To some extent, this will just be a collection of “not quite a recipe”. For generations, folks cooked up what they had to make something they could eat. No books. No measuring cups. Not a lot of choice of ingredients. This doesn’t go that far, but it isn’t a “cook by numbers” either. To some extent it drives me nuts to see folks chop up a cup of celery, and throw out 1/4 cup that was “overage”, just because the recipe says “one cup”. For most meals, the ingredient proportions can vary a lot and it’s still good to eat. So many of these are of the form “cook some of this and dump some of that on it”, where you can choose what looks good and tastes good to you.
All of these are things I’ve cooked on a regular basis. Generally they are cheap, but sometimes it depends on what you do in selecting ingredients. Or what sizes you buy.
So first off, a few notes on buying stuff, and then a list of things to make.
Learn to think about food in terms of $/pound (or €/Kg). Your body does not really care if it is a pound of lentils or a pound of lima beans or a pound of pinto beans. It only cares a little bit about a pound of wheat flour compared to a pound of rice or a pound of Corn Flakes. Now look at the cost / pound of those corn flakes vs flour. Last I looked the flour was running about 50 ¢/pound while the corn flakes were closer to $4 / lb (though it will vary a lot by size and where you buy it).
Recently, I bought some chicken to BBQ. Wings (that are a ‘crap part’, only made trendy by Buffalo Wings) were going for $4 / lb while thighs were $1.69 / lb and whole chickens were about $1 / lb. So by letting go of “Buffalo Wings” and making strips of meat into “Buffalo Strips” you can cut the cost to less than 1/2. Learning to cut up and butcher a chicken can cut your costs to about 1/4. Even the bones can be used to make stock, so are not a waste.
That leads to the second big point:
Buy large packs and break it up and repack it yourself. But watch out for “Freezer bags”. Yes, simple and easy to use, but at about $1/4 each, not cheap. Re-usable freezer canisters / tubs are better. Even some kinds of canning jars can be used in the freezer (look for a statement on the box that they are for freezer use. The ones that have straight sides with a taper, like wide mouth quarts or one pint jelly jars are usually OK.)
Plastic wrap is a lot cheaper than Zip Lock bags, if you find you can’t buy tubs right now.
Often the “bulk pack” can be 10% to 20% cheaper. That’s 10-20% more food you get to eat.
More on food storage is here:
No, you don’t need to jump into it all at once. It’s cheaper to ease your way in (and a limited monthly budget may mandate that anyway). So maybe you buy rice in 1 lb bags this week, then next week after some jelly jars are empty and washed, you move up to 2 or 4 lb bags. Then in a month or two, with the money saved by careful cooking and buying, get some jars, then…
Eventually, you can buy in large bulk. Flour, rice, beans; all of them can be bought for extremely cheap in 25 to 50 lb bags. Sometimes down around 25 ¢/ lb. Best prices tend to be at COSTO, Walmart, BJ’s, Sam’s Club and similar bulk sellers. Sometimes nearly the same price is on the Large Size isle of the local grocery store. Take notes when buying your 1 lb bags of the prices on 10, 20, and even 50 lb bags. Even if you have no intent to ever by a 50 lb bag of beans, price it. Find the cost / lb. KNOW how much premium you pay for a 1 lb bag. KNOW if it is worth it, or not.
Bugs, water, and air are the enemies of food storage, so don’t expect to save money by buying in bulk if you do not also plan to break it down to smaller units and repack into bug proof, water proof, air limiting packaging.
With that said: Being able to get 2 or sometimes 3 times as much food for the same money is a pretty big deal. COSTCO sold onions of a variety that didn’t keep well for $3 for 10 lbs. I could never finish the bag before some of them went bad. Yet at $1 / lb for the local store, as long as I got through more than 3 lbs out of a bag, I was “money ahead”. Learning to love French Onion Soup might have helped ;-)
But which pounds?
You get nutrition from “Dry Pounds”. The rest is water. For meat it can be 75% or so water. Comparing $/lb needs to be adjusted for “wet pounds” vs “dry pounds”. A dry pound of lentils will feed you for 3 or 4 meals. A wet pound of chicken is gone in one sitting. A can of chicken soup is almost all water. You are MUCH better off to learn to make your own chicken soup and not buy the expensive water… (It isn’t very hard either.)
