Scrambling to come up with meal ideas that are both budget-friendly and satisfying for your family can be tiring and overwhelming. That’s why we gathered a list of 50 of our favorite dirt cheap meals that will feed everyone without breaking the bank. With just a few simple ingredients and minimal preparation time, these cheap meal ideas are perfect if you are tight on money but still want to provide nutritious and delicious meals for your family.
- First, set a reasonable grocery budget based on your dietary preferences and financial circumstances.
- We’ll go over 50 dirt cheap meal ideas you can make for your entire family.
Setting a Realistic Grocery Budget
Setting a realistic grocery budget is essential for any household, especially for families on a tight budget. The amount you spend on food can vary greatly depending on your family size, dietary needs, and where you live. To get a better sense of how much to spend, start by using a grocery budget calculator.
However, remember that these calculators are just a guide. You may need to adjust your budget based on your family’s needs. For example, if you have a family member with food allergies or dietary restrictions, you may need to spend more on specialty foods. Similarly, if you live in a high-cost-of-living area, you may need to set more money aside.
Prepping Dirt Cheap Meals
Prepping dirt cheap meals require planning, but you do not have to sacrifice taste or nutrition. Creating a weekly menu and grocery list of affordable and basic foods and ingredients can help you stretch your budget.
One way to save money is to make as many meals as possible with ingredients you already have in your pantry and freezer. Then, when you go grocery shopping, bring your shopping list and stick to it. Resist the temptation to buy items not on your list, particularly when you checkout, as this can quickly add up and cause you to overspend. Additionally, buy generic versions of food whenever possible and check the clearance or markdown sections.
Cheapest Ingredients to Buy
As you plan out what groceries to buy, keep an eye out for high-protein foods and nutritious vegetables. Some of the cheapest ingredients you can find at any grocery store include:
- Frozen produce
- Ground beef
- Peanut butter
- Canned tomatoes
- Inexpensive fruits (i.e. apples, bananas, oranges)
- Long-lasting vegetables (i.e. broccoli, celery, onions, peppers, carrots, spinach)
50 Cheap Meal Ideas For a Family
1. French Toast
For a classic French toast recipe, beat eggs, milk, and cinnamon together in a shallow dish. Dip slices of bread into the egg mixture and cook on a griddle or skillet until golden brown on both sides. Serve with maple syrup or powdered sugar.
For a twist, try making stuffed French toast by spreading cream cheese and jam between two slices of bread before dipping in the egg mixture and cooking. Or, make a savory version by skipping the cinnamon and serving it with bacon and scrambled eggs.
2. Black Bean Burritos
For a quick and no-frills meal, make a black bean burrito with simple ingredients like black beans, tortillas, rice, and toppings like cilantro, sour cream, cheddar cheese, and salsa. Black beans are a great source of protein and fiber and you can turn this vegetarian option vegan by omitting the source cream and cheese.
3. Slow Cooker Chicken & Gravy
All you need for this meal are chicken breasts, a can of soup, sour cream, and a chicken gravy mix. Dump everything into the slow cooker, set it, and forget it. Once it’s ready, serve it over mashed potatoes, rice, or pasta.
Oatmeal is a simple and versatile meal you easily customize with different toppings, such as fruits, nuts, and spices, to add flavor and nutrition. If you want to have a savory meal, you can add toppings like avocado and fried eggs. You can also meal prep with oatmeal by making it in bulk over the weekend and storing it in the fridge for the rest of the week. When you’re ready to eat, simply reheat and add toppings as desired.
5. Teriyaki Chicken
For this meal, you’ll need chicken, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil to create a flavorful sauce. You can throw everything in a slow cooker, let it cook low and slow for a few hours, or marinate the sauce beforehand and sauté the chicken instead. Once the chicken is ready, serve it with rice and steamed broccoli.
6. Rigatoni with Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Rigatoni with roasted sweet potatoes is a quick and easy vegetarian dinner option. Roast some sweet potatoes and onions in the oven until they are golden brown. Then mix them with rigatoni pasta, a creamy butter sauce, and garlic. For extra flavor, add some chopped parsley and Parmesan cheese.
