Weeknight Cooking

$10 Meals That Keep Me—and My Wallet—Full

January 31, 2018

I live in New York, one of the more expensive cities in the country, if not the world, where a roll of single-ply toilet paper at my corner store edges in around two dollars. Sometimes it feels like there are holes in my pockets, a tear in my wallet, where does all the money go? Keeping my spending at a reasonable place is a constant challenge and requires an astute eye and a tight fist. I’m definitely not the hawkish budget conscious type—sorry, mom—but I do what I can to keep my spending down.

I’ve found that the kitchen is the easiest place to start. Cooking at home, in big quantities, is my go-to technique. Don’t get me wrong, eating out is great—required, even, when you live in as culinary-minded a city as New York—but I try to keep my meals at restaurants to a minimum. Also, I'm a writer on the internet, so don't expect me to be gulping back oysters on the half shell on my Wednesday evenings. Instead, I’m often making food a day or two in advance—I like to plan my weeks around the meals I'm going to eat and spend a lot of my free time in the kitchen. Not only does it help me save money, but it's my favorite place to unwind. And because I work at Food52 (have you heard?), I'm often giving the recipes from our site a try. They're reliable and I like getting to know the content that I spend most of my days fiddling around with.

Since starting here a few months ago, I’ve cooked my way through a bunch of our archives. I’ve tried a tart rosemary cake with prime winter oranges; a braised short rib recipe that’s become my dinner party go-to; I even attempted, and succeeded, at making my own yogurt. These recipes are all great, but they skew intense, whether in time needed or money spent. So, yes, devote a Saturday or Sunday to their pursuit, but don’t expect to fold them into a weekday routine.

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Easy combinations of good flavors often yield the boldest, most comforting results—and many for less than $10. I’ve gathered my favorite recipes that don’t break the bank; simple cooking that doesn’t have to taste simple. Your wallet can thank me later.


Slow and Steady

Stewy one-pot recipes are the way to go. They don’t require much effort—or spending—as it's all about letting ingredients cook in the flavors of one another. Sarah Jampel recently uploaded a recipe for stewy white beans with escarole and sizzled rosemary. She had me at white beans. All of the ingredients here are instantly accessible and hover at prices that you can count on one hand. To dress the meal down, forego the rosemary. It adds a welcome floral fragrance, but if you’re feeling thrifty, it’s not necessary. The beauty of this dish is it that it only gets better with time; the lemony oil strengthens in flavor after a day or two in the fridge. With a chunk of bread for dipping, let this one carry you through the week.

Purée All Day

Soups, too, are the stuff of budget-friendly dreams. They take little effort (throw it all in there) and, cooked in bigger batches, can last a while. My personal favorite is this roasted butternut squash situation. It’s spicy and complex with a welcome creamy note from some coconut milk. It has a lot going on, but it all comes together and I bring it to work in a jar the next day. If it’s something simpler you seek, then look no further than a celeriac puree. This recipe really lets the main ingredient sing and with the help of pantry staples like rice, milk, and salt, only requires two items from the grocery store. To take something like this recipe to the next level, splurge on nuts or buckwheat, throw them in the oven for a light browning and sprinkle them over the top. I dressed up my butternut squash soup with some unsweetened cashew cream.

Cheese, Please

This classic grilled cheese is the rent week hero. Often, it’s something's simplicity that makes it so, so good. For this grilled cheese recipe, that is the case. Reichl recommends smearing each piece of bread with mayo before placing it face down on your hot griddle. It’s a move that guarantees a crunchy outer crust that holds in all your puddley cheese. We didn’t call this recipe genius for nothing.

Ragu Will Do

Staying away from meat is another way I like to keep costs down, but sometimes a little splurge is in order. I'll be honest: This recipe for ragu does go above the $10 mark but it tastes so luscious, I can't resist. But don't fret, there's still a way to keep costs down. For an affordable alternative, look into different cuts of meat. Talk to your butcher about cheaper options, maybe try making the ragu with beef instead. I once made mine with chunks of stew beef that I cut into even smaller bits. Or, scale down the proportion in the recipe and use less meat. Two pounds of pork shoulder, after all, is a lot. The best part about ragu is how well it freezes. I’ll take about half of what I made and store it in the freezer for later.

