Inexpensive Meal Ideas - Help Needed.

I have been trying really hard for the last couple of months to prepare inexpensive meals but it seems whatever I do it ends up costing more than I thought it would.

For example: We are cutting red meat out of our diet as the first step to going vegetarian so it was suggested we eat more fish - which ended up costing more than buying steak. It seems that the supermarket sells cheap fish but it has been frozen and then defrosted and the fresh stuff (non defrosted) costs mega $$'s.

I’ve got a few staple recipes’ that don’t cost a great deal but I need more variety.

My staple meals are

  • Salmon pie (tinned salmon in white sauce topped with mashed potato, baked in oven)
  • Macaroni cheese (usually with spinach)
  • Spaghetti with a mince sauce (need to practice making a non-meat sauce)
  • BBQ’d meat with 3 veg (usually mashed potato, pumpkin and a green veggie)
  • Chicken curry

The majority of my usual meals have red meat in them so I need to work on some new meals.

Any ideas, helpful suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

Pasta. Lots and lots of pasta. It’s cheap, filling, easy to make, and can be prepared in many, many ways. As an added bonus, a lot of pasta recipes are vegetarian-friendly (unless your intended vegetarian-ism includes pasta). A few easy dishes off the top of my head:[ul]
[li]Fettuccine alfredo[/li][li]Spaghetti with a garlic-butter sauce[/li][li]Ravioli or tortellini stuffed with cheese (with alfredo sauce, with melted cheese, without sauce, in a soup)[/li][li]Lasagna (okay, so not easy, but reaaaally good)[/li][/ul]For more recipies, try or I’m sure a Google search could turn up a few hundred more sites.

Chicken and roasted veggies:

Get a 13x9x2 pan. Throw in the following items (if veggies, don’t peel them): chicken, potatoes cut into cubes, an onion cut into 8ths, a red pepper cut into 8ths, garlic cloves. Sprinkle with rosemary and thyme and olive oil and bake at 350 degrees F for about an hour.

You can leave out the chicken and bake the veggies. Add feta or bleu cheese when its done. Supernummy and cheap.

I’ve found that, in the way of fish, tilapia is pretty cheap, freezes well, tastes good, and cooks easy. This recipe went over really well recently.

Make sure to check out; their rating system is really helpful in determining what recipes people like. I’ve gotten some good stuff off there.

Oh, and consider buying a wok, and making stir-fry a weekly event. Buy the fresh veggies that are on sale, whatever meat you feel like, prefect a couple of marinades/sauces, and you’re labelled a genius. Fry up some crab puffs to go with it, and you become a god. Fun stuff.

Eggs are a good cheap source of protein.

Try a Spaghetti or Linguini Carbonara, or Quiche…

Bagged frozen shrimp aren’t that expensive, buy the uncooked kind and you can use them for alot of different recipes.

Use ground turkey to make chilli, soups and stews… smoked turkey to flavour beans and green recipes.

Don’t forget beans! Dry beans are really cheap and nutritious, and easy to cook if you have either the time to watch them or a slow-cooker. has 72 meatless main dishes, and lots more besides.

I would’ve reccomended ground beef and mac n’ cheese, but since your vegetarion how about mac n’ cheese with tuna?

I would add risotto to that list - garlic/onions, wine, stock, risotto rice, and whatever you have lying around (mushrooms, chicken, prawns, zucchini, asparagus, whatever combo turns you on).

At least you have fabulous veg and salad where you are - since it is warm how about a salad with some tuna and white beans of some sort chucked in?

Going vegetarian is a great idea, and will save you loads (apart from the attached health benefits)!.

Also, you could try a Moroccan style veggie stew - zucchini, carrots, postatoes, turnips, cauliflower, pumpkin, broccoli, chick peas, whatever, stewed in vege stock. Soften some onion, add some spices - turmeric, chilli, cinnamon, ginger, ground coriander, that sort of thing, then add your stock and veg (root vegetables first, things that cook quickly like broccoli etc. about 5 minutes later), and after about another 10 minutes it’s done.

