5 Real Food Budget Meals (approximately $15 each)

By blog team member, Kiran. To learn more about Kiran, check out our team page or her blog!


Eating real food on a budget is a real issue. As a reader recently pointed out, there are some families that have a food budget of $125 -$150 for the week, including meals, snacks, etc., and others who have a lot more or a lot less. And yes, there’s the fact that not everyone has access to local, seasonal and/or organic foods – but that’s a topic for another day. Not to mention many families include two parents who work outside the home or a single parent who works.

No matter the situation, though, we’re all striving for the same goal: getting good-quality food on the table every night and feeding our families well. So, whether your weekly food budget is $125 or $275, I hope you’ll find the following real food budget meals helpful and easy on the wallet. Each can feed a family of four, and each is $15 or under (with two notes, since we use some of the food twice during the week).

I also tried to make these meals not too labor intensive – something I know everyone can appreciate. Though there are times I’m ready to bust out the homemade pierogies or spring rolls, many times I’m racing to have any old solid meal on the table that can either be prepped in advance or made in 30 minutes. I guess that’s just life.

Note: I did not add in costs for salt, pepper, and olive oil, as I’m assuming most people have those in their pantries. My apologies if this is an incorrect assumption. Now let’s take a peek at the meals!

Meal #1: Black Bean Pasta with Marinara Sauce and Broccoli

Minimizing your meat intake is a sure-fire way to cut costs. And using black bean pasta is a great way to add beans in a different form – a great way to up your fiber (which can help fill you up) while adding some variety to your meal. Trader Joe’s recently debuted an organic version which you can always find in my pantry. Top this off with some jarred marinara and cook up some broccoli on the side for a super fast dinner option.

Note: black bean pasta does not taste exactly the same as whole wheat pasta, but I encourage you to try it. And for those who don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, you can find another brand at Amazon.

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages of Trader Joe’s organic black bean rotini – $2.99/each = $5.98
  • 1 jar of Trader Joe’s organic marinara (or brand of choice) = $2.49
  • 1 bag frozen organic broccoli = $2.79

>>Meal total: $11.26<<

Follow package directions for preparing pasta and top the cooked pasta with marinara. Follow package directions for preparing broccoli.

Meal #2: Chicken Salad Sandwiches with Baby Carrots and Banana

The Chicken Salad of My Childhood on 100 Days of Real Food

Canned chicken does the trick in making this meal a quick one to get on the table. And while carrots and bananas may not be the fanciest of sides, they add in a serving of vegetables and fruit and up the full factor, too.

Ingredients:

  • 2 5-ounce cans Valley Fresh Organic Chicken – $2.60/each = $5.20 (or pay $4.74 for 10 ounces with Amazon Prime)
  • 1/4 cup relish or finely diced pickles = $3.40/jar
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise  = $2.98/jar
  • 1 loaf whole-wheat bread (I got mine at Great Harvest Bread, but feel free to purchase whatever is most accessible for you) = $5.60*
  • 1 bag organic baby carrots = $1.50
  • 4 bananas = $0.80

>>Meal Total: $19.48<<

*You will also use the bread for meal #4.

Follow our recipe for the Chicken Salad.

Meal #3: Cheeseburger with Sliced Tomatoes and Fruit

You may think I’m a little bizarre with this, but I always add in a handful of oats to my burgers. I do this because it stretches the meat mixture, and I like adding in some solid whole grains to the mix. I realize that this recipe is about as basic as it gets, but we’re talking time and money here, so I’m keeping it simple. Feel free to dress this up as you see fit.

One more thing to note is the meat. If you can, choose local or organic ground beef. If you don’t have access to it or you simply need to cut costs, get what is available in this order: look for local, next look for organic, and next look for grass fed. You’ll notice that we go over the desired $15 for this meal, but we are going to use half the cheese in the next meal.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound grass-fed ground sirloin = $4.99 (I got this on sale at Earth Fare; Costco apparently has organic ground beef for $4.66/lb.)
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats = $0.42
  • 1 egg = $0.41
  • Salt/pepper to taste
  • Whole wheat buns = $4.49
  • 1 package of cheese = $4.49*
  • 2 organic tomatoes = $1.80
  • 1 melon or fruit of choice (Buy what’s in season and what’s on sale.) =$2.00

>>Meal Total: $18.60<<

*You will use half in this meal and the other half in meal #4.

Prepare burgers by mixing the beef with the oats, egg, salt, and pepper before grilling/cooking. Top with cheese (optional) and tomato slice and place on buns. Serve with fruit on the side.

