Some times there’s just too much month left at the end of the money! When that’s the case, you’re left scrambling to figure out how to get yourself – and anyone else at your house – fed as cheaply as you can. That’s when you need some cheap and easy family meal ideas.
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What can we eat that’s cheap and isn’t garbage?
When you’re scratching your head wondering how you can feed your family cheaply, you need an arsenal of recipes that don’t cost a lot to make. Generally, those recipes are going to start with one of five primary ingredients. These are the starches that allow you to add sauces, limited amounts of meat, and veggies to create your meal.
The great thing about these starches is that they’re generally inexpensive to purchase…and they’re versatile. They’re the starter ingredient for soups, casseroles, bowls, stir-fries, and other types of main dishes. They also lend themselves to a variety of cuisines – Mexican, Italian, Oriental, Mediterranean, and good old American traditional.
The basic information is in this video. However, I go into more explanation below the video and you get links to some cheap and easy meal ideas.
These 5 starches are the basis for cheap recipes
Pasta – A delicious start for your cheap and easy family meals
Pasta is the main ingredient is lots of great tasting, cheap and easy family meals. And I personally love pasta any way you serve it. One great thing about pasta dishes is that they can be used as your entree or as a side dish. They also work well with or without meat added.
The key to a great pasta dish is the sauce. And this is where you want to think about the thickness and texture of your sauce when selecting the perfect shape of pasta. Granted, you can interchange different pasta shapes in recipes, but certain shapes are ideal for certain sauces.
For example, pasta that has a tubular or spiral shape of some kind is great for those thicker, gooey er sauces. There’s a reason you frequently see elbow macaroni served with a cheese sauce. The curved little tube helps to soak up a thick cheese sauce so that you get more sauce in each bite.
Your longer pastas, on the other hand, are great for thinner sauces that frequently tend to have some kind of tomato sauce as the base. Think spaghetti and meat sauce.
That’s not to say that you can’t substitute whatever type of pasta you have on hand though. I frequently break “the rules” because I’ve got something in the pantry and need to use what’s on hand instead of buying something special.
Fortunately, there are no “pasta police” that are going to be enforcing any rules so you’re free to mix and match as you – and your budget – like.
Here are a few of my favorite pasta dishes that don’t cost an arm and a leg to make.
Potatoes – Great for cheap and easy soups and casseroles
Potatoes are another way to stretch your grocery dollars and create some cheap and easy meals to feed your family. And one great thing about potatoes is that kids generally love ’em. That certainly helps when some of the folks you’re trying to feed are picky eaters (I had one of these…it wasn’t fun).
To make any kind of potato casserole here’s what you do…
- wash (and peel if you like) your potatoes, and either slice or chop into cubes
- add some kind of meat that is already cooked (hamburger, chicken, ham…your choice)
- add enough liquid to cook the potatoes. I suggest a cream soup (cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, etc.) and some milk. The quantities truly depend on how many potatoes you’ve used, but you need enough liquid to thoroughly coat the potatoes and have extra in the dish. As the liquid gets hot it will create steam which will help cook the potatoes.
- add your favorite spices. You can hardly go wrong with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and a little celery salt.
- stir everything together well and bake covered in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes. Again, the length of cooking time is dependent on how many potatoes you’re cooking. You’ll want to check at 30 minutes how your potatoes are coming along by sticking a fork into them. If they’re still too firm to eat, shove the casserole dish back into the oven and cook in 15 minute increments until the potatoes are cooked to the point you like them.
- Crispy Baked Fries
- 50 Stuffed Potatoes (stuffed potatoes are something I adore and they’re so easy…just use whatever you have in your refrigerator)
- Easy Ground Beef and Potato Casserole
- Fried Potatoes & Sausage Skillet
Rice – Bowls and stir-Fries are Super cheap and easy
The hardest part of making a rice-based meal is cooking the rice and getting it to the right “done-ness” – not too mushy, but not still crunchy either.
Then to your pot of rice, chop up whatever veggies you’ve got in the refrigerator (or use frozen or canned – it really won’t matter). Add some type of meat if you wish, then season with salt and pepper and you’ve got the basics.
Now, I’d suggest that this is a place where you want to experiment with spices and condiments. We like to add soy sauce to our rice dishes if we’re going for an Oriental rice bowl type of dinner. When we do that we generally also add some ground mustard (the kind that comes in the spice jars, not the prepared kind that is in your refrigerator), some ground ginger, and a little celery seed.
If we’re going for a Mexican themed dinner then we add cumin, chili powder, and garlic.
