It's a simple fact that the less you spend on meals, the more money you'll have left for the other things that are important in life. That doesn't mean you have to live on a diet of bread and water, though. There are plenty of ways to take even the simplest, most inexpensive ingredients and prepare them in a memorable way.
We've pulled together a list of 20 ways to turn cheap food into impressive meals or side dishes worthy of any gathering. Most of them require only basic techniques or cooking skills, and very little in the way of added ingredients, so you can probably start today with what you already have in your pantry. Click through and learn how to spruce up foods that are good for you and your wallet.
Poach Your Eggs
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a fried egg, but poached eggs are much more elegant. Besides, poaching doesn't add any fat to your meals. Making perfect poached eggs is a relatively basic cooking skill to learn, and the finished products are remarkably versatile.
You can use poached eggs for eggs Benedict, but that's just the beginning. They're beautiful on toast, lend richness as a garnish on pasta dishes and even work on top of a green salad. For bonus points, thinly slice a few chives and sprinkle them over the egg. At an average cost of less than 13 cents per egg, it's a luxury you can afford. A poached egg is a great way to spice up almost any meal.
Top Your Mac and Cheese with Croutons
At about $1.30 a loaf for white bread, or $2 for whole wheat, bread is a frugal ingredient to work with. One of the best ways to deploy it in your kitchen is in the form of croutons over your pasta dishes. Just brush or toss the bread cubes with oil or melted butter, and spread them over your spaghetti, macaroni and cheese or rigatoni.
It only takes moments under the broiler, or up to 30 minutes in the oven, for the croutons to be crisp, golden and beautiful. You can use the same technique to bring visual appeal and a tasty crunch to your casseroles, as well.
Toss Your Potatoes with Parsley
A big bunch of fresh parsley can cost well under $1, and it will keep for several days in a glass of water. That means you can garnish several meals for a single parsley purchase, which adds up to an even better bang for your buck.
Whenever you cook up a pot of potatoes, for example, chop a few tablespoons of fresh parsley. After the potatoes are drained, toss them with the parsley before serving. It's a simple thing, but it adds color and finesse to a basic plate of spuds. There are dozens of ways to prepare potatoes, and you can sprinkle parsley on them all.
Grill Your Bread
Toast is a suitable accompaniment to many meals, but it's not the most elegant of options. If your stove has a grill, or if you keep one outdoors in a sheltered corner of your deck, you can use that to cook the bread instead for a more appealing nosh.
Just brush the bread lightly with oil, and grill it until it's crisp and has a few grill marks. Served with a salad or pasta dish, or even just with your eggs and bacon, it elevates a basic dish to something a bit fancier.
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Turn Cabbage Into ‘Steaks’
The high cost of healthy ingredients is a common complaint among home cooks, but that certainly doesn't apply to cabbage. At well under 50 cents per pound, it's more a question of finding interesting and unusual ways to prepare it than whether you can afford it.
One of the most striking methods is to prepare the cabbage as 'steaks.' Cut it into thick slabs from top to bottom, leaving part of the stem to hold each steak together. Sear them in a hot pan, then finish them in the oven until they're tender. Roasting brings out the cabbage's sweetness, and the initial browning gives them a bold, dramatic appearance.
Turn Leftover Mashed Potatoes Into Croquettes
Mashed potatoes are one of the ultimate frugal comfort foods, but leftover mashed can become so much more. One of the best and showiest ways to use them is in the form of croquettes.
Stir up the leftover potatoes with a bit of egg yolk, some salt and pepper, and whatever savory ingredients — fresh herbs, cheese, cooked meats — you have left over. Shape them into balls, patties or sticks, bread them using eggs and bread crumbs and then fry or bake them until crisp and golden. They're tasty, elegant-looking and frugal.
Add a Soft-Boiled Egg to Ramen
Ramen is about as cheap as cheap food gets. Even when you eat ramen out in a restaurant, it's not that expensive. It's not usually very exciting to look at or to eat, but it's something. You can up your ramen game easily by adding half of a soft-boiled egg, which adds nutrition and flavor and some visual impact. It's actually an authentic way to serve ramen, too.
