If you, like so many, are currently on an even tighter budget than usual right now, you can still eat well. These cheap dinners are not only affordable, they’re easy to prepare. Win-win-win (the third win is for your tastebuds). Plus, they rely pretty heavily on pantry staples, so you might not even need to deal with the grocery store.
It’s OK, you can admit it. We all have one. You know, an easy, go-to dish that you fall back on when exhaustion is high and funds are low. I call mine “Poor Girl Pasta.” And even though it only requires a couple bare minimum essential ingredients, stuff I always keep on hand—dried spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, parmesan, salt, and red pepper flakes—it doesn’t at all taste like a last resort. The trick to giving the dish its gourmet edge is making the most out of what’s in there. So in this case, mixing in roasted rather than raw garlic to give an extra layer of depth and richness. It’s so good I make it even when I haven’t spent all my grocery budget on wine.
If you’re looking to add to your repertoire of gourmet dishes on a shoestring budget, these 10 easy recipes should give you plenty to play around with in the kitchen.
I expect anyone with the good, smart-budget sense to keep a box of dried spaghetti on-hand to have this classic Roman dish in their back pocket. But for the uninitiated, let me break it down: Four basic ingredients and just a couple minutes of your time will reward you with a buttery, cheesy, salt and pepper-flecked showstopper pasta. Supporting characters be damned, this here is the little black dress of spaghetti and it’s glam AF. Get our Cacio e Pepe Pasta recipe.
Related Reading: Try This Trick for Perfect Cacio e Pepe Every Time
When it comes down to it, pricey ingredients ain’t got nothin’ on good technique. Take the iconic French omelette, for example. With no fancy toppings to hide behind—just a little cream, butter, herbs, salt and pepper—it still manages to be the most luxurious omelette-eating experience you’ll ever have. The secret, as they say, is all in the wrist. Quickly shimmying the whisked eggs over high heat creates a soft, just-set texture that gives the rolled omelette a decadent, ultra-creamy quality. Pure classe, ladies and gentlemen, pure classe. Get the Perfect French Omelette recipe.
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Sure, plain white rice and zucchini are pretty “vanilla” as far as ingredients go. But I’d prefer to be glass-half-full about it and call them “versatile” instead; a blank canvas for all kinds of flavor. (Plus they won’t leave your wallet half-empty, either.) In this much-simplified adaptation of a classic Julia Child recipe, the two are combined with salty, savory parmesan cheese, garlic, onion, and a little salt and pepper to create a heartily satisfying dish. Get the Zucchini Rice and Cheese Gratin recipe.
Turns out that forgotten loaf of slightly stale, day-old bread sitting in the cupboard hasn’t missed its chance at culinary glory after all. It just takes some bright, zesty lemon-garlic vinaigrette, and fresh additions like tomatoes, basil, slices of crunchy cuke, and tangy red onion to breathe new life into the torn chunks of past-its-prime Italian bread. This dish isn’t about having to eat leftovers, it’s about craving them. Get our Panzanella recipe. Or try this Panzanella with Shallot Vinaigrette. (You can even do it for dessert, as in our Sweet Strawberry Panzanella recipe.)
Related Reading: More Ways to Turn Stale Bread into Delicious Meals
A technique often used in Indian cuisine, marinating chicken in yogurt not only adds flavor and acidity to the profile, but also helps tenderize the meat. Raid the spice cabinet for powerful, punchy players like paprika, cumin, and cayenne, and you’ve got everything you need to transform basic, boring chicken thighs into a “wow”-worthy entree. Get our Spicy Yogurt Chicken recipe.
Related Reading: 9 Marinades That Make Chicken Better Than Ever
When it comes to the butcher shop, we have a bit of a tunnel vision problem. Our eyes seem to be almost involuntarily drawn to the sexier (pricier) prime cuts. But budget-minded cooks are wise to remember what savvy chefs and industry pros have been urging us for years: The cheap cuts can be just as delicious. Take chuck beef, for example. Usually relegated to the grinder for a future in burgers or chili, when left as a steak, it fills in as a damn fine understudy for a ribeye. Give it a good, hard sear, baste it in lots of butter, and treat yourself to a steakhouse-quality experience at a fraction of the cost. Get the Chuck Eye Steak with Chili-Herb Butter recipe.
This rich, warming soup may be considered Italian peasant food, but as far as I’m concerned, white beans, tomato paste, and dried pasta have never tasted more sophisticated. The optimistically ambitious cook in me wants to recommend putting in the extra work and using dried cannellini beans, but the I-don’t-have-time-for-that realist has to admit that the canned stuff works perfectly well too. Besides, the more low-brow the ingredients, the more impressive the high-brow quality and taste of the dish is. Get our Pasta e Fagioli recipe.
In my college and subsequent “experience over salary” early working years, instant ramen was a last resort. Now, I see it more as a budget-conscious jumping off point. Once you’ve tossed the sodium-dense seasoning packets aside, the noodles can be used to make everything from mac and cheese to a cold salad with veggies, or even simply just a better-tasting, doctored-up bowl of ramen. But my favorite thrifty application for ramen noodles is a quick stir-fry. This one here features grilled chicken, broccoli, and an easy umami-rich homemade sauce and comes together in under 30 minutes. Get the Chicken Ramen Stir-Fry recipe.
Related Reading: Ramen Noodle Recipes That Go Way Beyond Soup
Yellow onions are about as cheap as cheap produce gets, so they’re a no-brainer item to reach for when you want to keep meal cost low (but, uh, be sure to buy new ones if you bought your most recent batch pre-salmonella scare). And in this French bistro classic, the often-overshadowed onion really gets a chance to take center stage and flex its flavor muscles. For the patient, set-it-and-forget-it kind of cook, this slow cooker variation gets bonus points for eliminating the usual, somewhat time-consuming step of having to babysit the caramelizing onions. Get the Crock-Pot French Onion Soup recipe.
I find that if I’m not careful, making dessert can quickly drift to the dark side. Either becoming too expensive, or complicated, or time-consuming (or worse, all of the above). But that’s not say to that there aren’t plenty of desserts that taste like a lot of work but don’t require it. These easy cinnamon-sugar doughnuts, for example, require nothing more than a couple basic pantry staples and a couple minutes of your time. Get the 15-Minute Doughnut Holes recipe.