Food prices are going up. This year looks to be the year that inflation really kicks in. With everything we’ve been through in the last few years, the last thing we need as a nation is to see the price of chicken double!
Dirt-cheap meals are when you need to spend as little as possible on food yet eat as much and as healthy as you can for the amount of money you have.
There are seasons in our lives when we need to eat cheaply. Struggling college student, new mom, saving to buy a house, or sending our kids to college.
Whatever the reason is, we have all been there.
I will give you a month’s worth of dirt-cheap food and attempt to feed a family of four for around $2 a meal.
What To Eat When You’re Broke
These are quick and easy meals- less than thirty minutes from stove to table. They are not complicated and will assume you have some things in your pantry and refrigerator, like flour, simple spices, and ketchup.
I will include a list of breakfast and lunch choices that you can circulate and swap around, but there are 30 dinner choices, dirt-cheap meals for dinner, that I have collected.
That’s 50 dirt-cheap meals for the entire month!
Grocery Budgets Begin With Realistic Grocery Lists
I get asked often (as a Financial Coach) what a realistic grocery budget is for a family. And this is such a hard question to answer because it depends on your way of eating (organic vs conventional, scratch vs premade) and, honestly, where you live.
I can tell you as of right now in WAY Upstate NY in February of 2022, Im spending $800 a month for a family of four adults.
That’s with a healthy balance of organic and conventional and a few convenience foods.
Grab the FREE Grocery List Printable to help with the shopping.
Why Would I Need to Make Dirt Cheap Foods?
Quite simply stated, it’s a way to save a substantial amount of money. Whether you are broke or saving for something specific, grocery budgets offer you great flexibility.
You can easily spend $1,000 a week on the best cuts of grass-fed meats, the highest quality of dairy, and 100% organic fruits, veggies, and snacks.
Or, you can find a way to stretch that $50 as far as it can go and do the best you can with what you have.
These meals are perfect for a broke college student. Keep reading for a cheap student shopping list of meals.
Make Dirt Cheap Meals Cheaper
There are so many ways to make dirt-cheap meals cheaper. They require planning and some work but are quite effective.
- Use coupons. There are ways to get real food with coupons for practically free.
- Grow a garden. Fruits and vegetables are not cheap. So if you can buy a packet of cucumber seeds and some dirt for under a few dollars, you can have fresh cucumbers and pickles. The same goes for tomatoes and squash. All are fairly inexpensive to purchase. This is a great way to get cheap veggies into those healthy recipes.
- Barter. I worked at the food pantry for years, and when there was excess, the workers got to take things home. Some items wouldn’t last until the next time the pantry was open. Also, many volunteers would offer their time for food. I know some farms are happy to have an extra set of hands in exchange for eggs or garden produce.
- Shop sales. Every sales flyer for every store can be found online. Go through and find the best prices for the cheapest foods. It’s one of the easiest ways to cut down the grocery budget.
- Change stores. Consider stores like Dollar General or Aldi for your shopping instead of the higher-end grocery stores and chains. If Aldi is a 45-minute drive, consider once-a-month shopping.
- Cook from scratch. Anytime you can make something from scratch, it’s bound to be cheaper. Bread, oatmeal, and any type of dessert will all be less expensive than already made by someone else.
- Use a slow cooker. Crock Pot, an air fryer, and an Instant Pot are great assets in the kitchen and can turn even the cheapest cuts of meat into something the whole family will love.
- Consider simple ingredients. Meals do not have to be complicated. There’s no need to go out and buy special ingredients for a dish when a simple assortment of spices will make a delicious, simple meal.
Recommended: How To Grocery Shop Once A Month
What are the Cheapest Foods to Buy?
The cheapest foods may not be the healthiest, but they are a great way to further stretch the healthiest.
Items like pasta and rice, beans, and lentils are cheap. Canned vegetables, compared to fresh, are a less expensive option. Good choice for a broke dinner.
Chicken legs and thighs (dark meat) are cheaper than breasts. Lower-fat ground beef costs more than higher fat.
Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn aren’t as pricy as broccoli and eggplant.
Recommended: 37 Cheap Groceries to Buy When You’re Broke
Cheap Easy Meals for Breakfast
Many of these breakfast ideas can be made ahead of time if you are normally trying to rush out the door and go to school or work. Saving money always requires a little bit of planning.
Old-fashioned oatmeal and fruit: Oatmeal is cheap for a lot of servings. And you can add bananas or any fruit you might find the best deal on. I also love canned pears chopped up in mine.
