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Budgeting

10 Minute Read

7 Budget-Friendly Meal Ideas

10 Minute Read

A steaming slow cooker of white chicken chili

Imagine this: You’re gathered around the dinner table, conversation flowing, plates and hearts full. Someone smiles and compliments, “Wow. This is so good!” And you respond, “Thank you. It’s a savory and budget-friendly meal.” You both high-five.

Okay, maybe it’s more like you’re rushing from one thing to the next, so everyone’s scarfing down the meal and you just get a muffled “yum” before everyone’s out the door.

Either way, you’re trying to balance life and your budget while eating real food. And you can—with these seven recipes! Try them all in a row, and you’ll have your whole week covered. Or sprinkle them throughout your month. However you decide to serve them up, these budget-friendly meal ideas will help you fill those plates without busting the bank.

Meal One: Salsa Chicken Rice Bowls

Ingredients

For Salsa Chicken

5 pounds frozen, boneless chicken breasts

1 jar salsa

1 packet taco seasoning

1 cup water

Other Ingredients

2 cups dry rice

1 can corn

1 can black beans

1 can chopped tomatoes

1 head of lettuce, chopped

Shredded cheese

Sour cream

Directions

Dump water, salsa, taco seasoning, and frozen chicken into a slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 6 hours. Then use a fork to shred the chicken. You can serve from the slow cooker to keep warm.

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Open the cans of black beans and corn. Heat each until warm (either on the stove or in the microwave). Cook rice according to package directions. Set out the rest of the ingredients and let everyone build their own bowls with rice, chicken, salsa, corn, black beans, tomatoes, lettuce, shredded cheese, and sour cream.

Budget Tip

Yes, fresh tomatoes taste better. If they’re in season and on sale, grab them. But if not, find canned tomatoes without added salt and use those instead. You’ll still get nutrition with way less cost.

Pro tip: Use leftover chicken from this recipe for cheesy chicken quesadillas (see recipe a little further down) and use the extra lettuce to make a salad to go with spaghetti later in the week. If you want, you can also make an extra 1 1/2 cups of dry rice here for the upcoming chicken fried rice meal.

Estimated meal cost: Less than $20

Serves: 4–5

Meal Two: Turkey Meatloaf and Potatoes

Ingredients

For Turkey Meatloaf

1 pound ground turkey

1 egg

1 box stuffing mix

1 cup water

1/8 cup BBQ sauce

1/3 cup ketchup

For Potatoes

4 large potatoes

Olive oil

Salt and pepper (or your favorite spices)

Directions

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Throw all the meatloaf ingredients except that ketchup into a bowl and mix it up until everything is evenly combined. (Use your hands for better mixing results. It’s gross and cold but worth it.) Pat the meat mixture into a greased loaf pan and cook for 30 minutes. Remove and slather with ketchup. Return to oven for 15 more minutes.  

Side Dishes

Make roasted potatoes! First, cut about 4 large potatoes into small cubes, tossing them in olive oil and whatever spices you like (salt and pepper are classic, or you can add some Italian seasoning to mix it up). Place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and cook at 450 degrees F for 25–35 minutes. It’s super simple and super delish. Add a bag of steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies, and you’ve got a complete and wonderful meal.

Budget Tip

When the steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies go on sale, stock up! You can often find them for just $1 a bag! But don’t forget they’re in your freezer when you’re meal planning later in the month.

Also, grab a bag of whatever fresh potatoes are on sale. If you’re cooking all of these recipes in one week, you’ll use some for baked potato night too.

Estimated meal cost: Less than $17

Serves: 4–6

Meal Three: Breakfast for Dinner

Ingredients

For Pancakes

1 cup milk

1 cup self-rising flour (or 1 cup all-purpose flour plus 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt)

1 large egg

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Nonstick cooking spray

For Scrambled Eggs

8 eggs

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup milk

2 teaspoons of butter

Directions

Whisk all the pancake ingredients until the lumps are long gone. (Be careful not to overmix!) Heat a griddle, pan or electric skillet to 370 degrees F and spray with a nonstick cooking spray. Use 1/4 cup of batter per pancake, and space each about an inch apart. Flip when large bubbles form in the batter, and remove the pancake after about 2 minutes on the second side. Reapply cooking spray and continue to make pancakes until all the batter is gone. You’ll have 10–12 pancakes.

Side Dishes

Serve with scrambled eggs. You already have a bunch of eggs in your fridge for multiple recipes this week. Just crack 8 eggs into a bowl and add 3/4 teaspoon of salt, 3/4 teaspoon of pepper, and 1/2 cup of milk. Scramble the mixture with a whisk or fork. Melt 2 teaspoons of butter in the bottom of a skillet over medium-high heat and pour in the egg mixture. Scramble them in the pan to your preferred consistency. This is a super cheap protein!

Budget Tip

Notice this is a meatless meal night. Add at least one of these to your plan every week because meat ain’t cheap. Try bringing in other proteins to your menu like eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, quinoa and nuts. And don’t be afraid of generic brands when you’re loading up on spices, flour and sugar. They’re the same as the name brand—they just didn’t spend as much on advertising or fancy labels.  