So look to buy dry and serve wet. Buy dry rice and lentils, serve steamed rice and lentil soup…
Furthermore, after a lifetime of propaganda about how evil fat is, and how obesity is stalking you, many folks avoid eating many of the calories they buy. As a “Starving Student”, it is unlikely you will be over fed. Under those conditions, tossing out food calories is just not a very good idea. Dump the propaganda and look at what folks in the past ate, during times of food shortage. Fat was saved, conserved, added to foods wherever possible. Why? Because it has more calories / lb than just about anything else; and when you are short of calories, it all gets burned for fuel. It is more valuable on a $ / lb basis in terms of diet calories than other foods. So don’t end up buying fat to throw it out (meat drippings, for example) and then buying water to eat (lentil soup, for example). Look at things like SPAM, with fat included, as a feature on a “$/calorie-pound” basis. Save pan drippings to do the traditional things done with them. Make gravies, sauces, and use bacon grease in baking. (Biscuits made with bacon drippings can be very tasty…)
Reduce expensive parts, reuse, reuse, reuse…
Nothing gets tossed out until it doesn’t have much worth left in it. Learn to make soups and stocks and gravies.
So bake a chicken. All that “stuff” in the bottom of the pan? Do NOT toss it out. Save the fat and the pan drippings. Make gravy with the gooey bits and some of the fat, along with the water based part of the drippings. Skin? Bones? Personally, I eat the skin. The flavor can be very nice. But if, due to some indoctrination or personal prejudice you just won’t eat it; it goes into the freezer for making stock.
There are a lot of ways to make stock. Traditionally you used all the parts of the vegetables that were going to be thrown out (like ends, tops, peelings) and bits of bones and “trimmings” like tails and skin, along with bones. All goes into a pot and gets simmered for an hour or three. Vegetables fished out along with bones. Seasonings adjusted (usually salt and pepper). This can be frozen for months, or stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks if put into jars hot.
Work? Yup. You are trading time for money. You don’t have money. So spending $10 / hour for someone to work for you is not a choice. Now, due to taxes, if YOU work for someone else for $20 / hour, you get to keep and spend about $12 worth (if you are lucky) and about $10 worth in some cases. So unless you can make in wages about double the cost you pay for the labor others do for you: the better deal is to “do it yourself” and dodge the entire tax and regulatory burden, keeping all the value added by your labor for yourself.
So buying stock at $1 a can (or about $16 for 2 gallons of stock) is a bit silly if you can make it from “trash parts” for nearly nothing other than tossing the stuff in a pot and fishing it out later.
So learn to make stock. Learn to make gravy ( that uses the “crap” stuck to the bottom of a frying pan or roasting pan). Learn to make “quick breads” like biscuits and cornbread. Learn to make your own breakfast cereal and even your own yogurt. And once you have bought something with cash money, find a use for it. Even the bones and the trimmings from vegetables. Even the fat and pan drippings.
Look at the cost per pound, and are those pounds wet or dry. Learn to think about things like fats in terms of $Dollars per Calorie, not as presented in “health” propaganda. Your cells are made of “lipo-protein membranes” holding in a soup of biological chemicals. That “lipo” is shorthand for lipids. Lipids means fats. Not all fats are created equal, but you MUST have a lot of the right fats. That’s Omega-3 Fatty Acids, saturated fats (animals make saturated fats because they need them), and short chain fats (like palm oil, coconut oil, chocolate fats, and butter fats). There is a lot of propaganda denigrating fats, largely based on the confounding of hydrogenated fats with saturated fats. Partially Hydrogenated fats are truly evil. Read all packages and do not buy any that have the word hydrogenated on them. But don’t let bad science that mixed hydrogenated shortening with lard and called them the same push you into not using bacon grease to make biscuits. That bacon grease or chicken fat is essentially calories that your body needs and structural lipids that your body needs. Don’t toss it down the drain until and unless you are putting on way too much flab. Until that point, it’s a needed nutrient you have paid for with limited money. Find a tasty way to use it.
With that said: You need far more vitamins, minerals, and proteins than you need fats. Most American diets have plenty of fats (just usually the wrong ones…) so once you have a full bacon grease jar, or full pan drippings jars, the excess can be tossed. (Or better yet, buy less fats until you have used up the inventory). Taking a daily vitamin can make up for many dietary imbalances. Eating cheap is sometimes NOT eating a well balanced diet of best choices. A simple vitamin pill can make that balance a whole lot easier to reach. So take a general purpose vitamin and mineral supplement and don’t worry as much about how much fat vs sugar vs protein you are eating.
Watch for opportunities to use everything, even the squeal. (From the old joke about using every part of the pig except the squeal ;-) I use just enough seasoned flour to coat chicken parts for frying, with about a 1/4 cup left on the breading plate. That’s just about enough to make gravy from the pan drippings.
