20 Favorite Dirt Cheap Meals

A few days ago on Facebook, I asked the fans of The Simple Dollar what their favorite dirt cheap meal was. The responses poured in, so I decided to pull out 20 of my favorites and share them with you.

Top 20 Dirt Cheap Meals

1. Sticky rice, peas, and soy sauce

This meal, shared by Leslie, is pretty simple and not altogether different than something I used to make in college. I would just steam some rice, dump a can of whatever vegetables I had around into a dish, heat up the vegetables, then mix the vegetables and rice together with an unhealthy amount of soy sauce.

2. Black beans and rice

This meal, shared by Angela, is something we’re actually having for dinner this very evening here, with some assorted vegetables along with it. We like to add onions, lots of garlic, thyme, and hot sauce to it.

3. Eggs, black beans, and tortillas

This meal, shared by Dolores, is a common breakfast food around here – just really quick breakfast burritos for cheap. Scramble some eggs, toss some beans in the pan as the eggs begin to cook, and wrap the end product in a tortilla. I usually spoon on a bit of salsa and/or hot sauce, too.

4. Grilled cheese and tomato soup

This meal, shared by Colleen, is something that we often make around here for lunches, particularly when someone isn’t feeling good. Our oldest son particularly likes this meal and sometimes requests it out of the blue.


5. Spaghetti with homemade marinara

This meal, shared by Fran, who describes the marinara: “canned tomoates, chopped onion and garlic sauteed together,” is absolutely delicious and can make enough to fill a family of four for about $2, especially if the garden is producing.

6. Ham hock, beans and cornbread

This meal, shared by Amy, reminds me deeply of growing up. Each New Year’s Day, my parents would make an enormous pot of ham and white beans and then invite lots of friends and family to eat with us. My mom would make a huge pan of cornbread and the mixture of the aromas would just fill the house. That aroma today still makes me happy.

7. Japanese rice balls with meat/fish inside

This meal, shared by Salvador, are usually called onigiri and are really easy to make. Just make up some sticky rice, cook and chop whatever meat or fish you’d like into small pieces, then just make balls out of the rice and meat, with the meat forming the center and the rice packed around the outside. I love dipping them in sauces, too.

8. Oatmeal + mashed banana

This meal, shared by Sam, is a staple at breakfast-time around here. We are adherents to steel cut oats these days and we just mix in whatever fruits we have on hand.

9. Can of refried beans, leftover meat, chicken stock, greens thrown in a pot

This meal, shared by Barrie, reminds me of our children’s favorite meal, which is literally just leftover taco ingredients mixed together in a bowl and sometimes moistened with whatever stock we have on hand. It’s really tasty. Hint: the best meat to use is chicken sausage.

10. Lentil stew

This meal, shared by Maria, is described as “2 C lentils, 1 big can diced tomatoes, 3/4 of a stick of butter, 1 chopped onion, 1 clove garlic (minced), and 1 Tbsp dried dill. Put it all in a big pot, add some water and then bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cover and let it simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring to make sure the lentils aren’t too dry. Add salt and pepper to taste at the end.” We make a stew quite a lot like this in the crock pot, usually starting it early in the day and just letting it sit all day. The house smells incredibly good by the end of the day.

11. Trash chili

This meal, shared by Cynthia, is described as “I save leftover tomatoes, ground meat, beans, tomato sauce etc in a container in the freezer. Then, when I have enough for soup, I add whatever I have on hand for chili: a can of sauce, stewed tomatoes, some beans, pasta and seasoning.” One thing we commonly do is keep “leftover” tubs in the freezer for various things. We have a “vegetable stock” leftover tub, for example, that collects vegetable scraps so we can make vegetable stock. I think we might have to start a “trash chili” tub.

12. Skint pie

This meal, shared by Seamus, is something he didn’t directly describe, but seems to be what we always called shepherd’s pie. In our mix, we mostly just cooked whatever vegetables and meat we had on hand together into a really thick stew, then made a batch of mashed potatoes and coated the top of the stew with the potatoes. This is then baked in the oven for thirty minutes or so until it’s sublime.

13. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich

This meal, shared by Kendell, is something I have for lunch twice a week, at least. Twelve grain bread, some great peanut butter, and some homemade jelly slathered on the top … mmmm.

Ratatouille in French oven

14. Ratatouille

This meal, shared by Inge is, in her description, made of onions, eggplant, zuchinni, tomatoes, basil, and oregano with rice. We made a slightly different ratatouille during the summer meal series earlier this year.

15. Matzo ball soup

This meal, shared by Ann, is something I’ve tried a few times and would love to try again. It was pretty similar to the wonderful chicken and dumplings my mother would make when I was a kid.

16. Stuffed cabbage rolls

This meal, shared by Diana, is another staple from my childhood. Essentially, you just make several small meatloafs and wrap them in a large cabbage leaf. Pour some pureed tomatoes on top and bake them in the oven at 350F covered until the meat is warm enough.

17. Shockey Slurp

This meal, hilariously named and shared by Nicky, is described as “whatever cut of meat is in the freezer, onion and tomatoes simmered on the stove served over rice.” This just sounds delicious, especially when seasoned well with pepper and salt.

18. Mashed potatoes, with a soft boiled egg

This meal, shared by Patrice, actually involves mixing the soft boiled egg straight into the mashed potatoes. This could be a really good side dish with the stuffed cabbage rolls, perhaps.

19. Pancakes with slices of apple

This meal, also shared by Inge, is what we have for breakfast about every other weekend (either pancakes or waffles). We usually put fruit on top, or we use jam or a bit of syrup.

20. “Pizzas” made with thick slice bread or english muffins

This meal, shared by Jennifer, is as easy as it sounds. Take a piece of bread, put all of the toppings you would use for a pizza on it, and bake it in the oven for seven or eight minutes or so. Delicious.

All of these sound good enough for me to use them for lunch and, in many cases, for our family supper as well.

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  1. Jules says:

    I buy these bags of pre-chopped veggies and a couple bouillon cubes. Add some udon noodles and an egg, and it’s 3 dinners for something like €5. Occasionally I get “fancy” and buy ramen noodles ;-P

    I actually cook for real on the weekends, but during the week I live apart from my boyfriend and I just don’t have enough supplies (nor do I care enough to get them) to cook a real meal when I’m on my own.

  2. Kate says:

    We love making chickpea-squash curry in our crockpot.

    The squash around here is 49 cents a pound, it gets tossed in with some dried chickpeas (1/3 of a bag that cost 79 cents), some spices (fairly negligible on cost), some homemade stock (free) and about half a can of coconut milk (each can runs us about 69 cents on sale, not on sale, they can cost as much as 3.99!)

    Delicious, nutricious, and CHEAP. We got 8 servings just out of the ingredients above. I fyou need to scale it up, it’s pretty fool-proof.

  3. momof4 says:

    I’m going to print this out and put it in my meal planning folder to motivate me on days when I just want to order a convenient pizza. I’d save it in Evernote, but I won’t remember to look there. Happy to hear about your move to steel cut oats! I don’t know about you but I am now unable to eat an instant oatmeal packet after years of hearty oatmeal goodness.

  4. Misty says:

    I have a fun one, macaroni and cheese with scrambled eggs mixed in. It might sound odd, but it’s very tasty and is a good way to get some cheap protein in when your on a mac n cheese diet.

  5. I love elbow macaroni (cooked) and milk and butter. It might sound bland… but it is the best. Cheap comfort food.

  6. kristine says:

    M grandmother always made me coin-sliced hotdogs and canned whole potatoes fried in butter, with salt. Ridiculously unhealhy, but heavenly. But that was when hot dogs were cheap. Not so these days!

  7. James says:

    For quick meals – Pressure Cooker is a must! Saves energy, cooks quickly, and makes fantastic soups and chilies!

