The average family in the United States today spends 9.4 percent of its disposable income on food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But when you consider that the average family size in the country today is a little more than three people, it's easy to see that the 9.4 percent figure just doesn't apply when your family is, well, larger than average.
Planning delicious meals that don't break the bank can be a challenge for anyone, but that challenge is amplified when you're cooking for a big family. Sure, you may not have a Duggar-sized family, but knowing how to cut costs and make a large quantity of great food can come in handy for your brood of four or five kids, or even for extended family get-togethers.
The bottom line is that mealtimes don't have to send you to the poorhouse, and cheap food doesn't have to taste bad. Here we'll share five great meals that will feed an army and please a crowd without burning a hole in your wallet.
If there's one thing that's cheap, filling and exceptionally healthy it's beans. They come in all different shapes and sizes, and they truly shine in a spicy dish like chili.
Just grab a few cans of red kidney beans, black beans and garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and you're off to a good start. (Dried beans will cost even less and have far less sodium, but they do require soaking -- overnight is best, but a few hours will do, also -- and take longer to cook.) You can swap out any of the beans if you prefer a different variety -- navy beans or pinto beans are always a good choice.
Add in whatever peppers you like -- bell peppers for a mild flavor, jalapenos for a little kick -- and some corn, onions, tomatoes and carrots. You can use vegetable or chicken broth as the base, but a giant jar of salsa also makes a flavorful, thick base and eliminates the need for diced tomatoes. Season with cumin, chili powder and any other spices you like. Let it simmer in a slow cooker all day or cook it up to a half an hour before mealtime and you've got a hearty, filling meal that doesn't break the bank.
Can't go a day without eating meat? It's easy to "de-vegetarianize" this meal by adding ground beef or ground turkey -- both of which are inexpensive.
Breakfast for Dinner
When you were young it probably seemed like a treat, but it was a smart move for money-savvy parents. Breakfast for dinner (sometimes called "brinner") is great in a pinch because when the fridge is almost empty you might still be able to scrounge up a few eggs and some bread for toast. Eggs are inexpensive in large quantities, as is fruit, bread and some kinds of sausage or bacon. Plus, there are so many variations on how to cook eggs -- fried, scrambled, on toast, folded into an omelet -- that it's easy to please everyone.
Have leftover veggies or meat for the week? Throw them in an omelet for a tasty way to keep from wasting food. A tip for making your eggs fluffier -- and stretch a little further -- is to whisk them with a little cream, milk or even water before cooking.
Pancakes, another breakfast staple, are a cheap fix too, especially if you use the mix that just requires water (which you can keep around in a sealed container for a long time). And what about French toast? Bread, eggs, syrup and perhaps a dash of cinnamon will certainly make those in your family with a sweet tooth happy.
Chicken and rice is an old staple of cost-conscious cooking, but for something a little more exciting you can turn that chicken and rice into jambalaya by adding a few spices, some sausage and whatever else you can find around the kitchen.
One of the great things about jambalaya is that it can be cooked with almost any combination of meat or seafood -- chicken, beef, ham, shrimp, sausage -- making it a fantastic end-of-the-week meal to throw your leftovers into. Mix the meat with rice, chicken stock, celery, onions and seasoning (paprika, chili powder, cayenne, thyme, parsley -- whatever your taste buds crave) and you'll feel like you're dining in downtown New Orleans. It's not a meal that's easy to mess up, so go ahead in throw in some tomatoes, green peppers, hot sauce and whatever you have lying around or you think will taste good. The best part is that many jambalaya recipes let you make everything in one pot, so cleanup will be a cinch.
Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Whether you like pork for its flavor, or you're just a fan of barbecue sauce, pulled pork sandwiches are an inexpensive meal option that will soon become a family favorite. Pork is a cheap meat to buy, and this recipe calls for a whole butt or shoulder (which are both good for shredding).
Pulled pork might take a while to prepare, but most of that time is hands-free. One of the easiest ways to cook pork until the meat falls apart is to let it slowly roast at a low temperature all day -- in the oven works fine but a slow cooker is ideal. After cooking on low for 10 to 12 hours (try adding onions and some ginger ale for flavor and moisture), the meat just falls apart when you shred it with a fork. You can soak it in your favorite barbecue sauce, or let the natural flavors come through and eat it plain. Whichever you choose, just toss the pork on some hamburger buns and top with a slice of cheese, cole slaw or some cooked peppers and onions for a low-cost meal that makes mouths water.
Nothing says family dinner like a big helping of homemade spaghetti and meatballs. Ground beef is one of the cheapest meats you can buy, and pasta's even cheaper. A bonus for the penny-pinching cook is that spaghetti is filling, delicious and feeds a lot of people. And it doesn't have to get boring because you can change the sauce (tomato, Alfredo, vodka) or the add-ins (ground meat, meatballs, broccoli, asparagus, peppers) based on what you have around the house -- making this an easy regular feature on the weekly menu. A simple salad and some garlic bread make this the kind of family dinner staple that will bring everyone to the table.
Are you looking for some salad recipes that save you money? Check out this article and get 5 salad recipes that save you money.
- Epicurious. "Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya." (Oct. 12, 2011). http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chicken-and-Sausage-Jambalaya-364172
- Mayo Clinic. "Recipe: Three Bean Chili." (Oct. 10, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-recipes/RE00063
- MyBakingAddiction. "Easy Crockpot Pulled Pork." (Oct. 12, 2011). http://www.mybakingaddiction.com/easy-crockpot-pulled-pork-recipe/
- Shirk, Lynette. "Dinner a Day: 365 Meals You Can Make in Minutes." Adams Media, 2008.
- TLC. "Southwest Bean Chili." (Oct. 9, 2011). https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/southwest-bean-chili-recipe.htm
- USDA. "Food CPI and Expenditures: Table 7." July 13, 2011. (Oct. 9, 2011). http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/Expenditures_tables/table7.htm
- Zelman, Kathleen M., MPH, RD, LD. "10 Ways to Save Money on Food Shopping." WebMD. (Oct. 9, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/guide/10-ways-save-money-food-shopping
- Zatarain's. "Jambalaya." (Oct. 12, 2011). http://www.zatarains.com/Recipes/Jambalaya.aspx