Cheap Eats: Stretch Your Budget with Thrifty $1 Meals

(Psst: The FTC wants me to remind you that this website contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you’ll pay for that item nor does it decrease the awesomeness of the item. ~ Daisy)

One of the best ways I’ve found to stretch the grocery budget is by adding in “Cheap Eats.”  We had a whole roster of such meals when my daughters were younger. The criteria for “Cheap Eats” was that it had to be reasonably filling, quick to make, (cooking utilities add up too), and less than a dollar a serving.

Let me preface this with the fact that Cheap Eats aren’t necessarily the healthiest of meals, but when your budget is tightened to this level, you can’t afford fancy organic crackers made from gluten-free grains ground with volcanic stones under the full moon. So, while you want to be as balanced as you can in order to stay healthy, your healthy diet is likely to suffer when times are tough.

My usual Cheap Eats strategy is to have a thrifty breakfast and lunch, and then a nicer meal at supper time. But if times are really bad, you could be looking at Cheap Eats three meals a day for a little while.

25 Cheap Eats

I consider breakfast to be interchangeable with other meals, so I’ve compiled a single list of our family’s Cheap Eats.

  1. Peanut butter and saltines
  2. Oatmeal
  3. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  4. Bean burrito
  5. Macaroni and cheese (from a box – here are some tasty ways to improve that meal)
  6. Pasta and canned marinara
  7. Canned soup and toast or crackers
  8. Canned pasta (Only if found on sale)
  9. Egg-fried rice
  10. Noodle bowls (ramen, etc.)
  11. Apple with peanut butter
  12. Eggs and toast
  13. Tuna sandwich
  14. Baked potato with butter
  15. Potato soup
  16. Rice, frozen veggies, soy sauce
  17. Beans and rice (made with canned beans)
  18. Split pea soup
  19. Tortilla crust pizzas
  20. Pancakes
  21. Pasta salad with tuna and mayo
  22. Baked beans and weenies
  23. Chicken and dumplings
  24. Biscuits and gravy
  25. Breakfast burritos with eggs and whatever you have on hand

How to get your family on board with Cheap Eats

When you change your eating style dramatically, you generally need to have a conversation with your family members. I find you get fewer complaints when you discuss things as opposed to laying down the law. Here are some tips for talking to your kids about the family’s financial problems.

If you have picky eaters in the house this will be a bit more difficult. Try to find at least a handful of things your picky person will eat without complaint that fit into the Cheap Eats category. Here are some more tips on dealing with picky eaters.

Cheap Eats can be a real budget saver when it comes to food or when you’re trying to get through a tight spot. What are your favorite meals that cost less than a dollar a serving?

Cheap Eats: Stretch Your Budget with Thrifty $1 Meals
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is an author and blogger. She's the single mom of two daughters and credits extreme frugality and a good sense of humor for her debt-free lifestyle. She is the author of numerous books, the editor of, and is the founder of a small digital publishing company in the emergency preparedness niche.

43 thoughts on “Cheap Eats: Stretch Your Budget with Thrifty $1 Meals”

  1. Wow Daisy, between all these articles I feel like we are soulmates. Lots of our regular family meals are also “cheap eats”. that we dress up with leftover spices (cinnamon, molasses, fruit that is about to turn, drying out cheese, general dinner leftovers). Nothing goes to waste in our house. NOTHING! Brava to you! And thank you for your articles as it’s nice to know others who think like I do, plus I learn things!

  2. I just thought of something to contribute. How about “kitchen sink” soup. This is how to make it and you will get anywhere from 15 to 20 servings out of this soup: 1. beef bone (real cheap), boullion cube (6 of them, or salt, and some dried onion or garlic, a few teaspoons); 6-7 quarts of water and a crock pot. Set that to cook overnight on low. In the morning, turn that off, when cool enough remove the bone and scrape out the marrow, mash and add back into the stock. Now, raid your fridge. Make a pile of all the vegetables and other leftovers that are about to “go.” Organize them by whatever flavor theme works best, which might just be vegetable stew, or chicken stew or whatever. They have to remotely work together. Chop it all up and saute in half an onion and a clove of garlic and chopped up leftover meat if you have it. Add it to the crock pot with a cup or two of some kind of bean We are lentils fans, and they cook quickly. Put that all back into the pot and put it up on high. The stock has to boil at least 45 min. to cook the lentils. Season with whatever you’ve got that tastes interesting. From this one stew we get 10-20 servings, we eat it all week with leftover bread (toast) or bagels, a salad, whatever we have. It’s hot and cheery and smells great, chocked with nutrients. I make this every week. Hope this helps.