I decant most of the cooking oil / fat, after it has cooled enough, into an oil jar that stays in the fridge. After about 40 total frying hours, it ought to be tossed. (Oils degrade with heat and oxidize forming things like acrylamides that can cause cancer in heavy doses; so old oil needs to be tossed). Let your nose or hour counter be your guide. Cooking at lower temperatures lets oil last longer. Too hot burns it out quickly, so avoid the ‘smoke point’. Poly-unsaturated oils are worst at this. They ought to be used for salad dressings and other cold uses. For frying use saturated fats like lard or palm oil, or mono-unsaturated oils like olive, safflower, or some canola oils. Avoid too much soybean or corn oil. The omega-6 poly-unsaturated oils increase inflammation tendencies and make more acrylamides in frying.
The individual oil or fat also significantly changes the flavor profile of foods. This is one place where paying attention to flavor and best use is more important than simple cost per pound. For example, my son gets modest acne outbreaks from peanut oil. While not all people do, for him, avoiding peanut oil is important. Using a cheap oil can make foods just taste wrong. Don’t cheap out on a dimes worth of oil and make a dollars worth of food taste off. My favorite “oil” for saute of most vegetables and frying fish is a pat or two of butter (real butter… it’s worth it) and a tablespoon or two of olive oil mixed. (Most of the time the lower priced olive oils have more flavor; rarely have I needed the more subtle flavor of high end olive oil, and that was in raw use in things like salad dressings.) This can then be soaked into a slice of bread and tastes great, while being healthful too. Compare with slimy tasting acrylamide laced soybean with an insipid flavor. Just not worth it. So learn to know the different oils and flavors, and be not afraid of animal fats.
Butter at the big discount houses runs about $2.50 / lb. At the local grocer it can be $5 / lb. It keeps nearly forever in the freezer, so stock up at the Walmarts of the world and stick it in the freezer. Olive oil in gallon jugs looks very pricy, but at the big discounters can be very reasonable. Keep the can in the fridge (it will ‘set up’ over time) and it keeps a long time. Set it on the counter for a few hours it returns to liquid and you can refill a smaller bottle as needed (get a funnel!). A large jug of canola or safflower oil can also be stored in many jars or bottles in the fridge and used over a long time. Keep air out of the oil and keep it cool to cold. Oil used for frying can be poured back into a canning jar once cooled (they are more heat proof) and set into the fridge. In this way that expensive cooking oil can work for you for many fried foods, not just one and done. Frying a 30 ¢ potato in $1 worth of oil, then pouring out the used once oil, is just daft. Yet you see a lot of people do it. Using $1 worth of oil to fry $10 of potatoes, and have 1/2 of it end up in your diet via the fried foods, now that is using your money effectively. (And the fries taste great too!)
Very similar things can be done with other foods. For example: Take a 25 pound bag of rice. Divide it into many jars, tubs, or sealed buckets. Cook 2 cups of it in a rice cooker and you get A LOT more cooked rice. You will have left overs. That left over rice, even if just left in the rice cooker tub in the fridge (covered!), can be used the next day. In particular, day old rice makes the best “fried rice”. A bit of oil in a large frying pan, dump in some onions and other chopped vegetable bits, and, once browned: dump in the day old rice. I sometimes add some frozen peas too. Drizzle with soy sauce. Once warmed through, make a hole in the middle and dump in a scrambled raw egg. Stir fry it, and mix the bits into the rice. (You can have shrimp, chicken bits, whatever added too). Sprinkle with “Chinese Five Spice”. Now, with some left over day old rice that isn’t that good and might be tossed out the next day, some left over vegetable bits, and some sauces and spices, you can make a few pounds of very tasty and very nutritious food. Cost? Somewhere between 25 ¢ and 50 ¢ per pound, depending on how cheep you get the rice and what all you put in it.
The general principle here is to not throw out things, but to reuse them instead. To find a tasty way to use every scrap of food you buy. To buy the most calorie-pounds per dollar you can, and make the most tasty and nutritious food out of it. Buy bulk and break it up for storage, store it effectively, and use it well. But spend money on the seasonings, fats and flavorings that make the cheap stuff taste good. Then use them sparingly but well.
The world has a very long culinary history of folks “making do” with not much money and a very limited palate of ingredients. Most ethnic cuisines have a cheap root. Some more than others. So learn to embrace those ethnic roots; and the wisdom then carry with them. Asian / Chinese. Indian. Mexican. Italian. Even the Irish Potato. These all are places with a rich tradition of eating cheap, but well. Even French cooking owes a lot to the necessity of eating cheap. On French farms, they had a lot of onions, eggs, milk, some cheese, and a bit of wheat for bread. From that we get a flood of breads, quiches, sautes, omelets, and even French Onion Soup. Frugal and French are married to each other.
So eating cheap does not need to be eating badly.
