Fast, simple, cheap meals
Here’s a bunch of ideas for cheap meals with everything from how to cook the basics (rice, pasta, pizza, white sauce etc) to cheap veggie and meat-based meals and more. Have fun in the kitchen using this info and you’ll be a pro before you know it.
C=cup, Tsp=tablespoon, tsp=teaspoon, season =salt and pepper. NOTE: A US tsp is nearly 1½ times as big as in UK/Aust, so US readers have to adjust tspns down a bit.
Need food in a flash?
- Anything on toast makes failsafe, fairly healthy cheap meals on the hop.
- More quick options for cheap meals are a bowl of 2 minute noodles, leftover rice or a quick, easy salad (greens, tomato, cucumber, onion or whatever fresh stuff you have) topped with cheese, canned fish, leftover meat or whatever you have plus a drizzle of chilli or other sauce, mayo or vinegar.
- Wash your hands in hot, soapy water (especially after handling raw meats) or risk some seriously funky food (not in a good way) and a possible trip to the ER.
- Use different utensils and boards for raw versus cooked food, and scrub them well in between – again, hot and soapy.
- Put leftovers in the fridge right away (it’s actually good not to cool them down too much first) then reheat until hot right through. Most cooked food only keeps a few days.
On a stove:
Wash rice and mix with water as per packet directions in a saucepan (best if heavy-based); bring to boil then cover with a tight-fitting lid (and foil if the lid’s loose). Turn heat RIGHT down and cook (lid on) for recommended time. Take off heat and leave, covered, for 10–15 minutes.
In a microwave:
Add boiling water to washed rice in microwave cooker with steam vents, (or in a microwave-safe bowl partly covered with plastic wrap to let steam out). Cover. Cook on high as recommended, stirring halfway. Sit covered for 5–10 minutes.
Cold cooked rice? Heaps of cheap meals:
Fried rice: Beat 2 eggs with 2 Tsp water then fry in hot, non-stick pan until firm, turning once; slice thinly. Cook 2 chopped rashers bacon. Add 2 sliced spring onions, C cold cooked rice and C cooked, chopped chicken drizzled with soy sauce, ¼C frozen peas and the omelette strips and toss until hot.
Nut loaf (like a meat loaf): Heat oven to 180˚C (350˚F); fry curry powder, a chopped onion and ½C chopped celery in a splash of oil until softened; mix in a bowl with C cooked rice, 2 eggs, C chopped nuts (lightly toasted in oven or frypan if you can be bothered), C grated cheese and another splash of oil, then bake in a well-greased tin for about 40 minutes. Cool a bit then tip out, slice and serve with homemade tomato or other sauce.
Cheat’s rice pudding: for an easy sweet treat simmer C cooked rice, C milk and Tsp sugar, stirring continuously until thick and creamy (optional: add ½ tsp cinnamon and/or a little grated citrus peel).
Add pasta to already boiling water (if it’s not already boiling it’ll stick together), and cook according to packet directions (usually about 8-11 minutes), stirring a few times to break up. Drain.
- Homemade tomato sauce: fry chopped onions until softish (not brown) then add cheap or canned tomatoes, herbs and/or veggies and simmer until thickened (about ½ hr.). Mush it up a bit more, season, then stir through pasta and top with grated cheese.
- Bolognese: Chop and fry some bacon, garlic and/or onion until onion is soft. Add mince (enough to feed your group) and fry, stirring to break up until browned. Add canned tomatoes and/or tomato soup, plus some tomato paste if you have it and about a C or so of water and herbs if you like. Season and simmer for ½ hr. or so till thickened, stirring occasionally. You can add grated or chopped veggies to make it more healthy or bulk it up, just add before the tomatoes.
- Mac’n’cheese: Mix C cooked pasta with ½C white sauce (see recipe, below) and ⅓C grated cheese.
- Carbonara: beat 2 eggs and mix with ¼C grated cheese and around 4 chopped, fried rashers bacon or some chopped ham. Cook and drain a pack of spaghetti, remove from the heat into a bowl (otherwise it will turn into scrambled eggs) and toss with the egg mixture for a minute or so. Season.