7. Gnocchi Chicken Skillet
To make a gnocchi chicken skillet, sauté chicken and vegetables, add cooked gnocchi, sauce, and cheese, and bake in the oven until everything is hot and bubbly. You can choose your favorite sauces, types of cheese, and seasonings to personalize the meal.
Grits are a beloved staple in southern cuisine and can get served any time of the day. Made from ground corn, they can be sweetened with sugar and topped with fruit for a sweet breakfast or served with savory toppings like cheese, butter, and shrimp for a hearty lunch or dinner.
9. Potato and Egg Salad
While potato and egg salads usually get served as a side dish, there’s no rule that says you can’t eat them as a meal. All you need to do is to boil some potatoes until tender, then mix with hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, and your preferred seasonings for taste. You can add additional ingredients, such as diced celery or onions, for extra crunch and flavor.
10. Eggs and Toast
Eggs and toast are a classic breakfast staple, but you can eat them at any time of the day. To make perfectly cooked eggs, consider using an egg cooker to take the guesswork out of cooking them. Simply toast a slice of bread or two and top it with your cooked eggs for a satisfying meal. You can also add some butter, cheese, veggies, or hot sauce to mix things up and add additional flavor.
11. Lazy Lasagna
To make lazy lasagna, you can use frozen ravioli, which can act as lasagna noodles, so you do not need to boil them beforehand. Layer the pasta sauce, cheese, and additional ingredients on top of the ravioli, and bake the dish in the oven. Customize the recipe by adding ground beef or sausage and your choice of veggies.
12. Sausage and Sweet Potatoes
For a quick and nutritious dinner, make a sausage and sweet potato dish. Start by browning the sausages in a skillet. Then add diced sweet potatoes and any other veggies you like. Let everything cook together until the potatoes are tender and the sausages are thoroughly done.
13. Pancakes or Waffles
Basic pancake and waffle recipes usually only require a few ingredients like flour, eggs, milk, and sugar. You can customize the recipe by adding in extras like blueberries, strawberries, bananas, chocolate chips, or even bacon. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can opt for ingredients like ube or matcha. And do not forget to top them with butter, syrup, whipped cream, or your favorite fruits.
14. Chicken and Cauliflower Rice Bowl
To make this dish, start by cooking the chicken until it’s tender and juicy. Then, cook the cauliflower rice in the same skillet, adding seasonings like garlic powder and onion powder for more flavor. Add a bit of tomato juice to tie everything together and give the dish a hint of sweetness. Serve the chicken and cauliflower rice in bowls, topped with your favorite garnishes like fresh herbs or shredded cheese.
15. Loaded Chicken Baked Potatoes
For this dish, bake some potatoes until they’re tender and fluffy. Then, top them with sautéed chicken, bacon bits, cheese, and any other toppings you like, such as sour cream, chives, or green onions. It’s a great way to use up leftover chicken or veggies and you can make adjustments as needed to suit your preferences.
16. Biscuits and Gravy
Biscuits and gravy are classic comfort food you can make in a variety of ways. You can make biscuits from scratch using basic pantry ingredients like flour, baking powder, salt, butter, and milk. Or, if you’re short on time, you can use a pre-made mix like Bisquick or Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits. The gravy can also be made in various ways, from a jar or a packet to a homemade version using sausage, butter, flour, and milk.
17. Chorizo Burrito Bowls
For a twist to the traditional burrito bowl, make a chorizo bowl. Cook the chicken chorizo in a skillet and combine it with your favorite rice, beans, veggies, and toppings. You can add diced avocado, sour cream, shredded cheese, salsa, or any other toppings you desire to make the meal more hearty.
18. Chicken and Broccoli
Chicken and broccoli is a classic dinner combination. Cook the chicken in a skillet with some oil and seasonings, then add in the broccoli and sauté until tender. You can also switch up the seasonings and sauces to keep things interesting. For example, you could use soy sauce and ginger for an Asian-inspired twist, or lemon and garlic for a Mediterranean flavor profile. Add other veggies to the mix, such as bell peppers, onions, or mushrooms, to make it more colorful and nutritious.
