The Emergency Food Fund: Why Every Family Should Keep Three Cheap Meals On Hand

If you’re like most people, finding an excuse to skip making dinner is a piece of cake. Perhaps you’re running late from work, or your kid is running late from practice. Or maybe your kid’s baseball game falls during your normal dinner time, practically forcing you to swing through a drive-thru.

Some other potential excuses:

You haven’t been to the store in a week, and refuse to make dinner out of canned beans and oatmeal.

You’re starving and cannot wait another minute to eat! 

You have approximately 19 minutes to squeeze in dinner before your next appointment.

You’ve had an awful day, and you don’t care anymore.

Trust me, we’ve all been there. Before I limited our family’s grocery spending several years ago, I would use any reason I could think of to choose curbside pick-up over cooking. Usually, it was because I was so short on time. As a working parent, I was always rushing from place to place.

But once we started using a zero-sum budget, I was forced to change some of our worst spending habits. With a self-imposed grocery spending limit of $600 a month, I had to get creative with the resources, food, and time I had.

Even when I was short on time, I didn’t have enough wiggle room in our budget for Chinese take-out twice a week. And if my kids were hungry? Well, they were just going to have to wait.

Was it hard at first? Absolutely. Still, it was totally worth it for the huge savings we started seeing every month.

Our Emergency Food Fund

The biggest- and most helpful – strategy we employed was keeping a fully stocked “emergency food fund” we could turn to on our busiest days. For us, that meant keeping the ingredients for three or four easy-to-make meals on-hand at all times.

When we were short on time, we could turn to any of these simple meals in a pinch. The only rules for these meals were:

  • The ingredients had to last long enough to be stored for weeks at a time.
  • Each meal had to take less than 15 minutes to make.

Over time, we were able to come up with a few easy meals we could throw together in just a few minutes to bail us out on a busy weeknight or overbooked weekend – without blowing our budget. And from that point forward, we made it a habit to keep ingredients for those meals on hand no matter what.

Here are our family’s food emergency fund meals, and the recipes for we make them!

Emergency Meal #1: Breakfast for Dinner

  • Pancake Mix (the kind where you add water)
  • Eggs
  • Frozen peppers and onions
  • Frozen fruit

Depending on what the kids want, I’ll usually cook pancakes and create a fruit topping by cooking frozen fruit on the stove. In another pan, I generally cook peppers and onions, then make scrambled eggs or omelets with them. The entire process takes less than 15 minutes, and all of the ingredients are easily kept for weeks at a time.

Emergency Meal #2: Spaghetti with Toast or Garlic Bread

  • Can or jar of spaghetti sauce
  • Boxed pasta
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Toast
  • Garlic Bread

While we all prefer homemade pasta and sauce, this meal is for emergencies. Generally speaking, I’ll prepare pasta and heat up whatever sauce we have on hand, then add some frozen vegetables to round out the meal. If I have bread, I’ll usually toast a few pieces and slather it with butter for the kids. If not, I usually keep frozen garlic bread that can be cooked in the oven in less than 10 minutes. The best thing about this meal is that all of the included ingredients can last for months!

Emergency Meal #3: Vegetable Stir-Fry

  • Bagged or boxed rice
  • Frozen vegetables of any kind
  • Teriyaki sauce and/or soy sauce
  • Canned miniature corn or water chestnuts

Here’s another meal that’s extremely easy to make and equally easy to clean up. Generally speaking, I start by figuring out whether I have time to steam rice in my rice cooker. If not, I cook it on the stove. Once I get that situation squared away, I throw the rest of my ingredients into a pan and start cooking. Once my vegetables are fully cooked and seasoned with teriyaki and/or soy sauce, I serve them over rice.

Five Reasons You Need an Emergency Food Fund

While none of these meals are the world’s healthiest, they save my family from making excuses when it comes to dining out. Best of all, these meals are incredibly cheap and easy to make.

If you’re tired of letting your restaurant spending ruin your budget, you should consider creating an “emergency food fund” of your own. Your emergency meals might look totally different than mine, and that’s okay. For each family, the key is finding a few meals with basic ingredients you can keep in stock at all times. If your family actually enjoys the meal, that’s icing on the cake.

Here are a few of the benefits you’ll get when you create an emergency food fund:

  • You can work late and still have dinner on the table. Even if you’re working late, you can usually find 15 minutes to whip up a semi-healthy meal. And when you have the ingredients on hand already, you’ll have trouble coming up with excuses not to.
  • You can buy more time in between grocery store visits. If you’re a busy parent like me, getting to the store can be an ordeal in itself. With an emergency food fund, you can save time and stretch your grocery budget out further by spacing out your trips.
  • You’ll never eat cereal for dinner again. Most of us have had that “terrible mom or dad moment” where your kids are eating cereal or yogurt for dinner and you just don’t care. With an emergency food fund on hand, you can avoid the guilt and whip up a real meal instead.
  • When you do dine out, you might enjoy it more. When you’re no longer dining out in desperation, you might find you enjoy it more. At least, that’s what happened in my home. Now that we only dine out a few times a month, it has become a special treat.
  • You will save money. The best part about having an emergency food fund is the savings you’ll accrue over time. When you’re no longer rushing out to a restaurant a few times each week, you’ll spend a lot less on food over time. And if you keep your emergency fund meals on the inexpensive side, you can garner even more savings.

The Bottom Line

If sticking to a grocery spending plan hasn’t been easy for you in the past, an emergency food fund might be exactly what you need. By keeping some cheap and easy meals on-hand, you’ll set yourself up for both success and savings.

If you’re ready to get started, you first step should be creating a list of quick meals your family will actually eat. Once you take that step, you can figure out which meals include ingredients with the longest shelf life. From there, it should be fairly easy to decide which meals should make up your “emergency food fund.” After that, the rest is up to you.


Do you have an emergency food fund? Which meals do you make when you’re running short on time?

Holly Johnson
Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

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