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21 cheap and easy meals to cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner
How to save time and money while eating well during quarantine.
Jen WheelerEditor / Chowhound
After 10+ years in customer service, Jen is now an editor at Chowhound and still can't believe she's basically living her childhood dream (of writing for Gourmet magazine). Naturally, she loves to eat, cook, read, and write. Baltimore-born and raised, Pacific NW-matured, she still prefers blue crabs to Dungeness.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of life, down to the way we shop for groceries and what we cook (just witness the rise of homemade bread and ensuing shortage of yeast and flour). For many people, cheap and easy meals are always a priority -- but even those who have the time, budget and inclination to cook multicourse feasts on the regular are likely looking for affordable and simple recipes right now.
We're all cooking from our pantry stores, minimizing grocery trips and doing whatever we can to reduce stress during quarantine, so uncomplicated, easy recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner are what's in order. Luckily, food doesn't have to cost a lot of money or involve much effort to be delicious.
Including some make-ahead options -- in case working from home doesn't make mornings any less hectic.
Why we like them: Eggs are a great source of protein and don't necessarily have to be carefully tended while they cook; this recipe also easily scales up or down.
If that 18-pack of eggs is cheaper per ounce, go ahead and get it -- eggs last a while and are good for so many things. The beauty of this recipe is that you simply crack your eggs into an oven-proof dish and let them cook undisturbed -- no monitoring a skillet or swirling water for poached eggs.
They're enriched with some butter, cream and cheese (use whatever you have on hand and go a little lighter on the dairy if it seems too rich) and are perfect with a crunchy piece of toast. You can easily decrease or increase the ingredient amounts (and the size of your cooking vessel) depending on how many mouths you have to feed. And you could even serve this for lunch or dinner with a simple salad on the side. Get this easy baked eggs recipe.
Homemade egg bites
Why we like them: They're another great protein-rich breakfast, require zero utensils, can be made ahead -- and welcome any leftover meats and veggies you're looking to use up.
Why we like it: Oats are a good plant-based form of protein as well as fiber to help keep you full all morning -- and if you have the option to buy in bulk, they'll cost much less than packaged oats or oatmeal.
If you really love oatmeal, have a bunch of kids that need breakfast every morning too or simply want to meal prep by batch cooking, this Crock Pot oatmeal recipe makes six to eight servings and is a breeze to throw together. You can use whole milk or coconut milk, and top it off with whatever you have: fresh, frozen or dried fruit; nuts; shredded coconut or even chocolate chips. If you prefer quick hits, Instant Pot oatmeal is a no-brainer. And either way, you can freeze individual servings in muffin cups for easy future breakfasts (just defrost in the microwave).
Chia pudding or overnight oats
Why we like them:Chia seeds are considered a superfood and while they can be expensive per pound depending on where you buy them, you don't need to use a lot at once; if they're off the table, you can prepare regular oats in the same manner.
Sure, smoothies are pretty easy, but overnight oats or chia pudding are even easier, because you mix everything up the night before and just take it out of the fridge in the a.m. This overnight oats recipe combines ½ cup of rolled oats with a tablespoon of chia seeds (plus Greek yogurt, honey, milk and summer fruit). It's a great starting point, but you can use whatever flavorings, fruit and other toppings you prefer (or happen to have available). These overnight oats don't require any chia and demonstrate the near-endless topping possibilities.
Homemade granola and yogurt
Why we like them: If you stick to a simple formula (and already have certain things like vanilla and honey in your cupboard), buying oats, nuts and dried fruit from bulk bins lets you get the exact quantities and types you like at a cheaper price per pound than premade granola -- plus you can control how much sugar and oil is added.
Not only is homemade granola usually much cheaper than store-bought, it's healthier too -- you know exactly how much sugar (and what kind) is in the mix, and you can control the ratios of all ingredients to suit your particular tastes. Skip the nuts if allergies are a problem. You don't even have to stick to oats, as this homemade granola recipe tutorial shows. Keep it around for a relatively healthy snack, or use it to top your favorite yogurt for breakfast. (If your pressure cooker has a yogurt function, try this Instant Pot yogurt recipe to save even more money.)
Chocolate banana crunch muffins
Why we like them: Bananas are affordable (if you don't buy organic, they average 57 cents per pound) and famously high in potassium -- and you can use them even when they're a little overripe instead of tossing them out (and wasting money). This vegan recipe doesn't cancel out their benefits with tons of added sugar either.
