If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably consistently looking for ways to lower your grocery bill. Groceries cost a family of four up to $1,296.60 per month, according to May USDA estimates. Even those on a thrifty plan spend around $600 per month on food at home. This does not include the money we spend going out to eat at restaurants, which costs another roughly $100 to $400 per month.
Our current financial situation has a lot to do with our food spending and choices. Overall, those with higher incomes spend more on groceries and are likely to have more options to choose from. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s spending data, a higher-income family incurs a grocery bill that’s at least double that of some of the lower-income groups. But no matter what your financial situation is, with food prices on the rise, it’s always nice to have a few choice inexpensive meals you can turn to when an emergency arises or if you’re in a pinch.
We developed a list of four meals costing less than $4. This list contains meals that will feed a family of four, taste good, and are relatively healthy — we avoided lower-quality foods like potted meat or Spam. The list also calculates the prices of meals based on the total cost of your shopping list, as opposed to a per-serving basis. A per-serving cost basis calculates the cost of one shrimp as 50 cents, instead of calculating the cost of an entire pound of shrimp, which is around $13 to $17.
The goal of this list is to create meals you could actually make with only $4 in your pocket to spend at the grocery store. The list does, however, assume you have everyday items like salt, pepper, flour, and dressing already in your kitchen – the prices of those items are not included. The pricing data on this list are from the BLS’s most recent average food price reports and from two grocery stores: Publix and Food Lion.
1. Crustless Vegetable Quiche
This meal is certainly an ideal choice for those who want to eat on a budget while still enjoying some gourmet flavor. Quiche is not only high in protein, but adding a vegetable to the recipe makes it a healthy and balanced family meal. You can include broccoli, spinach, roasted potatoes, or whatever other vegetable you like.
The main ingredients are egg, onion (optional), your choice of vegetable, and your choice of cheese (also optional). With an average price of $1 for a half-dozen eggs, $1 for a single potato, and less than $1 for a frozen bag or can of broccoli or spinach, you can easily go to the store and purchase the ingredients you need for less than $4. This dish from All Recipes makes six servings and received 4.5 out of 5 stars from the 1,500 users who have tried it.
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
- 5 eggs, beaten
- 3 cups shredded Muenster cheese (you can substitute with grated Parmesan or eliminate altogether)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius). Lightly grease a 9-inch pie pan. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft. Stir in spinach and continue cooking until excess moisture has evaporated.
- In a large bowl, combine eggs, cheese, salt, and pepper. Add spinach mixture and stir to blend. Scoop into prepared pie pan.
- Bake in preheated oven until eggs have set, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
2. Tuna Noodle Salad
Tuna fish is an inexpensive, protein-rich food choice for those on a budget. You can purchase two 5-ounce cans of tuna fish for around $1.40. You’ll also need to purchase some elbow macaroni noodles or another type of pasta, like rigatoni or ziti. A small (16-ounce) box of elbow macaroni comes at an average price of $1.30. You can also add ingredients like onion, green pepper, pickles, or hard-boiled egg to enhance the flavor of your tuna casserole.
- 2 small cans of tuna fish in water
- 1/3 cup of mayonnaise
- 10 ounces of elbow macaroni (about two-thirds of a 16-ounce box)
- 1/4 cup of onion chopped (you can also add chopped pickle or chopped green pepper for flavor)
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning (optional)
- Cook the elbow macaroni using the instructions on the package (usually takes between 9 and 11 minutes). Drain the noodles in a strainer and run cold water over the macaroni for 60 seconds so that it has the opportunity to cool.
- Drain water from tuna and then separate tuna with a fork. Combine tuna, macaroni, and mayonnaise together and stir until ingredients are evenly mixed.
- Fold in hard-boiled eggs and onion. Season with salt, pepper, and Old Bay to taste. Serve cold. Makes 6 servings.
3. Noodle Bowls
This is a meal option that gives you a lot of room to add your own personal touches. Teriyaki noodle bowls are incredibly inexpensive to make, and you can tailor them to your taste by choosing your favorite combination of vegetables or meats. You can save big by using a block of dried ramen noodles (which cost around 20 cents per package), instead of using more expensive options like soba noodles.
You can make teriyaki sauce at home, but you will need several ingredients. Pre-made teriyaki sauce may be the way to go, as it comes with a price of around $2 for some of the more inexpensive brands. Aside from the teriyaki sauce and noodles, the other ingredients are really up to you. Look through your fridge and see what veggies and meats you have available. Below is a basic recipe from Budget Bytes.
Teriyaki sauce (or you can use a pre-made alternative)
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 inches fresh ginger, grated
- pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons water
Noodles and vegetables
- 1 pound frozen stir fry vegetables
- 8 ounces buckwheat soba noodles for $3.69 (or around 60 cents for three blocks of Ramen noodles)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Add the soy sauce, rice vinegar, brown sugar, toasted sesame oil, red pepper flakes, corn starch, and water to a bowl. Peel the ginger and then grate it straight into the bowl using a small-holed cheese grater. If you don’t have a grater, you can mince the ginger. Mince the garlic and add it to the bowl, as well. Stir to combine the ingredients.
- Bring a medium pot of water up to a boil over high heat, add the noodles, and then continue to boil for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the noodles are tender. Drain the noodles in a colander. (If you’re using ramen noodles, boil them for around 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Leave them slightly under-cooked because they will cook more in the skillet.)
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the skillet is hot, add the frozen vegetables. Stir and cook for only about 2 minutes, just to slightly heat the vegetables. Briefly stir the teriyaki sauce and then pour it into the skillet. Allow it to come up to a simmer, at which point it will thicken. The vegetables will finish heating through as this happens. Turn the heat off once the sauce is hot and thick.
- Add the drained noodles to the skillet and stir until they are coated in the sauce. Divide the noodles between four bowls and then spoon any leftover vegetables from the skillet on top.
4. Pancakes or Crepes and Eggs
Pancakes are a tasty option for those on a budget, and most kids really enjoy them, as well. You can purchase a single-use package of store-brand buttermilk pancake mix for less than $1. You can also purchase a box of mix, which will allow you to make two or three pancake meals, for a combined cost of around $2. If you opt for a complete mix, all you have to do is add water, which makes the process much simpler. If you really want to make your meal interesting, you can swap your pancakes for crepes.
To add some protein to your meal, you can purchase a dozen eggs for an average price of $1.97. Sunny side up, over medium, or scrambled, eggs allow for a great deal of variety. Here is a crepe recipe from All Recipes that makes eight crepes and received rave reviews (over 4.5 out of 5 stars) from around 1,650 users who have tried the recipe.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted (can use margarine instead)
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the eggs. Gradually add in the milk and water, stirring to combine. Add the salt and butter; beat until smooth.
- Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.
- Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side. Serve hot.