When trying to create easy weeknight meals on a budget, you want something that is at the center of the Bermuda triangle: cheap, easy, healthy. These days, you’ll often find cheap meals that require lots of prep or aren’t healthy, and you often find expensive convenience food (also often not healthy), and you’ll find ultra-healthy food that requires tons of money and prep…so what’s the in-between?
Figuring out your best midweek meals is complicated. You’ve been told that meal prep can be helpful, and it can! But another way to look at your cheap family meals (or even cheap solo meals!) is to think of them like a capsule wardrobe. Capsule wardrobes feature only a few pieces of clothing that all match, so that you don’t waste time figuring out an outfit and you always look good. So, rather than handing you a recipe, I want to offer a way of thinking.
If you simplify your prep and your ingredient list, you will cut out expensive food, cut out long preps, and be left with tons of options for easy weeknight meals on a budget. Here’s how I’ve started doing just that:
Simplifying Prep: A Tour of Easy Cooking
One of the things I’ve discovered is that, for me, pretty much any veggie will taste good either sauteed in a pan or baked in the oven with olive oil and any of the following: rosemary, garlic, salt, black pepper, or cayenne pepper. I don’t have to think very hard about what to put on as a seasoning, since they all play well together.
So yes, when you are cooking on the weekend, you can certainly make that dish that requires steaming, deep frying, julienning, and all those other awesome cooking techniques. But midweek, I do best when I stick to the basics. If you want a fairly fast but hands-on method, I recommend sauteeing things in olive oil; you can look up online how long to do it for whatever you want to cook. You can also go the roasting route, and easily get roasting times and temperatures from a simple Google search.
The same is true for chopping: figure out the fastest, safest way to chop everything into small enough bites, and don’t worry about uniformity (within reason; no 3-inch blocks with quarter-inch cubes, or something will be raw). Give yourself a license to eat slightly ugly, flavorful whole foods, and you’ll find that you are happy.
The Three-Layers Approach To Fast, Cheap, & Healthy
Of course, one of the most complex and frustrating parts of cooking is that some things just don’t go with other things! They taste bad in combination, so even if you bought the food thinking it would be delicious, it often doesn’t end up that way. So here is one of my favorite methods for creating healthy meals on the cheap, which I refer to as the “three layers” of dinner bowls. The goal isn’t to definitively layer these items, but simply to think of them as components of your meal that can interact to keep the flavors interesting.
The 3 Layers Of A Solid Bowl Meal
Healthy “bottom layers” of your meal can be the heartiest components — potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, cauliflower, kale, spinach, or even some hearty whole-grain bread or taco shells.
Middle layers ideally involve more veggies — steamed broccoli, a tomato sauce, some baked squash chunks. If you love cheese, that can be part of the middle layer, as can a few nuts if they make sense there. (But remember that both of those things can drive up your price per bowl.) If you can prep the veggies ahead of time and freeze them in individual servings, they may be a little softer and squishier than you like when you thaw them, but they will be fast.
Top layers are where I make sure the protein is there: Good and Cheap author Leanne Brown showcases a million ways that a fried or scrambled egg makes for a great protein source, but also that moderate servings of chicken, ground beef, tofu, chickpeas, black beans, and even fish can be your protein go-to.
Easily Incorporate Variety
While traditionally the starch-meat-vegetable were on different parts of the plate, most of these “layers” work well in a big bowl because they contribute to each other. A runny-yolk egg makes a sauce for your riced cauliflower, and the garlic on your cooked broccoli leaches into your baked potato for some serious yumminess. Best of all, knowing that you just have to pick 1, 2, and 3 makes decision-making faster without sacrificing on variety.
Each week, rather than planning 5 distinct midweek meals, I plan 3 options for each “layer” — so I can put some tofu with some chopped peppers on a salad one day, and use the rest of the tofu with some cayenne pepper on it to beef up a baked potato with tomato salsa later that week. My key is that, by having interchangeable ingredients, none of which require a lot of prep at the moment, and none of which taste bad together, I can easily cobble something together or make something from scratch using only my basic chopping-sauteeing-roasting techniques.
Microwaves are great, too, for things like heating up canned beans. I like the layering approach because it reduces my mental energy of dreaming up a new kind of cooking (especially the kind that requires many ingredients that have many measurements). And by mostly cooking everything with similar spices and in olive oil, I save myself the worry that I’ll make an exotic new dish that doesn’t taste as good as I hoped.
Whether you end up batch-prepping items ahead of time to freeze or just store in the refrigerator, easy weeknight meals on a budget can be healthier if you mostly give yourself tasty, healthy ingredients to work with. If I have junk in the house, I’ll make junk for dinner; it’s just how it goes. So decide before your shopping trip on your three items for the three layers (based on food you actually like!), and go to town. Save your receipts and start to notice what keeps you full and what costs less, and you’ll be surprised by how much time and money you save.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio.
Image via Unsplash