Feeding your family a good meal is easy. Just go to the grocery store and empty your wallet.
But what if your wallet is looking a little lean?
I decided to cook some delicious, even elegant, meals to feed a family of four for less than $7. It isn’t difficult. It just takes imagination.
Imagination, and an inexpensive protein. There will be no steak or lobster for these meals. Even ground beef and chicken have become so expensive, they can’t be relied on for a cheap meal. If you are stretching your budget, stick with the essentials: beans, eggs and pasta.
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I bought my food at a supermarket chain that’s known for lower prices. In determining the price of each meal, I took into account only the cost of the amount of the food that I used and put the rest aside for future use.
My 25.4-ounce bottle of olive oil cost $5.99, so 2 tablespoons of oil was about 23 cents. One tablespoon of butter, at $3.50 a pound, cost 11 cents. A dozen large eggs cost me $2.09 (you can find them at least 20 cents cheaper elsewhere), so six of them was $1.05.
All of the dishes were surprisingly good, but the one that surprised me the most was one I created myself. I call it Sausage, Beans and Polenta, and it was inspired by one of my favorite dishes at one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Mamma ’Zu in Richmond. That dish uses a spicy lamb sausage and arugula. I used the cheapest smoked turkey sausage I could find and spinach.
It is sheer, hearty bliss, and it only costs $5.72 for four servings.
For a more traditionally elegant meal, I adapted a version of Marcella Hazan’s famous recipe for Spaghetti With White Clam Sauce. I made mine with linguine. I cut back on the amount of clams, because clams aren’t cheap. Still, the classic Italian dish had a marvelous flavor.
Even with the clams and the wine (I used an inexpensive Yellowtail chardonnay for $4.99), the tab came in at $6.23 for a family of four.
Cheaper, and just as delicious, is a bean stew that you make in the slow cooker.
It is remarkably good, and also good for you. And it will only set you back $5.11 for six servings.
Naturally, I had to make an egg dish.
I made a Spanish omelet, certainly filling and addictive. Despite its name, it isn’t really an omelet, it is more accurately a frittata, in which the egg and vegetables are mixed together and are flipped once in the pan, rather than folded over.
Whatever you want to call it, it was good. So good, it is hard to believe you could feed a family of four with one for just $4.27.
Slow Cooker Bean Stew
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup dry beans, picked over and rinsed
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely diced
3 tablespoons uncooked white rice
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
Place all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours.
Per serving: 148 calories; 1 g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 9 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 8 g fiber; 1,143 mg sodium; 50 mg calcium.
Yield: 6 servings.
4 medium potatoes, peeled
1 medium yellow onion
1 green pepper, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Hot sauce (if desired)
CUT the peeled potatoes in half lengthwise, then cut each half into crosswise slices about 1/8 inch thick (do not use a food processor). Chop the onions into 1/4-inch pieces.
HEAT 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally (covering the pan with a lid will make this go quicker). After about 5 minutes, add the onions and green pepper and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and peppers are tender, about 5 minutes longer. Season heavily with salt; potatoes require a lot of salt. Remove from heat.
BEAT eggs lightly in a large mixing bowl. Add the potato-onion mixture and stir until well-mixed.
ADD the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to a large skillet over medium heat and swirl to coat bottom. Add the egg-potato mixture and cook without stirring until the egg has set around the edges. Check, by lifting an edge, to see if the egg is beginning to brown on the bottom. When it starts to brown, place a large plate over the top of the pan, invert the pan and plate so that the omelet falls onto the plate, and then slide the omelet back into the pan, browned side up.
COOK until the egg is completely set, about 1 or 2 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve with hot sauce.
Per serving: 332 calories; 14 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 279 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 38 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 116 mg sodium; 59 mg calcium.
Yield: 4 servings.
Sausage, Beans and Polenta
The method for basic polenta is adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”
1 cup dried beans
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 (10 1/2-ounce) can chicken broth
1 cup spinach, packed (about 2 ounces), rinsed and dried
14 ounces smoked turkey sausage or another inexpensive type
COVER the beans with water and let stand overnight. (You can skip this if you use canned beans, but they will be slightly more expensive.)
PREPARE the polenta at least 3 hours before the meal, or the night before: Add the salt to 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Have another pot with at least 4 cups of water boiling nearby. Slowly sprinkle cornmeal into the salted water, stirring constantly. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of the boiling water, and lower the temperature to a very low simmer.
STIR frequently and add boiling water, a tablespoon or two at a time, whenever the polenta starts to become stiff and dry. Cook until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Stir in 1 tablespoon butter. Pour into a well-greased skillet or wide bowl to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches, and smooth the top. When cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight to allow the polenta to set.
COOK the beans according to the directions on the package. Drain. (Skip if using canned beans.)
HEAT the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions; saute until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour in the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and simmer until reduced by half.
STIR in the spinach and cook until just wilted, about 1 or 2 minutes. Add the beans and cook until warmed through.
CUT the sausage into 1-inch slices. If raw, cook according to directions, drain, and add to the beans. If cooked, add directly to the beans and heat until sausage is warm. Taste and add salt if necessary. Set the bean mixture aside, and keep warm.
SLICE polenta into 8 wedges. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet. When very hot, add the polenta wedges, leaving a little space between each. Cook wedges without stirring until they start to brown. Flip and cook until brown on the other side. Serve 2 wedges per serving, surrounded by sausage and beans.
Per serving: 632 calories; 33 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 51 mg cholesterol; 21 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 13 g fiber; 1384 mg sodium; 61 mg calcium.
Yield: 4 servings.
Linguine With Clam Sauce
Adapted from “Classic Italian Cooking,” by Marcella Hazan.
2 (6 1/2-ounce) cans chopped clams
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup diced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
12 ounces (3/4 pound) dried linguine, cooked and kept warm
STRAIN clams through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving juice.
COMBINE oil and onions in a medium saucepan over medium heat and saute until the onions are translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, oregano and 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, and saute for 2 minutes.
POUR in the wine and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the reserved clam juice and boil until reduced by about a third, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and add more crushed red pepper if needed.
REDUCE heat to low, stir in the clams and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley and grated Parmesan. Stir in the butter until it melts. Pour over the cooked linguine, toss and serve.
Per serving: 610 calories; 17 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 65 mg cholesterol; 36 g protein; 72 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 243 mg sodium; 166 mg calcium.
Yield: 4 servings.