One of my favorite “quick and cheap” meals was ersatz French Onion Soup. Toast a slice of bread, butter it. Cut into cubes and put them in the bottom of a bowl. Heat a package of dry mix onion soup (or use a chicken bouillon cube to make stock, if really out of options and pour it over some onion bits browned in a bit of butter or olive oil) and pour that over the bread cubes. Sprinkle some cheese shreds on top. This can be baked in the oven for a proper toasted finish on top, but I usually just eat it strait off. So a 1/2 slice of toast, maybe 1/4 of an onion, some stock or bullion cube (Knorr brand is worth the added cost) and a bit of cheese shreds. Tasty, cheap, fast and filling. Even if not quite real French Onion Soup.
Make a bowl of oatmeal. Sprinkle on some brown sugar, add a pat of butter, and a couple of ounces of milk. It tastes great, you feel full until lunch, and it costs nearly nothing.
Corn bread is dirt cheap if you make your own. Darned simple too. Serve a thick slab fresh from the oven with real butter next to a bowl of chili beans or a lentil stew. Darned good. About $1/4 to $1/2 / pound dry, and you get about 2 to 3 wet pounds out of it. Classic American poverty food, yet darned good food too.
Explore the various ethnic breads. Folks have been turning roasts into stews and stews into soups to “stretch” the food for thousands of years. They have also been finding hundreds of ways to add breads to the savory course to “stretch” it even more. From soaking crackers in soups, to floating dumplings on chicken or beef stews, to serving a heavy slab of corn bread or rye bread next to the main plate. Even the classical English Yorkshire Pudding is reputed to have come about as a way to extend the meat / gravy with a muffin like bread. Pancakes make the bacon and eggs go further and what is pizza but a large slab of bread with a little bit of sauce and cheese / meat bits decorating the top. Learn to make and love a variety of breads, muffins, hoe cakes, dumplings, etc. etc.
Heck, spaghetti with pasta sauce served with a bit of buttered Italian bread is a classic. Yet it is dirt cheap. Dry spaghetti is about $1 / lb. One pound will feed a family. So call it maybe 10 ¢ to 20 ¢ for a single person. Bulk sauce, even names like Prego, can run $4 or less for a very large jar. (48 ounces?). Yes, the sauce will develop mold and “go off” in the fridge before you can use it all as one person, so decant it into one cup units that you freeze. All in all, you can get it down to about a quarter dollar for a plate of spaghetti with sauce. At that price level, you can afford to decorate the top with a couple of olives and sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. Add some Italian bread and butter and you will be stuffed, all for less than 50 cents. Some green beans on the side is a nice touch too.
About that bread: You can find in house bakeries at many grocers that sell a loaf for about $1.50 each. The major maker fancy breads can run $4 a loaf. Even if you don’t learn to make your own bread, just better shopping will give more and better bread for less. To go really cheap, make your own. I can make it for about $1/2 per loaf (but for one student, it’s likely more work than is worth it compared to the $1.50 house brand loaf that will last a week anyway.) At Public’s (and most good US grocers) you can find “Bridgford bread dough” in the freezer section. Thaw a one pound lump, let rise and bake. A quick way to get experience at baking regular yeast bread. I pour neutral oil (i.e not olive oil) on my hands and rub a layer of it onto the “pig” of frozen dough, then set it in a loaf pan to thaw and rise. Several hours later, bake it as directed on the package. Runs about $1 / lb or $1 / loaf. Not all that much cheaper than “house brands”, but worth trying. That half buck a loaf means an added one pound loaf for every two…
Mexican refried beans were a ‘reuse’ of left over boiled beans. The beans were cooked once as boiled beans. The next day (or two), the beans were put in a pan and fried with a bit of fat and seasoning (lard works well as does bacon grease and makes for a very nice flavor). Spanish rice is also very cheap. Now add the bread: the tortilla. A bit of cheese on the beans and you have a complete meal. Adding a bit of something fancy, or with meat in it, is optional at that point.
So that’s how to think about meal plans. What can I make the first day. How can I reuse the left overs. How can I use breads, stews, and soups to reuse and extend. How can I drive down the cost per wet pound served and use lowest cost dry pounds to make it? Where can a tiny bit of expensive flavor (spices, cheese, meat as a condiment, bacon bits or even bacon grease for flavor, or some ham in beans) to make a lot of cheap dry goods taste a whole lot better?
Generally, the basic meal plan is a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Some things are dual purpose. So corn is both a starch and a vegetable, as are most legumes and beans / peas. Legumes and beans can also be treated as a protein in many cases. Usually the protein is the most expensive part, so keeping it small and using lowest cost stuff helps the most. Beans are a protein. Now look back at those ethnic meals.
