Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring
Has someone ever told you about an easy, delicious recipe that you have to make? As they describe it, you realize the ingredient list will easily run you $40 for a single meal. Of course you can make easy, delicious food if it involves lots of fancy, expensive ingredients. Almost anyone can do that.
At the other end of the food conversation spectrum are the ubiquitous thrifty suggestions of rice-and-beans or pasta. Both tasty in my opinion, but it gets rather boring. Certainly there has to be something in between.
If you’re looking for good ways to stick to your budget in 2018, your grocery bill is a great place to start. Food is one of most people’s top three expenses, up there with housing and transportation. And of the three, it’s probably the most flexible, the easiest to change without major effort. (Like moving!) I believe with a little planning, effort, and willingness to try new things, most people can reduce their food costs substantially.
If you’re keeping things simple for breakfast and brown-bagging it for lunch, dinner is probably your budget-killer. It’s easy to get sucked into spending a lot on fresh, healthy food. And I’m all for fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t have to be outrageous. I’ve shared my foundational food principles already in:
Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)
Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning—approaches for speed-meal planning and keeping things simple.
Naturally, food preferences and dietary needs/priorities are as varied as is food itself. The ideas below are not the absolute most healthy, least expensive, or quickest options available—but they all strike a great balance with each of these factors. I vary our less expensive meals with more interesting, exotic, sometimes easier, and sometimes more involved dishes. Creating your own list of thrifty, easy, tasty stand-bys can go a long way toward lowering your grocery budget and dinner-time stress. Here re some of my go-to meals:
Any on-sale bone-in chicken that you cook with a simple, inexpensive sauce or seasoning is a good thrifty dinner option. Grill, bake, or sauté with BBQ, honey mustard, teriyaki, jerk seasoning, lemon butter, balsamic, etc.
A word on side dishes: While proteins are important, sides are also an area to watch spending. Fancy accouterments like cheese, nuts, herbs, and exotic grains, spices, or out-of-season produce add up quickly. We tend to stick with thrifty stand-bys like baked or roasted potatoes (white or sweet) rice, or noodles; steamed vegetables; and simple garden salads.
Fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs I use any fresh or dried herbs I have on hand.
Mujaddarah Incredibly simple, delicious Middle Eastern dish.
Sweet potato burritos A seemingly strange combination that is so tasty!
Peanut Butter Noodles Knock-off Thai vegetarian dish. I add stir-fry veggies to it and double the sauce. Can be vegan if you sub for water for chicken broth.
Potato soup I use real cheese instead of processed.
Cincinnati style chili I make this with ground turkey instead of beef.
White Chicken Chili Use a fresh jalapeno instead of canned.
Masala hard-boiled eggs (egg curry) Way more exotic than breakfast for dinner. Don’t knock it till you try it. Everyone I’ve served this to loves it!
Butter chickpea curry (not authentic; for better recipes see Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking or Vegetarian cookbook)
I have found it worthwhile to “invest” in the pantry items for Indian cooking and a few favorite authentic Chinese and Thai dishes. Buying these items at the Asian grocery (or directly in India!) is by far the least expensive route. Shopping with an international friend knowledge about the cuisine is extremely helpful as they know which brands to buy! The upfront cost of a few spices and sauces pales in comparison with restaurant spending on similar dishes.
I also have go-to recipes for hosting that are a little more impressive than what’s listed above, but still fairly inexpensive. We just hosted two large (13-15) person family dinners over the holidays, and the meat for each cost only $7, respectively! Clearly I didn’t serve prime rib, but people praised the food and ate seconds. Maybe they were just being polite. I’ll let you judge these recipes for themselves:
Thai curry (Maesri brand curry paste mixed with 1 can full fat coconut milk + water as needed. Add vegetables and protein of your choice; serve with jasmine rice. Many Asian groceries carry it.)
Grilled pork chops with sweet & spicy dry rub. I can’t find the recipe I used but it contains Montreal Steak, brown sugar, and we substitute habanero powder for cayenne!
Grilled chicken tacos with chipotle marinade This is NOT a chipotle copycat recipe but it’s equally delicious in its own right—maybe better. I make the marinade in large batches (3-4x) and freeze it.
And my go-to bread recipes are always a hit:
Crusty White Bread—super easy, can be made ahead, large batch, good for every day or holidays.
Amish Dinner Rolls—a little more involved, good for holidays.
Do you have trouble sticking to your grocery budget, or meal planning? What are you favorite frugal dinners?