Inexpensive Family Meals

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corn and avocado salad

I’ve been reading a lot about the rising cost of food. The general media is painting a fairly dim picture of the current state of food prices and accessibility, and Jennifer Maiser’s recent articles on BAB helped enlighten us about the politics behind these stories and the reactions to them. Anyone who has walked into a grocery store lately, however, doesn’t need to read about escalating prices to know they’re real. Food is simply more expensive, and feeding one self, let alone a family of four or five, is getting more cost prohibitive each day. So what is a parent who needs to feed a family on a fixed budget to do? Luckily, there are quite a few options out there for the frugal home chef.

Cost-effective home cooking can be simple and the results just as satisfying and flavorful as any high-cost dinner you make. You won’t be grilling any T-bone steaks or putting giant prawns on the barbie, but all types of meat are within reach as long as you choose the right cuts.

Following are three recipes that will feed a family of four, and may even provide some leftovers. One costs less than $5 to make, the next less than $10, and the last just over $10. The costs were calculated using a trip to my local farmer’s market (where I can often purchase a bunch of greens for only $1.00 or $1.50 each) and a trip to Trader Joe’s (which I think is the most affordable place to buy staples like canned beans, pastas, rice, and organic milk). I didn’t include prices for dried spices as they are often standard in any cupboard; also, the minor cost doesn’t really affect the final dollar amount much, so I opted against the extra math involved in calculating something like how much a teaspoon of cumin will cost. I’ve included one vegetarian, one chicken, and one beef recipe to cover all the bases (well, except fish).

Under $5
This vegetarian dish was a staple in my house when I was growing up and is something I frequently make for my family now. You can make this traditional Italian peasant dish year round with whatever greens are in season. It’s the cheapest meal of the three and probably also the healthiest. Be sure not to drain out all the pasta water as you’ll need some to finish off the dish.

Linguine with Greens and White Beans = $4.18

Ingredients
1 bunch of chard, broccoli rabe, mustard greens or any other leafy green ($1.50)
1 12 oz can white beans drained and rinsed ($.69)
2 cloves of garlic
¼ tsp crushed red pepper (if desired)
1 lb linguine ($0.99)
3 Tbsp olive oil
Some pasta water
Top with Parmesan cheese ($1.00)

Preparation
1. Cook linguine in salted water until al dente.
2. Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the olive oil and cook the garlic until lightly browned. If using the crushed red pepper, add it now.
3. Add the greens and partially cook until warmed through. If using a tougher green, add about a ¼ cup of water and cover to help cook the vegetable.
4. Add the beans and a little pasta water.
5. Stir thoroughly and cover for one minute.
6. Once the beans are heated through and the vegetables are wilted (but not soggy) add the cooked and drained pasta.
7. Add more water or olive oil if necessary.
8. Add salt to taste.
9. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Under $10
Chicken legs are the least expensive cut of chicken you can buy. As dark meat is far juicier than white, the legs are also one of the tastiest cuts and are great for barbecuing, roasting, or braising. Most kids also love drumsticks as they are easy to pick up and fun to eat. The following dish can be baked or barbecued. If you do the latter, be sure to set the potatoes on the grill in a pan and be careful not to overcook them. With a salad, this dish is a complete meal that is both filling and nutritious. The salad I’ve included is one of my favorite spring salads as it uses baby arugula, which is so perfect this time of year, and pink grapefruits, which add a lovely sweetness to the entire meal.

Roasted Balsamic Chicken and Potatoes with a Baby Arugula, Pink Grapefruit, and Candied Almond Salad = $9.75

Roasted Balsamic Chicken and Potatoes = $5.00

Ingredients
6 chicken legs (just under $2.00)
¼ cup olive oil (about $.50)
¼ cup balsamic vinegar (about $.50)
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
3 large russet potatoes halved and sliced into 1/4 –inch pieces ($1.50)
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley ($.50)

Preparation
1. In a large pan, mix the olive oil, vinegar, mustard and some salt and pepper. Marinate the chicken in the mixture for at least an hour or up to one day in the refrigerator.
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
3. Add potatoes to the pan with the chicken and mix in the marinade. Top with a little more olive oil if needed.
4. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove chicken from oven and top with chopped parsley.
6. Bake another 15 minutes or until done.
7. Serve.

Baby Arugula Salad with Pink Grapefruit and Candied Almonds = $4.75

Ingredients
1 medium bunch of baby arugula ($2.00)
1 large pink grapefruit, peeled and cut into ¼-inch pieces ($1.00)
½ cup unsalted almonds ($1.00)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp water
¼ cup olive oil ($.50)
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar ($.25)
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation
1. Heat almonds and sugar in a dry pan on medium-high heat.
2. Toast the almonds in the pan until the sugar starts to meld into the nuts.
3. Add the water and quickly stir so the sugar melts into the nuts. Turn off heat.
4. Wash and dry arugula and place in a large salad bowl.
5. Add chopped grapefruit (with its juices) and candied nuts.
6. Mix salad dressing ingredients thoroughly and then add to the salad.
7. Mix and serve.