Serve with couscous (I know it’s a bit naff but it’s cheap and good with saucy food) and there you go.

A really good book (if the budget stretches) is ‘The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook’, I bought it in Australia a few years ago and it’s quite comprehensive and has a really wide variety of recipes in it. Can’t remember how much it was, sorry, but it’s Murdoch Books 1996.

do you eat eggs? omelettes are fab, and you can put whatever you like in them.

also, stir fry veggies and noodles or rice. bung in ginger, garlic and soy sauce for flavouring. very cheap and nutritious. add chicken, prawns or fish.

rataouille with potatos or rice is also very cheap and good.

my recipe involves:
1 onion
garlic to taste
capsicum pepper (red or green)
celery (if i want more texture)
1 can tomatos.

fry off the onion and garlic, add the chopped veggies and sautee til softened, add the can of tomatoes and heat through for as long as required.
add seasoning or herbs to taste.
very good, freezes will and keeps in the fridge for 2 or 3 days.

vegetarian lasagna using minced kidney beans instead of meat is very tasty.

okra, potatoes, and a can of tomatoes fried up with onion and garlic is very nice too.

soups thickened up with turnips, swede,carrots and potato are pretty yummy. add in whatever you like.

Raman Noodles, the ultimate in cheap dining. Here’s what you do: Boil your noodles,
Put a little sesame oil in, as well as some soy sauce,
their some asain spice to put in too, but I totally forgot it’s name.
And finally put in a raw egg, the boiling will cook it fairly quickly and the result is a fine meal in my opinion.

I’d leave out the red pepper. When I make my “chicken pot roast” (as we refer to it in the Bodoni household), I use chicken, potatoes, onions, celery, and carrots. For seasoning, sometimes I use thyme, but more frequently it’s a bit of rosemary. No oil.

When I make spaghetti sauce, I use meat, but you could just saute the veggies in a bit of olive oil:

Bell pepper
Celery, yes, one stalk of CELERY

and then add to a commercial spaghetti/tomato sauce. Cook any shape of pasta to serve under the sauce. Or, grate up just about any white Italian cheese (mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, or a mix), add the sauce to the pasta, put the grated cheese on top, bake until the cheese melts. You can even add some ricotta cheese (NOT cottage cheese!) but then it starts getting expensive.

Great idea’s thanks everyone. I’m taking heaps of notes for my next visit to the markets.

Another question - we have some polenta in the cupboard and I thought I would try it out, I followed all the instructions on the packet but just ended up with sticky yellow goop. Is it meant to be like that?

If you’re going veggie, among other cuisines, try cooking Indian food.

Some sources

Sanjeev Kapoor.

I haven’t gone through these in detail, but a cursory glance and methinks they’re decent.

For an initial overview of Indian cuisine, check this guide.

I should warn you though, don’t judge Indian food by the restaurants outside India. Not all Indian food is spicy or similar to what’s cooked in Indian homes.

Beans are your friend. You don’t need meat (or fish) if you incorporate legumes and brown rice into your diet. Here are a few of my favorites:

clove of garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced (optional)
can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 jar of salsa
some frozen corn

Sautee the onion and garlic (you can toss in some chili powder, cayenne, etc, if you like) until translucent. Toss in the beans, salsa, and corn, and cook until warmed through. Eat over brown rice or in a tortilla.

A sweet potato, diced
can of kidney beans
can of diced tomatoes

Sautee garlic/onion/spices. Add potatoes and tomatoes and cook on low heat until potato is soft. Add beans until warmed through. Nice with rice.

Chili powder/cayenne/thyme/oregano/basil if you like it
Bag of dried lentils
a couple of small potatoes, diced
Couple of carrots, diced
Any other veggies, like diced squash, beets, etc. you like
Can of crushed tomatoes

Sautee garlic/onion/spices. Add everything together with 3 cups of water and cook until all is soft. Makes a LOT of food.

