During difficult economic times, it's not always easy to find and prepare cheap meals for a family. Fast food meals may appear to be more economical than home-cooked meals, but the portion sizes are not always generous and the added expense of driving to and from a restaurant can make it even less economical. There are ways to find and prepare cheap meals for an individual or family on a limited budget, but it may require some advanced shopping and preparation planning.
Some cheap meals can be found in traditional grocery stores near the end of the business day. Deli items with limited shelf lives, such as fried chicken, prepared sandwiches and meatloaf, are often discounted for quick sales. Purchasing a discounted container of fried chicken or sliced meatloaf can save time and money, since the products have already been prepped and cooked. Other items suitable as side dishes, such as cold prepared salads or salad greens, may also be discounted for clearance. A judicious shopper who times his or her shopping trip to the right time and day can make cheap meals out of higher quality foods on discount.
Another popular form of cheap meals, especially for college students on extremely tight budgets, are processed foods which require no refrigeration prior to preparation. Ramen or yakisoba noodles, for example, are sold in dehydrated form and only require hot water for reconstitution. Basic ramen noodles can be purchased in bulk and stored indefinitely. Canned meats and packaged macaroni and cheese can also be prepared inexpensively. Peanut butter can also prove to be a cheap meal when accompanied by saltine crackers or low-cost sandwich bread.
For families, breakfast foods often make excellent cheap meals. French toast can be made from stale bread and basic staples such as milk, sugar, butter and eggs. Pancake mixes are relatively inexpensive and many only require water for batter preparation. Pancakes can be very filling for only a few cents per serving. Traditional oatmeal can also be purchased in bulk and stored almost indefinitely without refrigeration. Breakfast meats such as sausage and bacon can be found in discount grocery stores under economy brands, so serving breakfast for dinner can be a nutritious cheap meal.
Hamburgers can be extended with such inexpensive fillers as eggs, crackers or stale bread to make "poor boy hamburgers," Salisbury steak or meatloaf. Cheap meals can also be made from inexpensive cuts of meat and meat by-products, such as chicken livers and/or gizzards, chicken thighs, solid bologna and hot dogs. These food products are comparable to more expensive foods in terms of nutritive value, but they are not as popular with consumers so they are heavily discounted by grocers. A Boston butt pork roast, for example, is often sold for less than the price of bologna per pound, but can be seasoned to taste like the more expensive pork shoulder cut.
With the rising cost of food and a strained economy, many people may have to reconsider their current food budgets and find ways to prepare cheap meals which still provide good nutrition and flavor. This could mean purchasing lesser grades of current favorites or trying out less expensive alternatives with different types of foods. Many food packages feature recipe ideas for frugal cooks on limited budgets.