Eggs: Eggs are nature’s best food. Fried, scrambled, and over easy, they are full of protein and cheap. Our Aldi sells a dozen eggs for 89 cents.
Toast: Make your bread or buy the least expensive loaf. Top with peanut butter, butter, or jelly. Add a fried egg on top for a savory approach.
Muffins: Make your own. Better every time. Include apple sauce, berries, chocolate chips, or some cinnamon, and have a winner at breakfast.
I’ve done the math; making yours from scratch is cheaper. However, those envelopes of mixes or the Jiffy Muffin mix in the box are pretty inexpensive. If you can swing it, grab those.
Pancakes: These are so simple to make. And you can make a double batch to put in the freezer. My granddaughter likes to eat them frozen. But she’s one.
Waffles: My recipe for this is about the same as pancakes. Making it from scratch is much better financially than buying them cooked in the freeze section.
Also, the scratch mix is cheaper than the pancake mix.
And really, who doesn’t love waffles with melted butter and syrup? A bottle of pancake syrup is less than $1.
Recommended: How To Start Couponing Like A Boss!
Cereal: a box of generic rice crispies is just over a dollar. Growing up, we never had any “good” cereal. We always had Cheerios.
My mom could get them for practically free in the 1980s with coupons. Lucky us, right?
Bagels and cream cheese: at $1 for each of these, it breaks up the boredom. If you’re feeling really creative, you can whip up the block of cream cheese and add fruit or cinnamon to make it extra special.
Whipping it will actually make it go further, also.
Breakfast casserole: I think of this as cleaning out the refrigerator for breakfast. If you have a little meat left and some veggies, add them to six scrambled eggs and top with cheese.
Any meat will do; chicken, beef, sausage, or pork. Add some spinach, broccoli, beans, or tomatoes, and it’s a meal.
Depression eggs: My friend Gretchen gave me this idea. Two saltine crackers soaked in milk to one egg. Mix it all and scramble. Her kids love it.
You get the salt from the crackers, and it stretches the egg out the same way bread crumbs do in a meatloaf.
Dirt Cheap Lunch Ideas
Some people are home for lunch, giving them a lot more flexibility in their eating.
If you work outside the home, taking your lunch daily is a great way to save LOTS of money.
Leftovers: I understand that some people don’t like to eat leftovers, but when saving money on food, you cannot let anything go to waste.
Sandwiches: any type of sandwich fixings you might have on hand or find at the store on sale. Mind you; deli meat is not cheap.
At $9 a pound for deli turkey, you can buy a turkey breast, cook it, and shred it or slice it for a lot less. Any deli meat can be cooked from scratch at a much lower price.
Tuna fish: Tuna fish can be made into sandwiches to stretch it out or eaten with crackers or chips. I am a big fan of tuna.
Add mayo, a small squirt of mustard, and some pickle relish (preferably dill), and my mouth starts to water. You can find good quality tuna for around sixty-nine cents a can.
Egg Salad: Ah – all the egg choices. Boil them, dice the eggs, and add mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. My favorite is to serve it still a little warm on toast.
Recommended: Easy Packable Lunches For Your Husband To Save Money
Grilled cheese sandwich: Classic and cheap. I make mine with butter, but some people use mayonnaise! What?!? Mind blown!
Peanut butter and jelly: There is really nothing like traditional PB&J. My middle son, who is almost 22, still has one daily. I love it on homemade bread best.
Chicken salad: cooking up some chicken in the Instant Pot specifically for chicken salad is something I have been doing these last few months.
Putting that in a reap with lettuce and cheese makes such a delicious cheap lunch. Consider cooking whole chicken instead of chicken breasts, as it will make more than just one delicious meal at a cheaper price.
Pasta salads: Any type of pasta salad you want. An Italian pasta salad with cheese, pepperoni, Italian dressing, and veggies is an easy recipe.
Or the mayo, tuna, and peas types are great for lunches. You could even make a bacon ranch pasta salad with bacon bits pretty darn frugally.
Soup: I like soup. Whether you make a double batch and freeze lunch portions for later or open a can of soup, it makes for a hearty, cheap lunch.
Quesadillas: Adding some cheese to a tortilla opens up a new world of possibilities. The combinations are endless.
Add mozzarella cheese and sauce for a pizza quesadilla. Add taco cheese, leftover taco meat, and salsa for a taco quesadilla, or go with chicken and cheddar for my youngest favorite quick and dirt cheap lunch.
Cheese and crackers: I know. Sounds more like a snack. But it can be a nice light lunch paired with some fruit or vegetables on the side.