Cheese as the protein on the refried beans. Cheese and maybe a bit of sausage or salami on some spaghetti. Starch and protein. Tomato sauce as vegetable. Fried rice with vegetables in it is a starch and vegetable. Egg as cheap protein. Add a few sauteed shrimp or some chicken bits (fried) as added protein, or add some peas or peanuts as more protein. So it goes, for most all of the classical ethnic menus.
Expensive proteins are steaks, chops, expensive cheeses like $12 / pound blue. Cheap proteins are things like eggs, low cost bulk cheeses, chicken, pork, legumes, beans, peas. Cheap starches are all over the place, but generally rice, breads, oats, corn and corn meal (polenta and grits), biscuits and even gravy (made with flour and water after all…) and couscous in middle east cooking. Cheap vegetables are central to many ethnic styles. Cabbage in German and Russian cooking. Rutabagas and turnips in Nordic and English cooking along with carrots and peas in most of Europe. Even now, cabbages and carrots are very cheap in the typical USA grocery store.
Cheap cuts of meat are best cooked “low and slow” and wet, often with a bit of acid (so vinegar marinades and similar). Classical ethnic foods come from this fact. BBQ uses brisket and ribs because the were classically the tough cheap cuts (and usually still are). Pork ribs and roasts run about $3 / lbs while a good beef steak runs $12 / lb. So learning to make slow cooked pulled pork means 4 times as much food per dollar. Putting it on a large bread bun, or with a demi-loaf of corn bread cuts meal costs even more. (Using some bacon grease in the corn bread instead of shortening cuts a few more cents out…)
So embrace those old ethnic cooking styles. They embody generations of wisdom on how to make delicious meals out of the cheapest foods available. That Polish Sausage with Sauerkraut on a big kaiser roll isn’t just delicious, it’s also a lot cheaper than a steak. Heck, it’s even cheaper than a frozen dinner prepackaged as “convenience” food. (Avoid pre-packaged food as much as possible. Not only does it have a load of stuff in it that isn’t food, it costs a lot for all the advertizing and packaging and shipping and profit and…) Classical Scots oatmeal has a lot more food value for a lot less money than Cheery O’s, and it’s the same oats. Add a bit of honey or maple syrup and it even tastes a lot better.
This is a bit of a ‘steam of consciousness’ list of things I’ve made from time to time. There are whole books made about cooking cheap meals, so this will barely get things started. But it is an easy place to start, so here goes.
I usually make this with beans, but lentils are about the same cost and store longer. So I have a lot of lentils in storage. So I make a fair amount of lentil “stuff” that is usually made with beans. Chili for instance. This is a simplified path to a cheap meal, not a way to make a fancy chili.
Cook lentils (about a pound). Drain. Use simple marinara spaghetti sauce (like Prego or Ragu) as the chili sauce base. Add some fried onions (about 1/2 to 1 small or medium). Add a minced garlic clove (or 3 for the brave ;-). Add a table spoon of cumin and a teaspoon (or so) of commercial “Chili Powder”. Realize that powdered chili and chili powder can be different. The first one is pure hot peppers powdered. The second is a mix of spices with some powdered chili as part of it. You need to add any chili powder or powdered chili a bit at a time and taste it while you learn the heat profile of that brand. Now, the hard part: This is fine as a low fat vegetarian chili, but it is a lot better with some fat in it. The particular fat you use will shift the flavor profile and some folks like one flavor more than another. I like it with a bit of bacon grease or lard (but not too much). If you have some reserved beef fat, that’s best as folks expect the beef flavor profile in chile. Chicken fat (from a roast chicken) can be nice too. If all else fails, you can add a cooking oil, bit it’s a bit bland in comparison. Call it a table spoon or two for the pot. Add a little at a time to see what you like. Alternatively, if you have the money, sear and fry 1/2 pound of ground beef and dump it all in the pot. Fat and all. (Seasoning it with salt, pepper and chili powder adds zing…) At the end, add regular salt and pepper to suit your preferences. I like more salt and only a bit of black pepper. The spouse likes not much of either.
Cook lentils per package directions. Drain only enough to have the water at the surface of the lentils. Add a spoon or two of Curry Powder (there are dozens with all sorts of flavor and hotness profiles). Add a can of drained potatoes, cut into small bite sized parts (or peel and boil about 2 cups of potatoes). Add nice Roux by the 1/2 teaspoons, stirring and cooking a bit between additions until it makes a nice ‘gravy’ like finish. Spoon over rice.
Roux for sauces and gravies
Roux: A mix of a fat or oil with flour until if forms a slurry or paste.
