How to Cook on a Budget

Created March 28, 2017
Beef Tortilla Taco Casserole
From making the most of what’s already in your pantry to every tip you need for meal planning, learn how cooking delicious (and easy) meals on a budget is totally doable. MORE+ LESS-

How to Save Money on Groceries

Grocery bills can add up fast without proper planning. Meal planning, making a grocery list, buying certain ingredients in bulk and making use of available coupons are all simple ways to cut way down on the cost of groceries. Not sure how to start? Follow these guidelines.

How to Meal Plan

Meal planning is key to not over-spending at the grocery store—arriving armed with a list of meals you know you want to make for the week will make your life way easier. A few tips to keep in mind when meal planning:

  • Plan around what’s in your pantry, fridge and freezer. For example: If you have extra rice in the cupboard and chicken breasts in the freezer, make a chicken and rice casserole, and only buy the remaining ingredients you need. 
  • Save time (and money) by making familiar meals. If you know a busy week is ahead, don’t fuss around with new recipes—they may take more time and require ingredients you don’t already have on hand. Save meal experimenting for the weekend!
  • Plan for leftovers. Leftovers can save your family time and money on rushed weeknights. Big-batch meals like slow-cooker soups and freezer-friendly casseroles are great candidates for leftover meals. When you’re prepping meals for the week, consider making double batches of your favorite freezer-friendly meals. 
  • Make a calendar. Writing down which recipes you are going to make and when can save you a lot of headache at the store later.

Still feeling a little intimidated? We’ve put together a grocery list and five-day meal plan so you can give this whole meal planning business a test run without doing all the work yourself the first time around.

Skillet Smothered Pork Chops with Apples and Onions

Easiest-Ever 5-Day Meal Plan

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Make a Grocery List

Whether on a piece of paper or on your phone, making a detailed, organized grocery list is essential to efficient and cost-friendly grocery shopping trips. First, you’ll want to print out or write down the recipes you plan on making and their ingredient lists. Make note of the ingredients you already have on hand. Then, start marking down which ingredients you will need to buy. Some tips for organization:

  • Arrange your ingredient list by sections in the store. For example, write down all of the fresh produce you need in one section, baking ingredients you need in another, dairy in another and so on. 
  • Clip coupons available, and make note on your list which ingredients you have coupons for so you don’t forget. 
  • Check off items you put in your cart as you go, so you can easily keep track of what you need.

Looking for a faster way? There’s actually a recipe management app that does most of this for you. Paprika allows you to save recipes from your favorite websites, then check off ingredients you already have and what you don’t have gets saved to a grocery list. It’s especially helpful when you’re entertaining or need to buy lots of groceries and keep recipes straight. For all the time it will save you in making grocery lists, it’s worth the $4.99 price tag on mobile.

How to Know What Food is in Season

An easy rule to remember is to plan your meals around what’s in season; fresh produce that’s readily available in your area will be cheaper than others. For example, buy zucchini in August, and making zucchini lasagna, zucchini casserole and even zucchini cookies will be way cheaper to make than any other time of year.

Can’t keep track of what’s in season when? BBC Food created a handy seasonal calendar for the best times of year to buy produce.

What Food You Should Buy in Bulk

There are certain foods you can buy in bulk on the cheap—especially at wholesale clubs like Costco or Sam’s Club. Some of these foods have a long shelf life, while others are great for keeping on hand in the freezer, but all of them will help you stretch out your meals. This means less time and money spent at the store! Here are the must-haves:

Easy Vegetable Fried Rice


Dry rice has a long shelf life and easily adds heft to meals like casseroles and slow-cooker chicken. It can also be the starring ingredient, in meals like this Easy Vegetable Fried Rice, which costs only $1.67 per serving.

Easy Slow-Cooker Salsa Chicken

Black Beans

Cans of black beans should always be on hand in your pantry. They are easy add-ins to main dishes, sides and can even stand alone. They’re also a good source of fiber and protein—not to mention relatively cheap to buy. Try them in this Slow-Cooker Salsa Chicken dinner, which costs less than $15 to make for a family of four.

Sausage, Onion, Peppers and Pasta Skillet


Noodles are one of the most versatile ingredients out there—most varieties can be used in almost any dish, from casseroles and skillets to one-pot spaghetti. Dried pasta also keeps well in the pantry. Try it first in this Sausage, Onions, Peppers and Pasta Skillet, which costs only $2.08 per serving to make.

5-Ingredient Smothered Chicken Bake


Chicken breasts are one of the most accessible and cheapest types of meat—the dishes you can make with them are endless! Buy a bunch and keep them in the freezer for easy meals. Try any one of these non-boring chicken breast dinners to get started.

Sloppy Joe Crescent Cups

Ground Beef

Another budget-friendly protein is ground beef, but you may have asked yourself (more than once): “What can I do with this pound of ground beef that isn’t tacos or spaghetti?” Cheap ground beef recipes are more versatile than you think—here are 12 to get you started.

How to Make Meals in Bulk

Get the most out of your ingredients by making meals in bulk and freezing for later. Some of the easiest meals to make in this category are soupsslow-cooker dishes and casseroles. To start, add these dinners to your recipe box for when you need a meal to stretch beyond one night.

Beef Tortilla Taco Casserole

Beef Tortilla Taco Casserole

This Mexican-inspired casserole is easy, filling and simple to freeze and save for a busy weeknight. To make ahead, prep the casserole until all ingredients are layered. Cover the casserole with a sheet of foil and then wrap foil-covered casserole in double layer of plastic wrap; label and freeze up to 3 months. When you’re ready to bake, let the casserole thaw overnight or until completely thawed in refrigerator. Remove plastic wrap. Bake 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes or until center is hot (165°F) and cheese is melted. You can bake this casserole straight from the freezer, too! Heat oven to 350°F. Remove plastic and bake 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes or until center is hot (165°F) and cheese is melted.