  8. Marie says:

    A Box of Mac & Cheese and a can of chili. Cook M&C by directions, dump in chili and mix until hot. Not healthy by any means, but cheap (around $3 ($2 if you shop at Aldi’s)) and feeds at least two or three people. Top with extra cheese and fresh onions if you like.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Frittata or egg bakes are my go to cheapo meal. Just pick a theme, say taco, and toss leftovers into a pie pan or casserole dish. Example: Leftover taco meat or tempe, cheese, chopped olives, peppers, tomato, some black or pinto or refried beans, and then add a couple eggs that have been mixed with some milk, bake till set. You can put almost anything into an egg bake, and they all taste yummy. I make sure to put spinach or swiss chard into each one to get some greens in. I have never had one not turn out.

  10. Roberta says:

    Nice post, as usual–notwithstanding this oddity: Did I really see in the spaghetti picture, a glass of milk sitting at the same place setting as a glass of red wine? Does the same diner who drinks the milk, also drink the wine? !!!!!!!

  11. valleycat1 says:

    We grew up on Western Goulash – brown some ground meat, maybe with a little chopped onion; drain off the fat. Add a drained can of Mexicorn or plain corn & a can of spaghetti in red sauce (or leftovers of regular spaghetti/sauce). Stir until hot. Add some grated cheese if you’d like.

    BTW, you may not like canned spaghetti on its own, but with these add-ins it tastes very different. Still one of my comfort dishes!

  12. Adam P says:

    Cheap dinners, expensive health care.

  13. Michele says:

    cheap and healthy- baked spaghetti squash, scraped into strands and tossed with fresh diced tomatoes, choppped garlic and a little olive oil. Delicious! and basically free at my house- we got 43 volunteer spaghetti squash this year from a store bought one we tossed into the composter last year! We grow the tomatoes and garlic too:)

  14. Des says:

    @Kate – If you don’t mind my asking, where can you buy coconut milk for $0.69? We use a TON of coconut milk, so I stock up when it is on sale and the best deal I ever got was $0.99 at the scratch-n-dent place. Typically, I load up when it is $1.40. I’d love to know your secret, if you don’t mind sharing? :)

  15. Roberta says:

    #12 Adam–True, and well-said.

  16. marta says:

    Roberta, I also noticed the milk and the wine — yuck. Then again, I have always thought it is weird to drink milk with dinner. Is this a habit in the States?

  17. wisnjc says:

    Have you tried an Asian market? Even in my small Midwestern city we have a few Asian markets/bodegas. I haven’t gotten coconut milk at Kate’s 69c deal, but it’s usally 99 cents where I shop. The Asian market also has the best price in town on tofu.

  18. Johanna says:

    One of my favorites is red lentil soup. I haven’t made it for a while, but I think this is how it goes:

    Simmer some red lentils in water or stock until they’re soft. Add a sauteed onion, some lemon juice, dried apricots, ground coriander, cardamom, turmeric, and salt. Puree to smoothness with a hand blender. Serve with some form of bread.

  19. Interested Reader says:

    The milk and wine caused questions when the picture originally showed up (in Trent’s post about making spaghetti sauce) I don’t think he ever answered.

    The only thing I can think of is…he’s showing what the kids drank and the adults?

    Or maybe milk with wine is a Midwestern thing.

  20. Roberta says:

    #19 Interested Reader OK. Thanks. I didn’t see the original post. This combination of drinks is difficult to view and makes the food look unappealing, even though I’m sure the spaghetti itself is fine.

  21. Interested Reader says:

    Roberta, yeah it caused confusion at the time too. But Trent rarely responds in comments (and right now he’s probably still sick) so we may not know what the reasoning is.

  22. Carole says:

    Would someone tell me how to print this without all the superfluous stuff on the side bars? I can’t find a “print” anywhere. Excuse my ignorance.

  23. Rebecca says:

    To Adam, actually many “cheap” low cost meals are actually very healthy and complete meals. Most of the world eats things like beans and rice for meals every day. No, over processed boxed meals aren’t good for you in the long run, but occasionally they can be a treat. None of the meals Trent mentioned are overly unhealthy, and most can be made with little to no meat and small amts of added fats. Throw in some seasonal veggies and fruit or frozen and you get very cheap meals that are good for you too.