  3. tuna in white sauce on noodles or baked potato or toast or rice. baked potato with chili. chili over noodles. beaten egg with chopped,cooked veg (whatever you’ve got) and milk mixed with stale bread cubes and stir fried.

  4. A staple when my kids were little: fried potatoes and hot dogs. Cutting the hot dogs up made them go further. I still make this today, it’s a comfort food for me!

  5. I like black beans or chickpeas, romaine lettuce, brown rice, and tomato sauce. Obviously beans and tomato sauce would typically come canned (although you can cook your own from dried beans), the lettuce would be a full head, and rice is typically made in 1 cup (dry) batches, the combined amount of food would feed multiple people or one person for several meals! You could even buy organic (ideal) and still make the meal for under one dollar! Adding garlic and a raw or sautéed onion into the mix would boost the nutrient value.

  6. We make a homemade chicken pot pie made with two pie crusts, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of chicken chunks, and a can of veg-all. It will feed three people for two meals. Very fast to make too.

      1. I do this, too, and bake at 350 for about 45 mins. Everything but the crust is already cooked, so I’d just cook it for however long the crust is supposed to bake, then a few minutes more to make sure it’s warmed throughout and browned on top.

  7. Just finished reading The Flat Broke Cookbook. For a vintage view of flat broke cooking, find a copy of the 1949 printing of the Lily Wallace New American Cookbook and check the menu sections on minimum-cost adequate diet and ” a plan for a restricted diet for Emergency use. Not much has changed in almost 70 years.. I will be reading the ultimate guide to frugal living during the holidays. Thank you for the daily emails, Daisy. Stay safe and stay warm

  8. Tuna macaroni salad, that has tomatoes, onion , peppers, mayo big bowl feed whole family (6 ) 3 days. Egg salad, boiled eggs, Never take kids to a restaurant and buy expensive food ,it gets wasted. Since this is a treat day buy them pancakes and or French toast, they will eat it all! NO WASTE. Two smaller kids will be filled on one ordered dinner!

  9. Using bulk dried beans makes for cheaper meals. It takes more planning but doing them in the crockpot is easy enough. We buy potatoes in the fall in bulk from local growers for $20 for 50lbs. Growing a garden saves lots of money as well and canning the harvest preserves it through winter.

    1. We only eat 2 meals day, which is possible because early lunch time.
      We just had whole grain spaghetti ($1/box)with meat($2.50) sauce ($1 jar) with garlic & garlic bread ($2) for dinner & leftovers tomorrow for 2 lunches. $5.50 for 5 meals. That’s a regular meal in the rotation for the month. Usually have leftover sauce & freeze in jar for later, but extra hungry tonight.
      Breakfast bowl (eggs($1), hashbrowns($1), ham pieces($1) topped with cheese($0.50)for dinner last night. And leftovers for lunch today.
      Love that I’m not only person who feels need to keep food costs as low as can but still try to eat healthy. Enjoy reading everyone ideas. Gives new twists to some current possibilities.

  10. Cook spaghetti, drain then pour in a blend of milk and egg and cook (stir!) til egg is done. A sprinkle of dried parsley, or Italian blend herbs, some black pepper, goes well. When I was little, my Mom would do this a couple times a month.

  11. SLUMGULLION stew! You can find recipes on the internet, but it’s basically some meat, (hamburger, left over roast, or what ever) can of tomatoes or sauce, onions, potatoes and/or macaroni. Can of corn, peas, green beans, beans, carrots or mixed vegetables, little garlic. Clean out the refrigerator of left overs; everything in the big stock pot. Make some cheap biscuits or crackers, what have you. Salt and pepper to taste, ENJOY. We have this every little bit and it lasts about 4-5 days, for lunch and supper. I added up all the stuff we bought and divided it up by the bowls full; about 26 cents per serving. The dictionary says, “slumgullion” is a watery, meaty stew.