Prefer baked goods for breakfast? There's no rule that says you can't eat banana bread for the first meal of the day, but for a less sugary option that's also vegan and gluten-free, try this chocolate banana crunch muffin recipe. Instead of adding butter, eggs and refined sugar and flour to the batter, the mashed bananas mingle with coconut oil, a chia egg, and oat and almond flour, plus cocoa powder for the chocolate boost. Sweetened with maple syrup and topped with granola, they're a real treat that you can feel really good about eating (and giving to your kids). Also, they're much easier than homemade bagels.
Substitutions: Don't have coconut oil? Use another neutral vegetable oil instead. No chia seeds to make a chia egg? Substitute 2 tablespoons water plus 2 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon vegetable oil -- or just ¼ cup of carbonated water. All out of maple syrup? Honey works just as well here. And if you have whole oats and almonds in your pantry, you can grind both into flour in a food processor (just don't blend the almonds too long or you'll get nut butter, which is another nice thing to make at home). If you don't want to have to think about swaps, though, these healthy banana muffins are similar but call for more common ingredients (and you can use regular all-purpose flour instead of whole wheat if AP is all you have).
Bonus: DIY dalgona coffee
Why we like it: Made from just three ingredients (one of which is instant coffee granules, which tend to be much cheaper than whole or ground beans), this is a true treat that costs far less than anything you've ever bought from Starbucks (but we show you how to make Starbucks classics at home, too).
Have you seen this pillowy coffee drink all over social media and immediately assumed you could never pull it off at home? It's actually really easy -- and only involves three ingredients (five if you count ice and water). Simply whisk instant coffee granules or espresso powder with white sugar and hot water until it fluffs up, then spoon it into a glass of iced milk (whether conventional dairy or a plant-based alternative). You have a fancy latte alternative any barista would be proud of.
Easy lunch recipes
Here, you'll find (mostly) no-cook recipes and some grown-up versions of childhood favorites (that actual kids will also like).
Grown-up tuna salad
Why we like it: Canned tuna is a consistently affordable source of low-fat, high-protein nutrition that has all the essential amino acids you need.
There's zero shame in tuna salad, especially when it's dressed up with adult add-ins like fennel, parsley, Dijon and lemon zest (that said, check out even more tuna salad recipes if you're fresh out of fresh produce). You can serve this on bread, scoop it up with crackers and veggies or pile it on fresh greens. And if you're feeding kids, mix up a big batch of tuna with everything except the ingredients they'll object to, then add those extras to what's left over for your own lunch. Get a grown-up tuna salad recipe.
Why we like it: Protein-packed peanut butter is usually not expensive (though of course it depends on the brand you buy) and a little goes a long way (unless you find yourself snacking on it with a spoon several times a day).
If you've never tried applying heat to the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, prepare to fall in love all over again. This grilled PB&J recipe is crisp, melty perfection -- and easily made with another nut butter or seed butter, plus whatever jelly is your jam. Once you inevitably become enamored, try these grilled peanut butter sandwich combos for even more revelatory lunches. Most kids will inhale these too. They happen to be particularly great for reviving frozen bread (ditto any other toasted or grilled sandwich). If you or your kids can't eat peanut butter but you have a food processor, you'll usually find it cheaper per ounce to make homemade nut butter instead of buying it at the store.
Why we like it: It saves your bread from going stale and lets you use up all kinds of leftovers that might otherwise be thrown away (which is tantamount to putting money in the garbage).
This pita pizza recipe is awesome for any meal. Simply top store-bought pita bread or other flatbread with cheese and the toppings of your choice, including any leftover cooked meat or veggies you might have. You can also add sauce if you like. No cheese? Try something like this chorizo and olive flatbread recipe instead. And if you only have regular bread in the house, this easy Italian toast recipe is in the same delicious wheelhouse.
Curry chicken salad
Why we like it: It makes use of every last scrap of meat on a roasted chicken.
Making a roasted chicken for dinner is almost as easy as picking up a rotisserie bird -- but however you get there, the chicken will usually yield plenty of meat for lunch the next day too. If you're lucky enough to have a wealth of leftover poultry, make it into a lively curry chicken salad with almonds, apples, raisins and mango chutney (but it will still be delicious if you only have one or two of those fruity mix-ins to contrast the mild spices and savory flavors). Or try another non-boring chicken salad recipe. As with tuna, you can turn it into a sandwich, use it to top a green salad or simply scoop it up.
Why we like it: Beans and legumes are another great plant-based protein; when it comes to cost, dried beans will almost always cost less per serving than canned, but you may prefer to pay a bit more for the convenience of precooked. If you want to cook them from dried, remember you'll need to soak them overnight first.
