10 Cheap Meals That Will Keep You Alive

Man eating cheaply with sriracha

An alternate title for this post: A Man’s Guide to Healthy-Enough Home Cooking, Done Okay.

Why eating cheaply is important
Essential food items for eating cheaply
Foods that seem expensive but are not
Foods that seem cheap but are not
Cheap and nutritious recipes

If you’re strapped for time or cash, but you still want to eat a decently tasty, functionally nutritious meal, look no further. I am a human biological male who has kept himself alive in adulthood for over eleven years. I’m also not one of those people who’s like, “Food is merely fuel!” nor am I someone who’s all like, “OMG, food is everything in life!”

Food, for the majority of my (and your) life falls somewhere between enjoyment and sustenance. Sometimes, it’s nice to sit down in front of a pan-seared salmon fillet with a glass of crisp wine. Other times, you’ve just worked out and are running late for a Tinder date, so dinner becomes a microwaved sweet potato eaten by hand on the subway platform.

This post seeks to provide (actually) helpful tips on how to eat cheaply but in a way that doesn’t taste like grass clippings seasoned with sawdust.

Why is it important to eat cheaply?

Unless it’s a special occasion (or you’re trying to impress a potential sexual partner), one should always look for more economical ways to exist. Eating is something that living beings do every single day. If you’re not thinking about the cost of your daily nutrition needs, it can easily snowball into a massive financial burden. Buying sale items at the grocery store and avoiding unnecessary luxuries (organic-orshmanic) will save you a few dollars PER ITEM. You’ll see the results of these savings instantly. Those ten dollars you saved at the checkout register can immediately be deposited into your Roth IRA — or your weekly tequila fund.

It’s amazing how many young folks don’t look at the price tags of what they’re buying at the grocery store. I assume this is how Whole Foods stays in business. But sticker price doesn’t tell the entire story. Various foods can be either cheap or expensive based on:

  • Nutritional density per dollar
  • Servings per container
  • Versatility in the kitchen

That is to say, cooking cheaply is a multifactor equation that combines price, usability, nutritional impact, and (maybe) enjoyment.

Essential Items for Cheap Cooking

Surviving on a budget means having a few staple foods ready to go at all times. Here’s the shortlist.

  • White rice (basmati preferred)
  • Sriracha
  • Soy sauce
  • Eggs
  • Nut butter
  • Quality bread
  • Honey
  • Beans (black and garbanzo is good)
  • Basic spices (Salt, pepper, garlic powder, cumin)
  • Onion (red or white is fine)

With these basics in place everything else can be subbed out pretty easily. A few recipes will call for specialty items (taco tortillas, veggies, mayonnaise, etc.) but buying these things once will usually last a while. The items above seem to disappear like cotton candy in a swimming pool.

The key is universality. Honey is your universal sweetener. Soy sauce is your universal Asian-ifier, sriracha is your universal spice-giver. Rice can be used in pretty much every type of cuisine, and in my experience, lasts better in the fridge than unsauced pasta.

Sauteed onion makes everything more delicious across the board, and olive oil is your go-to cooking lubricant (I couldn’t think of a better way to say this).

Foods that seem expensive but are not

Some foods are seen as “fancy,” and therefore expensive. The initial price tag might prevent some price-conscious buyers from throwing them into the shopping cart, but when you consider versatility, nutrient density, and servings per container, they’re actually some of the most cost-effective foods.

  • Natural nut butters – High calorie, high protein per serving. Fills you up fast. Make sure the only ingredients are the nut and (optionally) salt.
  • Artisan Cheese – Same as nut butter. A half-pound of fancy cheese will last you at least two weeks. A few slices on top of crackers is super filling.
  • Honey – A little bit goes a long way. Simple application out of a squeeze bottle makes it a quick add to any dish, and it is functional in many types of cuisine.
  • Greek yogurt – Extremely filling per half cup serving. A big tub should last a while, and is a full serving of protein for well under a dollar.
  • Good bread – Quality bread (only ingredients: Flour, salt, yeast, water) will fill you up more with fewer slices. Plus, it’s more delicious. A $5 loaf is still only $0.30 per slice. Those are some cheap carbohydrates.
  • Roasted nuts – Four or five are a filling snack. Anything more will leave you feeling gross, but also full. High in protein and fat — nutrient dense.
  • Pitted dates – Delicious, sugary, high fiber. Three per snack is verging on too many. Even a $5 bag will last you weeks.
  • Dark chocolate – What the bar considers one “serving” is actually quite satisfying. When you’re craving something chocolatey, eat one or two “squares.” This is shockingly filling and will last a while.
  • Eggs – Likely the cheapest source of protein per serving.

Foods that seem cheap but are not

The opposite is also true. Some foods seem super economical, but will slice the bottoms of your pockets in the long run.

