4 go-to meals for healthy eating on a shoestring budget

Guest post by Knitty Kitty

Sometimes it can be really hard to eat healthy, tasty food when money is a bit tight. So I thought I might share some of my favourite cheap and healthy meals that can be made in advance.

1. Pasta sauce

A basic pasta sauce can contain literally anything you would like. As a base I normally use tinned tomatoes or passata (tomato purée), an onion, and some garlic, with salt and black pepper. After that the sky is the limit!

Great additions can be:

  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Peppers
  • Herbs (basil goes with most things)
  • Scallions
  • Mushrooms
  • Meat (ground beef and chicken chunks are great but use whatever is fresh and cheap where you are)
  • Carrots

Fry off the onion, garlic and any other veg you think warrant it and then add your tomatoes or passata. You can use large chunks of veggies for a more rustic feel or chop small for a smoother sauce. You could even use a stick blender to get a really smooth sauce. Simmer until all the vegetables are tender, and serve over freshly cooked pasta. This sits really nicely in the fridge and freezes really well for later in the week too.

2. Spanish(ish) Omelet

The basic ingredients are eggs, new potatoes (cooked and drained), and onion, after that you can add whatever you fancy. Chorizo is excellent, as is chicken, and most of the vegetables listed above will work great as well. I tend to use about 10 eggs to make a large frying pan worth.

Fry up all of the vegetables and meat ingredients, then pour over the beaten eggs with salt and black pepper, and cook over a low heat. Once the bottom is mostly set put the pan under a grill to cook the top of the omelet, maybe with some grated cheese.

This will keep nicely in the fridge for a couple of days, to re-heat just fry on both sides for a few minutes until hot through.

3. Pesto pasta

This is my ultimate lazy weekday dinner. Cook up some pasta according to the instructions and drain. Add some green pesto (about a teaspoon at a time) to taste, and toss in some left over cooked chicken if you have any.

4. Risotto

I know risotto sounds scary but it can be so so simple, all you have to remember is to keep stirring! Again, start with an onion, some risotto rice, and as much vegetable stock as the packet instructions say. Then add tasty ingredients (really great for left overs). My personal favourites are:

  • Bacon and frozen peas
  • Chicken and mushrooms
  • Prawns and scallions (can be a bit pricey depending on where you live)

Fry the onion and any meat, mushrooms until they are appropriately cooked and then add the risotto rice. Fry the rice as well for a minute or so and then add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly. If you keep stirring the risotto will become beautifully creamy and then add anything like frozen peas right at the end. You can even add a splash of white wine in with the stock if you have any and feel really fancy.

This will keep for a couple of days but isn’t as nice and tends to go a bit dry when re-heating so add a splash more stock if you’re going to microwave it.

As always when making food with leftovers make sure you cover and chill the leftovers as soon as possible and when re-heating make sure they are piping hot all the way through before you eat them, especially if there is any meat or fish involved.

Anyone else got any great ideas for cheap meals?

Comments on 4 go-to meals for healthy eating on a shoestring budget

  1. My favorite lately is sauteing smoked sausage or chorizo with frozen okra and canned tomatoes with some creole seasoning. It makes at least 4 meals for me and can be extended if I add rice or pasta.

  2. I like having potatoes on hand. I can make baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, baked fries, or even some baked chips. I’m sure there’s a lot more you can do with them, but those are the big things that come to mind that can be paired with a meat or veggies.

    • Yes Danielle, I also keep baked potatoes for busy weeks! Baked potatoes are great for leftovers. If you have a small amount of a leftover just put it on a baked potato.

  3. Indian food is actually incredibly cheap and easy once you’ve got the spices in your pantry — and honestly, spices are the most cost efficient way to make your food flavorful and interesting. We swear by what is fondly known as Purina Grad Student Chow, a take on sambhar that is incredibly cheap. You saute an onion in oil or butter until translucent, add in some garlic and ginger, and when that smells fragrant and lovely, add in some worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, and a good heap of either curry powder or curry paste. I add smoked paprika and extra coriander to mine, but it’s a taste issue. When that smells incredible and the spices are starting to ever so slightly brown, chuck in a can of diced tomatoes with their liquid, 2 cups of red lentils, and enough water or chicken stock to cover the mess and give it a soup-like consistency. Bring it to a simmer, stir it a bit, then drop the heat, pop the lid on, and walk away. Come back every so often to give it a stir, add more water/broth if it’s sticking. In about 35-45 minutes, your lentils should be a yellowish brown colour and breaking down. You want them to be very soft. When they are, add in whatever frozen veg you’ve got — we like peas and spinach, but the world is your oyster. Cook together for another 5-10 minutes, season to taste, and there you are. Eaten over rice, it’s an incredibly filling meal, and you can make this in vast batches, as it freezes beautifully.