Why we like it: Per serving, beans are much more cost effective than meat (and depending on the type of meat, they may be healthier too). Combining beans with ground beef or turkey means you can use less meat and will still be plenty full.
Beans are a pantry power player, and we have a plethora of favorite bean recipes for all kinds of canned and dried beans. But one of the most iconic would have to be chili -- and this easy Crock Pot chili recipe with ground beef and kidney beans is a favorite for the way it basically cooks itself. You can use ground turkey if you prefer; ditto other kinds of canned beans depending on what you have. Canned tomatoes go in too. Meat doesn't have to, if you don't eat it or just don't have any right now. (In which case, this pressure cooker black bean chili recipe is another great option.)
Why we like it: Having strategies to use up leftovers is important in the fight against food waste (and wasting money); these bowls are versatile enough to take on whatever you want to throw at them, including leftover meat and rice, frozen veggies, cooked beans (canned or made from scratch) and more.
Canned beans (again) and frozen corn help bulk up rice and lettuce in this versatile burrito bowl recipe. Cook whatever protein you have on hand, or leave it off and just top with the fried egg. Change up the type of cheese and dollop jarred salsa on top if that's all you've got. This is also a great way to dress up leftover meats or plant-based alternatives (like tofu or jackfruit) for lunch the next day.
Spaghetti carbonara without bacon
Why we like it: Dried pasta is usually quite cheap, especially if you buy the store brand -- and it increases significantly in volume when cooked, so your dollar and change goes a long way (if you don't like leftover pasta and it's just you or two for dinner, don't cook the whole box, but be sure to scale down the sauce ingredient amounts accordingly). Sauces can be made from just a few pantry staples so you get a whole meal without much more money.
This Israeli dish of eggs poached in simmering tomato sauce with onions and spices is a great one-pan dinner that also works for brunch. You can add other vegetables if you have them, and it's just as delicious without the zhug (Yemeni herb sauce) on top. If you don't have eggs but can find silken tofu, it adds a nice textural contrast to the dish. Get this shakshuka recipe from CNET's sister site Chowhound.
Slow cooker chicken soup
Why we like it: Buying a whole chicken is more cost effective per pound than buying it already cut into pieces, and it gives you lots more to work with, including the flavor-rich bones, which are imperative here.
If you have a Crock Pot and a big hunk of meat, you're well on your way to pulled pork for days, but if you'd rather not have a never-ending pile of protein, try this slow cooker chicken soup recipe instead. You simply put a whole chicken in the crock along with chopped vegetables, aromatics and water -- and after about eight hours, you have a fragrant broth and lots of tender meat to shred and toss back in the soup (but not too much to deal with). If you want to add rice or pasta, cook only as much as you'll use for one meal and add it to your individual bowls so it doesn't get too mushy in the soup.
Why we like them: Inexpensive but protein-rich peanut butter is a surprisingly versatile ingredient and noodles are almost always in the pantry -- plus, this recipe will work with almost any kind.
That jar of peanut butter in your pantry is good for so much more than sandwiches. Quick peanut noodles are a favorite that are easily adaptable to whatever vegetables you have on hand, including frozen veggies. If you omit the fish sauce in this easy Asian peanut noodles recipe, it's vegan -- and if you crave more protein, you can add anything from seared tofu cubes to shredded chicken. In a pinch, spaghetti or linguine can stand in for the udon noodles (if you have whole wheat pasta noodles, all the better). You could even cook up ramen noodles (without the flavor packet) and use them here.
Rice is a truly great grain, and can do so much in the kitchen (including dessert) -- but if you've made a relatively plain rice as a side, the leftovers are even better turned into fried rice. The basic recipe is eminently riffable, but Chowhound Executive Editor Hana Asbrink's heart belongs to this spicy bacon and kimchi fried rice recipe. Is it any wonder why? You can leave the bacon out if you don't eat meat (or don't have meat). If you're cutting carbs, try tweaking this cauliflower fried rice recipe with those key ingredients and it will be just as fantastic.
Whole roasted chicken
Why we like it: Buying a whole bird is the most economical option and roasting it at home isn't hard; you'll be able to turn the meat into at least a couple dinners or lunches, and the carcass can then be made into chicken stock (saving you even more cash in the long run).
This lentil soup recipe is healthy, filling and totally vegetarian (though you can use chicken broth if that's what you have in your pantry -- and if you don't have any broth at all, just use water and season with salt to taste). You can also use frozen spinach if you don't have fresh -- or fresh kale if a bunch is threatening to wilt in your crisper.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.