Just Over $10

beef tacos

Beef, Poblano, and Potato Tacos with a Corn and Avocado Salad with a Lime-Cilantro Dressing = $10.53

I’ve been adding potatoes to my beef tacos for most of my adult life. It all started in my early 20s as an attempt to eat less red meat, while retaining the beef flavor in some of my favorite dishes. A food article at that time suggested cutting the beef in some recipes in half and adding potatoes for extra heft. I tried this with my tacos, and was surprised by how well the potatoes worked with the beef in corn tortillas and how nicely the flavors melded. Later, I decided to add some roasted poblanos to add even more flavor to the dish and loved the results. The salad I serve the tacos with uses fresh corn and avocado and has a lime and cilantro dressing that screams Mexico. Served with some canned black beans, you have a quick, hearty, and healthy meal. Parents should note that my daughters don’t like the poblano peppers much, but I think they taste great and so let them pick them out on their own.

Beef, Poblano, and Potato Tacos = $6.09

Ingredients
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
½ lb ground beef (I used Niman Ranch) ($3.00)
¼ red onion chopped ($0.25)
1 medium potato chopped into cubes ($0.50)
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp oregano
1 large poblano pepper roasted and peeled (see directions below) ($0.80)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro ($0.25)
¼ – ½ cup water
10 corn tortillas ($1.29)

Preparation
1. Heat oil in a large pan.
2. Add the onion, beef, and potato. Cook until both are mostly browned (around 5 minutes on medium heat).
3. Add the cumin and oregano and mix in thoroughly.
4. Deseed and chop the poblano pepper and then add it to the potato/meat mixture.
5. Add ¼ cup of water to deglaze the meat and potato bits on the bottom of the pan. Add more water if needed.
6. Add the cilantro and stir.
7. In a separate pan (I use a large cast iron pan), add the remaining tablespoon of oil. When hot, brown each tortilla on both sides.
8. Fill browned tortillas with beef mixture.
9. Serve with lime, sour cream, or crema if desired (these will add to the price of the dish, but are not necessary).

Corn and Avocado Salad with a Lime and Cilantro Dressing ($3.75)

Ingredients
2 ears of fresh corn ($2.00)
1 Tbsp chopped cilantro ($.25)
1 avocado chopped ($1.00)
Juice from 1 lime ($.50)
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preparation
1. Add all ingredients in a bowl and mix.

Can of Black Beans = $0.69
I like to serve this meal with some warmed black beans. A can costs 69 cents at Trader Joe’s. If you add this, the grand total goes a bit over $10 to $10.53, but it’s worth it.

How to Roast Poblano Peppers

Method One: On a gas stovetop
1. Turn a burner on high and set pepper on top of the grate.
2. Roast on all sides until the pepper’s exterior is completely charred.
3. Place in a paper bag and close tight for about five minutes. This will allow the skin to steam off.
4. Tear open bag and peel off the outer skin of the pepper (it should now come off very easily).

Method Two: In the oven
1. Turn on your broiler
2. Set your pepper on a pan and place on the top shelf under the broiler.
3. Char on one side thoroughly, and then turn over.
4. Char on the other side and then remove pepper from oven.
5. Place in a paper bag and close tight for about five minutes. This will allow the skin to steam off.
6. Tear open bag and peel off the outer skin of the pepper (it should now come off very easily).

Here are some links to other recipes that I thought looked good and seem to fall in the under $10 range. I have not actually added up the costs for these ingredients, but they look inexpensive to make. About a year ago, I made the falafel recipe and thought it was great. And, although I’ve never made the chickpea ragout, I completely trust all of Jacques Pépin’s recipes.

Falafel from Mark Bittman’s NY Times column
Chickpea Ragout from Jacques Pepin’s Food Made Fast site
Beans and rice from Recipe Zaar
Tofu and Bok Choy Stir fry from Epircurious

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, economy and food costs, kids and family, recipes

About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • http://ranchogordo.com Steve Sando

    These are all good ideas, but please don’t sell your readers short by suggesting they use canned beans. By the time you drain the liquid from your average can of beans (and it’s not a treasure as the liquid from homemade beans is), there aren’t a lot of beans and penny for pound, making your own beans is the same price, even with my heirloom beans. Cheaper still are homemade commercial beans but they are going to lack the depth of an heirloom variety. But both alternatives are preferably and financially comparable to canned. And if you’re busy, place unsoaked beans in a crockpot with a little olive oil and some aromatic vegetables in the morning and come home to fabulous cooked beans in the early evening.

  • kim laidlaw

    Thanks for so many yummy economical ideas for dinner! I have two inexpensive staples that are both delicious and super cheap: Spanish tortilla and Butternut-Chickpea Curry. Both involve only a handful of ingredients (for the tortilla you only need a couple of potatoes, onions, and eggs plus some olive oil; for the curry just a squash, an onion, a can of chickpeas, a can of coconut milk and a few Indian spices) and served with a simple mixed green salad, you are in heaven. Another way to save money is to always buy your spices in bulk. I frequent Rainbow Grocery, and only purchase what I need. It also ensures that my spices are very fresh.

  • http://www.spotsfordates.com Lando

    I’ve been trying to save some money by cooking at home as well. I found that Trader Joe’s offers a huge selection of great things to cook. Ever since I stopped by there I was hooked. Yesterday I cooked a dinner for my girlfriend that had mushroom puff pastries, alfredo, chicken sausage, and raspberry creme brulee, for all under $15. You can’t beat that price. Plus the food was tasty.