Whether you’re saving money, sticking to a budget, or just flat broke sometimes, it’s a good idea to try and stick with a meal plan. Food tends to be the budget item that can get way out of control if you aren’t careful. So what do you eat? I’ve got a list of frugal meal ideas that you’ll actually enjoy eating.
Meal planning saves money. You don’t buy tons of ingredients you won’t use and you don’t end up throwing good food in the trash. Saving money on groceries is one of those things that takes commitment and planning but it can be done.
It takes some time to get into a routine and it’s helpful if you can plan out your week ahead of time. Not planning – That’s when I always blow it. If I don’t plan, I end up either wasting food or hitting up a drive-through or restaurant too often.
Lately, I’ve been coming up with a few meal ideas that make large portions that we can eat for leftovers and don’t cost an arm and a leg or 4 hours in the kitchen to prepare. I don’t have the time or the desire for all that mess. I’ve got two kids, a husband, a job, and planning our week makes juggling all that easier.
Frugal Meal Ideas You’ll Actually Enjoy Eating!
Let me preface this by saying I’m not a food blogger. I don’t have amazing food pics and exotic recipes to share with you, but I do have budget-friendly meals that work well for a family. I’m a busy mom and I’ve got 4 mouths that get hungry seven days a week! The costs of these meals will vary depending on where you live and sale prices of food that week.
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Helpful Food Prep Products to Save Time
There are a few things that help with meal prep and I’m relying on them more and more to save my money and my sanity. These aren’t necessary by any means, but they sure are helpful.
- Instant Pot – It took me a while to get on the Instant Pot bandwagon. And I’ll admit that when I finally got one and unpackaged it for the first time, I was a bit overwhelmed. But. It’s a game-changer. It’s quick, easy, and clean up is a breeze. If you’re on the fence, jump. I can’t believe it took me so long.
- Slow Cooker/Crockpot – Another major time saver when you’re meal prepping for the week. You can use the crockpot for one meal and the stove for another at the same time. And your house will smell amazing with a crockpot simmering full of delicious food.
- Dutch Oven – Another one that I missed out on having for years. I rely on the dutch oven for several go-to meals and although it’s a beast as far as weight goes, it makes the best roast you’ll ever eat!
- Meal Prep Containers – Frugal meal ideas usually include leftovers. I have no issues eating leftovers and it saves me time and money. Cook once, eat several times. I use these meal prep containers each week when I make my lunches for the week. I like the divided sections to keep my food from mixing all together. They are dishwasher safe and easily stack for storage. If you prefer not to use plastic, these glass meal prep containers are an option as well.
Frugal Meal Ideas for Lunch and Dinner
Lunch. If I skip planning lunch, I’m guaranteed to blow my budget and eat entirely too much crap that I don’t need.
There. I said it. My willpower sucks and I’ve learned that I need to stick with my plan or I’m too easily swayed towards food that should be limited to every now and then. Not five days a week. My pants are getting too tight so I’ve been on a mission to stop this garbage of shoving food in my mouth I shouldn’t be eating.
My husband does his own meal planning for lunch – he sticks with mainly frozen meals or protein shakes. My kids are 12 and 9 and they both pack lunches for school. The 12-year-old makes his own with either leftovers, a sandwich, fruit, and a treat. My 9-year-old writes out what she wants each day and it makes it super easy to throw hers together in the morning. She takes a sandwich, salad or leftovers, fruit, and a treat. They pretty much stick with the same thing for school days and they’re completely fine with it.
So that leaves me to prep lunches for. Of course, your household may be different and it wouldn’t be hard to make enough for my husband to have the same meals as me.
I’m combining ideas for lunch and dinner budget meals because most of them are interchangeable and we eat a lot of leftovers.
Instant Pot BBQ Pork Tenderloin
This pork recipe makes a ton. Use the Instant Pot and it takes only one hour to cook delicious pulled pork and it reheats perfectly. This is in our meal rotation frequently because it’s so easy, all of us love it, and it’s a budget-friendly meal.
- Total Cost – $22 (this is assuming you have to buy every single ingredient and have nothing on hand)
- Pork tenderloin – I only buy it on sale and it’s around $10-12 for about 3 pounds
- Other ingredients – chicken stock, apple cider vinegar, buns, oil, and BBQ sauce – around $12
- Makes 8-10 servings
- This meal makes enough for all 4 of us to have dinner one night and then at least 4-6 more meals later in the week. And it’s filling so you don’t need a ton of sides with it.
Cost per Serving = $2.75
Honey Garlic Chicken
I recently made this dish from Family Fresh Meals using the Instant Pot and it is amazing. It reheated perfectly. It’s full of flavor and so easy to make. This is another one that took so little time and it’s now on my repeating list.
- Total Cost – $26 (again, this is assuming you have zero staples on hand. The cost will likely be less if you already have items like ketchup, garlic, onions, soy sauce, and cornstarch).
- I factored in the cost of rice and broccoli because that’s what I used for my meal prep to go with the chicken.
- Makes 6-8 servings. If I use 4 chicken breasts, I get 8 servings.