Beans – Nutritious and delicious
Okay, a disclaimer right here…I know that there are beans, and that there are legumes, and that there are lentils. And I know that you know that as well. So I’m not going to discuss the difference between each of them. To keep it simple I’m just going to lump them all together…I assume you’ll be okay with that.
Beans are like a really good understudy in a play – they’re a great side dish but they’re also ready to be the star of the show. And there are enough variety of beans that you could fix a different meal every night of the week and not get bored.
They’re also an extremely nutritious food to add to your diet. They’re generally full of protein, fiber, and vitamins. They also taste delicious.
Now, you can start with either canned or dried beans…but the dried beans are definitely cheaper. However, you’ll definitely want to make sure you sift through them to remove any small stones or other matter that may have been packed in with the dried beans. I always put mine in a colander and hold it under running water and just sort through the beans that way…just to be on the safe side.
I know that lots of folks absolutely insist that beans must be soaked overnight. And truth be told, that IS a good way to do it because it cuts down on your cooking time (because the beans have already soaked up a lot of the water) and it cuts down on any…shall we say…unpleasant bean side effects.
But I don’t generally do it that way. I always make my beans on the same day and either cook them in a slow cooker or on the stove at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. Hey, it works for us.
A few great meals you can make with beans as the main course are:
- Beans and cornbread (use whatever kind of beans you like – Pinto beans are our personal favorite)
- Nine-bean soup
- Vegetarian black bean chili
- Beanie weenie
Bread – more than cheap filler
My grandfather used to call bread “cheap filler”…and he wasn’t wrong. Whether you pick it up at the store or make it at home, bread is a great way to put the “cheap and easy” into your family meal.
Now most of us are going to default to sandwiches (I’ve got a sandwich starter to help you make more interesting sandwiches available in my shop), hot dogs, and hamburgers when we think of meals that start with bread. We don’t have to limit our thinking to a regular old loaf of white bread here. Let’s not forget tortillas, cornbread, crackers, wraps, biscuits, and the huge variety of bread products that are out there.
A few favorite cheap and easy family meals that start with bread include:
- biscuits and gravy (and this can be as simple as a package or biscuits from the dairy case and a package mix of gravy)
- veggie quesadillas
- spinach and cheese enchiladas
- peanut butter and banana sandwiches (you literally mash up a banana and mix it with peanut butter and spread on the bread. Supposedly this was a favorite of Elvis Presley…I know it was my mom’s favorite).
- there are an infinite number of wrap sandwich ideas out there
- and let’s not forget homemade pizza (see our recipe for pizza rolls). Homemade pizza dough can be topped with whatever ingredients you have in the house. It’s cheap and delicious!
If you’re stuck in a sandwich rut, our sandwich starter can help. There are several background options to choose from and they’re only $3.
How to make any casserole starting with pasta, rice, or potatoes
- Decide if you want to start with your pasta, rice, or potatoes cooked or raw.
- If you’re starting with them cooked, then cook according to directions on the package (which is to cook in enough boiling water to cover them and cook until tender – that’s really all there is to it. The length of cooking time depends on how large the pieces are (smaller pieces cook faster) and the quantity (larger amounts take longer).
- If you’re starting with raw or uncooked, then you’ll need to add enough liquid to your dish so that the ingredient can absorb liquid required to re hydrate it and so that steam is created (which also helps cook the ingredient).
- Grease your casserole dish (or spray with non-stick cooking oil).
- Add your potatoes, pasta, or rice to the dish.
- Add whatever chopped meat and veggies you desire (pieces that are chopped to similar sizes tend to cook more uniformly – which means that you won’t get some pieces overdone while other pieces are underdone).
- Pour whatever liquid you want to use as the sauce into the dish (creamed soup, tomato sauce, shredded cheese mixed with milk, etc.) and stir together.
- Add your favorite seasonings and mix together well.
- Bake in a 350 degree oven for between 30 – 60 minutes until all the ingredients in the dish are cooked all the way through. I tend to go for about 45 minutes and then I start checking to see how the dish is doing and whether it needs extra time.
The big secret professional cooks don’t want you to know
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about cooking.
Despite what some cooks might want you to think, cooking isn’t difficult. Yes, it’s a skill but it’s one that anyone can develop. Perhaps the only secret to cooking is that it’s basically one big chemistry experiment. You mix ingredients together, use some common sense to decide what is the best cooking method to bring all of the ingredients to a temperature that makes them safe to eat, and then adjust accordingly.
Now, I’m not talking about baking. There is more precision required when you bake. You do need precise measurements and cooking times or your baked item may turn into a total flop.
But with basic, regular cooking…it’s just not that complicated.