5 cheap meal ideas for when you’re on a budget

Here’s one major revelation I’ve had as an adult: groceries can be hella expensive! Proteins such as fish and meat, vegetables, fruits, condiments, and sauces – they all add up to a pretty penny!

My husband and I go grocery shopping once a week and it never fails to amaze me how expensive fresh produce can be at times. We avoid certain items such as grapes, avocados, and seafood like the plague because they’re simply too expensive. I’ve become particularly price-conscious since leaving my job last year to freelance from home.

I definitely earn far less than I did before and some weeks, nothing at all. A low bank balance worried me at first, but I recalled a piece of advice my father once told me, “A dollar saved is a dollar earned.” Naturally, I decided to start in the kitchen. In my previous job, I had a lot of preparatory work to settle at home after office hours and most days, we would eat take-out. Groceries may be expensive, but take-out can be even worse!

There had to be a way to cut down on our food expenses. So I started to buy ingredients that were affordable (e.g. aromatics, root vegetables, cheaper cuts of meat) and tried to make various cheap meals that gave me more bang for my buck. Over the past year, certain cheap meals have become a staple in our household and perhaps you’ll like them too.

Here are 5 cheap meal ideas for when you’re on a tight budget:

1. Fried rice

Of all the cheap meals out there, this has got to be my favourite! It’s incredibly versatile and quick to make. The only thing you truly need for this is leftover rice and the rest you can make up as you go. And yes, it’s got to be leftover rice unless you want to end up in Uncle Roger’s bad books!

I usually make lunch at home for myself and I find fried rice a quick and filling meal for one. On nights when my husband and I have rice, I try to cook extra and tuck it away in the fridge. Around noon the next day when my stomach starts to growl, I’ll make my way to the kitchen and whip up a super easy fried rice.

I’ve had this three times this week alone! I don’t get sick of it because I change it up every time. Start off with some aromatics such as garlic and chillies, then toss in any protein and vegetables you have in your fridge. Let it cook through then add any sauces, spices or seasoning of your choice before mixing in the leftover rice straight out of the fridge. And you're done!

For Chinese-style fried rice, I add mushrooms and cut-up sausages to bulk up the dish, season with soy sauce, and garnish with spring onions. I serve this with some kimchi on the side, YUM.

For Indian-style fried rice, I add some curry powder, garam masala, and chilli powder instead. This works quite well with canned tuna, a wonderfully cheap and satisfying protein option!

2. Pasta

This is a hearty meal option that’s friendly on your wallet. Buy a packet of dried pasta and a jar of tomato sauce (or make your own with fresh tomatoes if you prefer) for a quick and easy dinner after work. Throw in some chicken, carrots, and mushrooms into the sauce for a balanced one-pot meal.

If you want to jazz up the usual pasta with tomato sauce, make some homemade meatballs over the weekend to enjoy for dinner on weeknights. Ahh, is there anything more comforting than meatballs smothered in tomato sauce on a bed of spaghetti?


3. Stir-Fry

This is my go-to one-pot dinner for two. It’s fast, easy, and works with whatever you have on hand. You can make a stir-fry with chicken, fish or tofu and throw in other vegetables that you have in your fridge – carrots, beans, mushrooms, broccoli, etc. For chicken, I opt for breast pieces and for fish, I go with frozen fillets as these tend to be cheaper.

For a flavour boost, I start off with aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and chillies. I add some delicious sauces (soy and oyster) to amp it up further. These bottled sauces can be a little pricey, but you only use a little at a time, so it can last you for months.

Serve this with some rice and you’ve got yourself a hearty and satisfying weeknight dinner ready in under 30 minutes!

4. Chicken chop

This western classic usually costs a pretty penny when we dine out, but it’s fairly inexpensive to recreate at home. You can buy chicken chop cuts from your local grocer for this. Marinade those cuts in soy sauce, honey/brown sugar, garlic, chilli, salt, and coarse black pepper for at least 30 minutes. Pan fry them for about 9 to 10 minutes on each side.

Of course, what’s a chicken chop dish without some delicious sides! When we’re feeling lazy, my husband and I just chop some carrots and broccoli and steam them in the microwave before adding salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

When we’re feeling ambitious, we also make some mashed potatoes. We boil, peel and mash the potatoes before adding some butter, milk, salt, and pepper.

This is a great Friday-date-night-at-home option during this pandemic. It’s a bit of work, but trust me, it’s worth it!

5. Ramen or Maggi

I know this is kind of an obvious one, but hear me out! There’s so much you can do with ramen or Maggi. Instead of the usual instant noodles, make a ramen noodle stir fry (also known as Maggi goreng in Malaysia).

Cook and drain the noodles. Toss them into a wok with anything you have on hand – chicken, tofu, eggs, vegetables. Throw in some soy sauce and the flavouring packet too. This is a great way to make the usual instant noodles a little more balanced and filling.


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Do give these cheap meal ideas a try. Food is meant to give us the nourishment we need to go out there and make our mark in the world. A tight budget doesn’t have to get in the way of that!

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Hi, I’m Vidhya. I’m a freelance writer and millennial who often struggles with adulthood.

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