Food is one of life’s necessities, but depending on the size of your family and what type of food you buy, it can be one of life’s more expensive necessities. However, with some preparation and planning, it’s possible to keep your family’s food and grocery budget under control.
Before you create a food and grocery budget, it helps to understand what you can expect to spend on food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases monthly food plan budgets based on family size, age of household members and type of food purchased. In February of 2017, for example, the USDA estimated that a family of four – two adults and two children between six and 11 years old – would spend just over $638 per month on a thrifty meal plan, while a family following a liberal plan would spend just under $1,273 per month.
Once you have an idea of the average amount spent on food each month, you can compare it to what your family spends and make adjustments as needed. If you’re a family of four or more and you’d like to reduce your grocery budget, consider a few of the recipes and meal prep tips below to help you do so.
Five Easy, Cheap Meals on a Budget
Inexpensive meals don’t have to be unhealthy. Cooking at home rather than eating out will save you money and provide your family with the nutrition needed for healthy growth.
The recipes below meet the general criteria of the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines, which recommend limiting sugar, sodium and saturated fats. The guidelines encourage you to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, protein and dairy each day.
Variety is the spice of life and makes for a healthy diet, and the recipes below are cheap and easy meals on a budget from a wide range of cuisines.
1. Turkey and Bean Chili
Chili is full of flavor and affordable, and you can customize it in multiple ways. Need to feed more than four people? Toss in an extra can of beans and an additional cup of water. Not a fan of pinto beans? Replace with a variety your family enjoys.
You can usually make a big batch of chili, enough to feed four to six people, for less than $15. You’ll need the following ingredients:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound ground turkey
- 1 bag of frozen, chopped onion and green bell pepper
- 1 cup frozen corn
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 15-ounce can white or red beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 10.5-ounce can diced tomatoes and chilies (optional)
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 3 cups water
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once it starts to ripple, add the ground meat. When just about cooked through, add the onion and bell pepper. Cover with a lid to cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. The onion should be slightly translucent. Add garlic and stir, cooking for about a minute.
Next, add the beans, can of tomatoes, corn and spices. Stir to combine, then pour in three cups of water.
Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on the chili and stir often to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Portion the chili into bowls, then serve with tortilla chips, grated cheese or cilantro.
2. Fried Brown Rice and Veggies
Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice and typically costs about the same. If your family regularly eats white rice, it’s worth switching to brown for the health benefits. A study from 2010 found that trading 50 grams of white rice a day for brown lowered the risk for type 2 diabetes by 16 percent.
For an even healthier choice, swap out the rice for cauliflower “rice,” which you can buy frozen or make yourself by roughly chopping a head of cauliflower in a blender.
For fried brown rice and veggies, you’ll need the following ingredients:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon peeled and grated ginger root
- 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)
- 4 cups chopped, mixed vegetables (frozen is fine or you can chop up your favorites)
- 4 cups cooked brown rice or cauliflower “rice”
- 1-2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
- 1-2 tablespoons of honey
- 4 eggs, gently beaten
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat the oil in a wok or a wide, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Quickly add the ginger and pepper flakes, if using. Stir the ginger in the oil and let cook for about 10 seconds.
Add the chopped vegetables and stir. Cook and stir for about two minutes, until the veggies soften.
Next, add the cooked brown rice or cauliflower rice and stir. Cook until the rice is shimmery, and then pour in the soy sauce to coat both the vegetables and rice. Use 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and honey to start. You can add more at the end if you wish.
Add the beaten eggs to the rice and veggie mixture and stir to combine. The eggs will cook as you stir. Once the eggs are cooked through and no longer wet, remove the pan from the stove. Divide the mixture into four bowls, then add salt and pepper, sesame seeds or more soy sauce, to taste.
If you want to add additional protein, cook two chicken breasts in a separate pan, slice and add to the final fried rice meal.
3. Cheesy Baked Enchiladas
Enchiladas are an easy-to-customize, budget-friendly meal. In this recipe, ground beef is mixed with a can of black beans and chopped mushrooms to lower the cost of the enchiladas and add more vegetables and fiber to the dish. Although you can make your own enchilada sauce, it’s often cheaper and easier to use a canned, pre-made sauce.
You’ll need the following ingredients:
- ½ lb lean ground beef (substitute lentils for a meatless dish)
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
- ½ lb white button or cremini mushrooms, washed and chopped
- 1 4.5-ounce can green, chopped chilies
- 1 can enchilada sauce
- 6 large flour tortillas
- 8 ounces of your favorite blend of shredded cheese
- 1 jar of salsa
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the beef in a skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through and brown. Scrape the beef into a bowl and set aside. Add the black beans and chopped mushrooms to the skillet and cook until the mushrooms have reduced in size and released some of their liquid. Add the beans and mushroom mixture to the cooked beef. Add the chilies to the mixture.
Pour about ½ cup of the salsa into the beef and bean mixture, then stir to combine. Pour ½ cup of enchilada sauce into the bottom of a 9×13-inch pan or baking dish. Spread the sauce evenly over the bottom of the dish.