- This makes dinner for 4 of us and then an additional 4 meals for my lunches during the week.
- It’s become one of my favorites – it stays full of flavor and doesn’t dry out so it was just as good at the end of the week as when I made it on Sunday.
Cost Per Serving = $3.25 each
Anytime you can turn a regular dish into a casserole sized meal, it’s a win-win for the frugal meal plans and your time. My family loves spaghetti so every now and then I make this one in a 13×9 dish and increase the ingredients to increase the number of servings. I use at least a pound and a half of ground beef and a jar and a half of sauce for this one.
There is no special recipe for this one. Whatever your favorite way to make spaghetti is the way you should make it. Cook the meat and sauce. Boil your noodles. Mix them all together in a large pan and then pour 1/2 into a 13×9 dish. Layer in a bit of grated mozzarella and parmesan. Add the remaining meat sauce/noodle mixture and top with more cheese. Bake in a 375-degree oven for about 10-12 minutes.
- Total Cost – $16.50 This assumes you need to buy all the ingredients and I also added in a $1 loaf of bread and a $2 salad bag. This will depend on your area and how many ingredients you need for your spaghetti.
- Makes at least 8 servings
- Even if you increase your ingredients to include more veggies or different sauces, your cost per serving is still going to give you a very frugal meal.
- This one also reheats perfectly so it’s a perfect leftover meal.
- You can also experiment with different types of noodles, meats, and sauces to change the flavors of this one just like you would your spaghetti.
Cost Per Serving = $2.06 each
Tacos or Taco Salad
Tacos are a staple around here. My kids love them just as much as we do and you can make a large portion of tacos that will be just as good leftover. I generally eat them as regular tacos with shells on the first night, then as taco salads for my leftovers simply because it’s easier without the shells when I’m at work.
- Total Cost = $18.00
- Ingredient costs will vary depending on the type of meat you use. We make around 2 pounds of 80/20 ground beef which runs about $10 give or take a bit.
- Other ingredients – shells, sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and seasoning make up another $8 or so.
- Makes 8-10 servings
- This is another meal that we eat for dinner one night, then everyone eats it for lunch the next day. My kids can take taco meat in a thermos to school and add the toppings when it’s time to eat.
Cost Per Serving = $2.25 each
Vegetable Beef Stew
Another favorite around here is vegetable beef stew. It’s healthy, delicious, and makes a ton. This is one I use my dutch oven for and it simmers perfectly every time. Not to mention the house smells amazing the whole afternoon while you cook.
- Total Cost – $29.00
- The cost will come down if you use less meat. However, my husband and kids prefer more meat so I use at least 3 pounds of beef stew meat when making this one.
- There are lots of ingredients when you add in all the yummy veggies and it does take a bit of prep time. I also factored in the cost of either saltine crackers or corn muffins to serve with the stew.
- This one makes at least 10+ servings.
- It reheats the best in a pot on the stove, but I have no problems using the microwave either. This one is another meal that my kids will take in a thermos to school for lunch.
Cost Per Serving = $2.90 each
Frugal Meal Planning
So of course if you made all of these meals in one week, the ingredients would add up significantly, but you’d have at least 40 meals with a cost per serving of around $2.83 per meal.
You can’t eat fast food for $2.83 per meal and it wouldn’t taste near as good if you did.
I don’t make each of these every week. A good idea is to pick one from a list that gives you at least 8 servings. Eat it for dinner one night, then use the rest for lunches. On the other days of the week for lunch, I usually have a sandwich and fruit, or salad.
My definition of frugal meal ideas is this – I need foods that are filling and that I can use for multiple meals. If you struggle at the thought of eating leftovers, then these might not be for you. But eating leftovers keeps us on track with our spending when it comes to cheap or frugal meal planning.
Tips for Frugal Meal Prepping
- Plan ahead – take 30 minutes and sit down and make a meal plan for every meal of the week. When you plan, you are far more likely to stick to your plan and you save money.
- Make a favorites list – Keep a running list of your favorite meals that you can easily pull from when you’re bored of the same old things.
- Eat leftovers. Try and think of it as throwing cash into your trash can each time you throw food away.
- Have a few meatless meals. If I make any of the meals listed above, there will probably be a day or two that I skip out on meat at lunches. This cuts down on costs as well.
- Have a meal prep day. Use a day to cook most of the meals if possible. This doesn’t work for all schedules, but if you can sneak in some time to shop, prep, and cook on the same day, you’ll end up saving time for the rest of the week. I’ll be honest – sometimes, I’m just not feeling it and don’t want to spend several hours shopping, chopping, peeling, cooking, and prepping. But those are the weeks I always overeat and overspend.
- Shop sales – I don’t mean you have to go to 10 different stores although this works for some people. But if you see staples on sale that you’ll use in your weekly meals, get them. Or check the sales first and make your meal plans around what’s cheapest that week.
I’ll keep adding to this list as I continue my meal prepping and attempting to stick with frugal meal ideas. If you’ve got any great ones – send them my way to melissa at createandfind dot com – I’d love to hear from you and share your ideas!