11 Cheap Meals Food Network Staffers Make When They Don’t Know What to Eat
You don't need to break the bank to enjoy something satisfying.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever opened up your fridge, stared into empty space and realized you have no idea what to make and eat. That’s me — multiple times a day. While my stomach is always grumbling for food, I have a hard time deciding what I’m in the mood for, let alone what I can whip up with what I’ve already got on hand.
I’ve always wondered what other people make when they’re in the same predicament — so we asked Food Network staffers for their go-to, cheap meal. And I received plenty of ideas that everyone should add to their weekly rotation. Not only are they delicious and easy to make, but they won’t cost you a fortune (or even a trip to the store in most cases). Keep these in your back pocket and you’ll always have a set of meals you can make when hunger strikes!
Breakfast of Champions
My grandparents — on both sides — were known for serving breakfast for dinner, especially when their evenings were overwhelming. (With four girls on my mom's side and four boys on my dad's side, you can imagine this happened often!) It's my favorite trick in the book. When I need to get a cheap and easy meal on the table, I always make eggs. Our kids will eat them fried, scrambled, you name it. I especially love these eggs, cooked inside a Parmesan circle. The cheese crisps up and turns absolutely irresistible, and dinner's done in minutes.
-Meghan Hynes Cole, Associate Editor
We love breakfast for dinner at our house: it's perfect when I've been too busy to plan a meal and is pantry friendly. I'll throw together a big, puffy oven pancake (you can skip the pear), cheesy scrambled eggs, toast and fruit (we're skipping the bacon and sausage these days — too pricey). It's a filling and thrifty meal. Plus, the kids think it's special.
-Leah Brickley, Senior Editor, Culinary
I’ve always got plenty of eggs on hand so omelets have become one of my family’s go-to, money-saving meals. On omelet night, I rifle through the refrigerator and pull out all the odds and ends that are leftover from the past couple of days. That way, everyone can customize their own and have exactly what they want — and nothing goes to waste. Roasted broccoli? My daughter loves it along with shredded Cheddar cheese and a bit of cooked ham. Extra mushrooms and herbs that I don’t have a use for? That’s my husband’s favorite. And that tender, baby spinach that needs to get used up so that it doesn’t wilt? Add some goat cheese and za’atar and you’ve got my absolute favorite omelet combination. The possibilities for this cheap and filling meal are nearly endless. And you don’t need to buy any special ingredients; just use whatever you’ve got. There are a few different ways to make an omelet but this handy guide can help — and even give you a few recipes to get you started!
-Kristie Collado, Digital Programming Manager
All the Pasta-bilities
I always have at least four boxes of pasta in the house, and it's the pantry staple I turn to when I can't think of anything to make for dinner. Whether I'm opting for penne with grandma's tomato sauce, linguine with clam sauce or a simple spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and breadcrumbs, I can usually make a delicious meal with whatever I have on-hand without another trip to the grocery store. Plus, most of these ingredients are shelf-stable pantry items, so I don't have to worry about them going bad if I don't use them right away.
-T.K. Brady, Senior Editor
My dad made a version of this recipe regularly when I was growing up and it was always a hit for us kids, but now, as the person most often making dinner in my house, I fully understand the appeal. The base ingredients (pasta, canned clams) are always in stock in the pantry, it all comes together faster than deciding on and picking up takeout, and it only costs a few dollars to feed everyone. It's also a fairly flexible recipe — I'll add in half a leftover onion when I have it or sub in white wine or chicken stock, depending on what's open in the fridge.
-Julie Hines, Managing Editor
PSA: cold noodles are not just for summer! It's the perfect meal to have in your back pocket any time of year, especially if it's as affordable and easy to make as this kimchi guksu. I always have kimchi in the fridge and the necessary condiments in the pantry, and I love garnishing the dish with whatever vegetables are lying around in my crisper. Sometimes that might be the cucumber called for in the recipe, but it might also be julienned cabbage or perilla leaves, the last of the salad greens, or even some thin slices of Korean pear.
-Frances Kim, Senior Editor
My go-to, easy and cost-effective meal is lemony chicken and rice soup, inspired by the Greek dish called avgolemono. You only need a few pantry ingredients, and the result is a big pot of soup that lasts a few meals. I make a version similar to Jeff Mauro's recipe, where you make a flavorful broth from raw chicken breasts, then cook white rice in the homemade broth until tender. To finish, you gently stir in beaten eggs to give the soup a silky texture, and lots of lemon juice to finish. I love this soup because it's hearty enough for the winter but lemony and bright for the summer months as well.
-Amanda Neal, Recipe Developer, Digital
When I need a quick, cheap meal, I almost always turn to lentil soup. Lentils are super affordable but satisfyingly hearty. I find they can stand-in well for meat, but are much lower maintenance too — just dump into a pot and you're cookin'. Food Network Kitchen's Best Lentil Soup is a nice place to start — even when I don't have the extra herbs (or even the tomato paste), I've found that it's still delicious. Adding a little acid at the end definitely brightens things up, but I also like using red wine vinegar if I don't have an extra lemon. As a bonus, I've found that lentil soup leftovers tend to thicken up in the fridge, which means they're nice over salad or even piled into a pita the next day.
-Lauren Piro, Editorial Director
I love Food Network Kitchen's Best Lentil Soup recipe; I make a double-batch every month or so and freeze half for another meal on a busy night. Lentils are inexpensive, filling and healthful and I almost always have them, and most of the other ingredients, on hand. It's a really simple recipe that's unbelievably delicious and comforting. Don't skip the lemon juice and parsley!
-Michelle Buffardi, VP, Digital Programming
I always stock up on boxed mac and cheese whenever it's on sale at the supermarket (specifically, Annie's). Then, it's in my pantry on those busy nights when I'm tempted to splurge on takeout. Instead, I'll reach for a box or two, and grab a few extra ingredients to add into the mix. I'll add a cup of frozen peas to the pasta during the last two to three minutes of cooking, and I grate extra Cheddar cheese or Parmesan into the sauce. If I'm craving more protein, I'll quickly cook up diced pancetta in a skillet.
-Trish Clasen Marsanico, Programming Manager
I've become obsessed with frozen dumplings as a solution anytime I want something delicious without the work. I usually steam them, so the only work is heating up a little bit of water and covering with a lid. At most the whole process takes 15 minutes. There are some decent mainstream options like the Trader Joe's Pork and Ginger soup dumplings, but my favorites have all come from Asian groceries. The variety is abundant, and you get more bang for your buck.
-Larisa Alvarez, Executive Culinary Producer
A Spudtacular Meal
My go-to cheap, nutritious meal is a baked sweet potato topped with spiced black beans. Sometimes I'll make them twice-baked, or add toppings like cheese, avocado or ranch dressing, but it's also tasty as a simple 2-ingredient dish. This meal fueled me when I was an intern making minimum-wage in New York City — super filling and only costs a few dollars!
-Sarah Holden, Digital Culinary Producer