Estimated meal cost: Less than $13

Serves: 4–5

Meal Four: Cheesy Chicken Quesadillas

Ingredients

For Quesadillas

Flour tortillas

4 cups shredded cheese

Salsa chicken (see previous recipe)

Sour cream (for dipping)

Butter

Salt

Other Ingredients

1 can black beans

Tortilla chips

Salsa

Directions

Set your stovetop to medium-high heat. Spread a thin layer of butter on one side of two flour tortillas. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Place one tortilla butter side down in the skillet, sprinkle the top side with cheese, add shredded chicken, sprinkle with a little more cheese, then top with remaining flour tortilla butter side up. Heat until golden brown on the bottom, then carefully flip and brown that side too.

Side Dishes

Heat up a can of black beans for a side dish. Grab some tortilla chips and pop open a jar of salsa. So simple. So yummy. So cheap.

Budget Tip

If you’re using the leftover salsa chicken from your rice bowl night, not only did you make your prep work way easier, but you’ve also just stretched your dollars even further. Bravo, savvy chef.

Estimated meal cost: $18–24

Serves: 4

Meal Five: Spaghetti With Meat Sauce

Ingredients

For Spaghetti

1 pound ground beef or turkey

1 package spaghetti noodles

1 can marinara sauce

1 jar parmesan cheese

For Side Salad

Bag of salad (or a head of lettuce)

Croutons

Directions

Place the meat in a large saucepan on medium-high heat. Stir until it’s browned all the way through. Drain the grease. Lower the heat to a simmer and add the can of marinara sauce to the pan. Stir until heated through. Cook the noodles separately according to package directions. After cooking, you can mix the pasta and sauce into one pan or let people build their own plates. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese if desired. 

Side Dishes

Salad goes so well with pasta—and it’s good for you! If you find a bagged mix on sale, grab it. Otherwise, use regular lettuce and do the chopping yourself. Use the parmesan cheese you sprinkled all over your pasta and sprinkle it on those greens. Top with some croutons or any chopped veggies you have handy. As the Italians say, “è molto buono!” (aka “it’s very good”).

Budget Tip

Save some money with this meal by using the leftover lettuce from Salsa Chicken Rice Bowls night for your side salad. And if you buy a bag of croutons, don’t forget about them in the pantry. Make another salad soon!

Estimated meal cost: $15–18

Serves: 6–8

Meal Six: Chicken Fried Rice

Ingredients

2 cooked chicken breasts, cubed

2 cups cooked, day-old rice

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 fried rice seasoning packet

1/2 cup frozen peas and carrots

2 eggs

Directions

Heat sesame oil over medium-high heat, add the cooked rice, and sauté until heated through. Add cubed chicken and seasoning packet. Cook for 5 minutes until chicken is warm. Add frozen peas and carrots, and sauté for 2 minutes. Push rice to one side, making space in the pan. Crack the eggs, scramble until cooked, then mix through fried rice. Serve with soy sauce or Yum Yum sauce.

Budget Tip

First of all, with a meal as all-inclusive as this, you’ll save money by skipping a side dish! Buy a big bag of rice this week since you’ll be making two meals that call for it. Also, say thank you to those frozen peas and carrots. Goodbye chopping, hello savings.

Estimated meal cost: $14–18

Serves: 3–4

Meal Seven: Baked Potato Bar

Ingredients

5 potatoes

Olive oil

Salt

Optional Toppings

Sour cream

Shredded cheese

Butter

2 cans chili

Steam-in-the-bag broccoli

Directions

Scrub each potato with cold water and dry completely. Then poke holes in each one with a fork 8–12 times so they don’t explode. Set your oven to 400 degrees F and move the rack to the middle. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Coat each potato evenly in olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Lay them on the baking sheet and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the spuds. Flip them every 20 minutes so they’re cooked through evenly. Test the doneness by sticking a fork in: The outside should be crisp while the inside is soft. Set out toppings and let your hungry fam build their potato plates however they please.

Or if you want to cook potatoes in your slow cooker, try this: Rub each potato in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, wrap them individually in foil, and put them in a slow cooker on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.

Side Dishes

If you still have some lettuce left, make a salad! Chop up some cucumbers and add some of that shredded cheese to give it extra flavor.

Budget Tip

Serve with canned chili or other beans to top. This added protein will help fill up your crew without a huge added cost.

Estimated meal cost: Less than $15

Serves: 5

Bonus Recipe: Rachel Cruze’s White Chicken Chili

Ingredients

3–4 chicken breasts (frozen or thawed)

2 cans Rotel

3 cans white great northern beans (liquid and all)

12 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

1 medium onion, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin

Optional Toppings

Tortilla chips

Sour cream

Directions

Dump all ingredients in a slow cooker and stir. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. Shred chicken with a fork. Serve on top of tortilla chips and top with sour cream.

Estimated meal cost: Less than $15

Serves: 5–6

Budget for Meals to Save Serious Cash

Those moments you spend sharing a meal together (even rushed ones) are valuable. And just like so many other valuable life moments, they don’t have to cost a fortune. With these easy, budget-friendly meals, you can spend less time worrying about and making dinner—and more time on what really matters in life.

And if you want to keep your grocery expenses from eating away at the rest of your budget, you need a budgeting tool. You need EveryDollar. It’s quicker and easier to use than any recipe. Download EveryDollar and become top chef in your kitchen and top boss of your money.

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