Fill a tortilla with 1/6 of the beef and bean mixture in the center of the tortilla. Sprinkle some shredded cheese over the beef mixture. Roll up the tortilla and push to one side of the baking dish. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
Pour the remaining enchilada sauce all over the rolled up tortillas in the baking dish. Sprinkle any remaining cheese over the tortillas, then place the dish in the oven.
Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the sauce is bubbly. Let the enchiladas rest for about five minutes, then serve with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt, guacamole or chopped green onions.
4. Whole Wheat Homemade Pizza
Homemade pizza is cheaper than delivery. While you can purchase pre-made dough, it’s not that difficult to make your own from scratch. In addition, kids can have a lot of fun playing with and shaping the dough.
You’ll need the following ingredients:
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 2 teaspoons (1 package) instant yeast
- 1 cup water (you might need more depending on humidity)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
- Dried oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, salt (to taste)
- 8 ounces mozzarella or your favorite cheese blend, shredded
- Toppings of your choice, such as chopped vegetables, fresh herbs, olives, cooked sausage or chicken
About an hour before you assemble the pizza, make the dough. Mix the flour and yeast together in a bowl, then add the water. Stir to combine, then add the salt and honey. Don’t add the salt too early, or you’ll kill the yeast. If the dough is dry and crumbly, add warm water – one teaspoon at a time – until it holds together. The dough should be slightly tacky, but shouldn’t cling to your hands or be soupy. If it’s soupy, add a bit more flour to dry it out.
You can mix and knead the dough by hand or use a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment if you have one. If using your stand mixer, knead on medium-low speed (2 on a KitchenAid mixer) for 10 minutes.
If you’re kneading by hand, sprinkle some flour on your counter, then scrape the dough onto the counter. Knead for 10 minutes.
Lightly coat or spray a bowl with oil, place the dough in it, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Let the dough rise for about an hour.
Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.
When the dough doubles in size, scrape it out onto your counter. If you want to make two smaller pizzas, divide the dough into two halves. Roll out the dough into two circles, then place on a baking sheet.
To make one larger, rectangular pizza, keep the dough in one piece. Roll out onto an 18×16-inch baking sheet and set aside.
Prep your pizza sauce. You can use a pre-made jar of pasta or pizza sauce, but it’s often cheaper to get a 15-ounce can of tomato sauce and add spices to taste. Pour the sauce into a bowl, and then add dried oregano, onion or garlic powder and salt until you like the flavor.
Coat the dough with a thin layer of sauce. Next, sprinkle the shredded cheese over top. You might not use all of the cheese, depending on how cheesy you like your pizza. If you’re using toppings, sprinkle them on top of the cheese.
Bake the pizza for about 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and crisp, and the cheese has melted and started to brown.
Let it rest on a cutting board for three minutes, then cut into slices and serve.
5. Garlicky Pasta
Garlic adds a lot of flavor to recipes – plus, it’s healthy and cheap. You can typically purchase an entire garlic bulb for less than 50 cents. A few cloves of chopped garlic can turn a boring old dish of pasta into a delicious and exciting – but still affordable – meal.
You’ll need the following ingredients:
- ¼ cup melted butter
- ½ cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- 1 pound whole wheat pasta (or try spelt, black rice ramen or quinoa)
- 4 tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil
- 1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and minced
- 2 pounds washed and chopped cooking greens (such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard or mustard greens)
- Dried Italian herbs, salt and pepper, to taste
Heat the butter in a sauce pan over low heat and add two cloves minced garlic. When the garlic begins to brown slightly, add the breadcrumbs and stir until panko is golden brown.
Bring a 6-quart pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package, until al dente. Don’t overcook or you’ll have mushy pasta. Drain the pasta, but preserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the rest of the minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, until slightly golden and very fragrant. Add chopped greens and cook until they wilt. You’ll most likely have to add them in handfuls at a time. Cook the greens for a few minutes, then add the pasta.
Stir in some of the reserved cooking water to make a sauce. Start with half a cup and add more if the pasta mixture seems dry. Add the dried herbs, salt and pepper to taste, then put the pasta mixture into a large serving bowl.
Top the pasta with the breadcrumbs. You can also toss in some grated Parmesan cheese. Divide the pasta into six bowls and serve.
Five Inexpensive Meal Recipes from Bloggers
While the recipes above give you enough meal ideas for almost an entire week, here are a few additional tasty and cheap recipe ideas found from bloggers across the Internet.
1. Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
A classic for lunch or dinner, grilled cheese and tomato soup is cheap whether you make your own soup or use a box of prepared soup. A quart-sized box of soup costs around $3 and will feed four people. How much you spend on the bread and cheese can vary, but you can often find packaged sandwich bread for $2 per loaf and an 8-ounce block of cheese for around $2 or $3.
If you prefer the taste of homemade soup, Rachael Ray has a simple recipe that you can make for about $5, depending on how much ingredients cost in your area.
