Budget-Friendly Hacks To Turn Your Favorite Childhood Food Into Grown-Up Dinners

By | Tuesday, September 29, 2020


Food memories are vivid; they have the power to transport us back in time. Since they involve all five senses, memories of food are extremely powerful. The smell of your grandmother’s signature homemade soup. The sound of sizzling meat on the barbeque. The sight of a Christmas dinner. The creamy texture of a pumpkin pie. The taste of boxed mac and cheese. 

Many of us have childhood memories associated with food, evoking a compelling sense of nostalgia. Comfort foods are sentimental dishes that have the potential to bring us to a warm place in our bodies and minds. In a time when many of us can’t see our family as freely and conveniently as before, these foods have a particular power.

While many of these vary by culture, there are some common, cheap childhood food staples in North America – like boiled hot dogs and instant noodles. Now that you’re older, it’s possible you don’t want to eat these foods exactly as they were prepared when you were a kid. Yet there are many appetizing childhood-inspired favorites worth revisiting as an adult. So, in the spirit of both nostalgia and frugality, here are some sentimental foods you can easily elevate at home.

Hot Dogs and Burgers 


Backyard barbeques were (and honestly, still are) a classic for many of us. A failsafe way to feed party crowds and extended family members, the option of grilling franks and burgs is a reasonable and low-cost choice. But adding ketchup and mustard is just the beginning here – there are so many ways to upgrade these food staples today.

Toast the bun 

This simple extra step will take your meal to the next level. Not only does a toasted bun add a more varied texture, it also helps your toppings and condiments stand out (and not just soak into the bread and get soggy.) You can toast buns in an oven at about 350 degrees, or right on the barbecue if you have one. 

Upgrade your condiments  

Personally, I hate both ketchup and relish, so from a young age I’ve searched outside of the box for suitable condiments. For either a burger or a hot dog, might I suggest considering:

  • Garlic or chipotle mayo 
  • Hot sauce of your choice
  • Basil or walnut pesto 
  • Grainy Dijon mustard
  • Ranch dressing

Love on top 

The options for toppings here are truly boundless, but the combination itself matters. Something pickled will add bite, melted cheese will bring out a more umami flavor. Try your own “cocktail” of recipes until you get it right. 

Here are some add-on suggestions:

  • Pickles: from sauerkraut to pickled onions to classic dills, personally I feel pickles just belong on grilled meat.
  • Cheese: I recommend going more “gourmet” here, but be sure to get one that melts easily. Some suggestions are aged cheddar, blue cheese and Brie, just to name a few. Choose your favorite and test the waters.
  • Other toppings to experiment with include: caramelized onions, grilled pineapple, chillies and fresh herbs. 

Instant Noodles


Did anyone else love to eat Mr. Noodles raw instead of cooking them when they were packed in your lunch? I remember this being a trend at my elementary school. 

Little did we know how good instant noodles could actually be if made right. 

Instant Noodles are an absolute must in my pantry. They’re a cheap, filling, savory and overall satisfying meal that can be prepared a pinch. They can also be easily modified with whatever else you have on hand. With these suggestions, you too can take your ramen to the next level

Add some protein

Inexpensive and easy to make, adding an egg to instant noodles is a straightforward way to get your protein in. My method of choice is soft boiled. Once added to the soup, a little chili oil and some sesame seeds will give it that *chef’s kiss* status. 

Other protein options could include: grilled pork belly or shelled edamame and tofu, which are both vegan-friendly. 

Eat your greens

To add some vitamins to your noodle bowl, consider adding something green. Boiled buk choy or cooked broccoli are go-to’s of mine, but really, you can practically add any vegetable. Some other good choices include peppers or mushrooms. After cooking the veggie(s), go ahead and add right to the broth. Then, top your noodles with chopped green onions for some extra oomph.

Boxed Macaroni & Cheese


From childhood favorite to college dorm staple, mac & cheese has been with us through it all. At its base, this pasta dish is just… a pasta dish. But there’s a world beyond just adding ketchup and/or hot sauce onto a Kraft Dinner. Allow me to be your guide!

Choose your fighter 

An orange cheddar Kraft Dinner is probably what comes to mind when you first think of boxed mac & cheese, and I have nothing particular against it, but there are other options out there. First off, I think store-bought white cheddar mac & cheese is better than the typical orangey-colored one, but maybe that’s just because it isn’t unnaturally fluorescent. Anyway, all I’m saying is shop around — brands like Annie’s (which has a great Shells & White Cheddar option) and Velveeta are good to try out!

Crunch is key

If you’ve ever had macaroni and cheese made from scratch, you probably already know the wonders of breadcrumbs when they’re added to this dish. By simply sprinkling some panko on top of your meal, you can achieve a similar and satisfying texture. 

Season it

To be honest, fresh herbs are the secret to making any meal look fancy and taste fresh. In addition to your bread crumbs, consider adding chopped herbs to your mac & cheese — whether it be parsley, sage or maybe even thyme; it will contribute both to the texture and taste of this otherwise extremely creamy dish. Never has boxed mac & cheese been so classy! 

Ashley is a freelance writer and on-going contributor at TFD based in Toronto. An avid traveler, she recently returned home to Canada after two years living abroad in Vietnam and Japan. She loves to read, try new things in the kitchen and get outside. You can learn more about her work here and can follow her adventures on Instagram @ashley_corb

Image via Pexels

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