Budget Recipes & Tips: Cheap Dinner Ideas that are Easy on the Pocketbook

Looking for ways to save money on your groceries? You’re not the only one. Here are more then a dozen cheap dinner ideas, budget recipes, and tips for cutting food costs.

healthy meal in white casserole dish


I ran across a post the other day at Broke Parents lamenting the high cost of eating healthy. In her post, Bobbi says:

I am constantly seeing chefs and health/nutrition experts on TV claiming it’s a myth that it costs a lot to eat a healthy diet.

They go through all of these examples to disprove this “fallacy,” which usually involve some really unbelievably low prices for the healthy options. Well, sorry—I’m just not buying it.

Perhaps for a single person with a modest appetite, the cost difference between healthy and unhealthy wouldn’t be as great. I have a household of five, four of whom are male—and three of those are in their teens or early 20s.

As anyone who has ever tried to feed teenaged boys knows, they generally don’t eat like birds. Instead, the food seems to just vanish immediately after you buy it.

One of the tenets of living more self-reliantly is cooking at home, from wholesome ingredients instead of depending on ready made meals or ingredients. [Check out these easy swaps you can make.] But is it possible to do it inexpensively??

potato slices with chili and guacamole is a great budget recipe

How does one feed a family without breaking the bank?

Budget recipes are a good starting point. You’ll need to have some of those bookmarked. Cheap dinner ideas and inexpensive lunch menus will help you stay on track with your budget. But beyond that, there are some other tactics to take as well.

Here’s the conundrum: Eating lower quality (but seemingly less expensive) foods is less filling than eating nutrient dense options. This creates a need to eat (and pay for) more of that low quality food as our bodies seek nutrients.

A better bet is to rely on some well-loved nutritious budget recipes. And beans.

It’s fun to joke about, but beans and legumes are your friends if you’re looking for cheap dinner ideas. Beans are full of fiber, potassium, folate, iron, manganese and magnesium. They’re cholesterol- and fat-free, plus they’re filling. But they’re not the only inexpensive, healthy option.

Consider recipes that are heavy on potatoes, sweet potatoes, oats, and eggs. These are all nutritious and filling foods. Also very nutritious, albeit less filling? Greens like kale and spinach. There are plenty of budget recipes to choose from. (See below for some of my favorite recipes for cheap dinner and breakfast ideas.)

But first, some tactics to consider for cutting your grocery costs while still eating homemade healthy food.

cup of broth with parsley on blue fringed placemat

Learn to make broth

Making broth from a roasted chicken is probably one of the most frugal ways to put calories on the table. Bone broth is nutrient-dense and uses items that would otherwise be tossed to the chickens or go in the trash. And it’s easy to make. Click through for my chicken stock recipe.

Broth can be sipped hot from a mug or used as an ingredient in budget recipes like soups and stews. (Soups and stews are one of the best cheap dinners you can make — go here for ideas.)

Make what you need, use what you make

One of the biggest ways to save money on food is to stop wasting food. I’m guilty of it. You’re guilty of it. That half a serving of soup that got pushed to the back of the fridge. The last slice of bread you didn’t eat before it got moldy. The lettuce that wilted before you turned it into salad. That’s money down the drain. It doesn’t matter how cheap your recipes are if you’re throwing half of it away.

If you won’t use a big pot of soup before it goes bad, portion it out and freeze some for later so it doesn’t go to waste. Or use this trick for transforming it into a whole new meal. (For the finicky ones who don’t like to eat the same meal all week long.)

slicing zucchini with a mandoline

Look for low-cost options

Instead of looking for a favorite fruit or vegetable and lamenting the cost, switch gears. Seek out the least expensive options and learn to love them.​ Zucchini is generally pretty prolific and cheap (or free) during summer months and great for adding to recipes. Try it raw with a dip, stuffed, baked into a cake, made into a fritter, turned into a relish, pickled, or sliced into salad.

Are apples cheap when they’re in season? Learn to make and preserve applesauce, then cook the cores and peels down into apple butter. Carrots? They’re relatively inexpensive any time of year.

orange, yellow, and purple carrots in a white colander on a teal board

Make a list of your favorite cheap dinner ideas

You’ve been here: No meal planned or prepped, people are hungry, and you need to get dinner on the table. This is when your food budget is the most vulnerable to takeout sabotage! If you have a list of your favorite cheap dinner ideas and make sure to keep ingredients on hand to make them, you’ll save a last-minute dash to the supermarket and some cash.

