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7 Cheap & Easy Meal Ideas for Families

By Angela Colley

couple cookingLately, I’ve been a little obsessed with the cost of food. It all started when I decided to track my spending for one month. During the month, my total expenditures were about the same, but this time I made a point of saving all my receipts. At the end of the month, I divided them into categories and compared the totals to my estimated budget per category.

But when it came time to analyze the grocery receipts, I had exceeded my budget even before I was halfway through the stack! By the last receipt, my dreams of doing a victory lap around my budget was replaced with horrified shock. I was spending hundreds of dollars more on food than I realized.

My first reaction was to go on a ramen-only diet, which I planned to eat alone in the dark, while cursing my lack of financial savvy. But after a day or two of that (okay, one meal), I decided to be rational (and a ramen-only diet is not rational). So I came up with a new battle plan: to combine extreme couponing with cheap meal ideas.

Since then, I’ve found several recipes that only include ingredients I can buy on sale or with a coupon, or both. I don’t include oddball expensive additions I won’t ever use again, and each recipe must have actual nutritional value.

Fortunately, it turns out you can eat great meals at home without blowing your budget.

Cheap Meal Ideas for Families

1. Barbecue Vegetable Quesadillas

The mixture of barbecue sauce and spices gives traditional vegetable quesadillas a new flare. The quesadillas are stuffed with cheese, vegetables, and just enough spice, and then toasted until the cheese melts and the tortillas get crispy around the edges.

Makes 4 servings. Total cost per serving: $4

vegetable quesadillas

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup barbecue sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3 portobello mushroom caps, diced
  • 1/2 cup green bell peppers, diced
  • 1/2 cup carrots, shredded
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 large tortillas
  • 1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or white American cheese

Pro Tip: You can find white American cheese in the specialty cheeses section of the grocery store. White American gives the dish a more authentic Mexican flavor.

Directions:

  1. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the barbecue sauce, tomato paste, vinegar, garlic powder, and chili powder.
  2. Heat one tablespoon of canola oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the diced mushrooms, carrots, and bell peppers.
  3. Cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes. Add the diced onions. Cook, stirring occasionally for an additional five minutes.
  4. When the mushrooms and onions start to brown, remove the vegetables from the pan and add them to the barbecue sauce mixture. Stir to blend all the ingredients.
  5. Place a tortilla on a cutting board. Spread half the cheese across the surface of the tortilla. Spread half the vegetable mixture over the cheese. Press a second tortilla on top.
  6. Heat one teaspoon of oil in the skillet. Add the tortillas. Cook for two minutes. Flip the tortilla over and cook for two additional minutes on the second side.
  7. Carefully remove the quesadilla and place it on a plate. Cut into wedges. Repeat with second tortilla. Serve warm.

2. Cajun Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya

This jambalaya blends tender rotisserie chicken and sweet sausage with spicy rice. Southerners have relied on dishes like jambalaya for years, since it can feed a small army for dirt-cheap. While traditionalists boil their own chicken, using a rotisserie cuts down on the time spent in the kitchen.

Makes 6 to 8 servings. Total cost per serving: $3.00

cajun chicken jambalaya

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium rotisserie chicken
  • 1/2 pound andouille sausage
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 3 cups long grain white rice, uncooked
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 1/2 cup green onions, diced
  • 1/2 cup green pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons powdered garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce
  • red pepper, to taste

Directions:

  1. Heat two tablespoons of canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Slice the andouille sausage into 1/4 inch thick slices. Add the sausage to the skillet and cook for five to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the Andouille from the pan and add it to a large pot.
  2. Add diced onions to the skillet and cook for three to five minutes or until the onions brown. Once browned, add the onions to the large pot.
  3. Next, remove the skin from the rotisserie chicken, and shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces.
  4. Add the shredded chicken, diced green pepper and celery, uncooked rice, salt, powdered garlic, black pepper, hot sauce, and chicken broth to the large pot with the chicken and sausage. Then, pour in 5 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
  5. While the jambalaya cooks, dice the green onions. Once it has cooked for 15 minutes on medium-low heat, add the green onions. Cover the pot and reduce heat to low for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Finally, add red pepper to taste and serve warm.

Tip: Since salt is a matter of taste, add in small increments and taste after each addition.

