WHAT'S FOR DINNER
To keep dinners cheap and easy, start by selecting a few staples, such as eggs, cheese, noodles, and bread, that can be used in many different ways. Then plan dinners for the week around these items, accounting for leftover ingredients from previous nights and knowing when to buy a little more of something for an upcoming dish. Choose meals that can be adapted for everyone in the family, so each person isn't eating something different. And choose dishes that are hearty enough to keep everyone from snacking a couple of hours later. A few minutes of planning can save time and keep the food budget within bounds. Here's a sample menu of cheap, filling dinners, including alternatives for picky kids.
MONDAY: PASTA PRIMAVERA
A box of pasta (whatever is on hand or cheapest at the market), some garlic, oil, and sautéed vegetables make a fresh, cheap, and seasonal dinner. A 1-pound box costs as little as $1 and can easily feed a family of four (even more if there are young children at the table). As for the veggies, the season's harvest is beginning, and asparagus and peas should be abundant and affordable. For families with a vegetable garden, anything goes in this versatile meal.
KID-FRIENDLY PASTA PRIMAVERA
Letting children pick out the vegetables and their favorite pasta shape should make this dish appealing. Consider sautéing a separate batch of vegetables to include two or three the kids are sure to eat. Using equal parts pasta water and marinara sauce as suggested on Simply Recipes, and possibly a sprinkling of cheese, can make dinner seem more like a pasta dish than a veggie one. Sauce adds only $2 to $3 and may be the difference between a fight and a clean plate.
Related: 13 Ways to Use Pasta
TUESDAY: FAJITA QUESADILLAS
Leftover sautéed vegetables from Monday's pasta dinner can be transformed into a Mexican feast with cheese and tortillas (about $3 for a pack of 10). Fold the ingredients into a tortilla and grill in a skillet on the stovetop, a countertop grill, or even an outdoor grill. Use spices such as chili powder, paprika, onion powder, and cayenne pepper to liven up the flavor. Serve with a side of Mexican rice or chips and salsa to round out this inexpensive dinner.
The best part of cooking quesadillas is that the ingredients can be customized to every member of the family without extra effort on the chef's part. Put out an array of options and let everyone fill their tortilla with the cheese and toppings of their choice. Even if cheese is the only preferred filling, a quesadilla is a filling meal that can satisfy a young appetite on a budget.
Related: 16 Budget-Friendly Mexican Dishes
WEDNESDAY: CHICKEN KEBABS
A 3-pound bag of frozen chicken generally costs less than $10 and can be used for multiple meals. (Keep an eye out for sales to stock up on this staple.) Thaw a couple of pieces, cut into cubes, and marinate in Italian dressing (about $2 to $3 for 16 ounces) to keep the chicken tasty and moist. Complete the kebabs with pineapple, mushrooms, peppers, onions, or other vegetables, to add nutrition and make the chicken go further, and fire up the grill. Not much is needed to accompany the protein -- a can of pineapple chunks (less than $1) and two green peppers (less than $3 total), along with a bed of rice, make for a tasty meal.
Once the kebabs are cooked, remove the meat and veggies from the skewer and serve with a child's favorite condiment -- magically, dinner resembles a healthier, cheaper alternative to chicken nuggets. To really mimic a fast food meal, bake some sliced sweet potatoes as a nutritious take on french fries.
Related: 10 Cheap and Easy Chicken Recipes
THURSDAY: GRILLED CHICKEN WRAPS
Thaw more frozen chicken and use more tortillas from the pantry for chicken wraps. Set out an array of condiments and let everyone do their own filling and wrapping. Some may want only chicken and cheese (about $4 or so for a bag of shredded Monterey Jack), while others might want to add jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, mayo, barbecue sauce, or even feta and black olives. Each wrap can have a totally different flavor and be served hot or cold, depending on the ingredients inside. If there's extra lettuce in the fridge, serve a simple green salad alongside, with the Italian dressing.
FRIDAY: GRILLED CHEESE
A $2 loaf of bread serves many purposes. In this case, adding sliced cheese of your choice (such as a half-pound brick of mild cheddar for about $3) creates a dinner that is yummy and budget-friendly. The bread-and-cheese combo is probably enough to satisfy the kids, but some embellishments will enhance the appeal. Again, lay out options for everyone to build their own sandwich. Use veggies left from earlier in the week, or turn to bacon (about $6 a pound, but a few slices will do), avocado, or pickles. Get creative with this one.
SATURDAY: BAKED TILAPIA
Frozen fish is affordable and makes for healthy and easy meals. Tilapia (about $10 for 2 pounds) takes on any flavor profile a chef wants. Try chili and lime, salt and pepper alone, or fajita seasoning from earlier in the week for more of a kick. Instant rice, (preferably brown, to up the nutrition quotient) and a vegetable side -- maybe a steamed head of broccoli (about $3) -- help stretch this dinner with very little money or effort.
Fish sticks are a typical kid favorite. Cut the tilapia in strips after cooking and serve with tartar sauce or ketchup. Tilapia tends to flake easily, so picking up the strips like sticks may not work well, but fresh fish is a much more nutritious and budget-friendly alternative to processed, boxed fish sticks. Instead of steaming the side dish, roast the vegetable until it caramelizes, taking on a sweeter flavor.
SUNDAY: CHICKEN FRIED RICE
The box of instant rice should be sufficient for one more meal -- this time larded with Asian flair. Add all sorts of goodies to the rice -- vegetables, eggs, leftover chicken (or some from the frozen stash) -- to mimic Chinese takeout at a fraction of the price. To get the right flavor, use soy sauce (about $5 for 1.25 quarts) generously during the frying. As it starts to cook off, add a little more, and set some on the table. To stay within healthy limits, consider springing for low-sodium soy sauce, which is about double the price but goes a long way.