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Slow-Cooker Italian Meatball Soup

Slow-Cooker Italian Meatball Soup

Once cooked, most soup recipes freeze and reheat beautifully, which is why making big batches of soup in the wintertime is a good idea. For nights when you’re busy and all you want is a comforting bowl of soup fast, recipes like this Slow-Cooker Italian Meatball Soup are perfect to have tucked away in the freezer. Store soups in individual serving size, air-tight containers for easy accessibility. Let them thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat in the microwave when you’re ready to eat!

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Honey Teriyaki Slow-Cooker Chicken

Honey-Teriyaki Slow-Cooker Chicken

We promise, the term “dump dinners” is way better than it sounds: It describes the technique behind easy slow-cooker dinners that you can keep on hand in your freezer, like this Honey-Teriyaki Slow-Cooker Chicken recipe. Just toss all of your ingredients into a freezer bag and keep in your freezer until you’re ready to cook—then simply thaw, dump everything in the slow cooker and press cook. Throw this Dump-It Tex-Mex Soup and Dump-It Slow-Cooker Beef Stew in your freezer, too!

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For more inspiration, browse our Make-Ahead Meals Cheat Sheet.

What to Do with Leftovers

Don’t throw your leftovers away ever! Leftovers are one of the easiest ways to stretch your meals and keep within your budget. Not sure how to store leftovers or what to cook with them? We answer these questions so you’ll have no excuse to toss leftover food ever again.

How to Store Leftovers

Most leftover meals can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for 3 to 5 days. For freezer instructions, see How to Store Food in the Freezer below.

What to Cook with Leftovers

Dishes like whole cooked chicken, turkey and ham make excellent leftover dinners—especially around the holidays when these dishes are most often served. Depending on how much you have leftover, you can stretch more than one meal out of these proteins with a couple pantry staples.

Easy Honey-Baked Ham

Easy Honey Baked Ham

You only need four ingredients to make this easy ham recipe, popularly served around Easter or Christmas, but simple enough for any time of year.

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See more next-day ham recipes.

Slow-Cooker Garlic Chicken

Whole Chicken

Cooking a whole chicken is easy, whether you roast it in the oven or cook in the slow-cooker. But the best thing about whole chicken is the leftovers—it always tastes better when you make it yourself, but grab a rotisserie chicken at the store in a pinch and use the leftovers for meals all week.

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Browse all of our easy leftover chicken recipes.

Best Roast Turkey

Roast Turkey

We all know that a whole roasted turkey is a Thanksgiving staple. And the best thing about Thanksgiving? The glorious leftovers! There are so many dishes you can throw leftover turkey in, so why not make it year-round?

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Try all of our best leftover turkey recipes.

How to Store Food

So much food that ends up in the trash can be attributed to it not being stored properly—and that’s a big waste of money. Knowing where and how long certain foods should be stored will go a long way in eliminating food waste.

How to Store Food in the Freezer

The freezer can be your best friend when you need to make meals on the fly, but it can be hard to know for sure which foods freeze well and which ones don’t. As a general rule, most foods can be thrown in the freezer, while foods like eggs and canned foods should not. Some tips to keep in mind when freezing food:

  • Package food correctly. Proper packaging helps prevent freezer burn and maintain quality. To avoid freezer burn, you want to make sure that air doesn’t come in contact with the surface of the food, which is why wrapping food tightly in plastic wrap and storing in resealable freezer bags or air-tight containers is so important. 
  • Label food packaging when you freeze it. This can help you keep track of how long food has been in the freezer—certain foods have different recommended storage times. Most food can keep indefinitely in the freezer, but the quality of it diminishes after a certain time period. Check the FDA’s handy freezer chart for optimal storage times.

The USDA has useful tips to keep on hand when you have freezer and food safety questions. Whether you’re wondering how long you can keep a certain food in the freezer or how to safely thaw frozen food, check out these food safety guidelines.

How to Store Food in the Fridge

The length of time you can safely store food in the refrigerator is much shorter than in the freezer. Make sure you keep your eye on expiration dates, and don’t purchase food from the grocery store if it’s already past its sell-by date. The range for how long food can keep in your refrigerator safely is broad—it can be anywhere from a few days to two weeks. Reference this chart from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ( when you’re unsure.

How to Store Food in the Pantry

If you want the dry goods in your pantry to have maximum shelf life, then proper storage containers are absolutely essential. Things like temperature, light, moisture and little critters can spoil food that otherwise may have lasted a long time.

  • Invest in some airtight containers. Glass jars and Tupperware are two types of containers you should stock up on. Dry goods like flour, grains, cereal, pasta, sugars and more can keep for months to a year if stored properly! 
  • Store in cooler, darker places. Keep your pantry foods in cabinets or drawers that aren’t right by your oven or stove. Heat can mess with their quality.

How to Store Food on the Counter

Some produce is best kept on the countertop—especially if you want it to ripen, or you plan on eating it right away. Foods like potatoes, onions and garlic can all be kept at room temperature, and fruits like avocados, tomatoes, mangoes, melons, apples and pears will ripen if left on the countertop. Bananas ripen quickly on the counter as well—but don’t toss ‘em if they get too brown for your liking! You can make banana bread instead.

Browse all of our easy how-tos, from how to make lasagna to how to make pie.