26 Favorite Cheap-and-Easy Meals

If you look at the average American family’s spending, food spending is one of the most common budget busters. In fact, many Americans literally eat through their income, knowingly spending more than they can afford on dining out or even groceries. One of the best ways to rein in this easily bloated budget category is to cook at home – and there are a ton of tasty, easy, and cheap meals you can make at home with very few ingredients and not much time.

A while back, I asked The Simple Dollar’s Facebook fans what their favorite dirt-cheap meal was. Here are some of the best recipes people shared, along with a few more ideas of our own to help you and your family eat well for next to nothing. Swapping a lunch or dinner out with one of these cheap meals just once or twice per week is an easy way to lower your food expenses.

A note on prices: As cheap as these meals are, in reality, they’re probably even cheaper than what you see here. I averaged prices found online wherever possible (on sites such as Amazon Pantry and Walmart.com), which are likely higher than what you’ll pay at your local grocery store; they’re certainly higher than if you buy generic, buy non-perishables in bulk, grow produce in your garden, or use your grocery store flyer to plan your meals.

In this article

    26 Favorite Dirt-Cheap Meals

    1. Sticky rice, vegetables, and soy sauce

    This meal, shared by Leslie, is pretty simple and similar to something I used to cook up during my college years with an unhealthy amount of soy sauce. Using the ingredients below, you can whip up a delicious dish in minutes.

    All you have to do is steam some rice, dump a can of vegetables (or a bag of frozen veggies) in a microwave-safe bowl and heat them up, then mix the vegetables and rice together with just the right amount of soy sauce. These three ingredients may not make a flashy meal, but the concoction is fairly healthy, cheap, and easy. (Next time you order take-out, save any extra soy sauce packets to make this dish even cheaper.)


    • 2 cups of uncooked rice: $1
    • Canned or frozen vegetables: $1.19
    • Soy sauce: $1.99

    Total: $4.17 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 70 cents

    2. Black beans and rice

    Black beans and rice, suggested by Angela and others, is one of those easy, cheap meals almost everyone loves, and a staple dish of many cultures. This recipe only requires a handful of inexpensive ingredients, yet is full of flavor.

    Start by heating your oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute for 4 minutes, then add the rice and saute for another 2 minutes. Next, add in the vegetable broth, bring to a boil, lower the heat and cook for 20 minutes. The spices and black beans should be added right before you’re ready to serve.


    • 1 Tbsp. of olive oil: 25 cents
    • 1 large onion, chopped: 99 cents
    • 2 cloves garlic, minced: 50 cents
    • 3/4 cup uncooked rice: 50 cents
    • 1-1/2 cups vegetable broth: 50 cents
    • 1 tsp. ground cumin and 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper: 25 cents
    • 3-1/2 cups canned black beans, drained: $1.98

    Total: $4.79 (makes 6 servings)
    Cost per serving: 80 cents

    3. Egg and black bean burritos

    If you’re looking for a cheap, nutritious breakfast you can eat on the go, look no further than this recipe for egg and black bean burritos.

    The idea is simple: Start by heating some tortillas on the griddle. While they heat, scramble a dozen eggs and heat a can of black beans on the stovetop.

    Once your eggs are scrambled, assemble your breakfast burritos and add any extras you might want. Toppings like shredded cheese, sour cream, and salsa or hot sauce all work rather well. (You can also make these in bulk and freeze them so they’re ready to heat up on a hectic weekday morning.)


    • Can of black beans: 99 cents
    • 8 pack of tortillas: $1.88
    • Carton of eggs: $1.99

    Total: $4.86 plus toppings (makes eight servings)
    Price per serving: 61 cents

    4. Grilled cheese and tomato soup

    Grilled cheese and tomato soup, shared by Colleen, is one of the most nutritious cheap-and-easy meals out there. We often make it around here for lunches, and our oldest son particularly likes this meal — sometimes requesting it out of the blue.