2. Vegetable Frittata
Eggs often cost a couple of dollars per dozen and are an easy ingredient for a cheap meal for a large family. A frittata, which is an egg casserole full of vegetables and cheese, is easily customizable. Eating Well offers one option with mozzarella, basil and zucchini that costs less than $3 per serving.
Making a frittata is easy. Simply cook your veggies in a large skillet, add some cooked meat or other protein, then pour beaten eggs in the mixture. Use two eggs per serving. Cook the eggs a bit on the stove top, and then slide the entire skillet into a preheated oven and cook until the eggs are set.
3. Chicken and Rice Casserole
Lean protein, grains and vegetables – a chicken and rice casserole offers plenty of nutrition for a low price. It’s often one of the more popular quick, cheap meals for families since it relies on packaged, inexpensive ingredients and comes together in a snap.
The Pinning Mama has a chicken and rice casserole recipe that uses canned cream of chicken soup, budget-friendly minute rice, frozen broccoli, and shredded chicken breast. The recipe comes together and bakes in less than an hour, making it a good pick for busy weeknights.
4. Huevos Rancheros
Here’s egg again, taking the starring role in an inexpensive meal. You might see huevos rancheros on the breakfast or brunch menu at restaurants, but it is also a satisfying meal to make for dinner. Usually, the recipe uses fried eggs, corn tortillas, and black beans, all of which cost a few dollars.
Babble has a cheap and healthy spin on the traditional huevos rancheros recipe. The blogger adds some sautéed kale to the mix for a nutritional boost that won’t drain your budget. If kale isn’t on sale at your supermarket, choose a cheaper cooking green.
5. Taco Lettuce Wraps
Tacos are a cheap meal, but not necessarily the healthiest. Skinny Taste has found a way to make tacos healthier, by replacing the high fat, high-calorie crispy shells with crunchy lettuce leaves. Iceberg lettuce tends to cost less than 70 cents a head, so it’s a more wallet-friendly pick, too.
Tips for Prepping Cheap Meals for Large Families
It’s not only what you make for your family, but how you shop for groceries and prepare ingredients, that will influence your grocery budget. These tips can help you slash your food spending:
- Buy in season. You’ll spend extra money buying produce when it’s out of season. The peak of summer is the best time to stock up on many fruits, and the early fall is the ideal time to buy many fresh vegetables. If you find a great deal on in-season fruits or vegetables at your supermarket or farmers’ market, stock up. You can freeze or can the produce to extend its shelf life.
- Buy in bulk. Buying in bulk doesn’t always save you money, but if you’re smart about it, you can reduce the amount you’re spending. If you’re going to take the “buy more, save more” approach, purchase items that your family uses frequently and don’t spoil quickly. Dried grains, like rice, and dried beans tend to be great bulk purchases.
- Expand your grocery store horizons. The typical supermarket makes it convenient to purchase all of your ingredients under one roof, but you can often spend more compared to shopping at other places. For example, it’s often cheaper to buy in-season produce at the farmers’ market instead of the grocery store. One study found that about 36 percent of food items were less expensive at farmers’ markets. You’ll also save money if you stop buying name brand items. Store brand items are usually the same quality but cost much less. Don’t forget to check your local grocery bargain outlet and discount stores for deals.
- Buy meat from the farmers’ market or butcher. Consider buying your meat in bulk, then freezing or canning it. There’s a real risk for foodborne illness if you don’t preserve meat properly, so always follow the guidelines from the USDA.
- Don’t shop when hungry. Many people have a tale of buying something that looked delicious when they were hungry, only to have that food spoil or languish in their pantry after they got home from the grocery store. To reduce impulse buys, make sure you eat before you shop. It’s also a good idea to have one person in your family handle the shopping solo, so kids or spouses won’t beg for additional, costly treats.
- Only buy what you need. Buying only what you need helps you spend less at the store and reduces food waste. Before you head to the supermarket, check your pantry and fridge and take stock of what you already have. Try to plan your meals based on what’s available rather than stocking up on new ingredients each week.
- Use a cash rewards credit card. Using a cash rewards card, such as the Founder’s Card from PSECU*, won’t lower your grocery bill, but it will give you 1.5 percent cash rewards, which you can put toward future purchases. If you use your card for every purchase you make at the grocery store and spend $1,000 per month on average, you’ll earn $15 in cash rewards each month. If you have checking and monthly Direct Deposits totaling at least $500, you can earn 2% cash rewards, and you’ll receive $20 on that same $1,000 spend.
For more info on how you can save your hard-earned money and achieve your family’s financial goals, be sure to check out the rest of our blog.
*You can earn 1.5% cash rewards on purchases. You can earn 2% cash rewards on purchases if you maintain a PSECU checking account and qualifying monthly direct deposit(s) of at least $500. See the Visa® Founder’s Card and Visa® Alumni Rewards Card Rewards Program Terms and Conditions for full details.