5 Dinners on a Shoestring Budget

It's not easy putting food on the table that is healthy, tastes good, isn't time-prohibitive and is affordable. We break down some common go-to meals, along with cost-conscious homemade options.

Our series, Good Food for All, examines the barriers to putting healthy food on the table and what is being done to help.

If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that we can't talk about food justice without talking about race, socioeconomic status and access. It is a privilege—not afforded to all—to have access to the nutrition variables that are needed to express optimal health. Putting balanced meals on the table each day is a luxury, but it should not be.

The roots of the systemic inequities run deep, and a growing pool of research directly correlates the inverse relationship between income and health issues: as income decreases, health issues increase. Research from 2018 noted that 89% of deaths in the U.S. could be attributed to noncommunicable diseases, with cardiovascular disease at the top of the list. Nutrition is a modifiable factor; however, so many people living in the U.S. face unjust barriers when it comes to consistently accessing safe, affordable and nutritious foods. Many of these barriers go past simply "following a healthy diet." For example, one needs to have safe and affordable housing with a functioning kitchen as well as the tools and time to prepare nourishing meals that support health.

6 dinner plates on grey background
Leslie Grow

Creativity is needed to put a cost-conscious nourishing meal on the table. Complementing a ready-to-eat meal with a fresh side can help reduce time in the kitchen. Preparing meals from a mix of ingredients, including fresh, frozen, dried, canned and jarred, can have a significant impact on both the price and nutrition profile of a meal.

Working with many low-income families has taught me the realities of putting food on the table that is healthy, tastes good, isn't time-prohibitive and is affordable. Checking off all those boxes is not an easy task—as you'll see here. We break down some of the common go-to meals clients eat, along with cost-conscious homemade options I often suggest.

Meal #1: Banquet Salisbury Steak Deep Dish Pot Pie

For those who are strapped for cash, inexpensive frozen meals like this potpie seem like an economical way to fill a belly. They tend to be priced significantly lower than freshly prepared ones, but are notorious offenders for serving up higher-than-recommended amounts of fat and sodium per serving.

Cost/serving: $1.10


Calories: 410

Protein: 8g

Sat Fat: 8g

Sodium: 860mg

Carbs: 45g

Dietary fiber: 3g

Total sugars: 4g

Prep time: 4-5 minutes

Meal #2: McDonald's McDouble

The vast majority of fast food is made with ultra-processed ingredients—specifically refined grains, added sugars, synthetic fats and salt. Contrary to popular belief, these meals are not satiating. BIPOC communities have a disproportionate concentration of retailers selling fast and processed foods. The presence of these eateries is directly linked to the higher rates of chronic disease that they experience.

Cost/serving: $1.39


Calories: 400

Sat Fat: 9g

Sodium: 920mg

Carbohydrate: 33g

Dietary fiber: 2g

Total sugars: 7g

Protein: 22g

Prep time: None

Trinidadian Pelau with Chicken
Leslie Grow | Trinidadian Pelau with Chicken

Meal #3: Homemade Trinidadian Pelau

Pelau is a hearty dish that can be prepared in big batches and enjoyed over time.

Cost/serving: $1.34


Calories: 646

Protein: 28g

Sat Fat: 9g

Sodium: 752mg

Carbohydrate: 74g

Dietary fiber: 7g

Total sugars: 13g

Total time: 35 minutes

Tuna Casserole with Peas
Leslie Grow | Tuna Casserole with Peas

Meal #4: Homemade Tuna Casserole

Cooking at home requires kitchen tools, a working stove and oven, a functional fridge and freezer, as well as cooking skills and time. To create a nutritious meal, basic health literacy is also required. All pretty big hurdles. A traditional tuna casserole provides both protein and carbohydrates to keep you full, and is kid-friendly and easy to make, though it takes some time to prepare.

Cost/serving: $1.61


Calories: 474

Protein: 30g

Sat Fat: 5g

Sodium: 728mg

Carbohydrate: 61g

Dietary fiber: 5g

Total sugars: 4g

Total time: 35 minutes

Veggie Grilled Cheese with Tomato Soup
Leslie Grow | Veggie Grilled Cheese with Tomato Soup

Meal #5: Homemade Veggie Grilled Cheese with Tomato Soup

Adding veggies to a classic sandwich—in this case, broccoli, zucchini and red bell pepper—boosts the nutrient-density of the meal. Many families worry that this will result in food refusal and waste, so I recommend starting with one that is already accepted in a small quantity and branching out. It's about balancing the familiar with something new. The people I work with often need to keep per-serving costs around $1—so while this may be more nutritious than some other options, it's more expensive and is high in sodium from the canned soup.

Cost/serving: $1.88


Calories: 472

Protein: 17g

Sat Fat: 11g

Sodium: 1,075mg

Carbohydrate: 55g

Dietary fiber: 7g

Total sugars: 19g

Total time: 25 minutes

Cost per serving is based on average nationwide prices as of January 2021.

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