10 Easy Meal Ideas for Anyone on a Budget

Cooking doesn’t have to be scary, expensive or complicated. For these meals, all you need is a few ingredients and a positive attitude!

Let me start by saying, I’m not here to feed you recipes. You can find those anywhere, and they’re pretty self-explanatory. I’m here to give flexible meal ideas for flexible people. That’s nine-to-fivers with packed schedules, families with hungry mouths to feed, and travelers with limited ingredients and storage options. If you can master these meal types, your body (and pocket) will thank you!

Here are the rules: 

  1. Easy to make: For anyone with basic knowledge in the kitchen.
  2. Affordable: Made with price tags in mind: items you can buy in bulk, store, and use in various recipes.
  3. Flexible ingredients: That can adapt to local markets, and be substituted (and combined) with what’s already in the fridge.
  4. Large serving sizes: These recipes can be bulked up to provide meals all week!

Notes: 

  • Seasoning: Assume salt and pepper for each meal, but feel free to add your own flavor.
  • Sautéing: Assume olive oil or butter for each meal, depending on availability and health-consciousness.
  • Instructions: These are meant to be used as a guide. Prep your ingredients as you’d like them to be in your final dish. i.e., If you want diced tomatoes, dice them. If you want sliced tomatoes, slice them. The purpose is to provide options and encourage your creativity in the kitchen.

1) Pastas

We all have dried pasta in the panty, so let’s put it to use! It’s fast, filling, and makes large quantities – perfect for feeding groups of family or friends.

Choose your pasta:

  • Long pasta (spaghetti, linguini, angel hair) or short pasta (penne, fusilli, farfalle)
  • White or whole-wheat

Choose your sauce:

  • Marinara, pesto, cheese/Alfredo, garlic and olive oil

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Ground beef, chicken, prosciutto/bacon, shrimp
  • Vegetables: Mushrooms, broccoli, asparagus, peas, spinach, grape tomatoes, red peppers, onion, garlic
  • Garnish: Grated cheese, basil
pastas

Instructions:

  1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Sear meat in skillet (don’t cook it completely). Remove from pan, and set aside.
  3. Using the same pan, sauté your vegetables until soft. Drain liquid/oil if excessive.
  4. Pour sauce and meat into pan with vegetables. Season to taste, and let simmer for 30 minutes until flavors marry and meat is cooked through.
  5. Cook pasta according to bag direction. Strain and lightly coat with olive oil to avoid sticking.
  6. Plate pasta, sauce and garnish. Serve!

2) Soups

Good, fresh soups are my “go-to” for lunch. They’re light, healthy, and easy to reheat. You can also freeze them in portioned containers for a quick fix later!

Choose your base:

  • Water, liquid stock or bouillon (chicken, beef, vegetable)

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Chicken, beef, sausage
  • Vegetables: Celery, celery leaves, carrot, onion, garlic, broccoli, peas, diced potatoes, green beans, kidney or black beans

Choose your starch:

  • Pasta, rice, barley

Choose your herbs:

  • Bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, herbs de provence
soups

Instructions:

  1. Bring base to a boil; this will be your broth. (Make extra if you’ve chosen a starch, as these will soak up/thicken your broth quite quickly.)
  2. Sear meat in skillet (don’t cook it completely). Remove from pan, and set aside.
  3. Using the same pan, sauté your vegetables until soft.
  4. Pour vegetables, meat and uncooked starch into the broth. Season and bring to a boil. Then, reduce heat to a simmer and cover for 30 minutes until flavors marry and meat is cooked through.
  5. Serve!

TIP: Be creative! Dice ingredients for a hearty, chunky soup. Or, puree your broth/vegetables for a lighter, creamier finish.


3) Curries

When you’re craving something different, head to the spice isle! Curry powders are easy to find, making it easy to enjoy some international flare.

Choose your rice:

  • White rice, brown rice

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Chicken, lamb
  • Vegetables: Cauliflower, broccoli, peas, carrots, red pepper, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, garlic

Choose your seasonings:

  • Curry powder, cumin, turmeric, paprika, chili/cayenne powder
curry

Instructions:

  1. Cook rice according to instruction (this can take anywhere from 20-30 minutes).
  2. Sear meat in skillet (don’t cook it completely). Remove from pan, and set aside.
  3. Using the same pan, sauté your vegetables until soft.
  4. Add water (or chicken/vegetable stock) to your vegetables; this will be your sauce.
  5. Add a generous amount of seasoning, tasting as you go.
  6. Combine sauce, meat and vegetables and simmer (covered) for 30 minutes until flavors marry and meat is cooked through.
  7. Serve atop bed of rice.

