Healthy Makeover for Cheap Quick-Meals

During the first two semesters as a grad student, I put on 28 lbs! I couldn’t afford anything but the cheap cheap food, but decided I would try to make it more nutritious and less fattening. I started out with some of these tips in the beginning and kept adding to them as I got used to the new lifestyle. Hope some of you out there will find some of these tips useful. Please feel free to add your own tips in the comments.

  • Ramen noodles, when bought by the box can be very economical and quick meals. However, it is very poor on nourishment. Cook ramen noodles with vegetables and/or meat to make it more healthy and tasty. While cooking, reduce the amount of noodles and supplement with some frozen/fresh vegetables or meat. Several vegetables go with ramen noodles - some of them are peas, bell peppers, onion, tomatoes, mushrooms, mixed vegetables, zucchini, soy beans, green onions, herbs like garlic and ginger, etc.

  • Create variety by using a mix-and-match of ingredients to make home cooked meals interesting. For example, every now and then, instead of cooking ramen noodles with the vegetables/meat, stir fry the vegetables/meat and serve them on the side. Try different sauces for the stir fry. You can get cheap stir-fry sauces in the international food section of your local grocery store. You can replace noodles with some rice to make an even healthier meal. Use brown rice instead of white rice to maximize the nutrition.

  • Ditch the mac-and-cheese. Replace it with other cheap pasta. The reason I say this is, other pasta and sauces are more versatile. You can get packaged pasta with sauce (eg. lipton’s) for around $1. Add one or more of these veggies - broccoli, mushrooms, bell peppers, artichokes, tomatoes, zucchini, etc. to increase the nutrition. Add some garlic to enhance the taste. Go all out by adding some sausage or chicken or some shrimp. Leftovers from a beef dish will work as well. Even spinach tastes great when cloaked by the pasta sauce :) You can cook a variety of sauces, pasta and veggies/meat to prepare a gourmet meal at home for the same (or slightly higher) cost as the mac-and-cheese. As a variation, layer the pasta, sauce and veggies/meat and push it in the oven for a tasty baked dish.

  • Enhance frozen pizzas with fresh veggies. Just before reheating the frozen pizza we would dump a whole lot of fresh onions, bell peppers and mushrooms on it. It would make the pizza taste a lot better than plain old frozen pizza, and a little more nutritious too.

  • Add nutrition to fast food by getting a side salad or a side of yogurt. Eat the side salad first – food always tastes better when you are hungry :) Most fast food places (with the exception of taco bell, probably) offer some sort of a side salad or a fruit yogurt with a $1 price tag.

  • Eat hearty breakfast. This will help you avoid the trips to the vending machine. Generic store brand cereal is available for very cheap. The milk you have with cereal is high in calcium. Using reduced fat milk (2% milk fat) lets you retain taste while cutting fat.

  • Replace at least a few of the snacks with fruits. Stock healthy treats such as preserved fruit bowls or carrot sticks or yogurt at home or lab for midnight snack attacks, instead of grabbing a pack of chips.

  • Replace soda with fruit juice.

  • Plan you meals before going to the grocery store. I found this tip was very helpful in reducing the wastage and save cost. You can pick up only those perishable (but healthier) ingredients that you know for sure that you will use. Rest of the time, rely on frozen or canned items.

  • Stock the freezer with frozen veggies/meat so you will have these available whenever you need them. Buying in bulk will save you some money too. And unlike fresh vegetables, they don’t go bad. When I knew, we would have the time to cook, and we would not let the vegetables go waste, we would get fresh vegetables. During busy weeks of exams and paper deadlines, we would almost entirely rely on frozen veggies/meat. Another tip: keep some garlic in stock in your refrigerator. Garlic does not spoil easily and adds a lot of flavor to any dish you add it to. Not to mention, it has lot of great health benefits!

One of the best ways to save money is to eat at home as often as possible. Experiment with different ingredients, and before long you will start to enjoy eating at home. Try adding some healthy ingredients such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits, to every day meals to make them not only taste better, but nutritious too!

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Anonymous said...

I found a really great frugal cookbook. "Cheap, Fast, Good!" by Beverly Mills. Get it from the library, you will not be disappointed.

ispf said...

Thanks for the pointer, anonymous. I used Amazon's "Search Inside" for a quick look at the book and it seems quite intresting. I will look for it at a library or the half price books.

I hate to cook "regular" meals... but new recipes that will elicit "WOW"s - thats a whole different story :) If it fits in the budget and is healthy too, what more can you ask for!

English Major said...

This is a good list! My roommate always used to add egg to her ramen—a good cheap protein source.

Personally, my best frugal-health tip is frozen fruits and vegetables. Way less expensive than the real thing, keeps forever, and easy to prepare. Most frozen foods now are flash-frozen and don't have substantial nutrition deficits (just be careful about preservatives). Favorites: frozen bananas (actually, those are cheaper to freeze yourself) and frozen mixed berries for smoothies, frozen green beans (steam or boil), frozen edamame (protein!), frozen cranberries (make cranberry sauce! great cheap, easy snack, full of antioxidants and fiber), frozen spinach (iron!).

ispf said...

Thanks for the tips, English Major.

Yes, even I add eggs scrambled with salsa to ramen noodles. Tastes great :)

I dont get many frozen fruits though. Most of the time I end up getting the small preserved fruit cups. Maybe the frozen ones are more healthy (because of less preservatives). I should try that out.

the Prince of Thrift said...

great post, I recently embarked on a 90-day social experiment of eating on just $1 a day This is in addition to my regular PF blog. If you are interested, you can watch and see how frugal I can get on my meals.

Anonymous said...

Great ideas, here are a few more:

Try to drink more water, most people don't get enough

ramen+peanut butter+stir fry veggies+a wee bit of soy sauce = great meal

Cheap proteim = eggs or peanut butter

Cheap breakfast= oatmeal (the bin not the packets) add a bit of cinnamon and raisins = health whole grain meal. One bin is about a months supply for under $4

Stock up on canned veggies when on sale for 3/$1 or 4/$1

Invest in spices: (some can be had at the dollar store.) spices can make the same thing taste different each night.

don't forget to stock snacks. If you have the equipment or skill bake your cookies, if not get cookies/chips and take them with you when you know you're going to want to hit the vending machine.

For extra protien look for speghetti sauces with meat in them. can be used as pizza sauce, speghetti sauce or add to your veggies, or even soups.

soups are great for anything starting to look wilty. throw it in the pot with some broth or even water, and simmer for a couple of hours (excellent if you have a crockpot) with some spices. add some kind of bread or pasta withit for a filling meal.

ispf said...

anonymous: Those are some great tips you have added ! Thank you very much!

I hardly ever use spaghetti sauce... During my last grocery trip I had noticed on that the spaghetti sauce was on sale. I should remember to get a bottle next time and try it with different dishes!