    Making grilled cheese is easy: Butter four slices of bread, and lay them flat on a hot griddle or frying pan. Add a slice of cheese to each, and top with another slice of buttered bread (or add some extras, like tomato slices or bacon.) Heat on both sides until each sandwich is golden brown and the cheese looks melted.

    The soup part is easy, too, and can be as cheap as you want it to be — from a $1 can of Campbell’s to a $4 box of organic tomato bisque. Even making homemade tomato soup is simple with this quick, creamy tomato soup recipe from the Food Network.

    Ingredients (using boxed soup):

    • Loaf of bread: $1.99
    • Sliced cheese: 50 cents
    • Box of creamy tomato soup: $2.99

    Total: $5.48 (makes four servings)
    Price per serving: $1.37

    Ingredients (with homemade soup):

    • Loaf of bread: $1.99
    • Sliced cheese: 50 cents
    • 2 15-oz. cans of chicken or vegetable stock: $1.99
    • 1 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes: 99 cents
    • 1 cup heavy cream: 99 cents
    • Fresh basil leaves for garnish: $1.99 (free if you grow your own herbs)

    Total: $8.45 (makes four servings)
    Price per serving: $2.11

    5. Spaghetti with homemade marinara

    Making your own marinara sauce is easy, says Fran, the woman who shared this recipe. All you have to do is saute a large can of tomatoes, half an onion (chopped), and a pinch of garlic together for 10-20 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste. Pour this flavorful, colorful sauce over a package of cooked spaghetti or other pasta, and you’re good to go.

    Adding a few pieces of garlic-buttered toast is a great way to round out this absolutely delicious meal — which can fill up a family of four for about $2 if the garden is producing.


    • 1 large can of tomatoes: $1.49
    • 1/2 medium onion, chopped: 50 cents
    • Pinch of garlic: 25 cents
    • Loaf of bread: $1.99
    • 12-oz. package of spaghetti: $1.19

    Total: $5.42 (makes four servings)
    Price per serving: $1.36

    6. Ham, white 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. This recipe will help you whip up a pot of ham-and-beans that won’t be forgotten.


    • 1 lb. dry great northern beans: $1.99
    • 1/2 lb. cooked ham, diced: $2.99
    • 1 small onion, diced: 89 cents
    • 1/2 cup brown sugar: 25 cents
    • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper: 25 cents
    • 1 Tbsp dried parsley: 25 cents
    • Box of Jiffy cornbread mix: 89 cents

    Total: $7.51 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: $1.25

    7. Homemade stovetop mac n’ cheese

    If your kids love mac n’ cheese, throw away the boxed stuff and try this instead. Just boil a box of pasta and, in a separate pot, whisk together the milk and flour, adding about a teaspoon of salt and a bit of sugar and pepper to taste.

    Stir constantly until just boiling, then lower the heat and continue stirring for a few moments as it thickens. Next, add the shredded cheese and mix until melted, and then pour the cheese mixture over the pasta.

    At this point, it’s ready to serve — or if you want, you can add some “extras” to make a more tasty grown-up version, like peas, bacon crumbles, cubed ham, tuna, tomatoes, or scallions. If you have time to go all out, you can dump it all into a casserole dish, top with buttery breadcrumbs, and bake it for 20-25 minutes.


    • 12-oz. box of shells, elbows, or other pasta: $1.19
    • 3 cups whole milk: $1.09
    • 3 Tbsp flour, sugar and salt to taste: 25 cents
    • 3 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese (about 6 oz.): $2.24

    Total: $4.77 (makes six servings)
    Price per person: 80 cents

    8. Oatmeal and banana

    Oatmeal is extremely nutritious and easy to make. Around here, we like to cook up a bowl of steel-cut oats and add any fruit we have on hand, or some cinnamon and raisins. This healthy meal doesn’t take much time to make, but packs a ton of energy to help us get through the day.


    • 24 oz. steel-cut oats: $2.99
    • Sliced fruit: $2

    Total: $4.99 (makes six servings)
    Cost per serving: 83 cents

    9. Chickpeas and pasta

    If you’re participating in Meatless Mondays or trying to eat vegetarian more often, here’s a recipe you can try.