Wooden bowl of rice and beans

Plan your meals

Knowing what you need for your weekly menu will allow you to get it all at once, eliminating costly stops for “just one thing” that turns into a cart full. This also allows you to take leftovers into account. Cook a roast on Sunday and you can turn it into enchiladas for Tuesday. Having plans will eliminate “emergency” stops for takeout.

Cook from scratch, taking it as close as you can to the source

Dry beans are less expensive than canned beans and taste great. Lentils are cheap and cook faster than beans.

Grow your own

Even if it’s just a windowsill full of microgreens or sprouts, it’s something. Have a sunny deck or a small spot in your yard that you’d give over to growing food? You can grow 17 plants in just a square foot of ground. Put several of these towers up and you’ll be in salad for months.

fresh tangerines

Eat seasonally

A short growing season can add a level of difficulty to the dilemma, but it’s possible. Buy produce when it’s in season and preserve it at home. This allows you to take advantage of seasonal low prices to make your favorite budget recipes. If you’re not ready to delve into home canning, freezing is easy to do. Fermenting is another option for extending the shelf life of your produce.

If you garden, transform your summer squash abundance into this cheesy zucchini lasagna. Or make a batch of garden-fresh sweet potato curry.

Consider an Instant Pot

Yes, it’s an investment. But there are two reasons I think an Instant Pot is worthwhile. One, we’re all busy. Pressure cooking allows us to get a decent dinner on the table in a hurry – even if your recipe starts with dried beans! Another perk? Pressure cooking turns really inexpensive cuts of meat into tender morsels.

dry lentils -- a great addition to budget recipes

Buy in bulk

In most cases, you’ll pay less per unit if you buy larger quantities. It’s often less expensive because you’re not paying for the costs of individual packaging. Seek out a natural food store than has a bulk food section.

Take your own cloth bags to fill, or see if you can buy the items you use a lot in bulk packaging. (I can get 25-pound bags of dry beans and grains at my local store, but I have to order them.) [See more about storing bulk food items here.]

Try bartering

Offer your skills to a farmer at the market or a gardening neighbor in exchange for their excess.

green apples with blemishes

Look for “seconds”

My local tomato grower sells her not-so-pretty fruit at a bargain basement price. They’re still perfectly edible. I use these fresh and also use them for making my own salsa, marinara, and pizza sauce. Ugly apples make great applesauce. Bruised peaches work for peach butter.

Start foraging

My friend tells me that asparagus grows wild in her home state every spring. Blackberries grow wild in many regions. Purslane is a weed that many people pull, but it’s also highly nutritious. Sound intriguing? It’s called foraging and it’s an excellent way to save money and really focus on what’s available locally. Check out this TED presentation from professional forager Tama Matsuoka Wong and learn how to add foraged foods to your budget recipes.

Plant perennial shrubs and trees that fruit

An edible landscape is beautiful, plus it will provide food for years to come. Even if you have no desire whatsoever to become a gardener, fruit trees and berry bushes take very little effort to maintain and they will produce year after year. Need a shade tree? Why not put in one that will make fruit?

cooked oatmeal with cinnamon in a blue bowl is one of our favorite budget recipes

Budget recipes abound

It is fast to grab cheap takeout, no doubt about it. The trick to incorporating more budget-friendly wholesome foods into your routine is to get so good at them that you can get dinner on the table in a hurry. It takes practice and repetition so that a new-to-you recipe is easy enough to make with your eyes closed. (My go-to for a fast fixing meal? Tacos.)

Give these budget-friendly recipes a try. I bet more than one will end up in your rotation of cheap dinner ideas or on your breakfast table!


granola in a white bowl

Lunch and dinner:

So how about you? What ways to save money have you implemented while still feeding your family healthful options?

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About the author: Kris Bordessa is an award-winning National Geographic author and a certified Master Food Preserver. Read more about Kris and how she got started with this site here. If you want to send Kris a quick message, you can get in touch here.

31 comments… add one
  • Amy Bishop Jul 6, 2017 @ 17:21

    I puree carrots, squash, and zucchini that is soft but still good, I add to my tomato sauce to make it last longer and add nutrition. I also dice the same veggies and add to meatloaf or burgers to stretch the meat.
    Applesauce is also good when I add pears, strawberries, or any berries to the mix.

  • cheryl Apr 19, 2017 @ 0:27

    wow I love your article. mother and I are looking for land now . so we can grow and can. until that day comes I keep tryingit’s harder when she and I have dietary requiremets to be healthy. again thank you for sharing

  • Silverilex Aug 17, 2015 @ 3:52

    I use a slow cooker year round to save energy and time. It’s very economical. A lot cheaper than using my oven. There are thousands and thousands of recipes for all sorts of things you can do in a slow cooker.