  24. Jacqueline says:

    Hint on the black beans and rice: Up the excitement level by going Cuban Style. Cook beans as normal (or use canned), and add a couple tablespoons orange juice concentrate, a quarter cup of lemon or lime juice, and a ridiculous amount of garlic. Increiblemente delicioso.

  25. Luke G. says:

    @Carole (#22)

    If you are using FireFox, you can add the extension “Nuke Anything Enhanced”. Then, you highlight the stuff you want to remove, right-click, and select “remove selection”. Then, you can print as normal. Or, highlight what you *want*, right-click, and select “remove everything else”.

    I use it often. HTH!

  26. Des says:

    @wisnjc – I haven’t checked asian markets, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one around here, I’ve just never been. Thanks!!

  27. 8sml says:

    @ #18 Johanna: Thanks for the mention of red lentil soup–you were the inspiration for the wonderful-smelling concoction I’ve got boiling on the stove right now. I’ll have to try your recipe some time; it sounds delicious.

  28. Systemizer says:

    @#27 8sml: I’ve been overstuffing my face with tofu for the past month as a result of a comment by Johanna. Tonight it was rice noodles, thai peanut sauce and tofu. Previously I’d never felt inspired to use the stuff. I’ve been using her tofu method #2: bake.

  29. Cheryl says:

    Chicken Noodle Goop: A can of chicken (tuna sized), pasta, a can of veggies, chicken stock, and thickened with Wondra or cornstarch.

  30. Kate says:

    My favorite fast and cheap “go to” meal is Mahatma Saffron Yellow Rice with bits of leftover chicken, with veggies on the side.
    The rice is often on sale and we take it with us when we travel and know that we will be cooking.

  31. Steve in W MA says:

    I like to make actual pizza. It’s tastier than the “pizza” you make with bread slices and it only takes 20 minutes if you’ve already got some pizza sauce and dough in the fridge. I always keep a plastic container of dough in the fridge and I replenish it about every 2 weeks. Pizza with a fresh baked crust is only 20 minutes away with dough, sauce, and some veggies and cheese at the ready in the fridge.

  32. Steve in W MA says:

    One quick snack is just a microwaved potato. Nuke it for like 8 minutes, then let it cool down, then just grab it and eat it. It comes in its own wrapper. I have eaten these for lunch (microwaved in the office microwave) on days when I didn’t have anything more elaborate to bring.

  33. Steve in W MA says:

    Tip for pizza makers when using 2 week old dough: It loses a lot of its strength so in order to shape and transport it to the pizza pan, I 1) coat the dough in cornmeal after I’ve cut the chunk I’m using for the pizza off the main dough 2) shape it 3) if it’s breaking once it’s been thinned out, coat it again with cornmeal, then fold it in quarters to transport it, then unfold it onto the pizza pan. Put your olive oil on the crust, sauce it, add the cheeses and toppings, then put the pizza pan right over your top stove burner on high for long enough to parbake the bottom of the pizza. Now you pan is good and hot and the bottom of the pizza is on its way so put it in the oven at 425 F or whatever for maybe 15 minutes. Easy and great!

  34. Johanna says:

    @8sml, Systemizer: Happy to help. :)

  35. Renae says:

    My kids loved it when Dad was in charge and they got to construct their own “pizza” with bread, sauce, cheese and toppings when I was on call overnight.
    One of my cheap meals are pigs in the blanket that my elementary school made. Melt butter on a cookie sheet. Take bread with a slice of cheese and a hotdog turned sideways. Take 2 corners of the bread and fold up. Secure with a toothpick and bake. I sent leftovers in school lunches and all the kids wanted them.

  36. Lenore says:

    Lately blended cinnamon & sugar (C&S) has been my BFF in the kitchen:

    Nuked sweet potatoes are awesome. Poke with a fork, microwave for about 7 minutes, split open and sprinkle with C&S. At restaurants they give you butter, but I can live without it.

    On the other hand, butter is essential for quick baked apples. I core an apple, fillthe hole with butter and C&S then microwave for a minute or two. Mash it up and enjoy.

    For a cheap and easy carb-laden treat, make a hot bowl of rice, sprinkle it with C&S then douse with milk. My mom used to make that, so it makes me feel like a kid again.

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