Just the other day my college aged babysitter asked me to send her several inexpensive, easy recipe ideas. She said she missed my cooking, but wanted to replicate it cheaply. :=)
Do I have any cheap meal ideas for her to use at school??!! Boy, do I ever!
I didn’t have to rack my brain very long for recipes that fit her request – most of the meals I make can be stretched a long way! What I did have to consider was her access to cooking utensils, pots and pans, etc. I think I came up with several go-to recipes for her to try out.
Quick & Easy Meals for Busy College Students
As she doesn’t have a ton of cooking experience, I recommended recipes that involve some sort of “cheat element” like bottled sauce or seasoning packets. Cooking from scratch is not for college students who don’t have the money to invest in all the individual ingredients they’d need to do so.
I also figured she doesn’t have time to waste preparing meals when she could be studying; even if she did, I’m sure she’d rather spend that time partying. 🙂
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Cheap Meals Anyone Can Make
Below is the email I sent to her. Feel free to take this and share it with a college student of your own!
I came up with five inexpensive dinner ideas for you based on meals you’ve had at my house. They are all easy to make and don’t cost very much per serving. You won’t need anything special to prepare these dinners; you can make them using your apartment’s stove and microwave plus the pots, frying pans, and cooking utensils I know you took to college this year.
I recommend investing in a few plastic food storage containers (you can get these at Dollar Tree). This way you can make a large batch of something and eat it many days in a row. If you are willing to eat leftovers, you will save a ton of money. 🙂
1. Spaghetti with Meat Sauce & Side of Veggies
What you’ll need:
- 1 can Del Monte pasta sauce…about $1 at Walmart
- 1 package if ground beef (about 1 lb)..should cost no more than $4
- Italian seasonings blend
- 1 small onion
- 1 tbsp oil (canola or vegetable oil is just fine)
** Cook spaghetti noodles according to the directions.
** Microwave veggies according to package directions. When done, sprinkle with a dash of salt and a dab of butter for flavor.
To make meat sauce:
1. Dice onions
2. In medium pan, sauté onions over medium heat until translucent and tender
3. Add beef and cook until halfway browned, breaking it up with a spatula as it cooks (beef will still be somewhat pink)
4. Drain beef and onion mixture to get rid of the grease
5. Put beef and onion mixture back in pan
6. Add can of pasta sauce and 2 tsp Italian seasoning, then simmer 10 minutes
Spoon sauce over noodles and enjoy! Makes approximately five dinner portions, which will be about $1-2 per meal!!
2. Fresh Takes Chicken Dinner with Salad or Veggies
If you want a quick way to make chicken you can serve with salad or veggies, Kraft Fresh Takes is the way to go.
Fresh Takes are pre-packaged blends of seasonings, cheese, and breadcrumbs in a plastic bag. You pay more for the pre-packaged aspect, but the convenience far outweighs the cost, in my opinion. Plus, as a college student on a budget, you will avoid having to purchase all of the individual spices necessary to get the same taste.
I won’t bother explaining how you make this – I’ll just link to the handy video Kraft already made for it! For this meal (and any meal where you need to bake chicken breasts), a general rule of thumb is cook the chicken for 30 minutes at 350 degrees…the chicken will be done when you cut into it and the juices run clear, not pink). Luckily, each Fresh Takes actually has a meat cooking guide on the packaging.
To make a complete meal, you can serve this chicken with a salad or side of veggies. Or you could put it on top of spinach, like in the video.
A Fresh Takes package costs about $2.99 full price, and one package will coat 6 or so boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2.5 lbs). If you buy a large pack of chicken at the store for $2.99 a pound, you could make 5-6 meals worth of chicken for $11. If the side costs approximately 50 cents each, each meal would be about $3.50. That’s a chicken dinner with a healthy side for less than the cost of a Happy Meal!
3. Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
I know you know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich and heat up a can of tomato soup, so I’ll spare you the details. : ) The key to making this super tasty is buttering the bread before you grill it. I also like to sprinkle Cajun seasoning on the outside of the buttered bread.
Store brand tomato soup tastes great and will be much cheaper than Campbell’s.
4. Stir Fry with Rice
I can’t remember if you’ve ever had my stir-fry before, but I’m sure you’ll like this. Again, if you can get boneless skinless chicken breast at a good price, go for it. Then, pick up a stir fry sauce packet from the Asian section of the grocery store. I happen to like this one by Simply Asia. All of the Simply Asia sauces are delicious; watch out, though, because they’re super salty!
What you’ll need:
- 1 packet sauce
- 1 bag of frozen stir fry veggies
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 2 cups cooked rice
**Cook rice according to directions
How to make the stir fry:
1. Slice chicken in thin strips (like they’d be cut in stir fry dishes in Chinese takeout).
2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a frying pan.
3. Sauté whole bag of veggies in the oil. Turn up temp to medium high to brown them slightly.
4. Scoot veggies over to one side of the pan and add chicken strips. Cook until done, about 4 minutes, turning half way through.
5. Add sauce and stir to combine.
Serve over rice.
5. Black Bean Quesadillas with Salsa and Sour Cream
What you’ll need:
- Flour tortillas
- Drained can of black beans
- Shredded cheese – Mexican blend, colby/jack, or any kind that sounds good to you or is on sale
- Cooking spray or butter
- Any veggies you’d like – You can use a package of frozen stir fry veggies here or cut up a sweet red pepper. Onions or mushrooms would be good, too (if you do that, make sure to sauté the onions or mushrooms before adding them to the quesadilla).
- Sour cream and salsa (any kind you like)
How to make it:
1. Heat a skillet to medium high.
2. Spray the skillet with cooking spray OR butter one side of two tortillas.
3. Place one tortilla (buttered side down, if applicable), on the pan.
4. Sprinkle on cheese, spread around a couple tablespoons of black beans, and layer on veggies.
5. Place a second tortilla on top and press down.
6. Cook until cheese has melted, turning to brown both tortillas.
Make as many as you’d like with the amount of ingredients you have – these will store easily in the freezer (wrap in plastic wrap) or in the fridge (in plastic wrap or a plastic container).
Serve with salsa and sour cream for dipping.
Adding Protein to Inexpensive Dinners
I use chicken a lot in my recipes because it’s an inexpensive source of protein, compared to beef or fish. Buy several pounds of it when you see it on sale and freeze what you don’t plan on eating within 4 days. $2.99 a lb is a great price. Regular price is about $4.99 lb.
If you want to cut out meat to save money, make sure to add another source of protein to make the meal more filling. Ideas are beans (black beans, lima beans, garbanzo beans), nuts, or even tofu.
More Tips for Making Cheap Meals
There are steps college students (or anyone, for that matter) can take to stretch their grocery store dollars. Here are some general rules I like to keep in mind as I plan weekly meals for the family:
- Get a grocery store flyer each week and plan your meals around sales.
- Buy store brands OR use coupons. You can save the most money with coupons, but that takes time each week. An easier method to save money is to buy store brands. They have everyday low prices, making the savings built-in.
- Remember that pre-made or pre-packaged costs more but you have to weigh that against the time you’ll save in meal preparation.
Finally, the key to making food taste good is proper seasoning and fats. If you make your food too bland, you won’t feel like eating it, and you’ll end up spending money on takeout packed with unhealthy ingredients and way too many calories. If you make your food properly appetizing in the first place, you’ll save calories and cash.
Inexpensive, Easy Meal Recipes for College Students and Everyone Else
I realize now that this email could have been sent to anyone who needs cheap dinner ideas. I think I’ll share it with my stay-at-home-mom group and see if anyone can add to the list.
Do you have any cheap meal ideas to add?
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