TIP: For a richer flavor, toast your dry rice, seasonings, and tomato paste in a pan before moving to step 4. You can also add a small pour of milk/cream at the end (while whisking) to achieve that classic creamy color.


4) Stir-fry

Stir-frying is another way to kick up your flavors. Use some leftover sauce in the fridge (or take-out packets) to totally transform meats and vegetables in your next dish.

Choose your rice:

  • White rice, brown rice

Choose your sauce:

  • Soy sauce, teriyaki sauce

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Chicken, beef, tofu
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, peas, carrots, bok choy, red pepper, pineapple, zucchini, eggplant, onion, garlic, ginger
stir_fry

Instructions:

  1. Marinate meat in sauce, olive oil and minced garlic/ginger for at least 1 hour before cooking.
  2. Cook rice according to instruction (this can take anywhere from 20-30 minutes).
  3. Sauté meat in skillet until done. Remove from pan, and set aside.
  4. Using the same pan, sauté your vegetables and sauce until aromatic.
  5. Add meat and continue cooking until done.
  6. Serve atop bed of rice.

TIP: For a refreshing twist, cook rice in 1/2 water and 1/2 coconut water. If you can’t find coconut water, sauté your protein/vegetables in coconut oil instead.


5) Tacos / Burritos

Colorful, fresh and fun! You can put almost anything in tacos or burritos, making them a nice “catch-all” for what’s in your fridge. They’re customizable too, which is a good choice when serving groups of people.

Choose your wrap:

  • Large or small tortillas
  • White flour, whole wheat, corn

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Chicken, beef, pork, shrimp
  • Vegetables: Lettuce, tomatoes, corn, beans, radish, red cabbage, sautéed peppers and onions
  • Garnish: Cilantro, lime, hot sauce, sour cream
tacos_burritos

Instructions:

  1. Sauté meat in skillet until done. Remove from pan, and set aside.
  2. Using the same pan, sauté vegetables if needed. Dice those to be served raw.
  3. Heat large skillet to high heat. Cook tortillas on dry pan until bubbling and flip; repeat on other side. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Assemble tortillas, meat, vegetables, and garnish into assembly line. Serve!

6) Red Beans & Rice

Easy, hearty, and healthy… red beans and rice are the perfect meal. They require few, budget-friendly ingredients and can be stretched for days.

Choose your rice:

  • White rice, brown rice

Choose your beans:

  • Red beans, black beans
    • Dry: Best option, but must be soaked overnight to reduce cooking time. Reserve excess/starchy water for your sauce.
    • Canned: Fastest option, but sauce becomes thick. Must loosen with water or stock during cooking process.

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Diced, precooked sausage (kielbasa) or ham
  • Vegetables: Onion, garlic
  • Garnish: Hot sauce, chives, sour cream

Choose your seasonings:

  • Cajun seasoning, cumin, paprika, chili/cayenne powder, bay leaf
redbeans_and_rice

Instructions:

  1. Cook rice according to instruction (this can take anywhere from 20-30 minutes).
  2. Sauté vegetables in skillet until soft.
  3. Add meat, seasonings, and beans/bean broth; this will be your sauce (if more is needed, add water or stock judiciously). Simmer for 30 minutes until flavors marry.
  4. Garnish, and serve atop bed of rice.

7) Casseroles

There’s nothing quite like home-cookin’ than casserole, another dish that can be made from just about anything. Grab your leftovers from the vegetable drawer, throw in some sauce and pasta, and you’re in business!

