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Dinner for a Dollar: The 20 Ingredients You Need to Cook Simple, Healthy Meals

Mexican beans and rice

This is a guest post from Steph Jenkins, author of Dinner for a Dollar.

“I would love to eat healthier, but it’s just so expensive.”

How many times have you thought that? This is a problem every health-conscious human who lives on a budget has to face.

You are not alone.

When my husband and I created our first “now we’re married” budget, we had $25 a week for food. This would not have been a problem if we wanted to live on freeze-dried noodles and peanut butter laced with hydrogenated oil.

However, I had spent the last 6 years of my life helping my family run our small farm. We raised dairy goats, free range chickens, and participated in an organic co-op every week.

The year after I graduated high school, I lived and worked in the poorest country in the world, where I inherited a love for beans and rice and that mysterious joy that accompanies contentment and simple living.

Armed with $25, a head full of farm-to-table strategies, and all the optimism of a newlywed, I was determined to eat well on our tiny budget.

Over the years, as our family grew and our experience did too, I compiled a list of simple, inexpensive real food meals. I could rely on these dinners through every season no matter what the sales ads and coupons offered.

Most of these meals were combinations of the same basic ingredients. Frugal, whole foods staples you could adjust with the seasons and with what you had stashed in the pantry or freezer.

RELATED: Make Dinner With Your Kids

Why 20 Frugal Ingredients?

yellow rice and broccoli

With a few basic components, we created a huge variety of meals that fed our family well.

Some of these ingredients change with the seasons. Fruits and vegetables that are ripe in your local area generally cost less and taste better than produce that has to be shipped across the country.

Some of these ingredients had to be built up over time. When we started out, we couldn’t afford to buy 12 different spices in one week. Honestly, we couldn’t even afford to buy two. However, over time, we decided on the few most important ones and bought them one at a time.

The ingredients in this list change with the sales as well. Sometimes, you find tomato paste on sale. Sometimes, canned diced tomatoes. Or you buy a box of fresh ones over the summer and freeze or can them. The important thing is to find what works for you at any given time.

Buy These Basic Ingredients to Cook Healthy on a TINY Budget

dry beans

The List:

With it, you can make a huge variety of meals. This is what works for our family – adjust it to your needs and tastes.

Note: some ingredients, like spices and flavorings/condiments, I counted as “one item” because they build up over time and generally stay good for weeks or months. I did the same with sale/seasonal veggies because you can use just one or whatever combination to suit your needs. For years, we just bought the one thing what was on sale or in season and added that to our dinners that week. This list is a guideline, not a rule, so make it work for you!

  1. Carrots

  2. Celery

  3. Onion

  4. Garlic

  5. Potatoes or sweet potatoes

  6. Frugal veggies (whatever is on sale or in season – don’t forget about the freezer section!): lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, summer squash, spinach, cauliflower, green beans, avocado, cucumber, etc.

  7. Canned diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, or tomato paste

  8. Block cheese (I have found that Monterrey jack is the most versatile)

  9. Olive oil or butter

  10. Plain yogurt (use for sour cream or in curries)

  11. Eggs

  12. Basic spices: cumin, basil, parsley, oregano, chili powder, cinnamon, paprika, turmeric, and bay are our mainstays

  13. A couple flavorings/toppings/condiments: olives, pickles, salsa, Parmesan cheese, hot sauce, mustard, soy sauce, lemon juice, etc.

  14. Pasta

  15. Rice

  16. Beans: pinto or black

  17. Lentils

  18. Ground beef or turkey

  19. Whole Chicken

  20. Tortilla chips or crackers (not strictly real food, but we have to make room for #balance, right?)

Eating Affordably When You Have Food Allergies

tortilla chip dipped in homemade guacamole

As several dietary issues cropped up for our family, the list adjusted and handled those as well. Cheese and sour cream were replaced with avocado and Simple Homemade Guacamole.

Pasta became rice pasta, and seasoned Yellow Rice joined our weekly rotation. We learned how to eat frugally and answer our new gluten-free and dairy-free needs.

RELATED: 30 Min Dinner Recipe Ideas

The Dollar Menu Dinners

With that list of 20 ingredients, we made endless combinations for dinner.

Here are some examples:

  1. A whole chicken with baked sweet potatoes and a salad

  2. Leftover chicken with Yellow Rice and steamed broccoli or salad

  3. Make bone broth from the whole chicken and use it in a simple chicken noodle (or rice) soup with carrots, onion, celery, and garlic

    Bowl of homemade cumin beans with homemade cornbread

  4. Make a big pot of Cumin Beans (above) and top bowls with shredded cheese. Serve with tortilla chips or Mexican rice (made from broth, tomato sauce, and spices)

  5. Use leftover beans in homemade chili

  6. Serve leftover chili over baked potatoes or sweet potatoes

  7. Use veggies and ground beef to make our favorite Beef & Veggie Soup

In fact, with those 20 ingredients, you can make nearly every meal in my cookbook, Dinner for a Dollar: Real food recipes for under $1 a serving.

Eating healthy on a budget is a challenge people just like you wrestle with every day. But you don’t have to! You can feed your people real food for under $1 per serving. It isn’t magic. It’s just the right recipes and a simple strategy.

Dinner for a Dollar book

Dinner for a Dollar was written with two purposes:

  • To encourage you that no matter how tight your grocery budget is, you can make good choices for your health

  • To arm you with practical tools and recipes so that you can eat well for less than a dollar per meal

Many of us struggle to eat well on a tight budget. I took some of the most budget-conscious recipes and methods, using this list of 20 ingredients, and compiled them into a single manual for simple, healthy meals.

In this 50-page eBook you get:

  • 20+ recipes that cost pennies

  • 3 ways to rock meatless meals

  • 6 strategies to save money every day on main dishes

  • 9 meatless or vegetarian recipes

  • 18 gluten-free recipes

  • 17 dairy-free recipes

The truth is, healthier food is expensive. Don’t let that stop you from eating well and sticking to your budget. Use this list of 20 ingredients as a starting point. Tweak it to fit your needs and tastes!

Find the recipes that work for you. You can do it! With the right tools, you can make nourishing, real food dinners for a dollar.

Get Steph’s book for less than a dollar through September 30! 

Steph Jenkins from Cheapskate CookYou can save money AND eat healthy. Author, passionate real-foodie, and frugal shopper, Steph Jenkins, from, took her most budget-conscious recipes and methods and compiled them into Dinner for a Dollar: Real food recipes for under $1 a serving. Get the book, get free menu plans, and cut your grocery budget in HALF today.
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.
Category: Save Money

1 thought on “Dinner for a Dollar: The 20 Ingredients You Need to Cook Simple, Healthy Meals”

  1. Thank you! I’ve been trying to be more frugal and cook more than I usually do, but putting together a list of recipes is always a pain in the butt even more so when I’m looking for cheap recipes, so having a frugal list of ingredients to build around will make it a lot easier. Thank you!

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