Meal Planning on a Budget
Five key ingredients plus a few smart tips add up to money saved and delicious dinner ideas! We've got 10 great recipes to get you started.
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When my husband and I got married, we both worked as freelancers. As far as I’m concerned, this should be illegal. Two people without steady incomes does not make for a mellow existence. Add in a baby and, well. Life was stressful.
Pinching every penny, I’d stock up when my favorite ingredients went on sale. All kinds of culinary visions would dance in my head, but when five o’clock rolled around I’d be standing in the middle of my kitchen, wondering what on earth I was going to do with a can of artichoke hearts, romaine lettuce, and a bottle of soy sauce. So much wasted time—and time is, of course, money.
Meal planning to save money
How I wish I’d come around to meal planning sooner! If Yummly’s Meal Planner tool had existed back then, I could’ve eliminated my impulse buys and scattershot shopping and reduced my grocery bills. The planner makes meal planning for budget meals so simple:
Just click the notebook icon at the top right of any recipe you want to cook and add it to your plan.
Once you’ve selected all your recipes for the week, another button lets you add whatever ingredients you need to your shopping list.
From there you can either do your grocery shopping online directly through Yummly and get the ingredients in as little as an hour, or take the list with you to the grocery store on the Yummly app. (Or hey, let’s go old school: Of course, you can also print the grocery list!)
How to find budget-friendly recipes, plus five key inexpensive ingredients
When you’re looking for penny-pinching inspiration, you can use Yummly’s search for "cheap entrees" and find close to 1,000 options. But my favorite way to menu plan on a budget is to build a week’s worth of menus around ingredients I know are affordable. Once I decide what I want to cook in general terms, I search by those budget-friendly ingredients, then filter the recipes until I find the perfect fit for my taste and schedule.
These five inexpensive ingredients are my standbys, and to get you started I’ve recommended two recipes for each. (Want to try any of these this week? Click the notebook icon once you've clicked on the recipe and they’ll load right into your own Meal Planner.)
Prices noted here are for my region of New York and may vary depending on where you live.
Stock up on cans of black beans or other favorites when they’re on sale and you’ll spend around a dollar each—or get a pound of dried for less than $2.00. That’ll cook up to serve eight! And both types will stay on your shelf almost indefinitely, so you’ll never waste them. Keep lentils in mind for this category, too.
Vegetarian Bean and Cheese Taco Casserole combines three different types of canned beans, canned corn, and your favorite salsa with Mexican herbs and spices and some fresh vegetables for good measure. All that gets layered in a casserole dish with tortilla chips and cheese, then baked until the cheese is irresistibly melty. It feeds 12! Perfect for a casual Friday night gathering. Who says you can’t entertain when you’re on a food budget?
Hearty Slow Cooker Smoky Ham and White Bean Soup simmers dried beans all day in the slow cooker, with an inexpensive ham hock adding tons of smoky flavor. You’ll come home to a fantastic dinner, eliminating the temptation to get take-out; and it makes enough for brown-bagging the rest of the week.
2. Chicken legs
Pick up drumsticks for less than $2.00/pound on sale (much cheaper than boneless chicken breasts) and pop ‘em in the freezer. Add some equally frugal rice and frozen vegetables to either of these recipes, and you’ve got the makings for dinner.
Spicy Honey Lime Chicken Legs by Yummly
These Spicy Honey Lime Chicken Legs bathe in a mixture of honey, lime, chili powder, and other spices while you’re at work, and when you get home they go right into the oven. Or, if you're ready to really boost your meal planning to the next level, bring your freezer into the mix: Remembering to marinate can be as easy as defrosting if you think a bit ahead. This recipe provides a great example: If you shop on the weekend and want to cook the chicken legs later in the week, freeze the drumsticks in the marinade. Transfer them to the fridge the night before you plan to cook and you’re good to go.
Barbecue Baked Chicken Legs by Yummly
Prepared barbecue sauce may seem less than budget-friendly, but this recipe for Barbecue Baked Chicken Legs only calls for six ounces. I’ve seen sauce on sale for as little as six cents an ounce, so… 36¢. Choose a type that sounds yummy to you, since it’s going to determine the flavor of the dish.
At around $1.50 per dozen, eggs just may give you the biggest nutritional bang for your buck. One large egg has six grams of protein, and eggs are a great source of lutein, an antioxidant that helps promote healthy eyes and skin. Note that each of these recipes serves two people, so you’ll have to double them to feed more.
Shakshuka on a Budget by Green Kitchen Stories
Shakshuka on a Budget. This is one of my favorite ways to serve eggs for dinner: Baked in a spicy tomato sauce. (Just saute onion and bell pepper with olive oil, add the sauce, and crack in the eggs.) All you need is some good crusty bread to dunk in the runny yolks.
Frittata Caprese by A Fork and A Pencil
And here’s my second-favorite dinner idea with eggs. A baked combo of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, frittatas let you use up almost any veggies you have on hand. In the case of Frittata Caprese, you’ll add cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and a dollop of prepared pesto. Again, add some bread and you’ve got a full meal.
If you shop wisely, you can get dried pasta for as little as 4¢/ounce. Yup, that’s cheap. And like the beans, pasta won’t go bad. Even easier (okay, maybe that’s not possible?): Instant ramen. That’s right, the second of these recipes turns the dorm-room staple into a family-ready meal.
Spaghetti Carbonara by Damn Delicious
Spaghetti Carbonara uses inexpensive eggs to make a sauce that tastes so rich, you won’t believe it’s budget-friendly. A few slices of bacon add a meaty, smoky layer to this Italian favorite. (Divide the rest of the bacon package into zip-top bags and stash in the freezer so you’ll have some when you need it.)
Vegetable Ramen Pad Thai by Tablespoon
To make Vegetable Ramen Pad Thai, you start with two packages of ramen noodles. Add frozen vegetables and peanut butter—two other budget-pantry staples—along with a splash of teriyaki sauce and a dash of sriracha, and you’ve got a ridiculously rewarding dinner for just a few bucks. (No teriyaki sauce at home? Search "teriyaki sauce" on Yummly and you'll see that you can make your own with pantry staples like soy sauce, brown sugar and garlic.)
5. Canned tuna
I admit, I like fancy tuna. When I’m feeling splurge-y I’ll spend $4-5 for a can, which is still pretty cheap since I only need one to feed me and my husband (my picky kid won’t go near it). But when money’s tight, I can always pick up a can of one of the big national brands, the tuna I grew up with, and spend about a dollar. Each of these recipes calls for just one can, and feeds four.
Garbanzo and Tuna Salad with Red Peppers and Parsley by Kalyn's Kitchen
Pair inexpensive tuna with inexpensive canned chickpeas to make a healthy meal that will cost just a dollar or two per serving. With sweet, crunchy bell pepper and the zing of red onion and lemon juice, Garbanzo and Tuna Salad with Red Peppers and Parsley is packed with flavor, too.
Easy Tuna Casserole by Spend with Pennies
Easy Tuna Casserole will remind you of childhood, in a good way. With frozen peas (cheap!), egg noodles (so economical!), cream of mushroom soup (super-affordable!), and a sprinkling of crunchy breadcrumbs, this is the ultimate in inexpensive comfort food.
Interested in learning more about meal planning? We've got lots of meal planning articles on Yummly.