3. Breaded Tilapia with Peach Salsa

Tilapia is lightly seasoned, breaded, and baked to bring out the natural flavors of the fish. After baking, a salsa made from peaches and vegetables is poured over the fillets to give them an extra kick.

Makes 2 to 3 servings. Total cost per serving: $3.50

breaded tilapia peach salsa

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound tilapia fillets
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups panko crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon garlic salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Ingredients for Salsa:

  • 1 large peach, diced
  • 1 small green bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 medium red onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 3 teaspoon lemon juice
  • salt to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions:

  1. Combine all the salsa ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  3. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Then, place a baking rack over the baking sheet and spray the baking rack with nonstick spray.
  4. Combine the panko crumbs, garlic salt, pepper, and olive oil in a medium bowl. Mix well. Beat the 2 eggs in a separate medium-sized bowl. Gently dip the tilapia filets into the egg mixture. Then, dredge the filets in the panko crumb mixture, coating both sides. Place the filets on the baking rack.
  5. Move the baking rack to the top position in the oven and bake the fillets for 20 minutes.
  6. Once baked, place the fillets on a plate and spoon the salsa mixture over the fillets. Serve warm.

4. Chicken Vegetable Soup

Chicken soup is a classic for a reason; its warm, hearty, and perfect for cold winter nights. Unfortunately, the stuff in the can is loaded with artificial preservatives and salt. But you can make your own homemade version of the classic for around $4 a serving.

Makes 4 servings. Total cost per serving: $4

chicken vegetable soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 cups carrots, diced
  • 2 cups celery, diced
  • 1 cup frozen lima beans
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
  • 1/2 cup parsley, diced
  • 3 cups pasta, cooked
  • 1 rotisserie chicken
  • 1 tablespoon margarine
  • 6 cans chicken broth
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions:

  1. Melt margarine in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and cook 6 minutes, stirring frequently.
  2. Add in carrots, celery, lima beans, chicken broth, salt, black pepper, and garlic powder. Heat to a boil. Then, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Remove the skin from the chicken and shred chicken into bite-sized pieces. Then add chicken and pasta to the pot. Once the chicken and pasta are heated through, remove from heat and add parsley. Serve warm.

5. Chicken Kabobs

Makes 4 servings. Total cost per serving: $3

chicken kabobs

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 cups pineapple, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 medium onion, cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup honey mustard dressing

Directions:

  1. Blend orange juice, vegetable oil, and honey mustard dressing into a large bowl. Mix in the chicken, bell peppers, onion, and pineapple. Stir and coat well. Refrigerate mixture for 3 hours.
  2. Remove the mixture from the refrigerator and arrange chicken, fruit, and vegetables on skewers.
  3. Set oven to broil. Place the skewers on a baking rack and bake for 16 minutes, turning frequently.

6. Turkey and Pasta Bake

This casserole combines pasta with healthy vegetables and turkey. The addition of parmesan cheese adds more flavor, without adding many calories, which keeps this casserole healthy.

Makes 4 to 6 servings. Cost per serving: $4

turkey pasta bake

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 2 cups frozen mixed vegetables
  • 1 15-ounce jar of tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni, cooked
  • 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Cook turkey in a large skillet over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Once turkey browns, drain and set aside.
  3. Mix turkey, cooked pasta, vegetables, pasta sauce, and spices into a 2-quart casserole dish. Mix well. Cover and bake for 30-minutes.
  4. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and serve warm.

7. Spicy Fettuccine

This recipe is a spicy take on the classic chicken fettuccine alfredo. It replaces chicken with smoked sausage and adds Cajun seasoning for an extra kick.

Makes 4 to 6 servings. Cost per serving: $3

spicy fettuccine

Ingredients:

  • 1 package fettuccine noodles
  • 1/2 pound smoked sausage links, cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons Creole or Cajun seasoning
  • 7 ounces roasted red bell peppers
  • 2 medium green onions, diced

Directions:

  1. Cook and drain pasta.
  2. In a large skillet, cook sausage over medium heat for five to eight minutes. Set aside.
  3. Add whipping cream, seasoning, and bell peppers to a food processor and blend until smooth. Add this pepper mixture to a large skillet over medium heat. Cover and stir occasionally until the sauce thickens. Then, slowly add in the cooked sausage.
  4. Pour sausage mixture over fettuccine. Mix well and serve warm.