Tabouli (from the Moosewood Cookbook)
1 cup of dry bulghar wheat (I get it in bulk)
1.5 cups boiling water
1.5 tsp salt
1/4c. lemon juice
a clove of garlic, crushed
a couple of chopped scallions
.5 tsp. dried mint, or several leaves fresh mint
1.4 c. olive oil
1 can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1+ cup of fresh parsley, chopped fine
one chopped tomato/cucumber/pepper/grated carrot (optional)

Mix the bulghar with boiling water and let sit 20 minutes until bulghar is soft. Add lemon juice, garlic, oil, and mint and let sit for an hour or so. Then add all other ingredients. Tastes good in a whole wheat pita, with or without feta cheese, olives, etc.

Hope these help.

Canned refired beans are pretty cheap, watch for them to go on sale. Tortillas are pretty cheap too. And cheese. If you buy sharp cheddar, you need less.
And there you go.
IMHO, you save money in the shopping as well as preparing.

It’s fascinating to see the differences between countries. Refried beans are not cheap here to buy readymade. Shrimp is never cheap either. Turkey is always expensive.

Go to the Asian and Indian shops for your beans and lentils, Leechy. Spices are also cheaper there. Don’t buy them from the health food shop – they’re always more expensive.

One thing you’ll have during your maternity leave is time. I’ve gotten to know when our local Woolworths is marking down meat and produce. I try and buy stuff then. I also pick up ready prepared pasta and tofu on the days it is marked down to half price.

I’ve always found that a well thought out vegetarian diet costs as much as a cheap meat diet.

Chicken chili:

Make it like regular chili, but with chicken. Buy chicken frozen when it goes on sale.

Rice and beans in the chili, so you don’t need as much chicken. Serve with corn tortillas, and you get complete protein from the rice and corn, as well as the beans, and the chicken. So, you can use less meat, and still keep your protein percentages up.

Rice and beans, by the way, are great protein stretchers in a lot of things.

I have a big bag of chicken drumsticks that I got at $0.84 a pound frozen. Another bag of frozen Whiting, they were only $1.90 a pound, and they are nice filets, no waste. I make a stew of both, with tomatoes, garlic, onion, and hot peppers, with a tablespoon of peanut butter. Serve it with rice. It’s a whole meal.


“It was a woman drove me to drink and I didn’t even have the decency to thank her.” ~ W.C. Fields ~

I heartily second Rubystreak’s recommendations. Beans and lentils are extremely cheap, nutritious, filling, and, in my opinion, tasty. There’s so many types, and so many ways to cook them, that you can easily avoid repetition.

For vegetarian suggestions, check out the Vegetarian Resources Group.

Yes. If it’s too sticky, add a little more water or chicken stock. It’s great with a handful of parmesan cheese thrown in, or some diced fontina. Yum!

Then, take the leftovers and spread them in a baking sheet. Refrigerate over night. The polenta will turn into a rubbery sheet. Cut into little squares or other nice shapes (rounds, triangles, etc.) and fry in a little olive oil or butter.
This can be served for breakfast with eggs, or with a nice fresh tomato sauce for lunch or dinner.

Meatless tomato sauce:

Dice onion and garlic, saute in olive oil. Throw in a can of diced tomatos, or some fresh diced tomatos (canned are actually better.)
Simmer for 15 minutes or so on low. Add a little salt, and some fresh sliced basil at the end.

Good luck going red-meat free!

As mentioned before, refried beans are wonderful. I like to cook up a bag of Mahatma Spanish rice (or any spanish rice mix) and stir in a can. This makes quite a bit of burrito filling and is very yummy. It’s also a whole protein.
Since it’s cold here I’ve gotten addicted to soups. Here are my very easy recipies for “green” soups (I love anything green.)

Spinach and Asparagus Soup

1 can cream of asparagus soup
1 block frozen spinach

Thaw spinach in pot. Add soup and 1 can water or milk. Simmer. Mmmmmmmmm.
Broccoli and Potato Soup

Boil a pot of potatoes. Pour into blender and liquify. Pour back into pot and add salt, butter, and garlic. Then add a bag of frozen broccoli and simmer until done.

A shortcut is to use canned cream of broccoli soup but the potato flavour you get here is really incredbile.