Boil or steam your eggs for exactly six minutes, to give them the perfect combination of firm whites and a soft yolk. For bonus points, marinate the eggs in soy sauce for a few hours after cooking.
Fry Your Eggs and Toast Together
Eggs and toast are simple, satisfying and well, a little dull. You can liven them up a little by learning to fry your eggs and toast — two thoroughly inexpensive ingredients — together in the same skillet.
Often called "egg in a hole" or similar names, it couldn't be simpler. Use a cookie cutter to make a nicely round hole in the middle of the bread, and drop it into your oiled or buttered skillet. Crack an egg into the hole and fry until the bread is browned and the egg is set. Garnish with thinly sliced chives or chopped parsley, and you're good to go.
Top Pasta With a Breadcrumb Garnish
Topping pasta dishes with a fluffy mound of fresh-grated Parmesan is a wonderful option, but it can get expensive quickly. One way to stretch your Parmesan, and — as an added bonus — make your cheap meals look and taste better, is to use fried breadcrumbs as a garnish. You can save money in the process by turning old bread into breadcrumbs.
Toss the crumbs in a skillet with a bit of oil or melted butter, then add your choice of seasonings. Toast the crumbs until they're golden brown, adding a sprinkle of Parmesan near the end if you wish, then spoon the crumbs generously over your pasta dishes. Add a spoonful of chopped chives or parsley to make it even prettier.
Turn Boring Spuds Into Hasselback Potatoes
Potatoes are dirt cheap, at an average of about 75 cents per pound, and they're tremendously versatile. One of the showiest ways you can prepare them is also one of the lowest-cost cheap dinner ideas, because it calls for no added ingredients beyond a bit of oil and some salt and pepper.
It's called Hasselback potatoes, and all it means is potatoes that are cut vertically into thin slices. Leave the bottom of the potato intact to hold everything together, brush on a light layer of oil, sprinkle with salt pepper or other toppings and then roast until the tops are crisp and the rest is creamy and delicious. You can add breadcrumbs, garlic, cheese or other ingredients, but they're perfectly fine when they're just plain.
Add Herbs to Your Rice
Rice makes for a seriously frugal side dish, at an average cost of just over 70 cents per pound. Of course a plate or bowl of plain rice isn't all that exciting, but there are plenty of ways to make it more impressive.
One of the simplest is just to chop a big handful of fresh herbs — chives, parsley, green onions, even the leafy parts from the middle of your celery — and mix them into the rice along with a splash of oil or a spoonful of butter. You can even use frozen herbs that you've preserved with some oil. The herbs give your rice a beautiful green hue and bright, fresh flavor that complements any dish.
Turn Mashed Potatoes into ‘Duchesse’ Potatoes
Mashed potatoes are one of the simplest and most comforting of comfort-food side dishes, but they lack a certain something when it comes to visual appeal. You can remedy that in a hurry by turning fresh-made or leftover mashed potatoes into "duchesse" potatoes.
Those are nothing more than mashed potatoes whipped with a bit of butter, cream and couple of egg yolks to help them hold together. They're traditionally piped onto a cookie sheet from a pastry bag and then baked until golden brown, for a retro "60s dinner party" look. If you don't have a pastry bag, you can snip a corner from a heavy-duty freezer bag and pop a star tip into that.
Mold Your Potato Salad
Potato salad is good any time of year, and if you're serving it indoors you can be a little more creative with how it's presented.
Instead of just setting out a bowl of potato salad, turn it out onto plate lined with a few lettuce leaves and pat it into a nice, even dome instead. Use a few slices of hard-boiled egg around the bottom edge as a garnish, and trim several parsley sprigs so you have two or three perfect leaves at the end of a few inches of stem, and press those to the side of the salad so it looks like they're growing there. It's admittedly kitschy, but eye-catching just the same.
Roast Your Veggies
Roasting your vegetables is a straightforward way to elevate their appearance, without any fancy techniques or costly added ingredients. In wintertime you can use this approach with durable cold-weather vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, winter squash, carrots, parsnips and even turnips or rutabagas. In other months, you can roast asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini — whatever you have that's seasonal and cheap.