    I buy fresh items on sale, or in season, and sometimes go to the grocery store to late in the evening when they reduce their produce to ridiculous prices to sell them before ‘sell by’ date as they have to throw it away (by law) where I live. I’ve gotten bags and bags of perfect fruit and veg for only a few cents each. Most veg/fruits freezes well or you can preserve items you won’t use quickly. You can do a large casserole/soup and freeze left-overs. You can make fruit crumbles/pies or smoothies or baked goods with frozen fruit. Or save up fruit in the freezer until you have enough to make jam.

    Don’t feel you HAVE to follow a recipe EXACTLY. You can add, subtract and substitute most recipes. Don’t have scallions? Add finely diced onions. Mushrooms for zucchini or pears for apples, strawberries for raspberries, whatever. Make casseroles with whatever veg is handy.

    Go on Freecycle, Craigs List or a community Facebook site and ask or watch for offers. Some people are only thrilled to give away fruit and/or veg when they have a surplus. Some will even pick it for you, but it’s not a huge chore to pick it yourself. I’ve been given crab apples, apples, plums, grapes, etc. that I then preserved what we couldn’t use fresh. I offer the generous people baking or a homemade jam made from their fruit in appreciation of their generosity.

    Another way is trade/barter. I trade my crafts, baking, preserves, time or any skill others want/need in return for fresh products. Or help harvest a crop, and you can get a portion of the harvest.

    Some pick-your-own farms are very inexpensive. You are going direct to the source, so are cutting out the middle men and are getting the freshest possible produce.

    If you can, go to a butcher and buy in bulk, then store in freezer. You have to plan your meals so that you don’t eat up all your favorite cuts first, but meal planning saves money too.

    Do your own baking. That saves lots of money. A lot of recipes are extremely simple and quick with just a few ingredients, just some people seem frightened by baking. Start simple, then expand. Don’t be afraid to experiment or try something new. It might not always be restaurant quality, but it’s edible and nutritious. You will find new family favorites when you try new recipes.

    Our family has been eating fresh produce, meat and dairy for years, and on a tight budget with 5 children (plus friends eating regularly at our house). We only have one child left at home, but I continue my spending less on groceries and we’ve been able to save for other things.

    Be willing to expand your horizons. Make simple meals most of the week, then have one or two more expensive meals as special.

    Have faith, be brave and have fun. Good Luck!

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 17, 2015 @ 6:14

      Great additions! Thanks!

  • Heleen Jul 11, 2015 @ 10:10

    I cook large pots of soup, sauces or veggie bakes when I find vegetables at bargain prices, and then freeze them in portions. Not only does it save money, it’s also a great time saver after a long day at work when you can just reheat a dish in the oven, or stovetop.

  • Paula Lehrer Mar 24, 2015 @ 15:38

    I go straight to the farmer for my beef (side) and pork (whole) raise my own chicken (real free range, on pasture) and sell the extras. Every food item we use is as close to unprocessed as possible. Example sour cream, read the label since when can sour cream be made out of skim milk?? found a brand that is the real thing not ripped apart, dried, reformed with chemicals added to keep it together. A lot of dairy products are like that, and don’t get me started on organics what a crock. It not for consumer health anymore its a price point at a mega corporation now.

  • Sami Feb 21, 2015 @ 16:57

    Thank you for posting this. I’m a single mom to 5 children and $160 a week for a grocery budget. Three of my children at home are teens. One up coming boy seems to be suddenly unable to get full, eating as much as his 14yr brother! The doctor just said if I want to be around to raise them, I better eat healthy. I found many of the things listed above to really help. I browse the ads and buy whatever fruits and veggies are on sale and plan menus around that. We have a big garden that is full of weeds due to my illness the last two years, but I have seeds sprouting right now and high hopes of filling that garden. I buy dry beans and rice. Thanks for the reminder that it can be done.

    • Kris Bordessa Feb 21, 2015 @ 17:39

      So glad you found it helpful! Teenage kids eat a lot – I hope you’re able to grow a fair bit of produce this year!

  • Tracie Jul 19, 2014 @ 17:17

    I’m fortunate enough to have several old pecan trees and a gazillion blackberry bushes on our property. Every other year we can get about 60 to 80 pounds of pecans. The blackberries are very prolific considering they are wild. In two weeks we have collected a very large container of them and I’m almost ready to started making jelly. Here in South Carolina there are several blueberry growers and we get a great price if we pick them. For the first time ever I dehydrated them. Now I have 2 quart jars full and they rehydrate well (thank goodness!). My 3 year old granddaughter loves them in her oatmeal.