I thought I'd give you all five of my go-to, budget-conscious recipes. Consider it a blessing, or something like that. Try them! Or don't! Or find your own $10 dollar meals (but tell me if you find a good one, please!). There are a few things I try to keep in mind when I'm cooking, or planning that night's dinner: I usually look for recipes that go light on the meat, are made in big batches, and can keep me fed throughout the week. Bonus points if they can be repurposed or if they rely on pantry staples that I usually have on hand (for me, those include garlic, olive oil, cumin, and ginger). Cooking shouldn't break the bank; in fact, let it help you out.

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Top Comment:
“I find stir fry to be one of the best ways to provide an expensive, yet healthy meal. My go-to is Mongolian Fried Tofu ... I know, I know. Tofu, ick. However, if you are going for cheap, nutritious and tummy filling it works, but you have to use firm, spouted tofu. Sprouted because you know it's organic, and firm because it holds its shape. Trader Joe's brand is always reliable. I've basically adapted a Mongolian Beef recipe and make my own sauce. In addition to the traditional scallions I throw in sliced brown onions, chunks of bell pepper, snow peas, mushrooms or any bits of raw vegetables. Of course, first I cut the tofu into bite-sized squares and press between two paper towels to remove excess liquid, then I fry the cubes in peanut oil until golden and crispy. Remove from wok and drain before starting to add the veggies. Mushrooms always go in first for several minutes before other vegetables, then the tofu goes back in and the sauce. Lastly, I add the scallions and if I'm using snow peas, they go in with the scallions. Serve over rice. I've taken to using Gaba rice, not only for flavor, but nutrition, as well.”
— Marilee R.
Comment

How do you budget your weekday diet? Let us know your tips in the comments.

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19 Comments

Nikkitodd16 February 17, 2018
Great tips! My go to for inexpensive meals is to buy a Chuck roast and stretch it into at least 3 meals. I start with pot roast and then I make veggie beef soup with half my leftovers. I use V8 as the liquid. The rest I shred and make barbeque.
 
leonie S. February 5, 2018
I have a couple of favourites, one found on this site tho I think it originated with Heidi Swanson - potatoes, white beans and cabbage. Another is lentils de puy, or any other small lentil, cooked with onions, tomatoes, eggplant and capsicum and layered with sliced haloumi, topped with finely sliced potato, although I usually leave that off as I am in too much of a hurry. And during a heatwave? Slices of silken tofu, topped with shaved bonito and spring onions (scallion) and dressed with soy sauce.
 
kduffy102 February 4, 2018
One of my favorites is Kathy Brennan & Caroline Campion's Skillet Lasagna recipe on this site, yummy and easy, served with a green veggie
 
Ellen February 4, 2018
Canned pink salmon, and mac n cheese, or long grain and wild rice with dried fruit and nuts are really good and healthy.
 
Ellen February 4, 2018
Cabbage, Spam, and Potatoes are a cheap meal.
 
Celia A. February 4, 2018
Grilled cheese on the $10 list? Cheese is too dear in this part of the country. Pasta and beans are on my list. A sauce made with peanut butter, garlic, and soy sauce and pasta is good and has some protein.
 
Rich February 4, 2018
What part, of what country are you that cheese is to precious to melt into a luxurious sandwich?
 
