I love to eat, but don’t like to spend too much time or money in the kitchen. Always looking for shortcuts!
Most of us who have to plan and prepare meals for our families (or even just ourselves) every week know how frustrating it can be. You can sometimes spend hours on a meal plan just trying to find something new to cook that everyone will enjoy and won’t break the bank. I’m constantly scouring Pinterest, looking for good ideas. But many of them can get pretty costly, or won’t go over well with the picky eaters in our home. So, here is a round-up of some of my go-to meals that I use in a typical month to give you some ideas and make your life a little easier! They are simple, filling—and most important, budget-friendly.
1. Red Beans and Rice
This Cajun style meal is a staple in our home that is one of the simplest to prepare. All you need is a box mix of red beans and rice, andouille sausage (optional, but amazing), and a small Jiffy mix of cornbread. Zatarain’s has a great box mix of red beans of rice, but even Aldi carries their own brand for cheaper and is just as good. The andouille sausage takes it to the next level and makes it more filling. You could also use smoked sausage depending on what’s on sale. Make the cornbread on the side, and it’s gives the perfect sweetness to go with the savory Cajun spices.
Depending on the meat you choose, this can be a super quick meal. My favorite is Steak-umm’s, which you’ll find in the freezer section in either chicken or beef.
Cut onions and green peppers into strips, or get a frozen bag to save even more time. Cook the veggies, then the Steak-mum’s in a pan. Once finished cover with a few slices of cheese and put a lid on to steam and let the cheese get nice and melty. Scoop it into a toasted sub roll and pair with an easy side like tater tots!
3. Burrito Bowls
This is a great healthy option. Prepare some rice or quinoa first because that is normally what takes the longest. Cook your meat of choice: ground turkey, ground beef, or grilled chicken—any of which can be cooked in a taco seasoning. Then get together your toppings that you would use for a taco or burrito: shredded lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, salsa, avocado, shredded cheese, black beans, or anything else you like! Drizzle some taco sauce or chipotle ranch over top, and eat with tortillas chips.
4. Jalapeño Popper Meatloaf
This is a delicious recipe that we discovered when trying Keto, and have continued using since. You can find a full recipe on Pinterest, but the basics are that you’ll need about a pound and a half of ground beef, mixed with eggs and breadcrumbs (or a Keto friendly alternative) and season with garlic powder, salt and pepper. For the filling, mix cream cheese, chopped jalapeños, and shredded cheddar cheese. Put half of the meat mix in your baking dish, then the cream cheese filling, then cover with the remaining meat mixture. Pinch the meat together all the way around and bake. Finish by brushing the whole thing with some barbecue sauce, and add some veggies for sides!
5. Taco Tuesday
(Or any other day of the week!) Tacos are the best; we eat them in some form every single week. It’s so easy to mix things up so you don’t get bored. For example, try corn tortillas instead of flour, try new taco sauces or seasonings. Mix up your proteins: beef, turkey, chicken, or beans. And one of my favorite cheap toppings for tacos is chopped, roasted sweet potatoes. Toss them in oil and taco seasoning, then bake until they’re crispy . . . you won’t be sorry!
6. Chicken Pot Pie
This is a great way to use some chicken that you’ve had in the freezer for a while. Boil it until cooked, and then let cool and shred. Cook some chopped carrots, onions, celery and peas (either fresh or frozen) in butter. To make it even easier, use a couple of cans of Veg-All, and all the veggie chopping and cooking is already done. Make the gravy by adding flour to the cooked veggies and butter to make a roux. Add milk until you have enough gravy, and then add salt and pepper. Let the gravy sit and cool completely to thicken after stirring well. Put one layer of pie crust down, the filling, and then the top crust. Crimp the crust together all the way around, and pierce a couple of slits in the top of the pie, then bake.
7. Chili and Cornbread
I believe the simpler the chili, the better! One pound of ground beef, one can of pinto beans, one can of black beans, a can of Rotel tomatoes with chilis, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a can of tomato sauce. Cook the ground beef with some onion and garlic, then add everything together in a big pot. Add a chili seasoning packet, and cook a Jiffy box of cornbread for a side. I like to add shredded cheddar cheese and jalapeños from a jar to my Jiffy mix to liven things up!
8. Meat, Veggie, and Potatoes
This is my formula for when I’m really stumped and nothing sounds good, but we’re trying to be cheap and healthy. Look through your favorite grocery store’s ad or walk around the store to find a good sale on meat. Pick the best deal you can find, and then do the same in the produce section for a vegetable side to cook. Then pick a filling side like potatoes, rice or a quick pasta mix.
9. Chicken Stir-Fry
A healthy version of take-out at home all in one pot! Cut a couple of chicken breasts into one-inch sized pieces (Tip: I hate handling raw meat, so I use kitchen scissors to make it a little easier). Cook in some oil with onion and garlic. Once cooked, add a bag of frozen stir fry veggies. Add some water to the pan, lower the heat and cover to let the veggies steam. Check after five to 10 minutes and make sure the vegetables are cooked through. Add soy or teriyaki sauce and mix, then eat over microwaved rice or boil some Lo Mein noodles.
