10 Easy Dinner Ideas on a Budget

By: Bambi Turner

Besides being cheap, these recipes are so easy your kid can help you cook! See more easy weeknight meals pictures.
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At the end of a long day of work, school or taking care of your family, the last thing you probably feel like doing is slaving over a hot stove. While you may be tempted to turn to fast food or a local pizza joint to get dinner on the table, ordering out too often can put a major strain on your family's food budget. To keep costs down without sacrificing time, stick to simple recipes and basic ingredients that'll help you make the most of your time in the kitchen. Need some ideas? Try these 10 easy and affordable dinners, all of which are designed to get dinner on the table in a hurry without breaking the bank.

Read the next page to learn how to incorporate leftovers into one of America's (and probably your kids') favorite pasta dishes.

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10: Pasta and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese serves as the perfect comfort food for families on a budget. But you're not stuck with macaroni. Pasta and cheese is just as good as macaroni and cheese, so boil up a pot of farfalle, fusilli or another favorite pasta. As soon as the noodles are done, drain the water and mix in milk and your shredded cheese of choice. Toss in whatever veggies you have on hand, from frozen broccoli to chopped onions or peppers, then add sliced hot dogs or leftover chicken or sausage for extra protein. Place the dish in the oven and allow it to bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Too busy to use the oven? Try a no-bake, slow cooker version of this dish for when you just want to toss something in a pot have have it come out delicious.

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9: Sweet Potato and Pepper Pasta

Make the most of a small food budget by building a meal around nutrient-rich superfoods. Sweet potatoes and bell peppers are not only naturally delicious, they're also packed with vitamins, minerals and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Chop sweet potatoes and peppers into cubes and fry them as you boil your favorite pasta. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and mix in extra veggies if desired. Flavor with hot sauce, salt and pepper or your favorite herbs. Sprinkle the dish with Parmesan cheese to complement the natural flavors of this richly colored dish.

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8: Chili

Chili is easy to make and delicious.
Chili is easy to make and delicious.
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On days when it seems like there's nothing in the house to make for dinner, you can almost always find enough ingredients on hand to prepare a pot of chili. This versatile dish allows you to take advantage of what you have in the pantry and create a meal that's both cheap and filling. Start with a few cans of diced or stewed tomatoes, then mix in several cans of beans. Throw in onions, garlic, peppers or whatever other vegetables you have on hand, and season generously with chili powder. If you prefer a meaty dish, try adding a few servings of braised beef tips, or you can use leftover beef, chicken or sausage. While the chili simmers on the stove, toss a quick salad or slice a loaf of bread to complete the meal.

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7: Pasta Stir Fry

You can put just about anything into a pasta stir fry and it'll taste great!
You can put just about anything into a pasta stir fry and it'll taste great!
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For a meal that's both satisfying and affordable, try a simple pasta stir-fry. Prepare your favorite whole-grain pasta, then season with salt and pepper or herbs. This anything-goes dish serves as the perfect opportunity to use leftovers before they go bad, whether it's a package of snow peas you haven't found a use for yet or the remnants of a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. Mix in chicken or tuna for protein, or add chopped hot dogs to please the kids. Make extra and save the leftovers to freeze or serve for lunch the next day.

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6: Stuffed Potatoes

You can put anything you want into your stuffed potato, from steak to mushrooms and peas!
You can put anything you want into your stuffed potato, from steak to mushrooms and peas!
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Transform a classic side dish into the main attraction with a dinner of stuffed baked potatoes. Despite their low cost, potatoes are surprisingly nutritious and packed with fiber, vitamins and protein. Microwave, bake or boil your spuds until they're soft, then slice them open and stuff the extra ingredients inside. You can even let your family members choose their own additives from whatever you have around the house. Create the classic broccoli and cheese potato using frozen broccoli and shredded cheese, or try variations made with onions, sour cream, salsa or bacon bits. Add canned soup or a salad on the side to complete this filling, low-cost dinner.