  • Protein powder – It seems like a cost-effective way to go, but it’s actually just convenient. You can buy a store brand or designer — one “scoop” is still going to run you anywhere from $1-4 each.
  • Meat – While nutrient dense, you’ll almost always eat too much for your dietary needs. That excess is what makes even a $2.99/lb chicken breast a more-expensive source for protein.
  • Fruit – $1 for a single navel orange? Get out of here. Fruit is delicious and nutritious, but consider buying in bulk.
  • Bagels – For a single serving of carbohydrates, bagels can run anywhere from $1-2 each. High quality bread is a better substitute. Save the delicious and chewy bagel for special occasions.
  • Tomatoes – Seems like mostly water to me.
  • Frozen vegetables – Never as tasty, almost as expensive. 
  • Tofu – While cheap per serving, tofu isn’t as nutrient dense as other sources, like tempeh or meat. You’ll need to eat nearly that whole block to feel satisfied.
  • Boxed cereal – If purchased on sale, this can be a good option. Otherwise, $5 for a box of Life cereal is highway robbery.

Cheap and nutritious-enough food ideas

Broke men and women can survive and retain some semblance of flavor in their lives using these recipes. Some of these may seem like a joke. They are not. Well, they are, but all of life is a joke, from time-to-time.

Beans, rice, cheese, sriracha

Combine in any proportion you’d like. I tend to make a bunch of rice at the beginning of each week, just to have around. This meal is cheap, and has all the things you need: Carbs, protein, fat, and sriracha. 

Warning: don’t eat this too late, or you might fart in bed.

Artificial crab, rice, sriracha, avocado (and maybe mayonnaise)

It’s kind of like a poor-man’s poke bowl. More like a California roll bowl. Sprinkle with some soy sauce and an optional hit of toasted sesame oil (if you have it) to give it a good Asian-y flavor. Obviously, don’t use too much mayo, or it will be gross.

Asian “ramen” delight – fried egg, cheese, soy sauce, sriracha, fish sauce, honey

It’s a one-pan meal. Fry two eggs in the center of the pan with olive oil, and put a “ring” of cooked rice around the outside. Drizzle soy sauce, sriracha, a little cheese, and honey into the rice ring (a dab of fish sauce is optional). When the egg-whites are fully cooked with a runny yolk, slide everything into a big bowl and stir so the sauces and egg yolk are evenly distributed. The end result might be the most delicious thing you’ve eaten in a while.

Scrambled eggs

Eggs are one of the cheapest forms of protein per serving. They’re also delicious when scrambled with cheese and finished with sriracha. Add toast, and this is a complete MF meal.

Peanut butter and honey toast

Fast and easy. Make two pieces of toast on quality bread. Cover with a generous amount of your favorite nut butter and drizzle with honey. It’s a dessert. It’s a main course. It’s hella cheap and fast. There’s no way to mess this up.

“Breakfast” tacos

Wanna get fancy and impress the stranger you woke up next to? Breakfast tacos are bitchin’ easy. Make the same scrambled eggs as above and put them in heated corn tortillas. A sriracha-mayo condiment makes them extra delicious.

If you really want to do it up. Sliced avocado, black beans, and any cheap-ass store-bought salsa are simple AF add ons.

Home made hummus (on toast, with egg, whatever)

Hummus is so shit-simple to make, it’s surprising anyone buys it in plastic containers. In a single serve blender, combine half a can of garbanzo beans (with fluid), some olive oil, a generous shake of garlic powder, some salt, a hint of lemon juice, and (if you have it) a healthy drizzle of tahini. Blend until smooth. It’s healthy and filling.

Tuna melt

Drain a can of tuna, add some mayo, mustard, dill pickle relish (if you have it), a spot of honey, and maybe some lemon juice. Swish it all around and you have a delicious tuna salad. Put it on bread with cheese and call it a tuna melt. A shake of pepper is wonderful, too.

Pitted dates, chocolate, nut butter

It’s a cheap ass dessert. Cut a pitted date in half, put a smear of nut butter and a small chunk of dark chocolate on it. It’s healthier than most things, fast, and kind of fancy. Three dates and you’ll be satisfied.

Cheese and crackers

Seriously easy. Cheese is very filling. People will think you’re high-brow, but really you’re just cheap. Cheese and crackers are superb appetite suppressants between meals. Also, great to eat when getting smashed on red wine.

Not right for everyone

Some people may not be able to eat the things I’ve listed here. Maybe you have dietary restrictions — religious, health, or otherwise. That’s your cosmic burden to bear, and it might be reflected in a higher grocery bill.

For the rest of the world, maybe you don’t like sriracha? Shame on you and your unhappy life. I’ll politely mind my own business.

I hope there are some ideas in this post that can make your everyday incrementally better.


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