Choose your starch:

  • Pasta (egg noodles, penne, fusilli, farfalle, seashells, macaroni), or rice (white or brown)

Choose your sauce:

  • Homemade or canned cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, or béchamel

Choose your add-ons:

  • Meat: Diced chicken, sliced or ground sausage, canned tuna
  • Vegetables: Celery, carrots, onion, garlic, mushrooms, peas, broccoli

Choose your cheese:

  • Cheddar, Gruyere
casserole

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350’F.
  2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
  3. Cook pasta according to bag direction. Strain and lightly coat in olive oil to avoid sticking.
  4. Sauté vegetables (only!) in skillet until soft.
  5. Combine pasta, vegetables, meat and sauce. Distribute evenly in lightly buttered casserole dish.
  6. Top with grated cheese. (As a bonus, mix dried breadcrumbs into the cheese for a crispier crust.)
  7. Bake at 350’F for 30 minutes until flavors marry and meat is cooked through.
  8. Serve!

TIP: Broil in oven for last 5 minutes to add color and crunchiness (keep a close eye on it!).


8) Salads

A healthy side, or main attraction! Salads are versatile and a good reason to walk your local farmer’s market. Here your creativity can run wild – play with colors, flavors and textures in this quick dish.

Choose your greens:

  • Romaine, kale, spinach, arugula

Choose your add-ons:

  • Protein: Chicken, shrimp, tofu, hardboiled egg
  • Add-ons:
    • Standard salad: Tomatoes, celery, carrots, onion, corn, beans, radish, cucumber, bell peppers, avocado, cheese (feta, parmesan)
    • Sweet salad: Strawberries, oranges, apples, blueberries, chopped walnuts, cheese (blue, goat, parmesan)
  • Other: Dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, chopped almonds, croutons

Choose your dressing:

  • Standard salad: Olive oil + an acid (vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice), ranch, Caesar, Italian, honey mustard
  • Sweet salad: Olive oil + an acid (vinegar, lemon juice), balsamic, raspberry vinaigrette, red wine vinaigrette
salads

Instructions:

  1. Sauté protein if needed.
  2. Wash, dry, and chop all of your vegetables.
  3. Combine greens, add-ons and dressing. Serve!

TIP: Have some fun! Vary your chopping techniques to provide more variety and texture to the final plate.


9) Pizza

Pizzas are one of my favorite things to prepare with friends. They’re interactive and can be personalized to each person’s tastes. They’re also moved easily for parties, road trips, or lunch on-the-go.

Choose your dough:

  • Pre-made dough, homemade dough (requires 1-2 hours to rise)

Choose your sauce:

  • Tomato sauce, white sauce, pesto

Choose your cheese:

  • Mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta, Gorgonzola

Choose your toppings:

  • Meat: Pepperoni, ground sausage, chicken, prosciutto
  • Vegetables: Green peppers, onions, mushrooms, olives, pineapple, hot peppers, tomatoes, spinach
  • Garnish: Basil, cracked egg
pizza

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 450‘F.
  2. Cover cooking tray with tin foil or baking paper. Lightly dust with flour or cornmeal.
  3. Prepare your dough and shape onto cooking tray.
  4. Spoon thin layer of tomato sauce onto dough.
  5. Evenly distribute meat and vegetable toppings onto pizza.
  6. Bake pizza for 8-12 minutes, turning halfway (unless dough’s directions differ). If you’ve chosen a garnish, add it just a few minutes before finished to avoid wilting/burning.
  7. Slice and serve!

10) Burgers

A classic! You can’t go wrong with burgers. They can be as healthy (or unhealthy) as you want them to be, and they go with almost any side.

Choose your bun:

  • White flour or whole-wheat hamburger bun

Choose your patty:

  • Ground beef, ground turkey (lighter, but dry if not careful)

Choose your toppings:

  • Cheese: Cheddar, blue cheese, gouda, pepper jack
  • Vegetables: Lettuce, arugula, tomatoes, pickles, raw red onion, caramelized yellow onion, sautéed peppers
  • Other: Bacon, avocado, fried egg

Choose your spread:

  • Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, BBQ sauce
burgers

Instructions:

  • Season meat (grill mix, spices, Worcestershire sauce) and add one egg. Combine, careful not to overwork meat.
  • Take roughly 1/3 lb. meat, and form into patty 3/4″ thick and 3-4″ in diameter. Press a small dimple in the patty to minimize shrunken/bulky burgers.
  • Cook patties on barbecue or skillet, about 4-5 minutes each side. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
  • Dice vegetables and other toppings as needed.
  • Assemble buns, meat and toppings into assembly line. Serve!

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