  • Sarah Jul 18, 2014 @ 7:15

    One thing I am doing is after preserving some food into jams. I sell the jam I know my small family of two will not consume in the year at my local farmers market. The goal is to sell enough at the farmers market to cover the cost of all the jams/jellies. So, I don’t have to any cost of the jam/jellies my family will eat throughout the year. For example, if i sell only 10 jars at the farmers market, it will cover the cost of those jars and the 20 I have still at home for the rest of the year.

  • Susan Apr 15, 2014 @ 4:19

    I make a lot of soup. I usually make a big stock pot of whatever kind I’m making. I like thicker, creamy soups so I puree some of the beans and veggies to thicken it. I don’t season or add anything else to the big pot. I divide the soup into the number of meals that it will be for and season, add leftover veggies, pasta, rice, or meat to each smaller batch according to what’s available. That way my family doesn’t feel like they’re eating the same meal several days a week. I use dry beans — they keep forever before they’re cooked, afterwards they keep about a week in the fridge, and they freeze well in ziplock bags. A grilled cheese sandwich is a fairly inexpensive side if you need something to help fill you up a little more.

  • Susan Apr 15, 2014 @ 4:11

    My Farmer’s Market is definitely not cheaper than the grocery store. For example, cabbage at the grocery is 39 cents a head. At the market it’s 39 cents a pound and not organic. Kale at the grocery is 89 cents a bunch, the same amount at the market is about $2.00 and not organic either.

  • Theresa Jan 16, 2014 @ 20:08

    There are a lot of great ideas presented here. One of the things I have noticed and we have saved a ton on compared to many of my friends is I hate to waste food and we rarely do. We clean our plates and eat leftovers.

    While may people on this post may not waste at all, if you are throwing away this or that ie kids not eating their food and throwing it all away instead of starting with small amounts and going for seconds if still hungry, there can be a lot of money saved in food in that respect.

    Notice all the apples that are on the side of the road in the fall….my husband loves to go up some of the back roads and pick apples off the trees that are just falling off the tree and it is not obviously in anyone’s yard. We never are out of applesauce!

    • Kris Bordessa Jan 16, 2014 @ 20:13

      Be careful about picking apples from the ground if it’s in a spot that someone is farming. A lot of people see that and think they’re just going to waste, but I’m an apple farmer’s kid – those “ground apples” are picked up and taken to the cannery for juice/vinegar. That’s a part of a farmer’s living. (Now, an abandoned apple tree is a whole ‘nother story!)

    • Susan Apr 15, 2014 @ 4:22

      I had a friend about 30 years ago that used to buy the big individual apples and then get upset because her three year old wouldn’t eat the whole thing. I suggested she buy the bagged apples that are usually smaller and where I shop a bit cheaper.

    • Barbara May 28, 2014 @ 14:15

      I agree. Portions in restaurants are so huge anyway, it makes perfect sense to take them home. Even breads and salads. They end up in the trash.

  • Cherish Jan 15, 2014 @ 23:58

    We take $20 to the farmers market every week and haggle a little to normally walk away with two or three large reusable cloth grocery bags full of twenty or thirty pounds fresh goodness than head to the grocery store just for a little meat, cheese, fresh bread and dry goods. What we’ve found is by making everything from scrap it tastes so good we use a lot less meat so our grocery bill has dropped over $120 a month and we only eat meat two or three times a week but enjoy fresh mushrooms, asparagus, eggplant, exotic fruits, homemade soups. I’m not every trying to go vegan but with how expensive meat has gotten plus the horrid cruel conditions of large scale commercial farming I’m really pleased to be cutting back yet feel like I’m eating food that tastes twenty times better than what we used to fix. Think it takes time to really get used to cooking from scrap then you hit a breaking point and it becomes so easy and tastes so good there is no going back. 

    • rita May 27, 2014 @ 12:28

      try quinoa, there are different blends and all are excellent, they are grains, high protein, easy to cook, I pair with vegetables and sprinkle cheese on top, delicious and filling, I am a vegetarian and never miss meat. all kinds of beans are yummy too, try baked with a bit of onions or leeks and a touch of garlic, goes well with everything,inexpensive and filling. and high protein. I also do buy teriaackit flavored tofu and slice and saute for sandwiches.

    • kelly Mar 6, 2015 @ 7:37

      Please go easy on haggling with farmers at a farmers market to get cheaper food. If everyone involved is happy with the deal, who’s to complain, of course, but yikes…I just know so many dedicated, hard-working farmers who do what they do only because they live without health insurance, vacations, days off, travel, security, retirement, central heating, cars that don’t need repairs all the time, a social life, etc. Their already small income is not our best place to cut corners on food costs.

