Kitchen Tips

10 Cheap Meals To Make When You're On A Tight Budget

Versatile, affordable ingredients that are key to a smart (and long-lasting) shopping list.
tomato sauce recipe on spaghetti with cheese Pasta is a great option for a cheap meal—especially if you go one step further and make homemade tomato sauce. (Photo, Erik Putz.)

Grocery shopping in the midst of a pandemic is a much different experience—even if your budget hasn't changed. Whether you are now shopping on a reduced budget, or simply struggling with long-term meal planning it's important to know which ingredients will go the extra mile in the kitchen (and pantry).

First, think about legumes (like lentils and chickpeas), then there's the canned goods (low-budget multi-taskers like beans and tomatoes), frozen vegetables, affordable grains like rice and oats and, of course, the versatile egg. Each of these ingredients has a range of applications, is easy to use, and adds more flexibility to your wallet—and gives breakfast for dinner (maybe the best use for eggs?) an excuse to stay in the dinner roster.

Here are 10 simple staples to add to your grocery list—and the cheap meals you can make with them.

Add some eggs

The cost of meat and seafood can add up when used on a steady rotation. Make better friends with eggs—an affordable, protein-rich substitute—and incorporate them into more weeknight meals to save big. In this dish, the eggs are gently baked in a spiced chunky tomato sauce and served with crisp shards of toasted pita. (Kitchen note: Grape tomatoes are called for here, but feel free to substitute with best value tomato.) Get the recipe for tomato and egg shakshuka.

Cheap meals: Tomato and egg shakshukaPhoto, Sian Richards.

Pick up some potatoes (and more eggs)

Yes, more eggs! (They’re incredibly versatile.) This one-pan dish makes the most of simple ingredients like potatoes, broccoli and onion, so you can eat a hearty meal without having to buy more than a handful of things. Get this skillet broccoli and potato frittata recipe.

Skillet broccoli and potato frittataPhoto, Erik Putz.


Go big on lentils

A big-batch meal that also skips costly animal proteins? Yes, please! Slide this dish into the rotation for a meal plan two-ways, starring the healthy, protein- and fibre-rich lentils, with always-affordable carrots, celery and onions. First up, lentil Bolognese. Second? Leftover Bolognese turned into a ragu, over creamy polenta with fresh herbs.

Lentil bolognesePhoto, Sian Richards.

Starting stocking up on chicken thighs

Boneless chicken thighs are a very affordable cut, often coming in large family packs (extra savings!). Not only are they more flavourful, they’re quick to cook with, too. Throw them (and a can of beans) into a soup with some canned tomatillos, spices and aromatics for a perfect weeknight meal. Get this chicken chili verde recipe.

Chicken chili verdePhoto, Roberto Caruso.

Beans, beans, beans

When you pick up canned lentils, don’t forget the white beans. This recipe uses fresh herbs, garlic and white wine to elevate this affordable ingredient into elegant toast-topper. Serve with fresh greens dressed in a simple vinaigrette. Get this white beans on toast recipe.

No-meat mains: White beans on toast with arugula salad, one of 20 simple vegetarian recipesPhoto, Roberto Caruso.


Pasta (and homemade sauce)

Canned tomatoes, blitzed with cooked garlic and a handful of herbs and spices makes a delicious homemade sauce you can use anywhere. Making 750mL of sauce, it’s a low-effort, affordable substitution for jarred versions. Get our homemade tomato sauce recipe.

Classic tomato saucePhoto, Erik Putz.

Tinned salmon

Stay in the canned goods aisle awhile and look around. If you’re not interested in tuna, try the salmon! These cakes are laced with fresh dill, chives and a hit of Dijon mustard for an extra zip of flavour. Serve with green beans and sour cream. Get this salmon cakes with green beans recipe.

Salmon cakes with green beansPhoto, Roberto Caruso.

Add oats

Skip buying overpriced muffins and pastries with your morning coffee, and think about adding oats to your meal planning. Make this custard in 15 minutes (the soluble fibre will help manage your hunger levels until lunchtime), or if you’re not big on stove-top cooking on weekday mornings, make our overnight oatmeal in a jar and serve it up when you're ready to eat. Top them however you like (we enjoy fresh/thawed fruit, nuts, jam or yogurt). Get this maple custard oatmeal recipe.

Maple custard oatmealPhoto, Erik Putz.


Keep a bag of rice in the cupboard

This dish highlights simple staples like rice, frozen vegetables and eggs. It’s even better when made with leftover rice (bonus), but if you really want to make it today, simply cook the rice, spread it on a baking sheet and cool in the fridge first. (Kitchen Note: The chicken thighs you bought for the chili will work just as well as chicken breasts here.) Get this garlicky fried rice with chicken recipe.

chicken fried rice served in wokPhoto, Erik Putz.

Don’t forget the chickpeas

Another member of the legume family to add to your pantry, the chickpea can be blitzed for homemade hummus, crisped up for a crunchy snack or thrown into a stew for added protein and fibre. Pair it with canned tomatoes, spices and a couple of small sweet potatoes, and you have a one-pot curry. Serve with rice and fresh cilantro for garnish. Get this sweet potato and chickpea curry recipe.

Chickpea and potato curryPhoto, Roberto Caruso.


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