  12. I always bake extra potatoes to use as twice baked or the best darned hash browns- brown in butter or bacon grease with onion, maybe an extra piece of bacon crumbled in. They also make delicious creamed potatoes rewarmed in a bit of butter and ½&½ or heavy cream until cream absorbs and thickens (season to taste)

    I usually also mash some extra potatoes to use in potato pancakes or a leftover cheesy potato soup.. sautee some onion, add some broth or bouillion, cream or ½&½, a handful or more of shredded cheddar or choice -or even broccoli (season to taste)

    A slice or 2 of left over pork makes a great pork and white bean soup with a cup or 2 of stock/bouillion, a can of diced tomatoes, sauteed onion and garlic, some chopped spinach or other greens and a can or 2c of cooked white beans. Add leftover ham pieces diced into a boxed scalloped potatoes (broccoli stirred in makes it a meal in one dish) or can of pea soup.

    Its rare that I don’t get 2 or often 3 meals from cooking a main ingredient once. Omelets, fritattas, fajitas or burritos (and Bisquik impossible pies) are a great way to use up or extend tidbits into something more substantial and planning ahead ensures that there can be another meal with a quick prep time and not “leftovers night” for those who dread them.

  13. I always look for things to add to my Ramen noodles but all three of my kids loved eating the noodles straight out of the package. Hard to beat zero prep time.

    1. Mine love it like that too! They crush up the noodles, then sprinkle in the flavor packet and shake it up. I do try to go with healthier food, but once in a while won’t kill ’em.

      1. Rhonda Watts-Hettinger

        Chop up some onion, carrot, and celery (leeks also work, and are easy to raise, so I often substitute for onion). Put those in the water for your ramen noodles, and just let the water simmer a little longer. Then add the noodles and proceed as usual. Almost instant vegetable soup! (And if you raise the veggies, very little added expense… I also keep all those veggies already chopped, ready to use, in the freezer–so the only added time is simmering the veggies.)

      2. Great ideas – I always keep jars of salsa on hand – that may sound kind of odd, but Walmart has huge jars for not much more than a dollar and whether you are trying to throw a very cheap pasta or rice dish together or making any kind of quesadilla or breakfast burrito, it is a really great way to get multiple flavors in one low purchase – tomato, onion, garlic and pepper – just avoid ones that are too limey or cilantro heavy. The Walmart and Target ones are both very cheap and flavorful.

      3. You can find cheap Udon noodles. Makes a very filling stirfry or as a soup noodle. Hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Stay well everyone!!

    2. Try a stir fry with a homemade sauce over the cooked/drained ramen instead of rice for a change of pace. Pitch the flavor packets. (Or use for something else.)
      One sauce you can use: 2 T soy sauce, 2 T brown sugar, 1T vinegar, 3/4 T flour, 1 1/2 teas oil, 1/8 teas ginger. Whisk together and add to your cooked stir fry. Pinterest probably has a ton more.

  14. Onions and cabbage (picky eaters permitting) will be your best friends! You can usually grab a big cabbage for about a dollar. Red cabbage if you can. It’s great for adding to salads or stir fries, or slicing thinly and putting into instant ramen.

    Regarding talking to kids/family members, letting them know the situation and asking for their help in brainstorming meal ideas may create surprising results. If they are part of the decision making process they may not only generate unexpectedly good ideas, but they may be more willing to abide by what is decided.

    Finally, and this is an issue I haven’t seen talked about all that often, a great way to prep before hard times hit is to start paying attention to portion size if you don’t already.

    I’ve been losing weight for the past year and one of the things I did was actually start eating the proper recommended portions on boxes and packages. It turns out I was eating two or three times what I needed! No wonder I’d grown. Not only has it helped me lose eighty pounds (along with a lot of other strategies) but if I had a sudden financial shortfall I’d be a lot more prepared to stretch my food dollars. A box of rotini lasts me four to six meals instead of two. Even a package of ramen is two meals, not one. A pound of peas and a turkey kielbasa with chopped onion are six to eight meals, not four. A cup of rice is a serving, not two or three cups.

    However, a budget crisis is not really the ideal time to start learning portion control if that’s something you need to work on – you’ll already be feeling the pinch. So it’s another free prep to start ahead of time.