10. Honey Garlic Salmon
I love having frozen salmon on hand; it’s relatively cheap for several fillets and it’s quick to thaw and cook. Season thawed salmon with salt and pepper and pan-fry according to package directions, about four to five minutes per side. Set the cooked fish aside and mix soy sauce, honey and garlic and cook in the pan for just a couple of minutes to melt together and thicken. Return cooked salmon to the pan and cover with the sauce. Pair with a side of rice or mashed potatoes and broccoli.
11. Slow Cooker Pork Tenderloin
The slow cooker is amazing for when you’ve had a long week and you know you’re not going to want to cook dinner. Throw in a whole pork tenderloin that is either pre-seasoned or mix together a rub of choice. I like the pre-marinated mesquite barbecue tenderloins. Chop up a few red potatoes, drizzle with olive oil and seasoning salt. Add everything to the Crock-Pot and cook four to six hours. Heat up a veggie once it’s ready, like some canned green beans, and enjoy!
12. Sausage, Cabbage and Potato Skillet
This is a great fall meal when cabbage is really cheap. Chop cabbage, onions, and potato. Cook potatoes first in some oil since they take the longest. Slice up some andouille or smoked sausage and cook everything together in a skillet. Lower heat and cover to steam cabbage and let it get nice and tender. Here is the complete recipe.
13. BLT and Fries
Simple enough! To take it up a level, get some fresh sliced bacon from the meat counter at your grocery store. You can get nice thick cuts and sometimes seasonings like peppercorn. Along with sliced tomato, I like to use shredded lettuce—it gives some extra texture to the sandwich. Bake some frozen, seasoned, or curly fries. It feels like fast food, but just a little healthier when you make it at home.
14. Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
Another simple but delicious option, and you can get as fancy or as basic as you want. To make a really great grilled cheese, get some nice, thick sliced bread from the bakery section at your grocery store. Get two types of sliced cheese, which can sometimes be cheaper if you get it from the deli counter instead of the pre-packaged type. Add some sliced tomato and bacon. And don’t forget to add butter and mayo to the bread before toasting!
15. Chicken Salad
A salad seems simple, but it can be a great, filling dinner! Bake some chicken breasts, seasoned with a season salt or other seasoning that you like. Chop it up and add to a nice mix of greens. Aldi has a great spring mix of spinach, kale and Swiss chard for much cheaper than the bigger chain stores. Some great topping choices for dinner are tomatoes, boiled eggs, dried cranberries, salad seasoning mix, croutons, avocado, and a crumbly cheese like blue cheese or feta.
This could definitely be in the five dollar dinner category! You can get a a jar of tomato sauce and a box of any shape of pasta, for probably two dollars combined. In our family we have to have a meat for filling, so we either add meat to the sauce or cook meatballs. The most budget-friendly option I have found is a bag of frozen meatballs. It is usually a pretty big bag that will last for a couple of dinners, so you definitely get more bang for your buck in that area. Add a side salad and some cheese bread for a complete meal!
17. Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos
Another Taco Tuesday idea to mix it up and it is so simple! Throw in a few chicken breasts, a packet of taco seasoning, and one to two cups of salsa in the Crock-Pot. Mix and let cook for four to six hours. Once the chicken has cooked, take a couple of forks and shred the chicken. Cook a can of black or pinto beans for a side, and prepare all of your favorite taco toppings.
18. Chicken and Gravy Over Rice
You know anything with gravy is going to be good...
In a deep baking dish, add three to four chicken breasts and season with plenty of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Mix together a packet of chicken gravy mix according to the directions. Add to that a can of cream of chicken. Pour the mixture over the chicken breasts and then bake until cooked through. Once cooked, shred the chicken with two forks. Spoon over cooked rice, and add some veggies and biscuits for sides.
19. BBQ Chicken Pizza
This is another good use for some leftover chicken you may have in the fridge or freezer. Once cooked, toss chicken in barbecue sauce.
Prepare your pizza crust. My favorite is a pre-made dough ball from Walmart that is only $1.00. Roll it onto your baking sheet, and then lightly brush the dough with some barbecue sauce. You don’t want to over-do it since the chicken is also tossed in the sauce. Caramelize some onions in a pan, cook and crumble some bacon, and add all that goodness to your pizza crust. Cover with shredded mozzarella cheese. Then bake and thank me later!
20. Ham Hock Beans and Rice
This is a good slow cooker meal. Take a bag of dry pinto beans, rinse and soak them overnight. In the morning, add the beans, a ham hock (or you can chop a few pieces of bacon instead) and chopped onions to your Crock-Pot. You can also add some salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and a dash of cayenne to the pot. Cook all day until the beans are nice and soft. Prepare some white rice and cornbread for a super cheap, southern dish. It sounds too easy, but the ham hock or bacon add so much flavor. We like to add hot sauce and mustard to our bowl for some extra kick.