This is used in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. When bacon grease or sausage grease is used, it is the start of “sausage gravy” for the classical “biscuits and gravy”. When chicken fat or turkey fat is used, it is the base for chicken or turkey gravy (especially milk gravies). Classical French ‘white sauce’ and a lot of other sauces start with a roux. It’s simple and easy to make. Just stir flour into liquid oil or fat (while not hot enough to do any cooking of the flour) gently until it starts to tighten up into a thick slurry or paste. That’s it. I’ll sometimes keep roux of various kinds in the freezer for later use. For the curry, I’ll use a butter / flour roux. A roux low in flavor (such as from chicken where you didn’t get enough ‘crusty bits’ in the pan) can have the flavor jumped up by adding a crumbled bullion cube when you go to make the gravy with it.
This is important and easy. Learn to do it.
We covered the basic spaghetti above. Lasagna is not much harder. It does cost more since it uses more cheese, but you can “extend” it with vegetables in the lasagna (instead of meats). There are loads of vegetarian lasagna recipes in the world. Mine is a simple one.
Cook a pound of lasagna noodles, but only just barely. Rinse in cool water to stop the cooking and let stand in cold water.
Cheese mix: Shred a pound of mozzarella cheese. At $4 to $5 a pound, this is a big cost. You can cut it back to 1/2 pound by increasing the ricotta (or dry cottage cheese). Let dollar / pound be your guide. In a large bowl, mix a pound each of mozzarella and ricotta, with 1/4 lb of Parmesan and a well drained can of spinach. Just reach in with your hands and squish it together.
Take a 9 x 11 inch glass baking dish. Pour a thin layer (1/3 inch or so) of commercial sauce in the bottom. Ragu or Prego work well. Add a layer of noodles. Put in a layer of cheese mix about the same thickness (but in lumps is OK). I usually use a small can or two of mushroom slices and olive slices, but other vegetable bits can be used too. Tomato slices or prepared eggplant might also work. I’ve even used a layer of hard boiled egg slices sometimes. Then pour on a bit more sauce, another layer of noodles, more cheese mix and vegetable stuff. Repeat to the top of the pan. (Excess can go into another pan. Try to adjust the ratio to use all the noodles, cheese, and vegetable bits at about the same time. Excess sauce just goes back in the fridge or freezer.) Finish with a layer of noodles, then sprinkle the top with Parmesan. Sometimes I dot the top with olive slices or whole olives just before the final cheese sprinkle.
For deeper flavor, you can sprinkle the bottom of the pan with Italian Seasoning and / or a bit of garlic salt just before starting.
Bake at about 350 F to 375 F until it is bubbly around the edges. About 40 minutes, but sometimes more or less. Depends on your oven and pan.
When browned and bubbly, take it out and let it cool for 5 minutes. You now have about 9 large servings. Cost is about $12; so this is about $1.30 and you are stuffed. Add some bread and butter and green beans on the side, you are ‘way stuffed’ for $1.50 or so. Excess can be frozen in single servings for later microwave heating. Smaller portions make a nice instant frozen microwave lunch portion. (Don’t heat in plastic tubs as this results in pitting and tomato color staining of the plastic. Use glass bowls.)
This is a favorite of mine and covered here:
A variation on the vegetarian lasagna is also covered there.
Here I’m just going to talk about the cost. Two cans of corn, a stick of butter, 1 stack of crackers, and a couple of eggs. Darned near nothing. Maybe $3 if you push it. Makes a fairly large casserole and you get many servings from it. Keeps for days in the fridge and can be frozen.
There are many similar casseroles that can be made, and a search on casseroles will keep you busy for years. Even the classical green bean and crisp onion casserole is darned cheap.
The point is just that various vegetarian casseroles can be darned cheap, very filling, and nutritious too.
In passing I’d just note that the turkey in that meal was about $1 / pound. A gourmet meal for cheap. Then the left overs go into turkey sandwiches (bread… protein… lettuce for vegetable…) Also “Turkey ala king” and turkey gravy and turkey soup and turkey stock. That whole “dividing and storing” along with reuse reuse reuse…
Biscuits are a wonderful thing. Cheap. Tasty. Fast. I use Bisquick most of the time. Not the regular type (it has the dreaded “hydrogenated” in it) but the “Heart Healthy” that does not. You can make ‘from scratch’ for cheaper, but start with Bisquick and once familiar with the process and the method, then move on to “DIY” from scratch.
If you use chilled lard, bacon grease, or Palm Oil for the fat, various biscuits and pastries get a nicer flavor. I run very chilled Palm Oil through a grater to get little shreds. Using liquid polyunsaturated oil gives a hard crumb and less tender / tasty product. Cheese can be added (about a spoon / biscuit) and Italian seasoned butter spread on top of the hot biscuit for a wonderful product. (Cream some Italian seasoning mix into butter with a bit of garlic salt. Spread on the hot biscuits. Let it melt and soak in.)
