Comfort food on the cheap

You’ve seen the commercials: A $1.00 box of macaroni and cheese serves three, a boxed dinner involving ground beef and pasta feeds a whole family for under $10. Sure, it’s easy to find cheap food. But staying on track with your healthy diet and tempting your taste buds on a demanding budget — well, that’s a little harder.

So what’s the trick? Look for recipes that use inexpensive ingredients and allow for some flexibility to “clean out the fridge” or add a few extras to vary the taste. If you’re looking for ideas, check out one of these tasty choices.

Taco Lentil Rice Casserole Recipe

Lentils and beans are staple foods in many regions of the world for good reason. Not only are they inexpensive, they’re packed with vitamins, fibre and protein. In a pinch, they can serve as a meat alternative and vegetable all in one, and they have a very long shelf life. Rice with lentils is a familiar recipe for frugal cooks, but to make it more interesting it’s all about the seasoning.

1/2 cup lentils
1/4 cup brown rice
1 envelope taco seasoning
3 cups broth

Pour all into casserole dish and cook at 300 degrees F for 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Serve on soft tortilla shells with traditional taco fixings. Also makes base for a taco salad. Serves four people.


Vegetarian Stew

There are many reasons stews are so popular: they’re hearty, they make great leftovers and they freeze well. To cut the costs even further, cut the meat out altogether. This easy stew recipe from uses inexpensive ingredients like rice, beans and cabbage:

1 can kidney beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion — thinly sliced
4 large clove garlic — minced
1 green bell pepper — coarsely chopped)
1 cup green cabbage — coarsely shredded
1/2 cup diced potatoes
16 ounces diced tomatoes — undrained
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
4 cups water or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in Crockpot. Cover; cook on low for 6 hours. Serves 6 people.

Vegetarian chili, white bean stews and lentil stews are also good alternatives for a heart and filling meal. For more recipe ideas using chick peas, beans and lentils, see Beans really are good for you.

Mushroom and garlic greens

Green, leafy vegetables are good for your health, not just your pocket book. To keep them from being bland, try this simple technique:

2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 tbsp butter (or margarine, canola oil or olive oil)
1 bunch spinach

Heat the oil in a frying pan, then sauté the garlic on low-medium heat for about one minute. Next, add the mushrooms and sauté until they are almost cooked. (If you need more liquid, add a little water or broth).

Finally, turn the heat down to low and add a generous helping of spinach and stir until cooked. This recipe will work for 2-4 people, depending on the amount of spinach you add. Remember, spinach will shrink considerably when cooked, so don’t be afraid to heap up the greens in the pan.

Another way to dress up spinach — or other greens like kale, rapini and turnip greens — is to steam them until wilted and top with a little butter or olive oil and a sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese.

Use-it-up Fruit Crisp

We’ve all had weeks where we’ve bought plenty of fruit which we intended to eat, but then it sat in the fridge. That’s the nice thing about a flexible apple crisp recipe: you can throw a whole variety of fruits into it. For example, substitute part of the chopped apples with peaches and pears or throw in a handful of those cranberries you’ve have leftover from the holidays.

1 cup oats
1/4 packed brown sugar
1/2 to 1 tsp cinnamon, depending on preference
2 tbsp flour (all-purpose, whole wheat or oat flour will work)
1/4 cup melted butter or margarine
6 cups fruit (at least 3 cups of this amount should be apples)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Chop fruit and spread evenly in an 8″ pan.

Combine dry ingredients and add melted butter. Mix well, then sprinkle evenly over the top of the fruit.

Bake for 30-35 minutes until the fruit is tender and the topping is golden. If you’re using softer fruits like peaches and berries, check the dish after 30 minutes. For crispy varieties of apples and pears, an additional five minutes may be necessary.

Depending on your taste, you can cut back the sugar a little if you’re using sweet (rather than tart) fruits, and add more cinnamon for a bit of kick.

Serve warm. To dress it up a little, try a drizzle of caramel sauce or a sprinkle of peanut butter flavoured chips.

(Adapted from recipes at

Recipe tips

– There are thousands of recession-proof recipes out there on the internet, but they might not be labeled as such. Look for ones that use cheap ingredients such as inexpensive cuts of meat, lentils, beans, leafy green vegetables, pasta and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

– On average, North Americans throw out an appalling amount of food because it went bad before it could be used up. Look for meal ideas like salads, soups and stir fries that are flexible enough to use up whatever is in your fridge.

– Try to avoid recipes that use overly processed convenience foods, and watch the sodium levels in canned products.

– Save on seasonings by skipping the spice aisle and buying bulk instead. If the recipe calls for fresh herbs, you can substitute in dried herbs (1 tbsp fresh equals one tsp dried).

– Dried legumes are even cheaper than canned ones and can often be substituted into recipes. (Sometimes the liquid is needed, so be sure to check if this is possible).

For more money-saving tips, see Cheap chow and What’s in your cart?

Got a favourite low cost meal? Suggest it in the comments.

Photo © Ed O’Neil

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