    Our other cheap go-to is West African peanut soup. (Our cheap meals are all vegetarian, unsurprisingly.) This is another super easy thing, and it highlights foods that are really good for you: collard greens and sweet potatoes. Saute a diced onion in oil or butter, add some minced garlic and ginger, a dash of coriander, salt and pepper, and when that’s all nice and translucent, add in 6 cups of water or broth and a diced sweet potato or two. Carrots go well in here, too. Cook that together for 20 minutes. In a heat-proof bowl, mix 3/4 cup peanut butter with 1/2 tomato paste. It’s hella sticky, so add a ladle of hot broth to thin it out. Keep adding until it’s thin enough to pour, and add all of that to your pot. Roughly chop some collard greens, leaving out the stems, and toss those in as well. Add siracha or hot sauce if you want to. Simmer together for 15 minutes, and there you are. It’s great alone, great over rice. You can add chopped peanuts to it if you want texture. It freezes well, reheats beautifully, and it’s got a great depth of flavour and a satisfying mouth feel. It doesn’t feel like cheap eats, that’s for sure!

    Basically, peasant food around the world is a goldmine for cheap eats. It tends to use vegetables and focuses on producing things like stews and soups that can be stretched over rice, pasta, or other starches/carbs. Meat, if at all present, becomes a flavouring instead of the American focus on meat as the main part of the meal — dishes like red beans and rice demonstrate the principle well, as the sausage or bacon is there to give smoky depth and fat to the pot instead of being the star. This approach is often better for you and better for your budget. And if you’re near an ethnic/hispanic/asian grocer’s, the ingredients can often be had for cheap as well, especially when compared to the prices in a mainstream grocer’s ethnic aisle.

    • That is almost exactly how I make an adapted version of dal palak! You can also simmer the lentils, tomatoes, toasted spices, and liquid in a slow cooker. I made a huge batch of this and froze it, so I can make variations basee on what veggies I have on hand that week.

    • If you use red lentils especially, this can be ready with no planning in under an hour. Garlic, onions, ginger all store for very long periods of time and lentils are pantry staples. This freezes super well, so we’ll do a yellow lentil which takes longer and cook a double or triple batch and freeze.

    • I discovered the joys of Kedgeree recently – it’s so cheap and mostly the ingredients are things you’ll have in your pantry already. It’s literally frying onion with some ginger, then a good 2 tablespoons of curry powder, a chopped tomato, and some lemon juice, then fish (it’s supposed to be smoked haddock but I use tinned mackerel for extra convenience and cheapness!) and rice, then lash in some chopped chilli and coriander at the end, and top with a hard boiled egg. It is SO tasty and keeps really well – I’ll often make it at the weekend for brunch and then have it for dinner. Since discovering that I am on the hunt for more recipes that use basic ingredients and spices – thanks for the recommendations! I’m so hungry now!

  4. Stir fry! Such an easy way to use up a bunch of ‘almost ready to toss’ veggies. And b/c you can add any mix of veggies and protein, you can just pick what’s on sale. And bulk buying your favorite accompaniment- rice, quinoa, etc…. to round it out. Affordable, tasty, healthy, and uses up a bunch of stuff sitting in your veggie drawer. It also is a great use for frozen veggies so you have a healthy meal on-hand without worrying about it spoiling if you don’t use the ingredients you planned to right away.

    • My husband and I make stir frys a lot and after experimenting with different sauces this recipe is my favorite:
      4 teaspoons light brown sugar
      4 tablespoons light soy sauce
      1 cup veggie stock
      1-2 tablespoons chili oil (depending how spicy you want it)
      We like to mix it with the veggies and rice altogether at the end so that everything is evenly coated and the rice soaks up some of the sauce.

  5. Vegetable soup with bread and cheese.
    Just toss 2 diced potatoes, a couple of diced veggies, a handful of lentils, spices. Cook until tender and mix the thing until smooth. It takes roughly as much time as making pasta and makes a welcome change. I love to eat it with diced cheese and some bread.

    Ideas for veggie associations:
    – pumpkin and onion
    – leek and carrot -my grandma’s favorite)
    – broccoli and cauliflower
    And I tend to think a pinch of curry lifts up any bland food.