21. Burgers and Fries
So many options! Beef, turkey, veggie, black bean, you name it. The meat counter at your grocery store may have some really good, ready to cook patties with different flavors. Our Harris Teeter has jalapeño cheddar burgers that are incredible. Get creative with toppings like avocado, a fried egg, bacon, blue cheese, onion straws. And don’t forget a side of fries!
22. Cajun Shrimp Pasta
For shrimp I like to keep a pack of the peeled, ready to cook frozen kind. They’re quick to thaw and cook, so nice to have on hand when you’re in the mood for a quick seafood dinner. Season your shrimp with a Cajun seasoning. Add some butter or oil to a skillet, and cook the shrimp. Boil noodles of your choice, then add to the skillet, and poor jarred Alfredo sauce over the shrimp and pasta. Toss and cook on low until all heated through. I like to add crushed red pepper, Parmesan, and parsley over the top to elevate it some more. Pair with some breadsticks and a glass of wine!
23. Chicken Drumsticks
Chicken drumsticks are some of the cheapest cuts of meat you can possibly buy at the grocery store on a regular basis. They’re a great option when you’re on a budget. Just season them with oil, seasoning salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. Throw it on a sheet pan and bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Add some simple sides like a microwave “baked” potato, and steamed veggies, and you’re good to go!
24. Beef Stroganoff
Some people like to use cuts of steak for this, but the easiest and cheapest way I have found is with ground beef. Cook the ground beef then set aside. Sauté onions and mushrooms in butter. Add flour to coat, then add about two cups of beef broth. Stir and let thicken for a few minutes. Add the meat back to the pan, turn off the heat, and add 1/2 cup of sour cream. Serve over rice or egg noodles.
25. Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Another amazing slow cooker idea that really only needs two things: a Boston butt and a bottle of George’s barbecue sauce. It’s a vinegar-based sauce, so you get a true Southern-style pulled pork. Put the Boston butt in the slow cooker and pour two-thirds of the bottle of barbecue sauce over it. Cook for six to eight hours. Once cooked, use forks to shred the pork. Serve with Hawaiian rolls and coleslaw!
26. Potato Soup
A cozy, cheap meal for a cold night! Cook a few pieces of bacon in a large pot until crispy. Sauté a chopped onion and garlic in the bacon grease. Once cooked, sprinkle the veggies with some flour to make the base of the rue. Peel and dice about three pounds of potatoes and add the pot. Then add four cups of chicken broth and two cups of milk. Add salt and pepper, and simmer until potatoes are tender. You can leave it as is, or you can mash some of the potatoes with a fork, or use an immersion blender to make it thicker and smoother. Serve with slices of French bread, and toppings like green onions, bacon, and shredded cheese.
27. Fish Tacos
This is another seafood option that does well with either fresh or frozen fish, and is quick to prepare. Heat oil in a pan, season fish filets with your favorite taco seasonings (tilapia or flounder are great frozen options), then cook for a few minutes on each side, depending on the package instructions. Make a simple slaw for topping with a bag mix of shredded cabbage and add some mayonnaise, lime juice, and salt.
28. Homemade "Hamburger Helper"
A family favorite with less of the processed junk! Cook a pound of ground beef in sautéed onions and garlic. Add two cups of beef broth and a small can of tomato paste and combine. Season with Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. In another pot, cook two cups of pasta—either macaroni or shells. Add pasta to beef mixture. Add heavy cream and shredded cheddar cheese until combined and melted.
29. Greek Chicken Plate
Marinate chicken in this great Greek marinade. Then cook in a skillet and cut into one-inch bites. Serve with all the fixings for a great Greek plate: hummus, pita bread, feta cheese, tzatziki sauce (Aldi has a great, cheaper brand), olives, and cherry tomatoes.
These are easier than you’d think! All you need is what you would normally buy to make tacos, plus a couple of cans of enchilada sauce. Brown ground beef and season with taco seasoning. Take off heat and mix in a handful of shredded cheddar and a quarter cup of the enchilada sauce. Then take a 9x13 pan and roll a tortilla with the ground beef mixture and more cheese. Line up the filled tortillas until all the ground beef mixture is used. Cover all of the enchiladas with the remaining sauce. Spoon sauce over any dry tortilla spots for even cooking. Top with shredded cheese and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Add a side of beans and chips with salsa.
I hope these ideas help you get out of the never-ending dilemma of “What’s for dinner?” Let me know any other easy dinner ideas you have in the comments!
Nigel Koay from Malaysia on November 13, 2020:
Great article, sometimes i don't really know what to cook for my family as well, this is something outside of what we usually do, thank you!