- Gourmet veggie: fry some chopped chilli in hot olive oil (med heat) until sizzling then add chopped garlic and sizzle a bit more (don’t let it brown). Take off heat, stir in cooked, drained pasta and chopped, cooked broccoli (throw it in with the boiling pasta for a couple of mins) or heaps of rocket. Season well and top with grated cheese.
Good for mac & cheese, lasagne or to make a cheese sauce for stuff, for example.
Bring 1C milk to boil, reduce heat to low. Blend 2 Tsp flour with ¼C cold milk (cold is important to not get lumps, but sometimes it still goes lumpy for me, when you can squeeze it through a strainer or just deal). Add the blended mix to hot milk and mix thoroughly. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.
NOTE: When made, cover and leave in warm place for half hr until it rises about double. If it’s cold in your place you can do this by putting the over on really low and putting the bowl in with the door left open.
Then roll the dough out on a clean surface sprinkled with plain flour to fit the size or shape of your tray (about 30cm circle or sqaure or whatever), cover with toppings and cook. See below for ideas.
Option 1: Rub a Tsp butter or margarine into 2C self-raising flour plus a pinch of salt to make crumbs. Mix in ½C milk and ¼C mayonnaise with a knife until you get a soft dough. Option 2: dissolve an instant yeast sachet and a tsp sugar in a small C (150mL) of warm water. Add ½C plain flour, a pinch of salt and beat it, then add ½C more flour and mix it until smooth.
Buy a base or make your own.
Put it on a greased oven tray then top and bake for about 30 minutes on 200˚C (400˚F). Just check it until it’s as browned as you like.
You can stick anything on a pizza and cover it with cheese and it’ll taste good, frankly. For example, try tomato paste or sauce then sautéed (stir-fried in a splash of oil, don’t let the onion go brown) chopped onion, garlic, capsicum (peppers) and mushrooms and a sprinkle of herbs, and/or ham, olives, pineapple pieces or pepperoni. Leftover cut up meat or chicken is also good, so is baby spinach, zucchini, feta, etc. Pretty much whatever you have in the house.
- Sweet or savoury, hot or cold – just boil water, stock or even orange juice with a splash of oil, take off heat, pour in cous cous and stir.
- Cover and leave three mins, then stir over super low heat for 2-3 minutes with a fork.
- Eat with butter or add chopped, cooked veggies like pumpkin and beans; dried fruits like dates or apricots; meat or even chopped salad, herbs, nuts and/or chilli. Too easy.
Steam or boil: a few minutes or microwave a minute or two on high then test with a knife until it’s cooked how you like it – you’ll soon work it out.
Stir-fry: Heat a little oil in a hot pan, chuck in some chopped garlic (don’t let it go brown) then chopped vegies, turning constantly until cooked. Add sauce and stir through.
Bake: Layer just-cooked cauliflower or potatoes in an oven dish, with white sauce (recipe above) and grated cheese (about 1C sauce to ½C cheese). Top with more cheese and cook on 180˚C (350˚F) ½hr or until golden brown.
Bbq or chargrill strips of veggies then eat on a sandwich or with meat or salad.
- Steam a cup or so of any veggies and whack them on two-minute noodles or rice with a drizzle of soy sauce/honey, chilli sauce etc.
- Or put some on salad and top with grated or marinated cheese or nuts (try lightly toasting them in a pan).
- Spanish omelette: fry C or so of chopped veggies in a non-stick pan until soft, add curry powder, herbs or seasoning. Pour over a few beaten eggs and cook until set (med heat). Sprinkle with cheese, grill until golden, serve with sauce and/or toast.
Minestrone or vegie: fry chopped onion, carrot, celery, garlic and a bit of bacon (optional) in a splash of oil a few minutes. Add 4C stock, simmer 20 minutes then add a C or so of chopped vegies (e.g. potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, cauliflower, peas, silver beet or zucchini), 2 Tsp tomato paste (or some fresh or canned tomatoes), ½C of pasta and/or a drained can of beans (borlotti, cannellini, etc.) and simmer until potato and pasta are tender. Experiment with ingredients.
Pumpkin: fry a chopped onion in oil till soft, add peeled, chopped pumpkin, cover with chicken or vegie stock and simmer until soft. Mash, season, stir in C milk or substitute. Or fry up some green curry paste with the onion and swap the milk for coconut milk or cream for a yummy Thai version.