    Heat one package of pasta on your stovetop until it’s al dente. After draining your pasta, add one jar of Ragu pasta sauce (or homemade marinara), a can of chickpeas, and a small diced onion. Mix it all together and simmer on low heat until your onion is cooked and the dish is piping hot.


    • 1 can of chickpeas: 99 cents
    • 1 small onion, diced: 89 cents
    • 1 jar of Ragu or other pasta sauce: $2.29
    • 12-oz. box of pasta: $1.19

    Total: $5.27 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 88 cents

    10. Lentil stew

    Here’s a recipe that reader Maria shared on our Facebook page: “Take 2 cups of lentils, 1 big can of 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, 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 similar to this in our family crock pot all the time. The house smells incredibly good by the end of the day.


    • 2 cups lentils: $2
    • 1 large can diced tomatoes: $1.49
    • 1 medium onion: 99 cents
    • Garlic and dill: 50 cents
    • Stick of butter: 49 cents

    Total: $5.47 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 91 cents

    11. Chili

    Chili is one of those great stew-type dishes that you can make a hundred different ways, all of them cheap, and all of them delicious. Here’s a good, basic recipe you can tinker with.

    Start by browning some ground beef in a large pot, and draining the fat. Then dump in a base of tomato sauce (or paste or juice), add one whole chopped onion, one large can of diced tomatoes, a chopped bell pepper, a minced clove of garlic, and some salt and pepper.

    Add water and a package of chili seasoning (or make your own spice packets) and bring it to a boil. Next, add two cans of black beans or kidney beans. (Of course, you can add sausage, celery, corn, or just about anything else you like, too.) Continue to simmer for 1-3 hours or until you’re ready to eat, then serve over rice, pasta, or tortilla chips.

    To make an even cheaper vegetarian chili, omit the ground beef and add an extra can of beans, 2 cups of frozen corn, or a package of soy crumbles.


    • 1 lb. of ground beef: $4.99
    • 2 cans beans: $1.98
    • Large can diced tomatoes: $1.49
    • 1 onion: 99 cents
    • 1 bell pepper: $1.49
    • Pasta or rice: $1.19
    • Tomato sauce: $1.50

    Total: $13.63 (makes 10 servings)
    Price per serving: $1.36

    12. Hummus and cucumber crostinis

    This recipe from RealSimple.com takes three basic ingredients and turns them into an upscale appetizer or fun snack. You could serve these at a party or simply munch on them while you watch television.


    • Package of bagel chips: $1.99
    • Medium container of hummus: $3
    • 1 English cucumber, thinly sliced: $1

    Total: $5.99 (makes 10 servings)
    Price per serving: 59 cents

    13. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich

    When it comes to cheap meals, there is none more iconic than the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, shared by Kendell. It’s something I have for lunch twice a week, at least. You can make your PB&J as fancy or simple as you like — I use 12-grain bread, peanut butter, and some homemade jelly slathered on the top. Either way, it’s sure to please at any age.


    • Loaf of bread: $1.99
    • Peanut butter: $1.99
    • Jelly: $1.99

    Total: $5.97 (makes 10 servings)
    Price per serving: 58 cents

    14. Pot roast with vegetables

    This meal is perfect for fall, winter, or any time you are due for some meat and potatoes. To get started, place a small rump roast in your crock pot and cover it with water. Cook on high for three hours then add some chopped-up potatoes and peeled carrots, plus a bit of salt and pepper. Cook for another three or four hours and serve.


    • Rump roast: $10
    • 6 potatoes: $2
    • Small bag carrots: $2

    Total: $14 (makes 10 servings)
    Price per serving: $1.40

    15. Bean burritos

    This recipe is both cheap and healthy. Start by chopping up your vegetables and toppings – some lettuce, a tomato, a small onion, and some cilantro. Heat a can of black beans on the stove. If you want, you can also heat your flour tortillas on a griddle or your stove top or just microwave each one for 10-15 seconds. Lay each tortilla flat and spread a few spoonfuls of beans through the center. Add optional toppings –such as cheese, rice, or salsa — wrap them up, and you’re done!