Recommended: 30 Frugal Lunch Ideas for Stay-at-Home Moms
Super Cheap Dinner Ideas
I took to Facebook to see what my friends thought about dirt-cheap meal ideas, and here are some of their suggestions and some of mine.
Lentil soup: My friend Catherine suggested lentil soup. Onions, carrots, celery, chopped and sauteed in the pot with either butter or stock.
Add the number of lentils (split peas/ dahl) and liquid ratio desired using whatever stock desired. Cook to a boil, then reduce to medium and cook until lentils are creamy tender.
Salt and pepper + seasonings after the lentils are tender.
Catherine is the QUEEN of soups. Every fall for quite a few years, she would host Soupfest at her house. It was loads of fun!
Tomato soup: Amanda makes her tomato soup. Canned soup is pretty cheap, but this sounds cheap and delicious.
A can of stewed tomatoes, water, onion, ham hock, and Tony’s seasoning- eat with macaroni noodles.
Green bean “soup”: from Kami. Simply beans, milk, and potatoes. Add butter, salt, and pepper.
Macaroni soup: Similar to goulash except for more liquid. Kami suggested ground beef, onions, tomatoes, and macaroni. This is a nice way to use some of those pantry staples.
Split pea soup with ham hocks: one more from Kami. Buy the dried split peas and prepare as directed. Cook the ham hock, remove the meat, and drain the broth.
Add any vegetables you might have on hand and blend it all together. Then add the meat back.
Corn chowder: Linda suggested this meatless soup. Corn, potatoes, and onion are all cooked up in a broth. Add milk, salt, and pepper. Serve with bread or rolls. She said it’s one of her favorite recipes.
Santa Fe chicken soup: My sweet friend Ayla suggested this recipe.
Chicken, can of black beans, pinto beans, frozen corn, frozen peppers and onions, a jar of salsa, a packet of taco seasoning, and chicken broth. Makes a whole crockpot full.
Chicken stuffing casserole: This was from my friend Lisa. Boxed stuffing, then combine leftover chicken, sour cream, and cream of mushroom soup. Add any vegetables mixed into the stuffing.
Baked macaroni and cheese: this is a layered casserole of sorts. Make a roux with butter, milk, and shredded cheddar cheese.
Layer half the cooked elbow pasta, crumbled-up crackers (we use saltines, but whatever crumbly crackers you might have on hand will work), and half of the cheese sauce, repeat.
Bake in the oven until all is melted and goo-y.
Leftover Casserole: this is one of my favorites. It’s a “clean out the refrigerator” casserole from The Tightwad Gazette. You can find the recipe here.
Meatless meals are affordable meals. As we know, meat can be the most expensive part of a grocery budget. So finding cheap dinner recipes for a family-friendly dinner without meat is an easy way to save money.
Macaroni with canned tomatoes: Literally, that’s the recipe from Denise. She suggests taking it up a notch and adding either some ground meat or cut-up hot dogs.
Then she added, “I didn’t say I liked it, nor have I made it- grew up with it, and it is cheap.”
Creamy beans: Denise suggests green beans or peas and potatoes in “milk, water, butter” served over bread. “Just enough milk and butter to color the water,” she says.
“And this I actually really like. Especially when the beans or peas are fresh from the garden”.
Rice and Beans: from Carriebeth. She also suggested tacos and making your tortillas. I have heard it’s quite easy once you get the rhythm down. This is a filling and hearty meal.
Fettuccine Alfredo: Not nearly as expensive as you might think. Thanks to Laurie S. for this one. A box of fettuccine noodles, light cream (or milk to keep it more frugal), parm cheese, egg, and a stick of butter. My entire family believes this is one of the best things in the world.
Eggs: Make any of the egg recipes above. I have done the egg bake for dinner many times.
Spaghetti: my friend Gary suggested butter with a little garlic salt. Easily able to add whatever leftover vegetables you might have, make it a simple dinner and tasty, too.
Sue suggested changing out the pasta to penne (or any other fancier pasta) and adding the tomato-based sauce.
Christine suggested just pasta and stewed tomatoes. Add some spices, and you’ve got an authentic Italian dish.
Stuffed zucchini: One more from Denise. The zucchini that got too big were scooped out, run thru blender, bread and seasoning added, and put back in. The whole thing was baked with spaghetti sauce and cheese on top.
Fried Rice: If you have a little leftover meat, you can add it. If not, it’s just as good. Rice, a can of peas and carrots, spices and soy sauce, and scrambled eggs. This is our favorite recipe to use leftover brown rice.
