15 Super-Cheap and Super-Simple Snacks, Sides, and Meals to Fill Your Belly

Two years ago, I wrote an incredibly popular article entitled 26 Favorite Cheap and Easy Meals. The post consisted of a big pile of my favorite inexpensive and pretty easy meals that I’ve prepared for myself and my family over the years. Almost all of them are far below $1 per serving and they’re all quite easy to prepare, too. (In fact, just yesterday, I wrote an article discussing how to use a $1 per meal strategy to save big on food costs.)

Still, even those recipes don’t add up to the level of cheapness and simplicity that I’m often looking for when I want a super-cheap or super-quick snack or light lunch during my workday. I love to run to the kitchen, grab something really easy and tasty, and get back to work quickly, but I also want it to be really inexpensive, too.

So, what I do is make a lot of different options available to me so that I can have a variety of things each day. I’ll grab one of these items for a super-quick and super-cheap snack or maybe grab two or three together for a light and cheap and super-fast lunch. I try to have as many of these things on the ready as I possibly can.

Yeah, sure, some of these may seem like common sense, but it’s often the common sense ideas that we overlook.

Here goes.

A hard-boiled egg It’s so simple, yet such a bargain. I can buy eggs at the store for $2 per dozen, then hard boil eight of them in a pan in about ten minutes. I’ll crack them, peel them, and then keep the eight peeled hard boiled eggs in a bowl in the fridge to be eaten in the next few days. You can just grab one, put a bit of salt and/or pepper on them, and gobble them down as you go on to your next task.

A poached egg on toast Toss a piece of toast in the toaster, then fill a bowl about half full with water. Crack an egg carefully right into the water, then cover it with a saucer and microwave it for about a minute for a pretty soft yolk or about a minute and twenty seconds for a harder yolk. You can fish it right out of the water with a slotted spoon and put it right on the toast for a quick “on the go” open faced breakfast (or lunch) sandwich.

Toast slathered with peanut butter A slice of bread costs a few cents, as does the amount of peanut butter that fits on a butter knife. Just toss a slice of bread in the toaster as you walk by, then grab it after it pops and spread the peanut butter across the top. I often eat a banana with this for a super-quick breakfast that’s got protein, fiber, grains, and a serving of fruit all in one batch.

Oatmeal Buy a jumbo container of rolled oats. Keep a half cup measuring cup inside of it. When you want a bowl, add a half cup of rolled oats to a bowl, pour a cup of water on top of it, and add a bit of honey for flavor. Stir it then microwave it for a minute. Warm, delicious oatmeal – and the total cost is much less than a quarter.

Sliced cucumbers and onions in vinegar water If our garden provides cucumbers or we find them on sale, we’ll take some home, slice them into thin slices, and put them in a bowl that’s about three parts water to one part vinegar. We’ll do the same with a small onion at the same time. The cucumbers pick up a wonderful flavor from the vinegar water, and it’s easy to just pinch a few out of the fridge, put a bit of salt and pepper on top, and gobble them down as a quick snack.

An open-faced tortilla/quesadilla with toppings A tortilla can be topped with just about anything while still being tasty. Peanut butter is a great topping, for starters, but you can use almost any kind of condiment or cheese that’s on sale from the store for a quick snack or a simple lunch. You can also toss it in the microwave for just a few seconds to warm it up or melt any cheese you put on it. Put a second tortilla on top (or fold it in half) to make a sandwich of sorts.

Homemade granola bars Mix 2 cups rolled oats, 1/4 cup honey, and 1/4 cup peanut butter together with any other additions you’d like to add (nuts, dried fruits, whatever you’ve found on sale), then add rolled oats until the ball just holds together. Put a piece of parchment paper into a baking pan, then press the ball down flat on the parchment paper (as flat as you’d like) and stick it in the fridge for a few hours. Pull out the pan and slice the bars – they’re ready to eat. You can keep them at room temperature or in the fridge; just eat ’em within a day or two. They don’t take long to make and then are ultra-convenient once you’ve assembled them.

Fresh fruits We almost always have bananas and apples sitting in our fruit bowl on the kitchen counter and we usually have a bowl of grapes in the fridge as well. It’s easy to just grab one and add it to your lunch as an extremely cheap and very healthy addition to the meal, or to grab one as an afternoon snack. The key, of course, is availability – having them right out there front and center makes it a lot easier to grab them as a tasty, low-cost, and super-quick snack or meal finisher. Seriously, just wander through the produce section of your store and grab whatever fruit is on sale this week; you’ll have a variety and they’ll always be cheap.

Fruit smoothies Just put some of the cheap fruit you bought at the store in the freezer. Then, when you want a smoothie, put some of the fruit in a blender, add a little bit of milk and a little bit of honey, and puree. You can look around for “recipes” but, honestly, almost any fruit combination that sounds good in your head will work. Try adding other things like a dollop of peanut butter. Super cheap, super easy, super delicious.

Rolled bananas Grab a tortilla, smear a butter knife’s worth of peanut butter on it, peel a banana, wrap the peanut butter tortilla around the banana, and enjoy. You might have $0.35 in ingredients there depending on the tortilla size and how much peanut butter you’re using. Regardless, it’s a tasty fast lunch that packs protein, fruit, and grains all together in a convenient item you can eat on your way out the door.

Seasoned popcorn People seem to associate this snack with movies, but microwaving some popcorn and putting it in a bowl with a bit of seasoning is a really really inexpensive snack. Just pop the popcorn, take what you want, and leave the rest out in a covered bowl for others to snack on (or for yourself to snack on later). Microwaveable popcorn bags can be had for a quarter; doing it yourself with a few drops of oil, a brown paper bag, and some popcorn from a jar is even less expensive.

Unseasoned almonds and peanuts Both can be had for less than $0.60 per ounce, which means you can grab a handful of these for a super-cheap snack. Nuts are incredibly filling and pretty healthy to boot – they’re almost perfect for taking the edge off the feeling of mid-afternoon hunger.

Tuna and crackers I pop open a $0.30 can of tuna, empty the contents into a small bowl, add a little bit of mayo and a pinch of salt and pepper, mix it with a fork, and grab six or so crackers out of the cupboard for a quick little lunch. It takes thirty seconds to prep this, it costs about $0.50 all told, and it can fill you up surprisingly well.

String cheese A giant bulk bag of string cheese reduces the cost per piece down to a dime or two. These individually wrapped snacks are a great little protein blast for whenever you need it and can even serve as a good side with a sandwich alongside a piece of fruit.

Cottage cheese I prefer this to yogurt, to be honest, because it works as both a savory or a sweet snack or side dish. Just keep a container in your fridge and put two or three tablespoons in a small bowl for a snack or on the side of your dinner plate for a quick side dish. It’s great with a bit of ground black pepper on it or mixed with a bit of honey for a sweet taste, and if you buy a large container, a big spoonful of it is literally just a few pennies in terms of cost.

If you mix and match these options and add some variety to each one, you can have nearly infinite cheap and tasty and (mostly) pretty healthy snacks and simple modular breakfasts and lunches, all for pennies per serving.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.