      • Marilyn Jul 12, 2015 @ 12:42

        As for haggling, would we haggle at our local supermarket to get a better price on everything we want? Farmers have a much lower profit margin. Do we haggle with the guy who tows a car, our doctor?

        Here on Kauai we pay surprisingly higher prices for farmers markets than on the mainland. The cost of living is extremely high and farmers canʻt survive on less. Boiling my own beans on an electric stove, which is the only type allowable in condo complexes in my town, is no deal either. Our monthly power bill is just over $150 month for two frugal people. No A/C. Although I donʻt buy canned foods, cooking from scratch adds up quickly and heats up the house.

        Solutions arenʻt always easy and obvious, but living healthy and eating well is worth the sacrifices necessary.

        • silverilex Aug 17, 2015 @ 1:33

          I buy dried beans and cook them in my slow cooker. It costs a whole lot less than cooking them on the stovetop. I cook a lot of meals in the slow cooker year round.

          • Kris Bordessa Aug 17, 2015 @ 6:15

            Love my slow cooker.

  • Cheeseburger Jan 15, 2014 @ 16:51

    My family gave up something unhealthy to create money to buy something healthy. For instance, we used to indulge in store-bought donuts once a week. We gave up the doughnuts and used the extra “dough” (pun intended, sorry, couldn’t help myself) to buy whole wheat sandwich bread. If you look at the per pound cost of the stuff in the middle of the grocery store, you actually pay way more per pound for crackers, for instance, than you do for veggies. You are getting a lot more for your money when you buy fresh.

  • Sheryl Aug 17, 2013 @ 19:38

    Great list! Foraging is so intriguing to me…but something I”m not sure I could have the confidence/know-how to pull off. Amazing that asparagus grows wild in some regions. I wonder what other goodies are hiding out there…

  • jj Jul 30, 2013 @ 14:03

    I have blogged about this before – https://ruraldream.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/how-to-eat-real-food/

    I also commented on the original blog post – like most others, I suggested eating seasonally, cooking from scratch, and looking at cheaper options (dry beans instead of canned)

    One thought I have, though, is that sometimes it just costs money to do the right thing, whether that’s avoiding sweatshop clothing, or eating healthy food. Most of us have some stuff in the budget that is not strictly necessary, and would be easy enough to trim out, in favor of being able to eat more (expensive) fruit or whatever. A daily take-out coffee, for instance, even at $1 per day, is $30 a month. I have no idea what cable costs, but I’m sure it would buy a few pounds of grapes or cherries. How about the gas for the weekend trips wherever?

    I know there are people who are so broke that they don’t have any ‘fat’ in the budget to trim, but a lot of people who grumble about ‘not being able to afford’ to eat healthy are somehow able to afford a new pair of shoes every month, or some other unnecessary thing. It kind of comes down to your priorities.

  • Alexandra Jul 30, 2013 @ 13:00

    Join a CSA. I have not done that because we have a farmers market in town, but we have had city guests who rave about the quality and quantity they get every week at low cost.

  • Andi Houston Jul 30, 2013 @ 11:04

    It all depends on what you’re willing to trade and what’s important to you. You can either pay a lot for pre-made high-quality food, or you can pay much less and make/raise/grow/gather the high-quality food yourself.

    This is the decision everyone has to make themselves. Which do you have more of, time or money?

  • Lois Jul 29, 2013 @ 10:23

    I have found that farmer’s markets and family produce stands are the way to go when looking for healthy foods. At the local stores organic bing cherries are over $7 lb, but at the farmer’s market I purchased a quart for $2.50. Quite a savings. Other ways of saving would be to join a CSA or find like minded friends/neighbors and buy in bulk from a whole foods co-op to pay less per unit.

  • Melanie Jul 29, 2013 @ 7:16

    Great list. Here’s one more for you. Learn to make your own cleaning supplies. You can save a bundle and spend it on food. I’ve spent less than $5 a year on laundry detergent for years now. It only takes 10 minutes to make, works great and costs almost nothing. You can clean almost anything in the house with vinegar, baking soda and washing soda, even your oven.

    • kathy Jan 15, 2014 @ 12:06

      How do u spend less than $5 a yr on laundry?

      • rita May 27, 2014 @ 12:24

        you can make your own cleaning solutions including laundry detergent, google: make your own laudry detergent. I simply use a tablespoon of baking soda in the washer for all clothes that are not actually soiled, it is cheap and does the job.

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