Final Word

Now that I’m combining extreme couponing with tasty, cheap meal ideas, I eat for under $10 a day. Better yet, since most recipes involve a good mix of vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, I’m eating healthy as well. Moreover, most of these recipes make several servings, so I can freeze one or two for later, which saves me even more money!

For frugal and healthy meal planning ideas, check out E-mealz.

What’s your favorite cheap meal recipe?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Angela Colley
Angela Colley is a freelance writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana with a background in mortgage and real estate. Her interests include animal rights advocacy, green living, mob movies and finding the best deal on everything. She blames her extreme passion for never paying full price on two parents that taught her that a penny saved is two pennies if invested wisely.

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  • Olivia

    Lentil and Rice Salad

    Cook a cup of rice in two cups of water as per instructions on the box.
    Cook lentils for 15 minutes or so in another pot in water until just tender. Drain.

    Place on flat pans to cool.

    Toss with a couple tablespoons lemon juice, a couple tablespoons olive oil, a bunch of fresh chopped parsley, a chopped tomato (or halved cherry tomatoes), a chopped cucumber, some chopped sweet onion. Add corn if you like. Salt to taste.

    Can be served chilled or at room temperature.

    • Olivia

      Sorry, a quarter cup or more of lentils…

  • http://www.incharge.org/blog/ Jacquie

    There are so many days when I come home from work and I go back and forth between the pantry and the fridge looking for something to make for dinner. Thanks for reminding me that I just need to be a little creative when looking at the can of tuna!

  • ParN

    Beans are versatile, healthy and cheap. You can make a dip and use home made pita chips or veggies to scoop it up. You can use with rice. Make a vegetarian chili with any left over vegetables. Add to beef or chicken for a stew. Use cold in a salad. It is full of fiber and vitamins and it fills you up.
    I think beans are the perfect food.

  • Sally Aquire

    Thanks for sharing your meal ideas! Keep them coming if anyone has any more that haven’t been mentioned as it’s great to pick up new tips.

  • Janine

    Black bean soup topped with a fried egg.

    Black bean salad with chopped green onion, plenty of lime juice, chopped red pepper, carrot, celery, whatever veggies you have. Add as much cottage cheese as you can stand. High protein and not bad.

    Roasted Chicken from Costco – they’re huge and will feed you for several days for like $6. Then make stock from the bones.

    And chili is so great. I use my little bag of frozen tomato “scraps” and tomato sauce, throw in a little carrot and celery if I have it. Lots of beans. I used to eat it over rice when I ate more carbs.

  • Sally Aquire

    Those tips sound great, Janine! Thanks for sharing them with us!

  • http://www.Pennysaverblog.com Pam

    The recipes all look delicious, and healthy! A lot of people think it’s way too expensive to eat healthy all the time. But there are definitely ways to eat healthy by doing what you are doing – buying ingredients when they are on sale. Sure, some processed foods are cheaper, but when you consider that you are jeopardizing your health, it just isn’t worth it. Thanks again for taking the time to write this article!

    • Angela Colley

      Thanks Pam! You’re right – it took me a while to realize it, but you’re just wasting your money on food that has no nutritional value. You’re better off spending the extra dollar here and there to get something that will keep you healthy.

  • Layla13

    It takes some effort, planning to eat well on a budget we do it but it is not easy, also we are using more meatless meals so I have to be creative as well. People who say they cannot do it, there are loads of pages like this to help, some general tips, if you can even a small garden is a tremendous help, we are growing tomatoes in hanging baskets on our porch even, learn to can, trade fresh fruits and vegetables for canned and frozen they are just as nutritious, apples and bananas are rarely expensive, I slice up the apple slices myself, I will not pay a fast food restaurant to do this for us, frozen fruit with no added sugar is a great dessert, sure we have had times our kids have not wanted to eat something, fine, we don’t provide an alternative, we don’t let them dictate what is served, not one of them have died from skipping a meal or a certain food we are trying.
    We use a lot of beans, rice, potatoes, poultry, fish that is on sale, we are strict about portion sizes which is the downfall of many with weight issues who have no idea what a serving size should be, I shop in the evening, when they mark things down, we invested in a freezer and stock up, our local market had chicken thighs and legs on sale this week for $1 pound. Our monthly food budget is less than a family of our size gets on food stamps in our state so if we can on a tight budget anyone can, no one is overweight and no one is starving.

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