Start by heating a non-stick skillet on medium heat and placing a tortilla in the pan. Add your choice of shredded cheese, cooked meat (chicken, beef, or pork work well), and any additional toppings, such as diced tomatoes, onions, or peppers. Top with a second tortilla and cook until the cheese is melted and the tortilla is crispy. Serve with sour cream, salsa, and guacamole for dipping. You can also experiment with different fillings like spinach and feta, black beans and corn, or even leftover chili.
20. Breakfast Burritos
Scramble some eggs and wrap them up in a warm tortilla with your favorite toppings, such as shredded cheese, sautéed veggies, bacon, sausage, or even leftover cooked rice. You can also add salsa or guacamole for extra flavor. These burritos can be made ahead of time and frozen for a quick grab-and-go breakfast on busy mornings. They are also a great way to use up any leftover ingredients you have lying around.
For this dish, ground beef takes center stage, and the rest of the ingredients can be as simple or complex as you want. To hold the meat together, use breadcrumbs, eggs, and seasonings. Then, add ketchup or BBQ sauce on top for extra flavor. If you have any leftovers, use them for sandwiches or crumbled up for meat sauce over pasta.
22. Grilled Cheese Sandwich
The basic ingredients you will need are bread, butter, and cheese. To make the perfect grilled cheese, use a non-stick pan or griddle and heat it over medium heat. Butter one side of each slice of bread and place one slice, butter side down, onto the pan. Add cheese to the bread and top with the other slice, butter side up. Cook until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted. You can also add extras like ham, tomato, or avocado.
23. Homemade Pizza
Making pizza at home can be an easy and fun way to get creative in the kitchen. You can either make the dough from scratch or purchase it pre-made and add your preferred sauce. Some popular topping options include pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, and cheese. Bake in the oven or on the grill for a delicious meal.
24. Potato Hash
The base of this dish is diced potatoes, which can be seasoned and cooked in a skillet with your choice of oil or butter until golden brown and crispy. You can add other ingredients like diced onions, bell peppers, garlic, and herbs to give the hash more flavor and nutrition. Plus, the versatility of this dish means you can enjoy it as a side dish or add in protein like cooked sausage or bacon to top off the meal.
25. Chicken Pesto Pasta
You can put this dish together fairly quickly using store-bought pesto, chicken breast, and your choice of pasta. Cook the pasta, then sauté the chicken in a pan until fully cooked. Toss the pasta with the chicken and pesto and add some grated Parmesan cheese and sun-dried tomatoes for an extra burst of flavor.
26. Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Using a slow cooker, cook the pork shoulder low and slow until it falls apart with a fork or it’s tender and easy enough to shred. Then, mix the pork with barbecue sauce and serve on a toasted bun with some coleslaw on top.
All you need is a blender, milk or yogurt, and your favorite fruits and veggies. You can add protein powder, nuts, seeds, or even some spinach or kale to sneak in some extra nutrients. I like to add frozen berries, bananas, almond butter, spinach, and Yakult.
27. Chili Cheese Loaded Hot Dogs
To make chili cheese-loaded hot dogs, start by cooking your hot dogs however you prefer (boiled, grilled, etc.). Meanwhile, heat a can of chili on the stovetop or in the microwave. When the hot dogs are done, place them in buns and top them with the hot chili and shredded cheese. If desired, add diced onions, jalapeños, or any other toppings you like.
28. Garlic Lemon Shrimp
You can toss this classic combo of lemon, garlic, and shrimp with any cooked pasta, rice, or couscous you have on hand. Sauté some shrimp in garlic and lemon juice, and serve with pasta or rice. To keep it light, use olive oil instead of butter. You can easily customize this recipe with your favorite herbs and spices, such as parsley or red pepper flakes.
