp or cuts of beef
If you have not tried Shepherd’s Pie, you are missing out. Then some amazing beef stew, topped with mashed potatoes that have been slightly crisped on top in the oven. But a zillion times better than that description.
We used to go to a fabulous Scottish Pub in Pittsburgh that served chicken Shepherd’s Pie. It has chicken, mushrooms, carrots, onions, and an amazing sauce that could have had Guiness in it. It was a thing of beauty.
You can find packets in the spice aisle at the grocery for Shepherd’s Pie to create the sauce/flavoring for you. Just add your choice of meat, cooked vegetables, and top with mashed potatoes. Perfect for a cold winter night as well as a big family.
Casseroles of any form are an easy go-to for cheap healthy meals for family. I love them because you can fit vegetables, protein and a big ol’ helping of comfort food together in one dish. Easy clean up, right?
If you’re looking for inspiration, think back to what your mother or grandma used to make. Unless it’s Tuna Surprise (sorry mom, love you but NOT the Tuna Surprise). Then your next best bet is to hit up Pinterest for some quick and easy casserole ideas that the family will love.
Cheap, Easy Healthy Meals
Some of our favorite cheap family meals are vegetarian, since we don’t eat a lot of meat in our house. We tend to eat a lot of beans and soy sausage, along with chicken. Some of our favorite recipes are:
Stir fry is so quick and easy to make you don’t even need a recipe. Just grab your favorite vegetables, a bottle of you favorite teryaki or stir fry sauce. Don’t forget to add seasame seeds, nuts, and spices. Make some rice, or, if you want to get fancy, noodles and fry it all up in some seasame oil.
Baked potatoes are a great cheap dinner idea and can be made in the oven or the crockpot and topped with just about anything, like:
- Vegetables like steamed broccoli or sauteed mushrooms and onions
- Proteins like shredded chicken or bacon
- Any type of cheese
- Condiments like hot sauce, pesto, or sour cream
Some combinations to try:
- Chili and cheddar cheese
- Cheese, sour cream, chives and bacon
- Black beans and salsa
- Cottage cheese, black pepper and chives
- Gorgonzola and buffalo sauce, sour cream, green onions
- BBQ pulled chicken or pork with cheddar cheese
- Fried egg and sriracha
- Fajita seasoning with grilled chicken, peppers and onions, topped with sour cream
Another vegetarian cheap dinner idea is to grab a bag of mixed salad greens and top them with whatever you’re in the mood for. Grab crutons, cheese, chickpeas, nuts, or hard boiled eggs. Or try a sweeter salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, and feta cheese. Use whatever toppings you have to build a salad and make a super quick and easy meal.
Quick Dinner Ideas with Chicken
Some of the best super cheap healthy family meals use chicken. It’s a cheaper option for protein for meat eaters, and is versatile enough to create a variety of dirt cheap meal ideas. Chicken can create the perfect comfort food, spicy entree, or healthy dinner idea for kids. Certain cuts are cheaper than others, such as chicken thighs. Stores like Aldi’s or a purchasing in bulk from local farm options can help to cut meat costs as well. Some great quick dinner ideas with chicken are:
Chicken Crockpot Meals
I have a ton of great chicken slower cooker and instapot recipes that I’ve found through Pinterest. I love that I can set it up in the morning and have dinner ready by the time I’m done with work. I just make some rice and cook some vegetables, and dinner is served!
If you’re not sure where to start, these are my absolute favorite go-to crockpot recipes. Even better, these recipes are freezer meals that you can prep on the weekend and throw in the crockpot each morning. Our favorites is the Crockpot Cafe Rio Chicken, which is even a hit with the kids.
Chicken Fried Rice
The beauty of chicken fried rice, besides being easy, is that you can adjust it according to what you have in the fridge. No egg? No problem. Don’t have any peas? Add extra carrots. Chicken fried rice also doesn’t need much meat either, so it’s a great way to stretch the some kitchen staples into a full meal.
Chicken and Dumplings
My kids love this – and it’s so easy. Chicken and dumplings is the perfect comfort food for a cold day. It’s one of those great family dinner ideas for those busy nights of activities and homework as well. This recipe is the one we use and love!
Dirt Cheap Meals for Kids
While it’s easiest to opt for cereal or peanut butter and jelly when it comes to feeding the kids, there are still plenty of easy kid friendly dinner recipes to try. They don’t have to be complicated or a crazy ton of work to be meals kids love.
Try any of these healthy kid friendly meals on a budget to help make it through the week:
Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Soup
Grilled cheese and tomato soup is a childhood classic, and for good reason. It’s easy to make and everyone loves it. Try switching it up with different combinations of cheese or other types of soup. Don’t forget to make your homemade soup with an instant pot to extend your savings.
Another great childhood classic are Sloppy Joes, which can be made with ground beef or turkey. Kick it up a notch by making Korean BBQ or Buffalo Chicken Sloppy Joes. Use your favorite buns, or use thick sliced bread to make a grilled cheese Sloppy Joe combo. Sloppy Joe mix can be thrown it in a casserole dish and top with tater tots to give it a new spin. The possibilities are endless, and Pinterest has some great recipes on how to mix it up.
Breakfast for Dinner
Often called “brinner”, breakfast for dinner is a great way to serve a balanced meal without too much effort. Whether it’s pancakes and sausage, oatmeal with berries, or eggs with toast, kids love breakfast. Serving it at dinnertime adds an extra bit of excitement to the meal as well!
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs is a cheap easy healthy meal that you can be sure the kids will eat. Really, any pasta and sauce will do, right? I usually end up making two batches of sauce – one a more traditional (plain) style of the kids, and a a second batch with onions, mushrooms and spices for my husband and I. There are a million combinations of pasta, sauce and additional add-ins that you’re sure to find something that pleases everyone.
Whether breakfast or bean, burritos are a healthy dinner ideas for kids that they’ll love to eat. Any combination of toppings make a personalized meal for each family member, and setting out the ingredients allows them to build their own. Less work for you and more fun for the kids!
With so many options to choose from, it’s easy to find extremely cheap meals to feed your family, no matter what their tastes. Use these ideas to help build a repertoire of go-to meals when time of short and budgets are tight.
Using these dirt cheap meals for lunch or dinner will help you to not only save money, but to also eat out less. When you have a backup plan for those crazy busy nights with the family, you’ll be much less likely to eat out. Now that you know what to eat when you’re broke, don’t forever to learn how to trim your monthly grocery budget as well!
Still don’t feel like cooking? Check out this list of cheap places to eat for more inspiration!
A forty-ish web designer/developer by day, a budget & financial fanatic by night. I’m a mom, wife, avid reader, and DIY enthusiast who’s tracking our journey to debt freedom. Read More