Corn bread is damn simple to make. One cup corn meal. One cup flour. An egg. Some baking powder (varies with kind a little), salt and sugar. Mix all the dry stuff. A bit of sugar and the egg along with some milk in a bowl. Stir. For unknown reasons sugar is treated as an honorary liquid by many folks… Dump wet into dry and mix. Pour into a greased pan and bake. There are whole families of quick breads made this way (“The muffin method”), so look around at various quick bread and muffin recipes.
Pancakes. I like the Krusteaz brand. Not much is cheaper than a stack of 3 hot cakes. You can also make your own mix, but frankly, the large bag of Krusteaz (divided and stored in quart or 1/2 gallon jugs) is already darned cheap. Add some real butter on top, and some blueberry syrup (much cheaper than maple, real maple, that’s the only kind of maple worth eating) or other berry syrup. It’s just great.
Chicken and dumplings is another classic. Chicken cooked in a pot with vegetables and a kind of gravy. Biscuit dough in lumps on top, steamed to cook. It is basically a way to make a quick bread in lumps on top of a slow cooker chicken
Bagel and Cream Cheese. Simple. Cheap. Filling. Toast the bagel in the toaster. Smear with cream cheese. Bought as the house brand at places like Walmart, cream cheese is fairly cheep for how filling the combo can be. Bagels can be toasted face down in a frying pan if you don’t have a toaster that fits them.
Odds and Ends
Slow Cooker Chicken. This can be made in a roasting pot in the oven at about 275 F if you don’t have a slow cooker. Cut a chicken up into parts (or buy parts if you have the money…) and cut an onion or two into chopped bits. The chicken can be browned for a minute or two on a side for stronger flavor, but I usually just put the onions in the bottom of the pot, and put the chicken parts on top if it. A few (about 2 per chicken thigh if doing parts) carrots, peeled and chopped. About 1/2 cup of chopped celery per thigh. Potatoes in chunks to fill the rest of the space (about one medium per thigh). Add a can of Cream Of Mushroom (or chicken or celery or…) soup and about 1/2 cup of water. Turn it on low and come back in 4 to 6 hours. Salt and pepper to suit your preferences. For cheaper, use more vegetables to the amount of chicken. For much cheaper, make your own gravy for the thickener and don’t toss a $1 at the soup company.
Make those cakes very thin with extra water and egg, you can make crepes and fill them will all sorts of low costs fillings. Look up “Dinner crepes” for ideas.
Yellow Rice and Chicken. Just buy a saffron rice packet at the store. Dump into the rice cooker. Cut chicken into chunks and put some on top. Turn it on and let it cook. Not too much chicken or it doesn’t cook right, and not in big chunks. If you want lots of chicken, or whole pieces, they ought to be cooked most of the way first (roasting is good) then put on the rice near the end. Part of the richness of this dish is from chicken fat and juices getting into the rice, so leave the skin on please. Cut meat down to the bone on legs and thighs or they don’t cook to the middle. I leave the bone / core parts with some meat on them in the pot. The rest of the family won’t deal with them, but I’m happy to suck the bits of meat off of them ;-)
Sunday Roast: Like the slow cooker chicken, but using cheap cuts of beef, like the chuck roast. Add a bay leaf, the mirepoix (mix of carrots, celery, and onions) along with some potatoes. Turnip bits too if you like. Roast at about 300 F for a couple of hours, or lower for longer. In a slow cooker it’s a bit better to add the potatoes part way through, but I usually don’t bother with that detail. Beef in a slow cooker usually runs about 8 to 10 hours to finish.
Roast Chicken: Take a chicken, put it in a covered roasting pan. Add an onion cut into quarters, or for “Lemon Pepper” chicken, squeeze a lemon, lime, or other citrus over and in the chicken. Dust with pepper. Alternatively, dust with Poultry Seasoning. Put in a 350 F oven for about 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Eat ALL the meat on the chicken. For reasons I can’t explain, a couple of folks I know sort of pick at the bird from the top down, never pick it up and get the meat off the wings, back, tops of the thighs, and end up tossing out about 1/3 of the bird along with the pan drippings. Don’t do that. Cut off full parts of the bird. Get meat from all the bones. Learn to “strip the bird” by sliding fingers down the bones squeezing the meat and bits off of them. This makes great soup if nothing else. Bones go into the stock pot (or the frozen tub of stock fixings).
The pan drippings can be poured into a jar and chilled. The fat floats to the top and is usable in gravies and lots of other things. The “jelly” goes into gravies or stocks. So Chicken Roux from the fat and stock or gravy starter from the bottom.