29. Mushroom Soup
Making mushroom soup from scratch is surprisingly easy. Start by sautéing chopped onions and garlic in butter or oil until soft. Then add sliced mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid. Next, stir in flour to create a roux and slowly add chicken or vegetable broth and milk, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Simmer until the soup thickens, then season with salt, pepper, and any additional spices or herbs you like. You can puree the soup for a smoother texture or leave it chunky. Serve with bread or crackers for a satisfying meal.
30. Panini Sandwich
Panini sandwiches are a great way to use up any leftover meats, cheeses, or veggies you have in your fridge. You can use a panini press or grill them on a skillet. Some popular combinations include ham and cheese, turkey and cranberry sauce, or roasted veggies with hummus.
31. Chicken & Zucchini Casserole
Chicken and zucchini casserole is a fantastic low-carb meal. Layer thinly sliced zucchini with cooked chicken, cream of chicken soup, and Stove Top stuffing mix. Bake in the oven until bubbly and golden brown. Add other veggies like bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms to bulk up the dish.
32. Slow Cooker Stew
You can use any type of meat you prefer, such as beef, pork, or even chicken, for a slow cooker stew. Add in your favorite vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, and peas, along with some broth or stock, and let it simmer all day in the slow cooker. The result is a delicious and hearty stew that will warm you up from the inside out. Plus, it’s an easy way to use any leftover vegetables or meat. Serve with some bread or biscuits to soak up all the juices.
33. Macaroni and Cheese
Start by boiling your pasta and prepping the cheese sauce. Melt butter in a saucepan, then whisk it in flour to make a roux. Slowly add milk and continue whisking until the mixture thickens. Stir in your favorite cheeses until they melt and the sauce is smooth. Then season with salt, pepper, and any other desired spices. Drain the cooked pasta and stir it into the cheese sauce until coated. For an extra crunchy topping, sprinkle breadcrumbs and a little extra cheese on top and bake in the oven until it’s ready to serve.
34. Garlic Toast Mini Pizzas
For this recipe, toast some bread with garlic butter, add your favorite pizza sauce, cheese, and toppings, and bake in the oven for a few minutes. The garlic bread adds a delicious depth of flavor to the pizza, while the melted cheese and toppings make for a satisfying meal. These mini pizzas are perfect for a quick weeknight dinner or a fun appetizer for a party. With endless topping options, you can customize them to suit your preferences or use whatever ingredients you have on hand.
35. Black Bean Burgers
Black bean burgers are a great meatless option packed with protein and fiber. Mash cooked black beans with breadcrumbs, chopped onions, garlic, and spices, form into patties, and fry them in a skillet or bake them in the oven. Serve on a bun with toppings like avocado, salsa, lettuce, and seasonings.
36. Crispy Chicken Ranch Wraps
Heat some frozen chicken strips and assemble your wraps with your favorite ingredients. The combination of crispy chicken, cool ranch dressing, fresh veggies, and creamy cheese is sure to be a hit with the whole family. Make your meal healthier by swapping in grilled chicken or using whole wheat tortillas.
36. Sloppy Joes
Sloppy joes can be easily made at home using ground beef, onions, and a tangy sauce. To switch things up, use ground turkey or chicken instead of beef. Add some diced bell peppers and jalapeños for a spicy kick. Serve on toasted buns with a side of potato chips or sweet potato fries.
37. Creole Shrimp and Sausage
Add some Southern flavor to your meal plan with creole shrimp and sausage. With just a few simple ingredients like shrimp, smoked sausage, onion, bell pepper, and creole seasoning, you can create a tasty meal. If you don’t have access to fresh shrimp, frozen shrimp works just as well. Serve this dish over rice or with a side of bread.
38. Cheesy Tortellini Casserole
To make a cheesy tortellini casserole, start by making the meat sauce with ground beef, tomato sauce, and Italian seasoning. Then, layer with cooked tortellini and cream cheese. Top the casserole with a generous amount of shredded mozzarella cheese and bake until golden brown. You can also sneak some vegetables into your meal by adding chopped spinach or zucchini to the meat sauce.
39. Chicken Fajitas
Chicken fajitas are a classic Tex-Mex dish you can enjoy any time of year. Cook marinated chicken strips with bell peppers and onions. You can use a pre-made fajita seasoning mix or make your own using a blend of spices like chili powder, cumin, and paprika. Serve the fajitas with warm tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa.
