I love food.
Like, I really love food. Probably as much or more than anyone you know. There is nothing better than eating a fantastic meal.
But, I have a bit of a confession: I didn’t really learn to cook until I was separated at 30 years old.
When I was married, we went out to eat A LOT. Every night, the question wasn’t “What’s for dinner?”, it was where. And I had some great reasons for wanting to go out. Not only did I enjoy the delicious food that seemed intimidating to make, we could also eat different meals at the same time, so everyone was happy. We were also forced to sit at a table together for at least an hour and have family time. (Now I make sure we eat a family meal every night around our own kitchen table).
It wasn’t until I was alone with two young kids that I realized 2 things: 1) Eating out is expensive. I can’t even imagine how much money we blew on those amazing dinners, and 2) Going out to eat with a 6 and 2 year old by yourself is just not fun at all. It was time to learn the skill of cooking on a budget.
So, armed with the motivation to cook for pretty much the first time in my entire life, I began searching for recipes in an attempt to bring the delicious food I was used to eating in restaurants home to our kitchen table.
It wasn’t long before I realized that the soup I was paying $5.00 a cup for was the easiest thing in the world to make at home for way less. Then I tried the chicken enchilada casserole from 100 Days of Real Food and it was amazing (I added green peppers to mine and used whole grain tortillas), which encouraged me to try even more new recipes! I even learned to cook bacon and grits instead of going out to brunch on the weekends! (Seriously, that is how much I did NOT cook before). My girls became more adventurous eaters since they had to eat what I cooked (and there were no chicken tenders or cheeseburgers on the menu). I began to discover what spices went into which types of dishes, and cooking became kind of fun!
I also realized how little a meal could cost. Since I am not a huge meat eater, we started to eat mostly vegetarian foods. I started to pay attention to what was on sale and stock up for future meals. Cutting out meat may not be for you, but for this little fam of all girls, it has worked well! (And we still eat meat occasionally).
I’m still learning how to make healthy, kid friendly meals on a tight budget, but these are the tips I have learned so far!
- Stock Up on Sale Items. But only items you need. I purchase healthy snacks for my kids and the ingredients to make meals. That is it. And I buy the same items over and over.
- Use Coupons if you have them. But only clip the coupons if the are for items you need. It does not save you money to spend $2.00 on a junk food item that you would never have purchased if you hadn’t see the $.50 off coupon. I also save the coupon for when the item goes on sale again.
- Buy Frozen and Canned foods when possible. Frozen veggies are better for you than canned, so I always buy those, along with frozen fruits if I plan to cook with them. I do buy canned tomatoes and black beans (and other beans, but black beans are a major staple at my house). I do not buy fresh anything if I can avoid it, because I want every item to have the longest shelf-life possible. Any food item that is thrown out is a waste of money.
- Rotate out Fresh Fruits/Veggies. Of course, there are some items you have to purchase fresh, such as fruits and veggies that you plan to eat raw (especially for snacking)! I used to go wild buying several different types of veggies and fruits at once, and no matter how much we snacked on them, I would usually end up tossing something. I have learned if I get a couple types of veggies and fruits each, we are more likely to finish them and less is wasted. Then I can get something new the next week and everyone is excited to eat it.
- Limit Your Meat Intake. Meat can easily become the most expensive part of a meal. When I first started cooking, I would make a meat and a couple of sides, and I occasionally still do this. However, I have learned that my kids eat more vegetables when they are incorporated in the meal in some way (soups, pasta, etc), so I started putting meat on the backburner instead of making it the star of the meal. When I do cook with meat, I will get a package of something such as chicken breasts, cook them, and use a little bit in multiple meals. IE: I’ll make a chicken pot pie one day, and chicken noodle soup the next.
- Soups are your BFF. I love soups. You can put any vegetable in a soup and it instantly become easier to eat. My kids won’t touch onions or cooked bell peppers until I put them in our favorite chili! Plus, as an added bonus, we generally have enough soup left over for at least one meal afterwards, and sometimes for me to take to work too!
- Have Flip Flop Day. Eat breakfast for dinner. Eggs and Grits are sooo cheap. Add bacon for a little more. Pancakes and waffles are quick and easy on a busy weeknight, or you can whip up omelets for a healthier option.
The two recipes below take all of the rules above in consideration, and they are go-to meals for me!
Easy Peasy Black Bean Chili
This chili is ALWAYS a hit at my house and I keep enough ingredients on hand to make it any time I’m not sure what to make for dinner. At home, we eat the meatless version, but I usually add chicken if I’m making it for others!
2 cans of black beans
1 can diced tomatoes with chilis
1 can diced tomatoes
1/3 bag frozen corn (save rest for next time!)
1/3 bag frozen sliced peppers and onions (save rest for next time!)
1 container chicken broth
1 1/2 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp minced garlic
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground pepper
Diced cooked chicken (optional)
Shredded cheddar cheese, for serving
Sour cream, for serving
Jalapenos, for serving
Cilantro, for serving
- If you have time, saute the pepper and onions in a pan with a little olive oil and minced garlic. If you’re in a hurry, skip to step 2.
- Put black beans, diced tomatoes, and diced tomatoes with chilis in a pot. If you would like your chili to be thicker, drain juice first. If you want a soupier chili, do not drain. Add frozen (or fresh) peppers and onions. Add corn. Add chicken broth and chicken (optional). Bring mixture to a boil.
- Turn setting down and let the chili simmer. Add seasonings. I estimated the amounts because I usually taste as I go. I start with less and add more until I reach the desired flavor. DO NOT leave out the cinnamon. It makes a big difference in the recipe! You can add red pepper flakes for an added kick.
- It will be ready to eat in around 30 mins, but the longer it cooks, the better, and it is even better reheated the next day!
- Serve with sour cream, cheese, jalapenos, cilantro, etc.
Vegetarian Farmers Hash with Gouda Grits
This recipe is my version of my favorite meal at Charleston’s Café, my #1 place to brunch when I’m in Mt Pleasant. They always add meat in their version (chorizo seems to be a fav), but when I make it at home, I go meatless. They also usually use potatoes instead of grits, but I prefer keeping grits in my pantry since they have a longer shelf life (and because they’re grits, and I’m a southern girl).
Directions for Vegetarian Farmers Hash:
- Saute the pepper and onions in a pan with butter and minced garlic. Add a sprinkle or two of cumin.
- Once the onions have caramelized, add drained black beans. Continue to cook mixture until it thickens. (If you want to add cooked meat, you can do so at this time as well).
- In the meantime, fry two eggs in a separate pan.
- When black bean and pepper mixture is finished cooking, move it to plate. Add shredded gouda cheese on top. When eggs are done cooking, place them on top of cheese.
- Serve with gouda grits and enjoy!
Directions for Gouda Grits:
- Cook grits according to package instructions (roughly ¼ cup grits for every 1 cup of water).
- Once grits are cooked, add salt and pepper to taste, a pat of butter, and shredded gouda cheese. Add a few splashes of milk and stir.
- Serve with Vegetarian Farmers Hash
Don’t forget to shop the sales to get the best price on the ingredients!
What are your favorite healthy meals that are easy on the budget? Any additional tips on how to save? Tell us in the comments below!