Five easy meals ideas for dining on a dime

Two weeks of plant-based dinners for $35 

Are rising grocery prices ruining your appetite? Does the sight of Galen Westen’s face make you want to go on hunger strike? As someone on a strict student budget and a disdain for these companies whose profits should be criminal, I set out to make two weeks of dinners for as little money as possible. Here’s how it went. 

First of all, I’m not counting any base ingredients in the total cost of the week – rice, lentils, pasta, oils, hot sauce, soy sauce, etc. Also, I’m not vegan, but I find that eating mostly plant-based is the one thing that saves me the most on my grocery bills. If you do eat meat, and have recently inherited a large sum of wealth, you could easily grab a rotisserie chicken and add it to any/all of these meals. 

With that in mind, I ended up making five different meals that got me two to four portions each. On the menu: tofu stir fry with rice and broccoli, spicy broccoli pasta, red lentil dahl, black bean-sweet potato burritos, and tofu chickpea masala curry. The second most important thing you can do to save money at the grocery store is to plan ahead for meals that will use similar ingredients  to get the most out of them and reduce food waste. And, try to buy perishable ingredients like produce and bread when they go half-off! Grocery list: extra firm tofu, broccoli, canned chickpeas, canned tomatoes, black beans, a sweet potato, onions, frozen kale, corn, harissa paste, vegetable broth, tortillas, a bell pepper, and coconut milk. My total came in at $35.79, breaking down to an average of $2.50/dinner (not including the basics).

Tofu gets a bad rep, but my favourite way to prepare it recently has been tearing it into chunks, dousing it in soy sauce and some oil, a shake of cornstarch, and baking at 400. It removes the hassle of pre-frying it, and once you throw it in your sauce (I use whatever I have on hand – garlic, chili oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, rice vinegar, etc.) you have a crispy-chewy texture that holds its own. Served with rice and sauteed broccoli, this is a super satisfying start to the week. 

Next, I wanted to do a vegan interpretation of a classic pesto pasta. Inspired by Allison Roman’s spicy bean soup, I swapped pesto for a sauce made from onion, garlic, olive oil, harissa paste, lemon juice, and a bit of pasta water. I admit, harissa paste is not a typical budget ingredient, but it packs a punch of flavour that would otherwise need a slew of ingredients to accomplish. Some of these big-flavour investments, like a once-well stocked spice cabinet are the keys to budget cooking. Finish your pasta by throwing in some frozen kale and roasted broccoli for greens. Delish! 

From here on out, I have to disclaim that I am an enjoyer of mushy foods. This is where your pantry spices become essential to transform base ingredients, like lentils, beans, and rice, into a tasty and hearty meal. For my go-to (brazenly inauthentic) dahl, I start by toasting onions, garlic, and spices in oil. From there, I add canned tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, a spoon of peanut butter, coconut milk, and frozen kale, and let the lentils cook down. Serve with rice, or, for non-vegans, a super simple naan bread made with yogurt and flour.

Next, the classic vegan burrito variation. I like to make a big batch of rice cooked in stock with black bean, sweet potato, onions, bell pepper, corn, kale and canned tomatoes. Throw it in a tortilla with hot sauce (and fresh greens if you have them!) and you have a no-fuss, filling burrito.

Lastly, some variation on a chickpea masala is a staple pantry meal for me. When I have ravaged my cupboards until they’re barren and I have nothing left to eat, I probably have a can of chickpeas and a can of tomatoes. This makes the base of this masala stew/curry, from which I can add whatever else I have – leftover chunks of tofu, frozen kale, potatoes, cauliflower, etc. These kinds of meals help me stretch my grocery hauls and because they rely on non-perishable ingredients, I don’t have to worry about waste. The blueprint for penniless cooking. 

Ultimately, I was pretty satisfied with what I was able to come up with this week. I’m grateful to have grown up around home cooking…having some existing kitchen skills is truly a luxury, and one less barrier for getting cheap meals on the table. For helpful tips on cooking basics, grocery shopping on a budget, and meal ideas, check out 

Though these bottom-of-the-barrel recipes will do nothing to stop greedy grocery monopolies from gouging us, I hope they can inspire you to get creative with cheap ingredients. No one should have to skip meals because grocery companies are raking in record profits while food prices rise at the fastest rate in forty years. Don’t hesitate to make use of community resources like the food bank on campus located in the Mawita’mkw room (130) on the first floor of the student centre, the Sackville community food cupboard at 18 Lorne St., and the Station 8 community food fridge at 8 Station Road in Dorchester. Down with laissez-faire food capitalism! Here, here for community food resources and burritos against imperialism! 

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