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5: No-bake Lasagna

Who has time for the labor-intensive layering required to make and bake a lasagna? Why not just scrap the oven entirely and make an easy, low-cost pasta pie? Start by boiling some lasagna noodles; then toss in fried mushrooms, frozen spinach or whatever veggies you happen to have on hand. Add a can of diced tomatoes, then top with ricotta or Parmesan cheese. If you want to add meat, stir in some leftover sausage, ground beef or turkey to complete this delicious family meal. Of course, if you'd prefer your lasagna a little more baked, try this simple lazy lasagna recipe.

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4: Red Beans and Rice

Red beans and rice is a classic dish that's as delicious as it is easy to prepare.
Red beans and rice is a classic dish that's as delicious as it is easy to prepare.
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Instead of planning meals around expensive meat products, keep costs down with recipes based around ingredients you already have. Mix red beans and rice from the pantry for a filling, fiber-rich meal that's both versatile and flavorful. Use wild or brown rice blends or stick with classic white, then mix in a few cans of beans. Toss in leftover veggies, like tomatoes, onions or peppers; then season with herbs or classic Cajun spices. This dish goes great with sausage, or add some chopped bacon for an different -- but equally delicious -- kind of taste.

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3: DIY Pizza

Don't shell out big bucks at a local pizza restaurant when you're too tired to cook. Instead, enlist the help of the entire family with a meal of mini pizzas. Start with white or whole-wheat English muffins, then top them with pizza sauce and cheese. Have everyone choose their own toppings, from broccoli to mushrooms to leftover chicken. This not only takes the pressure off Mom and Dad but may also help entice picky eaters to eat a full meal. Slide your mini pizzas onto a cookie sheet and bake for a few minutes, or place them in a toaster oven until the bread is toasty and the cheese is melted and ready to eat.

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2: Tuna Casserole

For a low-cost dinner in a hurry, swap traditional meat-based meals for a simple tuna casserole. Tuna is low in calories and fat, packed with satisfying protein, and a single can feeds up to four people. Start with egg noodles, macaroni or virtually any other pasta, then blend in a can or two of tuna. Add a can of creamy soup for flavor, then mix in peas or some of your other favorite veggies to create a balanced meal. Keep your casserole kid-friendly with a crunchy topping made from breadcrumbs, french fried onions, dried noodles or even crushed potato chips. Slide your casserole in the oven until it's hot and bubbling, and serve with a simple side salad.

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1: Breakfast for Dinner

Bacon and eggs isn't just for breakfast -- the pair can be eaten for dinner, too!
Bacon and eggs isn't just for breakfast -- the pair can be eaten for dinner, too!
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Yes, you can have bacon and eggs for dinner. Of course, that old breakfast classic isn't the only typical morning meal that's cheap and easy to make for dinner. Pancakes, French toast and waffles won't challenge your cooking skills or your wallet. If you can't decide between breakfast and a more typical lunch or dinner food, try this frittata recipe.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Nutrition Action Health Letter." Vol. 29, No. 5. June 2002. (Nov. 30, 2011) http://www.cspinet.org/nah/06_02/pizza_051702.pdf
  • Clauson, Annette. "Despite Higher Food Prices, Percent of U.S. Income Spent on Food Remains Constant." Amber Waves. September 2008. (Nov. 30, 2011) http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/September08/Findings/PercentofIncome.htm
  • Colorado State University. "Nutrition Column--What Does Pizza Deliver?" Sept. 27, 2002. (Nov. 20, 2011) http://www.news.colostate.edu/Release/2791
  • Good Housekeeping. "Cheap Dinners: Meal Ideas and Recipes." (Nov. 20, 2011) http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/recipes/everyday-meals/cheap-meal-ideas
  • Holland, Laurence H.M., and Ewalt, David M. "How Americans Make and Spend Their Money." Forbes. July 19, 2006. (Nov. 20, 2011) http://www.forbes.com/2006/07/19/spending-income-level_cx_lh_de_0719spending.html
  • Michigan State University. "Nutritious Fast Food Kids' Meals are Scarce, Researchers Find." Dec. 22, 2008. (Nov. 20, 2011) http://news.msu.edu/story/5775/
  • Pollan, Michael. "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch." The New York Times. July 29, 2009. (Nov. 20, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html?pagewanted=all
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals." May 2000. (Nov. 20, 2011) http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/disaster/documents/FoodPlansRecipeBook.pdf