Lentil and celery (sounds gross tastes good – no joke, plus it’s super-dooper cheap): fry some chopped onion and celery in a splash of oil then add stock powder, cubes or whatever you have and some dried red lentils and simmer hr. or so until lentils dissolve. Easy.
Although ice cream isn’t made from pig fat anymore, some red food colour (cochineal) is made from insect shells. Mmmm – tasty.
Planes have been evacuated because of a stink thought to be a dead body. What was it? A durian fruit smuggled in luggage. Embarrassing much??
Q: The ultimate diet food? A: Celery – eating it burns more calories than it contains.
Look for what’s on special or cook cheap cuts for longer on low heat (it softens them). Try not to always go for fatty cuts like chicken wings and burger mince though, and try to trim fat if poss.
- Compare cooked steak with your thumb – it’s rare if it feels like a relaxed thumb pad; medium to well-done feels tighter, like you’re moving your thumb across your hand.
- Stick a knife into roast meat to see the juices – for medium you want them pinkish, not dark red.
- Check chicken by sticking a knife in at the thickest part of the leg – juices should run clear, not red or pink.
- Fish should flake away from your knife when cooked.
Cheap meat meals:
Sausages with mash: simmer potatoes until tender, drain, slip skins off (or peel first, or even leave on for smashed potatoes), mash well with a potato masher or fork. Season, mix in butter and milk to taste. Grill or fry sausages on medium heat, turning regularly until browned.
Rissoles and gravy (use leftovers for sandwiches): Mix 500g (about a pound) of mince, 2T tomato or other sauce, an egg, C or so breadcrumbs (cut stale bread finely) and tsp or so of herbs and roll into flattish balls. Brown each side on high then turn down to medium until cooked.
Beef stew: fry 600gms (a little over a pound) or so of chopped chuck steak (or what’s on special) with chopped onion and garlic for a few minutes. Add 2C vegies (like potato, sweet potato, carrot, celery and/or pumpkin) a sprinkle of herbs and just cover with stock. Simmer an hr or so, stirring occasionally. Season and add any quicker-cooking vegies (like broccoli, cauliflower, beans or zucchini) and simmer another 20-30 minutes. Serve with mash, bread or toast.
Meat soup: Same as veggie soup but first simmer a pack of oxtail, soup bones, bacon bones or whatever you have, covered in water and flavourings (like ginger, garlic, herbs, chilli, pepper etc.), for a couple of hrs (the longer you cook it, the softer). Add rice, red lentils or barley if you like, simmer half hour or so then add the vegies, extra stock or seasoning to taste. Cook until soft.
Honey-soy chicken wings or drumsticks: mix ½C honey, Tsp soy sauce and 2 Tsp water with a little crushed garlic, and marinate 6-8 wings or 4-6 drumsticks in fridge for ½ hr plus, then bbq or bake until cooked, turning halfway.
Roast chicken: halve a lemon and squeeze over chicken, then stuff it inside the chicken with some fresh or dried herbs, season all over and/or sprinkle with stock powder, then cook on 180˚C (350˚F) about 1½ hours, spooning juices over when you think of it, until cooked. Put half a cup of water in the base and/or drizzle with olive oil so it doesn’t get dry. Stuffing (optional): fry chopped bacon and onion, add chopped zucchini and cook until softened. Mix in breadcrumbs, herbs, a splash of oil and mustard or sweet chilli sauce then cool a bit and press inside the chicken and cook straight away. Experiment with other vegies, sauces/herbs and/or nuts.
Tuna mornay: Mix large can tuna, C grated cheese, 2C cooked pasta, 2C white sauce (recipe above). Add a can of creamed corn if you want. Season, top with more cheese and cook ½hr on 180˚C (350˚F) until hot.
- Throw leftover vegies with some leftover meat, chicken, ham or whatever into stock to make soup.
- Or mash them into homemade vegie burgers (mix C vegies with an egg plus leftover rice or some crumbled bread and shape into patties), and fry until browned and hot through; serve with sauce, salad and/or a bun.
- Make fish cakes the same way, with canned or leftover fish.