Cheap Chicken Dinners
Chicken and biscuits: Nacy gave me this suggestion. Cream of chicken soup, chicken cut into pieces over biscuits(make your own or use the 39-cent tube). Top with some shredded cheese.
Campfire rice: This also sounds really good from my friend Drew. A can of chicken meat, 12 ounces of Rice a Roni in a box, and a can of mixed vegetables.
Chicken and sauce: From Amy – chicken breast and any sauce on hand. Add that over rice or pasta.
I suggest a lemon butter sauce with just melted butter with oil to stretch it out, some lemon juice, garlic (powder, minced or fresh), and parmesan cheese. It’s really tasty.
Cheap Ground Beef Ideas
Goulash: Jen L. suggested a pound of pasta, 1 pound of ground beef ( or ground meat), and a can of tomatoes or sauce. My family loves this stuff.
Beef and rice: From Laurie C. – Ground hamburger, mix in beef Rice a Roni and add a can of corn. Cooked all together. Top with shredded cheese if desired.
Hamburger gravy on toast or potatoes: Kami suggested this classic. Use ground beef, and make gravy out of beef stock, bullion cubes, and water, or buy a can of gravy. Serve over toast or mashed potatoes.
Sloppy Joes: Make them with ground beef, turkey, or chicken (whichever is cheaper). Add your favorite frugal barbeque sauce or make your own with ketchup and brown sugar for pennies.
Campfire Stew: My friend Chuck suggested this. Why do I get the feeling this s an old Boy Scout recipe? Ground beef with alphabet soup. Add biscuits on the side.
Nachos and Tacos: It’s a great way to stretch a pound of ground beef with chips or taco shells. Fancy up your nachos by using whatever you have leftover in your refrigerator.
Recommended: 25 Thrifty Ways to Save Money on Meat
Egg roll in a bowl: Cabbage is pretty cheap and one head of cabbage can make a lot of dinners. This is made with cabbage, some spices, and sausage.
It’s delicious, low carb, and a dirt-cheap meal. I found the recipe here.
Mac & cheese and hotdogs: This might be every kid’s favorite meal suggested by Lynda. A box of generic macaroni and cheese paired with a package of hot dogs on buns is less than $3 for the entire meal!
Tuna noodle casserole: Ray gave me his “recipe”. Can of cheap tuna, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a box of elbows, and the cheapest individually wrapped American cheese you can find, if you’re feeling rich, you double the cheeses, soup, and tuna.
Creamed peas and tuna fish on toast: Karen gave me this dirt cheap dinner recipe that I had not heard of before.
Make a roux. Flour, butter, and milk. Thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste, drain the peas and tuna, stir to break up the tuna, and it’s done. Serve over toast.
Rice and Sausage: Marci suggested this meal that sounds so yummy. I’m adding this to next month’s meal plan.
Cooked white rice, chopped onions, hotdogs, or sausage, sautéed the onions, and mix all together and finish cooking.
Pennies from heaven: My friend Janis’ husband called hot dogs in baked beans this. We always called it beanies and weenies!
Breakfast for Dinner: Many suggested this idea, including Marty. I love breakfast foods.
- Scrambled eggs, ham/chicken, toast, coffee, juice…
- Pancakes or French toast with eggs
- Eggs/omelets with home fries and toast.
Baked Potato Bar: I love this idea. Bake some potatoes and then set out all the toppings for everyone to fix their own potato.
Another item for the cheap college grocery list.
This is a great way to eat up leftovers like chili, bacon, sausage, chicken, or other vegetables. Top with cheese and sour cream!
Many of these meal ideas are one-pot meals meaning they have your protein, carbohydrate, and vegetable in one dish. Here are my suggestions if you would like to add some side dishes to any of these meals.
- Potatoes. Either white potatoes or sweet potatoes.
- Pasta. Ramen noodles are a super cheap pasta side dish.
- Salad. One of the salads listed above or a nice garden salad. Bonus points if you grew the salad ingredients yourself.
- Deviled eggs. A favorite around here. Add a little red bell pepper to the top to make it fancy.
- Canned or frozen vegetables. Whatever is cheaper at the grocery store.
- Bread. Garlic bread or just bread and butter. Biscuits also work.
Final thoughts on Dirt Cheap Grocery Meals
Finding good food to feed yourself and your family is a challenge when trying to get out of debt, save for a special occasion, or just find yourself short at the end of each month. I have included many ideas here and hope you find a few cheap grocery meals you can try.