Marilee R. February 4, 2018
I find stir fry to be one of the best ways to provide an expensive, yet healthy meal. My go-to is Mongolian Fried Tofu ... I know, I know. Tofu, ick. However, if you are going for cheap, nutritious and tummy filling it works, but you have to use firm, spouted tofu. Sprouted because you know it's organic, and firm because it holds its shape. Trader Joe's brand is always reliable. I've basically adapted a Mongolian Beef recipe and make my own sauce. In addition to the traditional scallions I throw in sliced brown onions, chunks of bell pepper, snow peas, mushrooms or any bits of raw vegetables. Of course, first I cut the tofu into bite-sized squares and press between two paper towels to remove excess liquid, then I fry the cubes in peanut oil until golden and crispy. Remove from wok and drain before starting to add the veggies. Mushrooms always go in first for several minutes before other vegetables, then the tofu goes back in and the sauce. Lastly, I add the scallions and if I'm using snow peas, they go in with the scallions. Serve over rice. I've taken to using Gaba rice, not only for flavor, but nutrition, as well.
 
Kim H. February 4, 2018
This sounds delicious. Do you have a link for your go-to Mongolian Beef sauce? Thinking I should try this one this week ;)
 
Marilee R. February 4, 2018
No link, but here's my recipe. <br />Mongolian Beef Sauce: 1 T veg oil (I generally use peanut oil)<br />2 T minced fresh ginger<br />1 T minced fresh garlic (or more)<br />1/2 C Tamari (low sodium soy sauce)<br />1/2 C water<br />1/3 C dark brown sugar<br />pinch of red pepper flakes<br />corn starch for thickening to your likeness<br />Saute ginger and garlic in oil for about 30 seconds, add water, soy sauce, sugar and pepper flakes, Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer until sugar is melted. Mix a tablespoon of corn starch with 2 T water to dissolve it and add about a tablespoon of the mixture to thicken. If you want it thicker add a bit more at a time until you reach your desired consistency. I like it to be like a heavy cream. <br />The original recipe called for the 1/3 C brown sugar. I don't use the full measure as it was sweeter than we like but that's just us.<br />Enjoy. It's a simple meal but tasty. I used to only use beef or chicken, but now all we use is the tofu.
 
Kim H. March 26, 2018
Thank you Marilee! :)
 
Eileen F. February 4, 2018
One of my favorites is Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk. I do like the mixture of both green and red lentils. I made it once with just red, and it is so much better with both. https://food52.com/recipes/63393-curried-lentils-with-coconut-milk. I love almost anything with chickpeas, too. So many recipes on this site to try!
 
Alyssa February 4, 2018
I eat a lot of lentils dressed up with different spices and veggies, and then eat off of that for several meals. Currently in my fridge: French lentils with Vindaloo seasoning, carrots, sweet potatoes, and thin-sliced onions. I also make my own sourdough and sauerkraut/fermented veggies--I'm a sucker for fermented flavors, but can't always afford a $10 jar of shredded cabbage. ;)
 
Ann February 4, 2018
Every Monday I buy a rotisserie chicken and whatever veggie is on sale. My 13 year old and I eat it with whatever starch we have in the pantry. I make an overnight stock with the bones that night and we have tortellini soup for dinner the next night. The leftover chicken goes into enchiladas or chicken salad. That’s three dinners for $10 or less. And my daughter and I have enough soup for several lunches.
 
sue February 4, 2018
When I was teaching my kids, not grandkids, to cook, a roast chicken is always one of the first things they learned to cook. I tell them, if you can roast a chicken, you can eat for week. :-)
 
Brenda S. February 4, 2018
Totally agree! Not sure how it came to be that a cut up chicken is cheaper per pound than the whole bird - if I have time I bake it myself. There'smore meat than on a rotisserie chix and it cooks in less than an hour. A favorite and superfast planover is salsa chicken - heat a jar of salsa and stir in the shredded meat - great over rice with a little cheese or stuffed in corn tortillas.
 
cookinalong February 4, 2018
Yes, when my kids were little and I was working, that was one of my cost cutter strategies. We were lucky to live near a deli that marked the rotisserie chickens every few hours to make way for more chickens, so it was a real cost saving, as well as a time saver. But when I became a SAHM, it made more sense to roast a chicken myself.
 
cookinalong February 4, 2018
meant to say "marked the rotisserie chickens down"...
 
Sophie February 4, 2018
Is there any healthier option available?