  15. This isn’t quite the same thing because these recipes take more time than a minute, but there is a “cookbook” available (both on Amazon and via a free download at that is titled “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4.00 a Day.” This came from a college project by Leanne Brown who wanted to create a cookbook for people who were living on food stamps (generally they get about $4.00 a day–or at least that was the amount at the time the book was written.) The cookbook tries to create some meals that use a lot of vegetables (in season) and not as much meat. And it is meant to be a “strategy guide” as to how you might make cheaper meals that are pretty creative. (See the chapter “Things on Toast which is meant to be a jumping point for food that can go on toast– such as peas and lemon, carmelized onions and and cheddar, and roasted vegetables (all $1.00 serving). There is also a section on how to make flour tortillas (7 cents each), dumplings (12 cents each), and rainbow rice (20 cents a serving). I purchased the book because I liked the pretty pictures of the food, and I need all the inspiration I can get–not being the greatest cook. It’s a free download, so you aren’t out any money.

  16. I love that chicken and dumplings is on the list in the main article. Does anyone have a favoritebrecipe — my granny died before she could teach me and my experiments have been harmless if not very good.

  17. Diana Morrison

    I am 66 years old. I had 5 brothers and sisters. I did not know as a child that my mom did the best she could on a very small food budget. Two dishes that come to mind that I loved as a child was white rice cooked in hot milk (like soup) served with brown sugar and butter…..healthy, NO, delicious, YES. She also made a corn casserole made from spaghetti, chopped bell pepper, creamed style corn and white sauce. I loved it. These were happy memories. I did not know we were struggling.

  18. Another recommended cookbook is “Fannie Farmer’s Boston School Cookbook”. Mine was the 1973 paperback edition but after it fell apart, I got used editions. Also got a reprint of the 1898 ed. which was for wood stoves but recipe cook times can be figured out for modern stoves.

    Another good one is part of a book called “Household Discoveries and Mrs’ Curtis’s Cook Book”. Inside inscription showed Mrs. J. Munyun purchased it in 1914 = there’s all kinds of great recipes and household tips.

  19. Hi, just a note for all you meateaters out there. Even though I am a single, whenever roasts are on sale, I always buy one (or two) and get many meals out of the leftovers. For example:
    BEEF: beef dip, stew, beef barley soup, curried beef, hot beef sandwich, pot pie.
    PORK: stew (with sweet potato), stir fry or fried rice, curry, soup, hash.
    LAMB: Irish stew, scotch broth, curry (with lots of veg), hot pot, shepherd’s pie.
    WHOLE TURKEY: From a 10 pound turkey, if not used for company, I can get about a dozen meals (turkey tetrazzini, soup, pot pie, stew, hot turkey sandwich, hash, turkey salad) plus a large pot of turkey broth for all kinds of uses!
    Just slice or chunk leftovers and freeze in individual or recipe-size portions.

  20. Just remembered, there was no such thing as pasta when I was growing up. I didn’t see it until, when as a teen, I went to the city to work and then, it was only in an Italian cafe.
    What my family did have, was macaroni. It could be savoury or sweet.
    A fav rice dish was baked rice. Cheap and yum.
    My grandfather used to have ‘bread and milk’ for breakfast.
    White bread, (crusts cut off I think) cut into small cubes with boiled milk pouted over it.
    He used to drink black tea poured onto and drank out of his saucer.
    BTW Honey is an egg substitute.

  21. One of my favorite cheap meals is stir fried vegetables rolled in a tortilla. I fix enough vegetables for three or four meals at a time. If I’m feeling less thrifty I spread a little hummus on the tortilla before adding the vegetables and rolling it up. Super extravagant— both the hummus and a tiny bit of grated cheese. I also cook lentils with onions, carrots, and celery to make a thick soup. The lentil soup makes meals for several days since I usually freeze it in a container for either one or two meals after the initial meal.

    1. Sauteed zucchini and yellow squash are excellent meal stretchers. They make excellent taco “fixings” and go well in any red sauce and pasta.
      Baked potatoes are super versatile – small dribs and drabs of veggies (including aforementioned zuke/squash) and/or meat (taco meat, roast – haven’t tried poultry) – and/or cheese, and/or chili with or without lettuce and the what is left of corn tortillas/chips, and/or salsa (with or with out that bit of left over sour cream). A baked potato bar/taco bar could even be Xmas dinner IMHO.
      And we cannot forget chipped beef and gravy over toast.
      Eating inexpensively requires a bit of thought/imagination that is outside the box.

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