Thursday, January 21, 2016

Save Your Pennies : Cheap and Easy Meals

A delicious Southern-style meal.
I read some statistics the other day that said average Americans spend about $15 a day on eating out, and could save up enough money to go on a vacation in just a few months by cooking at home. Although I'm not sure how accurate this statement is, it does make me think about how many of my friends and co-workers go out to eat on a regular basis, and how much money they could be saving by just keeping a well stocked fridge and having some easy recipes. I've already covered a similar topic: Packing a Lunch, but I wanted to elaborate a bit on the importance of saving money where you can.

A tasty mixed drink.
For a real world example, I work for a national chain restaurant. The average cost per plate is around $13, and kids meals are between $4-5. Non-alcoholic drinks are about $2.25, beer costs between $3.00 and $6.75 depending on size and brand, and shots and mixed drinks can cost anywhere between $5.00-$9.00. My hypothetical family for this example consists of five people: dad, mom, and three kids. Dad orders a tall beer ($5.50) and a burger ($10.) Mom gets a strawberry daiquiri ($6) and a pasta dish ($11.) The two older kids get bigger kids meals ($5 each) and the youngest gets a smaller kids meal ($4.) That comes out to be over $46 dollars before tax and tip, and without ordering an appetizer or dessert. It's pretty easy to cook burgers and pasta at home, and the items on kids meals are typically easy to prepare at home as well (mac & cheese, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, etc.) Even at a fast food establishment you could spend $30 to feed 5 people. Imagine how much food you could make at home if you spent that money at the grocery store instead of at a restaurant.

Willie's Super Secret Cheater Ribs
So, where can you find cheap and easy recipes and meal ideas? Well, here, of course!

From the Kitchen 

My collection of "back of the package" recipes.

You can also check the back of boxes, bottles, cans and containers of food in your pantry! There are a lot of great recipe ideas to be found on the labels of food, and typically they are pretty inexpensive to make. Some of the best recipes come from the labels for baking ingredients (such as baking powder,) condensed soups, canned tomatoes, and pasta. Having free recipes to make baked goods, pasta, soups, casseroles, and side dishes using items you may already have on hand is great!

Chicken Rice-a-Roni with chicken breast, broccoli & cheese.
In addition to recipes there are "make it a meal" instructions on the back of side dishes like Rice-a-Roni or Pasta-Roni, and "stir in ideas" for livening up meal kits such as Hamburger Helper.
I really like these ideas. The "make it a meal" option allows you to add meat to your rice or pasta, and tells you how to adjust the ingredients and cook times to accommodate. It also suggests a stir-in or topping idea to round it all out.

Crunchy Taco Hamburger Helper with corn & hot sauce.
When I was growing up we ate Hamburger Helper quite often. It was one of my dad's go-to suggestion for what to eat for dinner. I hated it. Now, as an adult, it, and likewise Chicken Helper, is something we cook at our house fairly frequently. The difference? We use the suggestions from the "stir-in ideas" list, or we test out our own stir-ins and toppings. How you season the meat you are using also plays a role in keeping it interesting.

Chicken Patty Parmesan with hotdog bun garlic toast.
Last but not least, look in your pantry and your freezer to see what you have. Use your imagination! See what you can build! Use chicken patties to make Chicken Parmesan, English muffins, canned biscuits or pita bread to make pizzas, leftover chicken, turkey or roast beef to make "shit on a shingle" or shred it up to make tacos. There's all kinds of stuff you can make just by using what's in your house already!