Just toss the vegetables in a bit of oil, sprinkle them lightly with salt, and roast them at 425 F until they're caramelized at the edges. Roasting brings out the sweetness in the vegetables, and the hint of charring lends some drama to their appearance. You can add a sprinkle of your favorite herbs or spices, if you wish, for extra flavor and visual appeal.
Make Herbed Butter
Butter isn't the cheapest of ingredients, at around $3 a pound, but that one pound can add flavor and richness to a lot of otherwise cheap meals. One way to do that is by making herbed butter, which aside from making your meals look and taste wonderful, is a pragmatic way to use up any extra herbs you've bought before they spoil.
All you need to do is soften a stick of butter, chop up your herbs, and then mix them together. Shape the butter into a small log, wrap it in plastic wrap or parchment paper, and keep it in the fridge or freezer until it's wanted. A small pat of herbed butter on potatoes, rice, pasta, chicken, fish, steaks, chops or just about anything else will give them a "gourmet" look and flavor for very little effort.
Glaze Your Carrots
Carrots are usually well under $1 a pound, and it's rare to find someone who dislikes them, so they play a part in many cheap meals. Of course they're also very familiar and expected, so finding a way to make them impressive is a bit of a challenge.
One straightforward way to do that is with glazed carrots. It's a classic French side dish, surprisingly easy to execute and surprisingly elegant when it's finished. All you need to do is cook them in butter with a bit of liquid — traditionally sparkling water, through fruit juice or cider works as well — and some sweetener until the liquid evaporates and leaves a syrupy glaze on the carrots. Sprinkle them with a bit of chopped parsley or other herbs for some added visual contrast.
Make a Rösti
How do you make hash browns elegant enough for a dinner party? Give them a foreign name, of course! A rösti is nothing more than shredded potatoes cooked in the form of a single large pancake, then cut into wedges for serving. It's considered something of a national dish in Switzerland, but really, fried potatoes are good anywhere.
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Shred the potatoes and squeeze out any extra moisture (or start with a bag of shredded hash browns) and sprinkle them into a hot, well-oiled pan until you have a half-inch layer. Cook them at moderate heat until the bottom is golden and the top starts to look cooked, then flip the whole cake and brown the other side. That's all there is to it. If plain potatoes aren't fancy enough for you, you can use the same technique with sweet potatoes as well.
Pretty-Up Deviled Eggs
Eggs are cheap food, and the spoonful of mayo and smidgen of mustard and relish it takes to turn them into deviled eggs won't do much to change that. Deviled eggs are wonderfully versatile, too: You can serve them as an hors d'oeuvre when you're entertaining, an appetizer when you're having a sit-down meal or even as a light lunch on their own with a salad.
All that built-in frugality means you can splurge a little bit on toppings to elevate yours above the ordinary. It doesn't have to be much: A sprinkling of fresh-chopped chives, parsley or green onions will work, or a sprig of fresh dill if you happen to have some left over from another meal. Upgrading to a good deli mustard, or adding a spoonful of finely chopped pickle or capers, can also elevate them above the usual.
At a cost of over $2 a pound parsnips aren't necessarily the cheapest vegetable. Still, a pound or two makes a surprisingly elegant side dish for multiple diners, so they can still play their part in a frugal but impressive meal.
One of the finest ways to serve carrots' paler, sweeter cousin is caramelized. Just slice the peeled roots into long planks or diagonals, toss them in oil, and roast them in a sheet pan or cook them on the stovetop in a large skillet. They'll need salt and pepper, and a hint of mace or nutmeg — pumpkin pie spice works too — to bring out their sweetness, and that's it. You can practically eat these as dessert.
Master Classic Carbonara
Forget the cream-heavy versions peddled as "carbonara" by many restaurants: The real thing is mostly just pasta and eggs. It's simple to make, and like many pasta dishes it's a cheap meal idea. Feel free to ditch the imported pancetta for regular bacon, and the pricey Parmigiano-Reggiano for domestic, supermarket Parmesan. This is one instance where the at-home recipe is clearly superior to the restaurant version.
The technique boils down to crisping the bacon and beating the eggs, then tossing them together with the freshly-cooked spaghetti or linguine and some of the cooking water from the pasta. Finished with the Parmesan and some fresh ground pepper, it's a meal you can serve with pride in any company.