    • 8 flour tortillas: $1.88
    • Can of black beans: 99 cents
    • Head of lettuce: 99 cents
    • Tomato: 60 cents
    • Small onion: 79 cents
    • Cup of shredded cheese: $1
    • Cilantro: $1

    Total: $7.24 (makes eight servings)
    Price per serving: 91 cents

    16. Ratatouille

    Inge shared this classic meal which, in her description, is made of onions, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, and oregano with rice. We made a slightly different ratatouille one summer — when our garden and local farmer’s market provided almost all of the vegetables — and loved it.

    An “easy” way to make ratatouille is to just stir fry your vegetables in olive oil, making sure to add them in the right order — starting with the ones that need the most cooking time. Just put a quarter of a cup of olive oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Then, cube or dice the vegetables and add them in the order they appear below.

    Add each vegetable before you cut up the next one and stir regularly. Then, turn down the heat, cover the pot, and let it simmer for about 40 minutes. Serve it with rice or homemade bread.


    • 2 onions: $2
    • 3 bell peppers: $4
    • 2 eggplants: $3
    • 2 zucchini: $1.50
    • 4 cloves of garlic, minced: 50 cents
    • 2 lb. tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and chopped: $4.98
    • 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme and 2 Tbsp. fresh basil: $1
    • 4 cups of rice: $1

    Total: $17.98 (makes 10 servings)
    Price per serving: $1.80

    17. Scrambled eggs and toast

    Breakfast for dinner is a popular Midwestern meal for families on a budget. All you need to do to whip up this cheap and easy meal is scramble a dozen eggs and toast some bread. To make it fun for the kids, let them slather their toast with their favorite jelly, jam, or Nutella.


    • Dozen eggs: $1.99
    • Loaf of bread: $1.99
    • Toppings: $1

    Total: $4.98 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 83 cents

    18. Grilled chicken and sweet potato fries

    In any kind of weather, grilled chicken and sweet potato fries are sure to please the palate. Start by washing four sweet potatoes then cutting them into half-inch thick circles. Put them in a bowl, drizzle them with olive oil until they’re covered all over, then lay them flat on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the potatoes with your favorite cajun seasoning then bake them at 400 degrees for 35 minutes. In the meantime, fire up the grill and cook six chicken breasts until they’re no longer pink in the middle. Serve both with barbecue sauce.


    • 6 chicken breasts: $8
    • 4 sweet potatoes: $2
    • Barbecue sauce: $1

    Total: $11 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: $1.83

    19. Zucchini pizzas

    If you’ve been looking for a low-carb way to enjoy pizza, try this: Take four large zucchinis, wash them, and cut them lengthwise into 3/4-inch slices. Drizzle them with olive oil and lay them flat on baking sheets. Heat them at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, then take them out of the oven. Cover each zucchini surface with pizza sauce and a sprinkle of your favorite shredded cheese. Bake for another 10 minutes.


    • 4 large zucchinis: $3
    • Jar of pizza sauce: $1.50
    • 2 cups of cheese: $2

    Total: $6.50 (makes six servings)
    Price per person: $1.08

    20. Pancakes with apple slices

    We have pancakes (or waffles) with fruit, another of Inge’s suggestions, for breakfast about every other weekend. It’s also another good option when you’re in the mood for breakfast at dinnertime, too.

    Although you can make pancakes from scratch, it can be just as cost-efficient to use your favorite pre-made mix. Follow the directions until you have perfect, golden-brown pancakes, then slather them with your favorite fresh or canned fruit.


    • Pancake mix and milk: $2
    • Fruit: $2

    Total: $4 (Makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 66 cents

    21. Mediterranean pasta salad

    This quick, easy pasta dish can be a side dish or a main meal, and makes a nice antidote to the mayonnaise-soaked pasta salad of summer cookouts.