Think this is expensive? At about $1 / lb, it’s a lot cheaper than most breakfast cereals, has more calories and protein per $ spent, and tastes a lot better too ;-) Still, more expensive than the slow cooker chicken as there are fewer vegetables. But… Put a couple of potatoes in the oven with it, you have a large baked potato to cover with that gravy, or just spoon on the pan drippings. (Poke holes in the potato with a fork before baking. Otherwise every one in a dozen or so you get a steam explosion and potato fluff all over the oven ;-) A large spud, some roast onion and carrots in the pan, and the cost / serving is dropping fast. Add some corn bread on the side and it’s delicious while being darned cheap.
Tuna Noodle Casserole: A classic. The simple and quick way to make it is to make Kraft Mac & Cheese per package directions. Put in layers in a glass dish. Add a can of tuna (in oil, please, it just tastes a lot better… to be really cheap cut the butter in the Mac recipe in half and pour the tuna can oil into the noodles instead. It’s tastes fine, honest…) Crumble the tuna and spread it around into the Mac. I’ll often double this recipe for a 9 x 9 dish. Add 1/2 to 1 can of peas, drained (or you can use frozen). Gently mix the peas and noodles by layering them. You can top with some slices of cheese if feeling rich that day. Bake about 25 minutes at about 350 F to 375 F. I put pepper on my side. The spouse doesn’t like the pepper. YMMV.
So about $2 for 2 large servings. Buying the double size box of noodles at Walmart and using the house brand tuna drops costs more. Walmart usually has canned vegetables for about 1/2 the price of name brand stores (in my experience in California, anyway).
Roast Ham and Yams: Buy a 1/2 ham. Put it in a roasting pan, cut surface down (make sure to take the plastic end cap off the bone). Roast about 20 minutes / lb at about 300 F to 350 F (see ham package for details. Some hams are fully cooked, some not, and the specifics can change a little. AVOID hams with injected “solutions” or “broth”, they taste funny. Look for natural hams.) In a pot dump a drained can of yams. Dot with butter and spoon brown sugar over them. Put on low and let simmer for about 40 minutes to an hour. You want a fairly thick syrup to form. Heat green beans in a small pot or pan in the last 10 minutes. Have a slice of buttered bread with it. There is something special about ham, yams, green beans and bread with butter. The way the flavors blend in the mouth is unique. Historically, I could make this for under $1 / pound. Lately it’s cost more…
Left over ham will have you in ham sandwiches, ham and beans, ham bits in omelets, etc. etc. for a couple of weeks. Excess can be frozen. When the bones are free of the meat, the bones can go into a pot of lentils or beans to flavor them. The fat can be used to season many other things too (like beans and stews). “Red Eye” gravy can be made from the pan drippings, but it’s a bit of a specialty item. I usually make a few pounds of beans in the pot with the bone instead. It may take a few months to finish that much beans, so I’ll usually freeze a lot of it.
Baked Potatoes with Toppers: Just bake potatoes (usually about 30 ¢ / pound ) and when done, roll them on the counter a bit to soften the insides. Slice in half. Top with any / all of: Butter, sour cream, yogurt, chopped green onions, ham or SPAM bits, crumbled hard boiled eggs, etc. etc. Salt and pepper to your taste. With a bit of cheese shreds and a side of peas, this is a low cost and well balanced meal.
There’s a whole lot more, but it is 2 AM and I have work tomorrow. So this will be it for a while. From macaroni with white sauce and cheese on top (baked ‘Al Forno” or ‘from the oven’) to scalloped potatoes (from a box for about $1 or cheaper from scratch) or from Boston Bake Beans to Indian breads with spicy dishes I can’t pronounce, there is a world of low cost meals. The common themes are outlined above. Heck, even venerable meat loaf is a cheap cut of meat, mixed with grains (rice or oats) and some vegetables (tomato sauce, onions) and slow baked. Put a slice on top of mashed potatoes to cut the cost even more. Then top with essentially free gravy. Yum!
But I think that ought to be enough to get a new low cost cook started. Do note that there is a category of “food” on the right margin of this site. There are other food ideas to be found there. Not always cheap, but I tend that way by nature. ;-) And we haven’t even gotten to more exotic things like kabobs with couscous… (Put chunks of onion, tomato, bell pepper, mushrooms, and even bits of meat on a skewer, brush with olive oil, toast over BBQ. Marinade tougher meat in acid (vinegar or citrus) marinade to keep the costs down. Spritz with water if needed to prevent burning of edges. Couscous is kind of like miniature noodles that cook up like rice. Season a bit and put the kabob on top of a pile of it. Yum!)
But I was going to bed now ;-)
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