Spaghetti is easy to make and can get customized with different sauces and toppings. You can make a simple tomato sauce with canned tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. Add vegetables like zucchini, mushrooms, or bell peppers to make them more filling and nutritious. Then, top it off with grated Parmesan cheese.
41. Pot Roast
To make pot roast, start by searing the meat in a hot pan to give it a nice crust, then transfer it to a slow cooker or Dutch oven along with some vegetables and beef broth. Let it simmer for several hours until the meat is fall-apart tender and the vegetables are soft and flavorful.
Jambalaya is a classic Louisiana dish full of bold and spicy flavors. While some recipes can be complex and require tons of ingredients, there are simpler options you can try out. Using a box mix like Zatarain’s can be a quick and affordable way to enjoy this dish without the hassle. All you need is some kielbasa and water, and you can have a flavorful and satisfying meal in no time. If you want to add extra veggies or protein, you can always throw in some diced onions, bell peppers, or shrimp.
43. Cheesy Meatball Sandwiches
You can use frozen meatballs and store-bought marinara sauce for easy prep. After baking the meatballs, add them to hoagie rolls with melted cheese for a filling sandwich. As with the other recipes, you can add veggies for more flavor and nutrition.
An American classic, cheeseburgers are fairly simple and easy to make. Start with ground beef and add some butter for extra flavor and moisture. I like Costco’s Kirkland Signature organic ground beef, which comes in a pack of 3. Cook the burgers to your desired level of doneness and top them with the cheese of your choice. Serve with toasted buns, toppings such as lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and condiments like ketchup, relish, and mustard.
45. Caesar Salad
You can start by washing and tearing up some romaine lettuce and adding croutons and shaved Parmesan cheese. Then, mix a dressing made of garlic, anchovy paste, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and olive oil. Toss the dressing with the lettuce, croutons, and cheese, and serve. For a protein boost, add grilled chicken, shrimp, or tofu.
46. Cheesy Salsa Baked Chicken Tacos
These cheesy salsa-baked chicken tacos are a delicious twist on traditional tacos. Start by seasoning your chicken with taco seasoning, and then bake in the oven with salsa and shredded cheese until bubbly and golden brown. Once done, load up your tortillas with the chicken mixture and toppings like guacamole, sour cream, and grilled onions.
47. Beef Skillet
Start with ground beef and add in any vegetables you have on hand, such as onions, peppers, or mushrooms. Serve with a side of rice or noodles for a complete meal. To give the dish a rich and savory taste, try using beef broth instead of water to cook the rice or noodles.
48. Open-Faced Sandwiches
There are so many options for open-faced sandwiches, which makes them a perfect choice for a cheap and easy meal. You can use leftovers like roasted chicken, ham, or even beef and top with whatever you have available. My personal favorite is smoked salmon, cream cheese, and garnish.
49. Grilled Chicken and Tomatoes
To make this recipe, start by making the balsamic and tomato marinade. In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cut fresh tomatoes into wedges and toss them in the marinade. Marinate for about an hour.
While the tomatoes are marinating, grill chicken breasts until cooked. Then, slice the chicken into thin strips. To serve, place the grilled chicken and marinated tomatoes on a platter and drizzle with the reserved marinade. This dish pairs well with a side of grilled vegetables or a simple green salad.
50. Pork Chops
For a simple and flavorful pork chop dinner, season the chops with salt, pepper, and any other preferred spices. Brown them in a skillet with a bit of oil or butter, then transfer them to the oven to finish cooking through. Serve with a side of roasted or steamed vegetables. If desired, add a quick pan sauce by deglazing the skillet with a bit of white wine or chicken broth and whisking in some butter or cream.
The Bottom Line
We’ve put together a list of quick and easy meal ideas that are affordable and delicious. Each dish includes a brief description of the recipe and suggests ways to make it cost-effective without compromising taste. These ideas are great for those who want to save money, time, and effort but still enjoy tasty meals.