  6. Tuna pasta salad. Cook up a pot of your favorite pasta, like penne or rotini, mix it well with olive oil, a little salt and a lot of pepper, and a splash of red wine vinegar. If you want it cold chill the pasta in the fridge. Then add your favorite toppings. My husband and I add: tuna, fresh basil, kalamata olives, feta cheese, grape tomatoes sliced in half, peas, minced garlic, and zucchini. You can saute the veggies if you want it warm, or you can throw everything in raw and have a cold pasta salad in summer. Super easy, minimal chopping, only one pot and one bowl used, tasty and filling, and makes tons of leftovers. If you’re gluten free you can substitute your own pasta, and if you’re watching carbs you can use a cheese slicer on zucchinis to make veggie “pasta” ribbons, or massage some kale and throw it in.

  7. We are in a soups/stews/chilis place right now, owing to the fact that it is effing cold where we live…and those things are generally cheap to make. But we have a few other cheap-o meals that we love:

    Black bean enchiladas
    *whatever’s on sale* korma
    Roast chicken and the millions of leftovers that can be made with chicken
    Salmon cakes (made with canned salmon), potato wedges, and peas. This was the recipe that kept us going through college because it was dirt cheap to make, and is actually excellent brain food.
    Quiche or fritatta with random leftovers as filling

  8. My go-to has been rice and lentil pilaf. Rinse and dump one cup each of brown lentils and black rice into a rice cooker, plus four cups water and a heaping tablespoon of low sodium chicken Better than Bullion (so much cheaper and easier than stock!). When it’s getting close to cooked, I’ll throw in a bunch of kale, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces. You can also add onion at the beginning for extra flavor. It’s best if you saute the onion in oil first but if I’m feeling lazy I’ll dump it into the rice cooker raw. Super tasty, easy, and when you use produce from the farmer’s market and bulk rice and lentils, cheap!

  9. Chili! It is the perfect blank slate. You can use fresh or frozen veggies, whatever is on hand, ground meat if you have it. I like to use lentils for veggie chili because they give a good mouth feel and they are cheaaaaaap, but you can use almost any bean.

  10. Egg fried rice is our go-to quick, cheap, easy dinner option. Cook one cup of rice well ahead of time – you really want it to be fridge-cold when you fry it.

    When you’re ready to cook, heat some oil in a wok or a frying pan and when it’s hot, put in your rice. Toss it to make sure all the grains are coated. Let it fry while you beat up some eggs with a little salt and pepper – we do three eggs for two people, but you could use less or more – and chop up a couple of scallions/green onions/spring onions. You’ll know the rice is good to go when it smells amazing and you start getting lightly browned crispy bits on the bottom. It should take about 5 minutes.

    In go some frozen peas and any other quick-cooking veges you feel like adding – I sometimes use cabbage, grated carrot, corn, whatever. Give those a bit of a stir until they start to thaw, and push it to the side so you have enough room for your egg. Tip your eggs in and let them start to go all omelettey. Stir them and cut them until you have lots of nice chunks of cooked egg, and stir the egg through your rice. Take it off the heat, stir in soy sauce to taste and your spring onions, and plate up! If you like it, squirt over some Sriracha.

    This one serves two people quite happily. I like it because you can shove in whatever you have to hand – and because you’ve cooked the rice well ahead of time, it takes a maximum of 15 minutes from “hmmm, might be time to make some dinner” to “damn, that’s a good feed”.

  11. My new favorite is frying up some bacon until crispy, making bacon bits out of it, then dumping some olive oil and kale (I use frozen for convenience) into the same pan I fried the bacon in, swishing it around until done-ish, then adding the bacon bits back and mixing it altogether. Sometimes I put it on a plate or in a bowl before I eat it. Depends how tired I am.

  12. We do eggs in purgatory a few times per month, probably. It’s just a large can of crushed tomatoes seasoned with garlic, chile flake, smoked paprika. The variations are endless, but that’s our go-to. When its hot and bubbly crack some eggs directly in and cover it. Turn the heat low and cook until the eggs are to your preference. Grate parmesan over it. Serve by itself if you’re low carbing it, or with roast potatoes or crusty bread. Cheap and so delicious.

  13. Our go-to is stir-fry, which I see a few other people have mentioned. One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned though is garbanzo beans (or chick peas, depending on where you hail from). At least in the midwest, they are insanely cheap, like $0.89 per can, and that’s for the organic ones. You can mix garbanzos with just about any flavor/spice combination, and they’ll be delicious. My favorite recipes with them tend to have Moroccan spice influences. 🙂

  14. Our go-to cold meal is a rinsed can of chickpeas, a couple of chopped avocados, and a couple of chopped apples with lemon juice, a little olive oil, and salt and pepper – keeps well in the fridge, and is perfect for lunches at work. So good!

