Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken (recipe below)

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:

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Hospitality Hacks

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half Parts 1 and 2

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:

Juicy Roasted Chicken

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken

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.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Lime chicken tacos

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.

Chicken Taco Soup

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:

Turkey

Butter Chicken

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?

11 Responses to “Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring”

  1. Oldster says :

    Wow. What a great post. Thanks for the food ideas. One of the things we wrestle with is eating well when time is tight. One of our go to meals is a bag of salad and a roasted chicken from Sam’s Club. With some Italian dressing and a couple of hard boiled eggs you can feed four people pretty well for about ten bucks. For a quick meal that is pretty good.

    • Kalie says :

      Rotisserie chickens are a great, inexpensive, easy option. Not my personal favorite but they do the trick. It’s so important to have those easy go-to’s that are cheaper than going out.

  2. Prudence Debtfree says :

    Food might just be the love of my life, and it’s great to see the variety of offerings up there. I especially appreciate the international element. My husband just mentioned to me that we’ll have to be extra-vigilant with groceries now – after an expensive December and also during a pretty dramatic business slow-down for him. Thanks for these ideas : )

    • Kalie says :

      December food spending is what got me thinking about this topic–in addition to several requests I’ve had from friends for thrifty dinner recipes. Glad you saw some you might use. Enjoy!

  3. AW says :

    A go to staple for us, especially in the winter, is 4 chopped Amylou’s chicken sausages,a head of cabbage chopped, 1 onion chopped, 1 can of diced tomatoes or a can of rotel type tomatoes all thrown together with a little water and simmered for hours. Serve with cornbread. Easy, cheap, filling, and most importantly it’s good. We eat between 4 and 6 meals out of this. If you have leftovers you can freeze and use later for soup. Enjoy!

  4. mary in maryland says :

    Why diss rice and beans? We are vegan–mainly to extend the circle of compassion to more of the Creator’s species. Yet we eat pretty fabulous Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern food most every night. And we spent $1650 on food for two and many, many guests and potlucks for the year. Our donations for good were several times that.
    Sorry, but I get irritated when articles on frugal eating all start out by saying you don’t have to eat rice and beans.

    • Kalie says :

      As I said, I like rice and beans! But I know a lot of people who wouldn’t want to eat that day in and day out, so it’s nice to share other options. It is cliche to praise or diss them, I guess.

  5. Harmony says :

    Great list! I’m always looking for new dinner ideas – with cheap, easy, and healthy being the goal.

    We often have sandwiches for dinner. We get turkey bacon for BLT’s, and do italian chicken salad (just add italian dressing) and tuna melts. Of course, baking our own bread keeps these dinner options inexpensive.

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