Creating an entire meal for $5 can be a challenge, but with some smart planning it's possible to eat well on a budget. Stock up on staples such as pasta and frozen vegetables when they go on sale, make the most of inexpensive seasonal produce, and indulge in nutritionally balanced, one-pot meals. From simple breakfasts to dinner-party-worthy menus, these 20 meals can be made for $5 or less (based on November 2015 food prices from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and an informal survey of prices at Walmart and other stores).
This classic American breakfast can also work as a light dinner. Use a $1 loaf of bread such as soft Italian or half a baguette paired with a dozen eggs (as low as $2.50). Factor in 50 cents for buttering the toast and seasoning the eggs and enjoy a home-style meal.
Take advantage of frequent sales on pasta and stock up when boxes of spaghetti cost $1 each. Combine with a jar of marinara sauce (as low as $2) to create a simple meal. For a little more, make a side of garlic bread from a $1 loaf paired with butter and garlic (50 cents).
To make this hearty family meal, cook 2 cups of rice (50 cents) with 2 cans of beans ($2) and add seasonings such as salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, and dried herbs (50 cents). Roast three plantains ($1) in the oven until soft and sweet, then serve with hot sauce ($1).
Opt for inexpensive ground meats such as turkey and pork, and buy them in bulk on sale to stock your freezer for less. Sale-priced ground meats can cost as little as $3 a pound. To 1 pound of ground meat, add 1 egg (20 cents), 1 cup breadcrumbs (25 cents), 1 chopped onion (40 cents), salt and pepper (15 cents), and mold into a loaf pan. Dress with ketchup (25 cents) and bake until the meat is cooked through. Serve with toasted bread ($1).
Rich enough to be a one-pot meal and elegant enough to serve to dinner guests, this is an excellent recipe for any occasion. Using a pressure cooker cuts the amount of dairy needed to achieve a creamy texture while also making the dish much healthier. Sauté chopped onion (40 cents) in the pressure cooker with salt, pepper, and olive oil (80 cents), then add 2 cups short grain white rice ($1.50). Cook until the rice begins to turn translucent. Add 4 cups of water and salt, if needed, and pressure-cook for 7 minutes. When done, add in 2 ounces of grated Parmesan cheese (80 cents) and stir to combine.
Chicken thighs and legs are easy to find for as little as $1.50 per pound, fresh or frozen. There are roughly four pieces per pound, which means 2 pounds is enough to make a meal. Season the chicken ($3) with 2 tablespoons of mustard (50 cents) before baking in the oven. As a side dish, roughly chop one-quarter of a cabbage (50 cents) and two carrots (25 cents) and dress with 2 tablespoons each of vinegar and sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste (50 cents).
An egg frittata is a delicious choice for any time of the day. Whisk together six eggs ($1.25) with salt, pepper, and 1 ounce Parmesan cheese (50 cents). Cook over medium heat in a frittata pan, and either flip to finish or bake in the oven. Serve alongside a bag of mixed greens ($2) and a simple dressing of lemon juice (50 cents) and olive oil (25 cents).
A pound of dry couscous bought in bulk can sometimes cost $1 or less and yield about 8 cups of cooked couscous, making this an inexpensive base for a larger feast. After cooking the couscous in equal parts boiling water, add in 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt, pepper, chili powder, and garlic powder to taste (50 cents). Drain a can of chickpeas ($1) and toss lightly with ground cumin (10 cents), then fold into the dish. Garnish with fresh mint (50 cents) and a handful of golden raisins (50 cents).
In Mexico, a tamale or two is a traditional meal for breakfast or midday but can work equally well as a satisfying dinner. A batch that yields about 10 tamales requires 2 cups of masa harina, a traditional corn flour (50 cents); a half-cup of vegetable oil (50 cents); salt, pepper, and chili powder to taste (25 cents); soaked corn husks (as little as $1 for 25 pieces at ethnic shops); one jar of salsa ($1); and a half-pound of cooked, dark meat chicken ($1). Combine the chicken with the salsa and set aside. Mix together the masa harina with the vegetable oil and seasonings, and slowly add water until dough has formed. Build the tamales by spreading a thin layer of dough on a husk and adding a small amount of the chicken filling before wrapping. Steam the tamales until done.