  15. I have recently discovered the delight that is Lizano, (a sauce from Costa Rica that you can get on Amazon). I make some brown rice, throw in a bunch of black beans, a little bit of shredded cheddar, and about 2 tbsp Lizano (per serving). No other spices are necessary. Mix it up, microwave it to melt the cheese, and you have a delicious and protein-rich meal. Before I discovered Lizano, I would put in garlic and onion powder, and occasionally tomatoes and/or corn, and even kale. It’s almost like a chili, but you can microwave it!

  16. I like to sautee sliced kielbasa sausage, chopped onions, chunks of green apple (peel on because I’m lazy!), and sliced green cabbage in a little butter or olive oil. Once it is all cooked down to the texture you want, I add a little plain greek yogurt or sour cream (depending on what is in the fridge) and salt and pepper to taste. I microwave a red potato until it is soft (peel on of course, takes about 5 minutes). Smash the potato in the bottom of a bowl and top with the cabbage mixture. One of my favorite winter meals because it is hearty but you’re still eating a lot of veggies.

    Another option would be a baked potato/sweet potato. I never actually bake mine in the oven because I am too lazy and usually want to eat ASAP. Microwaving a potato is super quick, takes anywhere from 5-10 minutes depending on the size of your potato. Top it with greek yogurt, leftovers…whatever strikes your fancy.

  17. Try this 4 ingredient Curried Mince, it’s my husband’s favorite!
    1kg regular quality mince, 2 big tablespoons of tomato paste, 3 really big spoons of curry paste (I use Rogan Josh curry paste for this, Pataks is a great brand), about 250ml of coconut milk.
    Fry the mince until it is very crumbley and caramelised (you want a nice rich colour, grey is not done).
    Add in the curry paste and tomato paste, mix to coat mince.
    Add in coconut milk and simmer over low heat a few minutes, adding some water if necessary.
    DONE. Serve with rice. Optional but recommended: yoghurt, chutney and whatever frozen vegetable you have.

    • Sorry for my ignorance, but what is mince? I have heard of mincing things (like minced onions), and I have heard of mincemeat, but neither seem to fit your recipe… Enlighten me? Because the rest sounds delicious!

      • Haha, I’m sorry! I should have specified that important detail, it’s beef mince. But I guess you could use another meat if you like, lamb might be quite nice (but a bit more expensive).

      • Mince, when used in a savoury food context, is the British term for ground meats, like the American ground beef. Per Rua’s note, this recipe can be used with ground (mince) beef or lamb.

        Patak’s is an Indian condiments/grocery brand, based in the UK. I agree with Rua here — they make tasty, easy-to-use sauces and pastes that really “lift up” a simple weekday dinner. You can get their curry paste on the ethnic food aisle in some larger grocery stores in the US, like Giant groceries, I believe.

        Hope that translation helps! This recipe sounds delicious. Will be trying it myself, Rua! 🙂

  18. Tinned Tuna Curry. It’s the cheapest, most delicious thing ever. With hot white rice. Yum! We just use yellow curry with this one. Not sure if green or red would taste as good. And we add sweet potatoes instead of potatoes. And whatever vegetables we might have on hand. I’ve tried using fresh coconut milk vs evaporated milk. Funnily enough, the version using evaporated milk tasted better. I’ve no idea why! And i add a bit of butter after turning off the stove. Makes for a really luxurious curry that practically came out of a can. 😀

  19. We’ve been on an enchilada kick lately! I’ve discovered the filling is extremely versatile and inexpensive and lately I’ve been making the filling in the crock pot. I start with only 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts and throw in whatever veggies I had on hand (bell pepper, onion, some frozen spinach, frozen corn, sliced mushrooms, etc.) to bulk it out and some homemade enchilada sauce from Budget Bytes (try it! way easier than I thought and tastes so much better than canned sauce!). We shred the chicken and with all the bulked up veggies and sauce, I’ve been able to make 2 large (12 enchiladas) casseroles, plus leftover filling for a quick taco salad. We like spreading some refried beans on corn tortillas, add a few tablespoons of the chicken+veggie filling and a dollop of ricotta cheese–ricotta melts nicely and lasts a while in the fridge.

    It might have been said but the best thing we do for our budget is menu plan, bring our own lunches, and grocery shop once a week. Keeps costs way down, and it’s much healthier to prep our own meals. We have a “pantry fund” also–any extra change or $1 bills go in there and it helps when we need to replenish more $$$ staples like olive oil. The hardest part of the shoestring budget is it takes more time but at least our bank accounts are happier!

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