Meal #4: Grilled Cheese with Roasted Carrots and Cauliflower and Corn

How to Roast Vegetables (Cauliflower & Carrots) from 100 Days of Real Food

This is where having a plan comes in handy. We already have a loaf of whole-wheat bread from meal #2, and we have cheese slices from meal #3. I don’t know about you, but this is just screaming grilled cheese to me! It’s also screaming simple, which I love to hear.

Ingredients:

  • Whole-wheat bread (from meal #2) = no charge since cost was incurred already
  • Cheese slices (from meal #3) = no charge since cost was incurred already
  • 1 pound organic carrots (I prefer cutting them into sticks to roast, but if time is an issue, use baby carrots and adjust cost) = $0.99
  • 1 head organic cauliflower = $3.99
  • 4 ears corn on the cob = $2.00

>>Meal total: $6.98<<

Follow our recipes for the Grilled Cheese and Roasted Veggies. Boil the corn for 10-12 minutes before enjoying.

Meal #5: Baked Sweet Potatoes with Garlic-Sautéed Kale and Goat Cheese

This is another meatless meal that is quick to prepare, filling, and full of those bright colors we love.

Ingredients:

  • 4 large organic sweet potatoes = $6.90
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped = $.20
  • olive oil
  • 1 bunch kale = $0.99
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 4-ounce container goat cheese = $6.99

>>Meal total: $15.08<<

To prepare, pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork and place on a baking sheet. Cook in a preheated 450° F oven for 45 minutes – 1 hour until a knife can be inserted easily.

In the meantime, remove stems from  kale and chop. In a large skillet, sauté garlic in olive oil for 1 minute. Add kale and cook for 3 – 5 minutes, until kale is cooked through and wilted.

When potatoes are cooked and still hot, slice them open and top with sautéed kale and goat cheese.

What’s your favorite budget-friendly or time-saving meal – either one from above or another idea that you can share?

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23 thoughts on “5 Real Food Budget Meals (approximately $15 each)”

  1. Homeschoolingmama

    I am not sure how a $15 meal fits a $125 a week budget. If the $125 includes all foods, snacks, etc, this just isn’t feasible. I love your site and make many of your recipes, but I still don’t find these to be budget friendly. My husband lost his job and is now working a minimum wage job. Spending $15 on a meal is a splurge for my family and certainly couldn’t be done for more than one or two meals a week. Again, this isn’t to criticize, but to point out that it is important to be sensitive as there are many who don’t think $15 a meal is a budget meal.

    1. Hi,
      I appreciate your candor. With a total of $75 devoted to these dinners, we were hopeful that $50-$75 could be spent on the other items. Perhaps you consider 2-3 of these meals and supplement with other items? Or use the Dirty Dozen listing to determine which fruits/veggies to buy organics and don’t do organics with the rest; that will help cut costs, too. I hope this helps!!
      Kiran

      1. To put the $125 a week for food into perspective, note that there are 21 meals each week, If you are eating 3 meals a day. So if you divide $125 by 21 that leaves an average of $5.95 per meal. We haven’t even left anything for snacks. So $15 a meal would be a splurge.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Lisa often buys here bun from Great Harvest Bread Co. You can also find sprouted grain buns in the frozen section.

  2. I live in Vancouver Canada, we have a lot of ethnic food options here. Are there any clever affordable recipes you have – that don’t kill the budget but give a little spice to foods :)

    When I do curry, it gets pretty expensive pretty fast- meats, spices, onions, garlic (all in organic) etc etc add up, and the really simple recipes just don’t do the flavour justice.

    Any tips?

    Thanks! :)

    1. Hi Lazina! I love cooking foods with lots of spices, and this is one of my favorites – I even leave out the tofu just because I don’t usually have it on hand, and it is sooo delicious (my husband even says so!). I also will add other veggies if I have them on hand: http://bit.ly/29tPeN8

      I also LOOOOVE this palak paneer recipe. I make it almost every week, and have subbed in radish tops, kale, or any greens I have on hand: http://f52.co/29tPhc1. I also tend to leave out the paneer (which I know is weird, since that’s basically a main component of the dish), but my husband and I are on a pretty strict grocery diet and I don’t want to buy anything extra. It is filling enough for us though, and seriously so good!

      And just to add – I would say a huge component to flavor without breaking the bank is having spices on hand. It might be a little pricey up front but they last so long! My favorites are curry powder, cumin, coriander, ginger (powdered, but fresh can be peeled really easy with a spoon & kept in the freezer to grate when needed!), and dehydrated garlic (as I find the flavor to be more potent). I think having a well stocked spice cabinet can make almost any food taste great without breaking the bank!

