Weeknight Cooking

How to Make a Meal on Five Dollars

April 15, 2015

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: How to make a filling, dare we say exciting meal that will only put you back five dollars.

Pasta e Ceci

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Five dollars: the amount of money you impulse-spent on an underwhelming lavender latté; the amount of money you probably paid in shipping and handling for your last online shopping endeavor; the amount of money you spent on two subway rides or parking downtown.

And also, the amount of money that, when paired with a little strategy and some discerning recipe selection, is all you need to cook a wholesome, guest-worthy meal.

Today, let's tighten the purse strings and explore meals that, if you don't already have all of the ingredients already, will cost you five bucks and the gas to the grocery store.

A few tips for sticking to your purchasing limit:

  • Make the most of pantry staples, especially canned ones. When you're in need of cheap protein, canned beans and fish are waiting in the wings to do some heavy lifting.
  • Carbs are a budget chef's friend. This is not the time to shy away from rice and noodles. You might not want to throw a tablespoon of butter on spaghetti and call it a night, but remember that carbohydrates are cheap and versatile building blocks for your weeknight meals. Let's embrace them together.
  • Turn to un-trendy vegetables that stretch well—no microgreens or leeks, which, while wonderful, will eat up your budget before you can say "locally grown." Stick with brawny, humble vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, and sweet potatoes. When in doubt, go for the brassicas.
  • Avoid expensive meat, nuts, and cheese. You can even call it a vegan night and leave it at that.
  • But if you're not going vegan, choose eggs for victory. Every time.

Moroccan Beet Green with Fried Eggs

If you need a jumping-off point, here are a few tried and true recipes for any occasion:

For a casual date night in (you might want to spend the extra change on napkins): James Beard's Braised Onion Pasta

James Beard's Braised Onion Pasta


When you're cleaning out your pantry and you start to get hungry: Smoky Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

Smoky Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili


For when you want something a little more elegant than scrambled eggs for dinner: Andrew Feinberg's Slow-Baked Broccoli Frittata (feel free to omit the Parmesan)

Andrew Feinberg's Slow Baked Broccoli Frittata


For when you're ready to let tofu save your dinner (what took you so long?): Weeknight Soy Sauce-y, Peanut-y Tofu (feel free to omit the peanuts)

Weeknight Soy-Saucey, Peanut-y Tofu


For when you actually plan ahead for tonight's dinner (any beans will do): Stewed Cranberry Beans with Kale 

Stewed Cranberry Beans with Kale


For when you only have a head of cabbage and cannot stomach the thought of a salad: Marcella Hazan's Smothered Cabbage

Marcella Hazan's Braised Cabbage

More: This umami-rich pasta dish is a good option, too. 


For when you want takeout but your budget will not abide: Fan Qie Chao Dan (Tomato and Eggs Over Rice)

Tomato and Eggs Over Rice


For the quickest, easiest dessert that's still cheaper than a bar of chocolate: The Kitchn's One-Ingredient Ice Cream

The Kitchn's One Ingredient Ice Cream 

You think making a meal out of five dollars is tough? Try spending only $1.50 a day—visit Live Below the Line to learn more about their campaign to end world poverty.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mike Vella
    Mike Vella
  • wenderzz
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Mike V. April 22, 2015
Eggs for victory, indeed.
I made a fritatta last night that was awesome.
We had some leftover "royal potato" salad - from that Ottolenghi book.
I took the halves and pan fried them cut side down in olive oil. Then flipped them, put some of the peas in, and then added some chopped spinach.
After that started to wilt, I added the eggs, topped with feta (I use that on everything) and cooked till the sides were set. It was finished under the broiler.
I'll take my Nobel now. :)
wenderzz April 17, 2015
FYI, that umami-pasta link instead goes to the braised cabbage recipe.