    Just boil a box of pasta, drain it, and add a can of diced tomatoes, a can of sliced black olives, a can of chickpeas, and some Italian dressing (or olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper).


    • 1 box farfalle, penne, or other pasta: $1.19
    • Can of diced tomatoes: 99 cents
    • Can of chickpeas: 99 cents
    • Sliced olives: 99 cents
    • 1/4 cup Italian dressing: 50 cents

    Total: $4.66 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 78 cents

    22. Fried rice

    A couple of people on Facebook mentioned fried rice, which is another great way to make something tasty and new from leftovers and fridge scraps. Here’s an easy recipe to follow:

    In a large frying pan or wok, brown a bit of garlic in a tablespoon or two of oil, then add one sliced onion. When the onion is softened, drop in two eggs and scramble them up on one side of the pan.

    Now crank up the heat and toss in whatever other ingredients you want or have on hand — peas, corn, mushrooms, broccoli, diced carrots, pineapple, or chunks of ham all work well — along with your leftover rice, a spoonful of sugar, and up to a 1/4 cup of light soy sauce. Cook on high heat for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, and serve right away.


    • 2 cups or more of leftover cooked rice: Free
    • 1/4 cup of soy sauce: 50 cents
    • Minced garlic, sugar, and 2T olive oil: 50 cents
    • 1 onion: 99 cents
    • 2 eggs: 50 cents
    • Frozen peas or other veggies: $1.29

    Total: $3.78 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 63 cents

    23. ‘Pizza’ on bagels, thick toast, or English muffins

    This meal, shared by Jennifer, is as easy as it sounds. Take a bagel, English muffin, or piece of bread, load it with all the toppings you’d use on a pizza, and bake it in the oven for 7-8 minutes. Delicious and easy (even easier if you have a toaster oven.)


    • 6 bagels: $3.99
    • Jar of pasta sauce: $1.50
    • Shredded mozzarella cheese: $1.99
    • Other toppings: $2

    Total: $9.48 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: 63 cents

    24. Tuna melts

    Canned tuna is a protein-packed staple of a cheap diet, but plain old tuna salad on rye can get old after a while. To heat things up a bit, just start out like you’re making grilled cheese sandwiches, but add tuna salad and tomato slices. (Another way to spice up your tuna sandwiches is mixing in diced apples or grapes, which can add some crunch and a nice touch of sweetness, too.)


    • 2 cans of tuna, mixed with mayonnaise: $2.48
    • Loaf of bread: $1.99
    • Four slices of cheese: 50 cents
    • 2 medium tomatoes: $1.60

    Total: $6.47 (makes four servings)
    Price per serving: $1.62

    25. Sausage, peppers, and onions

    This is an easy-to-make, flavorful favorite. Just slice up some sweet Italian pork sausage (or chicken sausage), a sweet onion, some colorful bell peppers, and a couple cloves of garlic, and saute them all in a large pot with a generous amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Prepare a box of pasta on the side and toss them together to serve.


    • Sweet Italian sausage links: $3.99
    • Large sweet onion: 99 cents
    • 2 bell peppers: $3.00
    • Garlic, olive oil, coarse salt, and pepper: 50 cents
    • 12-oz. box of pasta: $1.19

    Total: $9.67 (makes six servings)
    Price per serving: $1.61

    26. BLTs

    Even with the high price of bacon, homemade BLTs can still be part of a cheap and easy meal. Start with a pound of bacon and heat it in a skillet until it’s crispy but not overdone. Set the bacon on a paper towel to absorb most of the grease, then turn your attention to the other ingredients that make up this classic.

    Slice a tomato in several thin slices and carefully take apart a head of iceberg or romaine lettuce. Spread mayonnaise on the bread and start building your BLTs — or TBLs, or however you want to assemble them!


    • 1 lb. bacon: $4.00
      • Loaf of bread: $1.99
      • 2 medium tomatoes: $1.60
      • 1 heart of romaine lettuce: $1

    Total: $8.58 (makes five servings)
    Price per serving: $1.71

    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.