      Hope this helps! :)

  3. We were recently introduced to Venezuelan arepas. The fillings are varied but our favorite “La Reina Pepiada” got us started mixing avocado with shrimp as well as chicken and we are eating it on top of salad as well as in the pocket made of white corn flour. It is so easy to toss a can of chicken breast with avocado, mayo, garlic, onion, and some white cheese. I divide it up into servings, jar it and take it with me to work.

  4. Thanks for the tip on the bb pasta! My go to meal that everyone likes and is cheap is chzburgers+rice+carrots/broc. Nothing fancy. My next is pasta but the 2 yo is on strike (she has refused to eat for 24 hrs before and in the face of her sisters eating ice cream-she’s tough)

  5. Sharon the carrots and bananas are “side” dishes as she states. The ingredients for the chicken salad is shown. Just mix the chicken with the mayo and relish.

  6. I appreciate all the advice and ideas, but I’m having problems finding the referred to recipes – the link to Grilled Cheese doesn’t have a ‘recipe’ and there is no link in your recipe index. Same for the Chicken Salad with the carrots and bananas – I guessed that the carrots should be finely chopped and the bananas mashed – are they replacing the mayo?
    Navigation is a bit challenging when you say to use another recipe that isn’t linked correctly or at all.
    Sharon

    1. Hi Sharon – The post links to the chicken salad recipe at https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2016/05/23/chicken-salad-childhood/ and is listed in the recipe index. The carrots and bananas are a side items (“And while carrots and bananas may not be the fanciest of sides…”).

      The Grilled Cheese links to a video showing how to prepare it here https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2014/10/28/make-perfect-grilled-cheese/. Main ingredients are butter, bread, and cheddar cheese, but for a really tasty grilled cheese we also use Parmesan cheese (per the video). – Jason

  7. Just wanted to point out that for those willing to invest a bit of time (bake ahead of time and freeze etc) or garden(a couple pots on a patio even can significantly reduce costs) or have chickens the cost for each of these meals can easily be cut in half- my hubby would have a heart attack if we bought all those foods pre-packaged at those prices! :-) And while “organic” is good, home grown is the only way to insure truly clean food. Plus, much easier to trace and source single ingredient foods from the soil to packaging. Once you get used to making your own organic breads(even gluten free etc), your own yogurt, free ranging your own chickens,(or bartering with those that do) you can make the “cleanest” food for much cheaper then organic “pre-made” convenience food. I know a lot of ladies who are stay at home Mom’s who “have the time” but opt for Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods etc – which is fine, but there are a whole lot of people with time on their hands who could be eating better for less if they wanted to-

  8. These look awesome, Kiran! So many of us are looking for quick (and very simple) meal ideas. Your sweet potato meal reminded me of one I make:
    ~Baked sweet potatoes
    ~2 cups of salsa heated with 1 can of rinsed/drained black beans
    ~Green onion, diced avocado and cheese (optional) or plain Greek yogurt (optional)
    Bake sweet potatoes. Heat salsa and black beans in a sauce pan. Top each sweet potato with the salsa/bean mixture. Top with onion, avocado, cheese and yogurt.

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      What a great idea, Katie! We actually just got back from a few days at the beach, and I’m scrounging for food to make before heading to the store. Ironically enough, I have some sweet potatoes that I bought before leaving, fresh tomatoes and jalapeños from the garden (salsa) and a can of black beans. Oh, and cheese! Dinner will be easy tonight – thank you!! :)

    2. Ooh that sounds good. I have a teenager who’s avoiding dairy to see if her acne clears up, and I was trying to figure out a good alternative to the goat cheese. This will work!

      1. I do this with sweet potatoes adding a soft-cooked egg and avocado, broccoli or chopped bacon. I also avoid dairy.

  9. I think that price is one of the biggest deterrents from people eating healthy. It’s sad that an apple is more expensive than a candy bar. Thank you so much for sharing these delicious and inspiring recipes!

  10. Lisa, I love your blog and the book. Your blog is my favorite of all-times. I read your book and thought you suggested to look for grass-fed or gras-finished beef beore organic? Costco only carries “organic” which means they are probably fed organic corn. Is it ok to purcase those from Costco for the price? Please answer! Thanks.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. I (Amy) do buy organic meats from Costco. While I realize they are not perfect, I am confident that the organic choices at Costco are a better choice than non-organic options. I do seek out grass-fed as well but it is not always feasible for me. Hitting multiple grocery stores is not always an option in my schedule. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, is a motto I live by. :)

  11. I couldn´t agree more with you! You can prepare and eat delicious stuff in a very cheap manner ;) So thanks for sharing.

    I´ve been following also the recipes from Barilla Restaurants! (www.barillarestaurants.com/menu) as they´re healthy, delicious and very affordable as well! Have you checked them?

    Thanks!

    Jackie

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