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Shoestring Budget Recipes Your Whole Family Will Enjoy

Updated on July 10, 2012

Money-saving, time-saving tips from a self-described tightwad.

I grew up in a fairly modest household. My mom was a stay at home mother and my dad worked for a major airline. Having grown up poor and having been one of nine children, my mom knew the value of a dollar. She was also a genius at cooking a nutritious meal for pennies per person. Cooking on a shoestring budget was second nature to Mom.

Where did the term shoestring budget come from anyway?

The term shoestring is thought to have originated from the idea that shoestrings cost 50 cents at one time. Which, to me, is silly because many things cost 50 cents years ago and still do today. I can still get a roll of toilet paper at Wal-Mart for 49 cents a roll. A can of dog food goes for under 50 cents. Remember when a loaf of bread cost 25 cents? I don’t, but my dad told me it did. Whatever the reason, the term shoestring budget refers to a small amount of money allotted to purchase something. For the purpose of this article I’ll discuss cooking on a shoestring budget.

Like Mother, like Daughter

Fortunately for me, my mom taught me the importance of stretching a dollar. Unfortunately for me, this lesson included things like Spam and liver. To this day I despise Spam. I actually like liver. Mom was also good at using meat as a side dish and not always as the main ingredient of a meal, something many nutritionists are now advising. Mom always said if you gave her a bag of potatoes, a bag of rice or a box of pasta she could make you a meal. And she did. I’m pretty sure she invented the helper concept, after all this is pre-1971 I’m talking about. Hamburger, ham (or Spam) cubes, leftover chicken, pork or beef, were all fair game for ingredients in mom’s version of what we’ve all come to know as Hamburger Helper. Sorry Mom, but my shoestring budget is even cheaper, quicker and easier.

Where's the beef?

In my opinion, the hamburger helper that comes in the box isn’t exactly cheap. What do you really get for the approximate cost of around two bucks for about 5 ounces of pasta? To quote Clara Pella in her 80’s Wendy’s commercial, Where’s the beef? You get pasta and a packet of seasoning. I can buy a pound of pasta for less than a dollar at my local grocery store. Even less when I can find it on sale. There’s no meat in the box. And let’s face it, that’s the expensive part of the meal. Jennie-O makes ground turkey packaged in roll form and found in your grocer’s freezer. And, it costs around $1.18 for a one pound roll. They also make seasoned turkey packaged in the same form and weight for under $1.50 per roll. You don’t even have to add seasoning, which cuts down on your cost even further. They make a taco seasoned version and an Italian seasoned version. Mix the meat with a pre-packaged mac and cheese, add a side of veggies or a salad and you have your meal. You can even go a step further and use one of the frozen packages of mac and cheese. I buy the Banquet brand for 88 cents at Wal-Mart. Many dieticians and nutritionists think ground turkey is better for you than ground beef. It’s also considerably less expensive. I personally get a lot of mileage out of these conveniently packaged turkey meats. Aside from making a meat helper-type meal, I make meatballs, meatloaf, hamburgers and Salisbury steaks. It’s also important to note that these variations all feed at least 4 people, if not more.

Quick and easy microwaved scalloped potatoes and ham

Another of my favorite, easy and inexpensive meals is scalloped potatoes and ham. And, mine is made even easier by making the entire meal in the microwave. A bag of russet potatoes usually costs less than $3 per 5 lb bag. You can buy a nice-sized hunk of turkey ham (Jennie-O or any other brand is fine) for less than $5 and a block of store brand processed cheese (similar to Velveeta) for around $4. This can feed a lot of people. Peel your potatoes (or leave the skin on, there are additional B6 vitamins in them), slice thinly, put in a large microwave safe baking dish or bowl (I use my Anchor Hocking) with a little salted water for about 5 minutes or so. Check for tenderness. Meanwhile, cube your turkey ham and your cheese into bite sized pieces. Toss these into your cooked potatoes and microwave long enough to melt the cheese fully. Add seasoning to taste (I add a touch of salt, garlic and onion powder and pepper) and stir thoroughly. And how much did this meal for many cost? Well under $15.

Easy, cheap ambrosia fruit sald

Dessert can be a bowl of ice cream and that would be fairly inexpensive, but I like a unique treat once in awhile and so does my family. Fruit ambrosia is a yummy choice. Simply combine a tub of whipped topping (Cool Whip or otherwise), fresh or canned fruit, shredded coconut, mini-marshmallows and nuts in a large bowl. Add or leave out anything your family likes or doesn’t like. If you use canned fruit you can buy the kind without the added syrup to avoid the extra empty calories. It really isn’t necessary in this recipe anyway since you’ll want to drain the syrup to avoid having your ambrosia turn out runny.

The easiest bunuelos recipe ever

My family is from Mexico and I love bunuelos. Many cultures have a variation of this fried dough dessert. Yes, I could make mine from scratch like my mom and abuela did, but I have an easy, cheap way to do it. I purchase the package of flour tortillas in the bread isle. They come in a 16 count package for around 89 cents at my local Wal-Mart. I pour some, not a lot, of cooking oil in a frying pan and let it get hot. A tip my mom showed me to make sure your oil is hot is to stick the end of a wooden spoon in the middle of the pan. If the oil around the spoon end sizzles you’re good to go. If not, wait a minute of two. Carefully lay your tortilla in the oil for about a minute or even less on both sides. You may have to adjust your burner lower so as not to burn your tortilla, or you may have to turn it up so it actually fries the tortilla. I use tongs to turn and remove the tortilla. Have a plate of sugar nearby so you can coat the fried tortilla with it. Use powdered sugar or granulated sugar with cinnamon. You can drizzle chocolate syrup over the top as well. Even the most traditional Mexican cook will be sure to enjoy these.

Everyday cooking doesn't have to be expensive

These are just a few of the inexpensive shortcuts I make when cooking. I don’t always cook like this. Of course there are occasions when you want to put on the ritz for friends and family. But ordinary, everyday cooking for your family doesn’t have to break the bank. And, you don’t have to spend hours slaving away in a hot kitchen. Who has time for that anyway? Not me. Please enjoy these tips and let me know how they turn out for you. I welcome any of your tips, suggestions and comments. Bon appetite!


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