My wife and I have had some "tough times" in the past. And when I say tough, I mean trying to eat for a week on $5 (Ramen noodles anyone?). These days we are a little smarter. Not really any wealthier sadly. But we have a lot less debt, and the knowledge of how to shop and eat cheap. Which is good, because we have two growing kids who can really put it away.
I am going to share with you some of my favorite cheap recipes. These may not be good tasting meals. They are certainly not good for you. But they are cheap, and easy to make. I promise that when you are done eating them, you won't be hungry any more.
First some general shopping rules:
1) Shop at Aldi's. If you don't have an Aldi's store, you should have something like it. These grocery stores make you put a 25 cent deposit to get a cart, charge you for bags, and make you do all the bagging when you're done. If you can find cheaper food - I don't suggest eating it. I have found their "private label" or generic stuff to be of pretty good quality. I like it better than Wal-Marts generic crap. Check their prices against Wal-Mart. Always lower prices, always Aldi's.
2) Make a list, and combine meal items. My wife and I are still perfecting this science. It's called "working together". Many married couples are losing sight of this tactic. It works like this. I want to make pizza, and I tell her what I need. She reminds me that we have half an onion and some olives in the fridge. We just saved about five bucks right off the top.
3) See what you have in the pantry before going out. Think of what you could add to what you have to make a meal. Sometimes, you don't need anything. Leftovers are fair game.
4) Try new things. Sometimes I handcuff my wife, and she dresses up like a nurse. No wait! I was kidding. What I meant was 'try new recipes' for meals that everyone likes (the kind of stuff you order out for).
Recipe #1 - Pizza
You can spend a lot of money making great pizza. Or you can spend a little money and make eatable pizza. It's better than the frozen stuff, and much cheaper than getting delivery. The key to making it cheaply is to make your own crust, and get cheap (but good tasting) cheese.
This will make two X-large pizza's!
1 bag of flour (NOT self rising).
Sugar and salt.
2 packets of FAST RISING yeast (they sell them 3 at a time, so save one!)
Olive Oil (buy it from Aldi's, or you are paying double what it's worth)
Air-bake pizza pans (you will have to get these from Wal-Mart, but they are cheap)
About 9 cups of cheese (three bags of 3 cups each, you pick)
Pizza Sauce (Aldi's doesn't sell it, spaghetti sauce works though)
Your choice of: olives, green pepper, onion, ham, etc, etc.
To make your Dough:
Preheat your oven to 460 degrees.
Don't be a wuss and buy the pre-made dough. Get yourself a big mixing bowl to start this in. You can also make this on a counter top without dirtying a bowl. I have done it, but it takes some skill. So put 4 cups of flour in your bowl. Then dump in 1/3 cup of olive oil. You can use a little less if you want. That will make your dough less sticky and you can stretch the olive oil out that way (it's not cheap). Then dump in two yeast packets. Add two heaping tablespoons of sugar (you can guess if you don't have measuring spoons). Add a little bit of salt, and throw it to the side of the bowl - avoiding the yeast. Yeast does not like salt! Now add 1 1/2 cups of hot water. You don't have to heat it on the stove. Just get some hot water from the faucet. Dump the water over everything else in the bowl.
Now get a fork and start stirring the mixture together. Pretty soon the fork will not help you stir any more. So dump your dough out on the kitchen counter and start kneading it. This means you flatten it, double it over itself, and put your weight into it. Do this until it looks like ... dough.
Sprinkle some flour out on the counter and split your dough ball in half. You can push and pull your dough into shape, or if you have a rolling pin, you can roll it flat. Careful that you don't iron it to your counter-top. Make sure you sprinkle flour around so it doesn't stick. Ironing pins are expensive for some reason. I have found an empty wine bottle works just as well if not better, so save one from a party that you are invited to. You can tell the host "I'm keeping this because I liked it and I want to remember the brand". Then they won't know what a broke ass you are.
Lay your flattened dough into your air-bake pizza pans. These are usually coated with anti-stick stuff. If that is the case, do not coat them with cooking spray. If you insist on using cooking spray, use the pure vegie-oil stuff. The butter flavored stuff will leave a sticky stained blob on your pan that is impossible to scrub off.
I will spare you the details of how to decorate a pizza. You know what you like. But here are some general topping tips!
1) Avoid "low moisture" cheese. This stuff has NO taste. In Ohio, we have Krogers stores and they try to sell you this stuff in a purple bag. They remove almost all the milk from the cheese in the name of good health. The truth is, they are cutting the cost of the product by watering it down. UGH. Get your cheese at Aldi's. It tastes far better, it's more finely shredded, and it doesn't taste like ass.
2) Compensate with strong toppings. If your cheese is cheap, use strong tasting toppings. I made some pizza today and I used a combination of green and black olives. They were left-over from a Thanksgiving table garnishing plate. Onion helps here too.
Once your toppings are on, throw your pizza into the oven one at a time. It will be done pretty quick (15 minutes or so). Don't get busy with something else. Check it often. I like to start mine on the bottom oven rack. After 10 minutes or so I move it to the top rack, and I yank the pan out from under it (so it cooks directly on the rack). This little trick gives you a brown bottom to your crust so you don't have to worry about gooey stuff in the middle (yuck!).
When your cheese starts to brown up on you, pull it out of the oven and let it cool on the counter. Cut - and SERVE.
You will have a lot left over from this recipe. You should still have a rather full bottle of olive oil. You will have 2/3rds of a bag of flour. You will have a single yeast packet. Next time you make pizza, it will cost you even less. Oh, and you will have a lot of spaghetti sauce left. My wife uses it for "johnny marzetti". Which is basically elbow macaroni with sauce on it.
See how this little system works? See you next time, with another cheap recipe.