A $1 box of pasta such as fettuccine, spaghetti, or penne is an inexpensive base for this meal. Make a quick sauce by cooking half a stick of butter (50 cents) and one chopped onion (50 cents) until browned and toss with cooked pasta. Add a half-cup of bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper (50 cents). Serve with a head of steamed broccoli ($2) for a nutrition boost.
This quick and easy meal is the perfect soup for cold winter nights. To make a large pot, sauté an onion (40 cents), two carrots (25 cents), two celery stalks (25 cents), and two cubed potatoes ($1) in the bottom of a pressure cooker with olive oil (35 cents). Add 1 pound of dried green split peas ($1) and 6 to 8 cups of water with a few tablespoons of salt (20 cents) along with pepper, chili powder, smoked paprika, and garlic powder (50 cents). Cover and pressure-cook 13 minutes, or until peas are cooked and creamy. Garnish with salt, pepper, and sherry vinegar (50 cents).
These Indian-style lentils call for cumin, salt, turmeric, coriander, and mustard seeds (50 cents) along with garlic, ginger, and chilies (50 cents). First toast the whole spices in a dry pan, then add in the garlic-ginger-chili paste and sauté with oil (25 cents). Once fragrant and pasty, add chopped tomatoes ($1) and cook for a few minutes. Add 4 cups of lentils (60 cents) and enough water to cover before pressure-cooking for 6 minutes. Serve over steamed white rice ($1).
Sauté a bag of frozen mixed veggies ($1.50) in a pan with half a stick of butter (50 cents) until the veggies begin to brown. Combine with a cooked $1 box of pasta, any shape, and 2 ounces of grated Parmesan cheese (80 cents) for a healthy meal.
This traditional Chinese rice porridge is filling and nutritious. To make, place 1.5 cups of white rice ($1) in a slow cooker with 8 cups of water. Set on high and cook until the rice breaks down into a soupy consistency (roughly five hours). Serve topped with sliced, hard-boiled eggs ($1.50), chopped scallions ($1), soy sauce, and hot sauce ($1).
This Asian-inspired meal is perfect for making use of leftover rice. Start by cooking half a bag of frozen peas and carrots in a hot pan with some oil and soy sauce ($1). Add three eggs (40 cents) and scramble. Add 4 cups of cooked white rice ($1) and season with soy sauce and chili sauce (50 cents). To make a simple salad to serve with the fried rice, season 4 cups of bean sprouts (60 cents) with rice vinegar and a dash of regular or hot sesame oil (50 cents).
Cut a loaf of bread ($1) into thick slices. In a shallow dish, whisk three eggs (62 cents) with 1 cup of whole milk (25 cents) and season with cinnamon and vanilla (25 cents). Brown the soaked bread slices on each side in a pan with melted butter (50 cents). Serve sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar (25 cents).
This recipe works well with homemade or store-bought pizza dough, which can be found for $1 per 1-pound bag, either fresh or frozen, at most stores. (Adapt this to a French bread pizza recipe by substituting premade bread for the uncooked dough.) In addition, pizza calls for a jar of marinara ($2) and a bag of low-moisture cheese ($2). Build and bake until hot and bubbly.
Cook a pack of $1 noodles and set aside. In a pan lightly coated with oil, cook 1.5 pounds of dark meat chicken ($2.50). Add in chopped scallions, the noodles, and season with soy sauce and chili flakes ($1).
Make a simple broth by simmering a carrot, a quarter of an onion, and a celery stalk (50 cents) in 10 cups of water. To the broth, add half a bag of frozen peas and carrots (75 cents), 1 pound of cooked noodles ($1), and one-third pound of cooked pieces of chicken breast ($1.50). Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped parsley ($1).
This traditional Mexican street food works great as a build-your-own dinner. Use a pack of tostadas (as low as $1 from ethnic grocery stores), a can of refried beans ($1), a small can of pickled jalapeños (50 cents), one wheel of queso fresco ($2), and some chopped cilantro and lettuce (50 cents). Layer the tostadas with the beans and jalapeños, followed by lettuce, cilantro, and queso.