Cheap and Healthy Meals to Make Under $6

Since the pandemic, many Americans have had to become Top Chefs, but few of us have the same resources or access to the fancy ingredients that the pros enjoy. When you’re on a budget or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), planning and cooking all your meals at home may seem impossible. But experts say it is doable, even on as little as $6 a day.

For help building meals that costs only a few dollars each, check out Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown and How to Eat Healthy on a Budget by Alex Picot-Annand and Jenifer Nickle. You can also try meal planning apps like MealPreppro, Meal Board, and Big Oven.

When it comes time to shop, common sense applies: You’ve probably already cut down on extras like rare spices and fancy garnishes, but it’s also wise to limit the number of prepackaged meals and pre-washed or pre-cut foods you buy. Instead, stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables (which are often less expensive but just as healthy as fresh versions) and look for long-lasting pantry staples like pasta, rice, beans, oats and buy in bulk whenever possible. To avoid waste, “shop” from the back shelves of your pantry before you head to the store. And since animal proteins tend to be expensive, consider making some of your meals vegetarian.

Now that you have some helpful meal planning and budgeting tips, it’s time to get cooking.

Below, you’ll find budget-friendly meal plans from chefs, dietitians, and nutritionists. The recipes are from a range of cuisines and take into account common dietary preferences, plus they use ingredients that are easily purchased at most grocery stores or from online retailers like Amazon (a bonus if you have limited mobility or transportation options or the pandemic has made it harder to shop in person). Whether you mix and match or stick to one cusine per day, you’re never going to need more than $6 a day to eat well. Bon appétit!

The Cuisine: Puerto Rican

Recipes by: Melissa Nieves, RD, a Puerto Rico-based dietitian for the personal training company Kemtai

Many Latin American diets are heavy in starches like rice, root vegetables, pasta, and bread, which seems unhealthy to many people who have programmed to be terrified of carbs by the current diet culture. But, says Nieves, “carbs are necessary for your overall health and can definitely be a part of a balanced diet.” Here, she shares a day’s worth of Puerto Rican dishes that’s nutritionally balanced. “Rice is a staple—we eat it in almost every meal. And hot cereals for breakfast and our beloved café con leche can’t be left out,” she says. There’s also a recipe for pastelón de papas. “It’s a very common traditional dish that’s kind of like a Shepherd’s Pie,” says Nieves.


Crema de Maíz, hard-boiled egg, orange juice, and café con leche

1.5 oz of harina de maíz (cornmeal) ($0.27)

8 oz of milk ($0.08)

1 hard-boiled egg ($0.15)

8 oz 100% orange juice ($0.46)

1 oz ground coffee ($0.32)

2 oz milk ($0.04)

Total: $1.32


Pollo Asado con Arroz y Habichuelas, apple and broccoli

3 oz prepared pollo asado (rotisserie chicken) ($1.12)

8 oz cooked white rice ($0.30)

4 oz stewed kidney beans ($0.16)

4 oz frozen broccoli, steamed ($0.32)

1 apple ($0.58 each)

Total: $2.48


Pastelón de Papa, steamed peas, and a pineapple cup

3 oz cooked lean ground beef ($0.56)

4 oz mashed potato ($0.30)

1 oz shredded cheddar cheese ($0.25)

4 oz frozen peas, steamed ($0.25)

4 oz unsweetened canned pineapple ($0.20)

Total: $1.56

Daily Total: $5.36

The Cuisine: Taiwanese

Recipes by: Judy Ni, owner and chef of bāo • logy, a modern Taiwanese restaurant in Philadelphia

“Many old world cultures, particularly in Asia, have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and overall longer lives and better quality of lives. Taiwan and its fresh “fast food” culture focus on great sourcing, high-quality ingredients, and deep culinary traditions,” says Ni.

For the following recipes and in respect for preparation and culinary tradition, Ni recommends breaking down 16 oz of bone-in chicken thighs beforehand. Separate the meat from the bones. Take the bones and any preparation scraps, cover them with water, bring to a boil, then simmer to make a simple chicken broth. This chicken can be used throughout all three of the meals. Alternatively, Ni suggests a roasted or rotisserie chicken.


Congee with Chicken, Mushrooms, and Scallions

4 oz cooked white rice ($0.25)

4 oz pulled chicken ($0.32)

24 oz chicken stock ($0.00)

1-inch ginger, thinly sliced ($0.20)

2 oz shiitake mushrooms, sliced ($0.30)

¼ bunch scallions, diced ($0.10

Total $1.17


Stir-Fried Noodles

9 oz handmade alkaline noodles or spaghetti noodles ($0.23)

0.5 oz sesame oil ($0.07)

4 oz chicken, thinly sliced ($0.35)

2 oz shiitake mushrooms ($0.30)

1 head bok choy, thinly sliced ($0.45)

¼ bunch scallions ($0.10)

Total $1.20


3-Cup Chicken with Bok Choy over White Rice

8 oz dark meat chicken ($0.65)

1-inch knob of ginger ($0.20)

0.5 oz sesame oil ($0.07)

1 clove garlic ($.04)

0.5 oz low sodium soy sauce ($0.05)

0.5 oz rice vinegar ($0.10)

1 stem Thai basil ($0.25)

1 head bok choy ($0.45)

4 oz cooked white rice ($0.25)

Total $2.82

Daily Total: $5.19

The Cuisine: Indian (and Vegan)

Recipes by: Priyanka Naik, New York City-based vegan chef

“Indian food, in general, is based on ancient Ayurvedic practices, which is based on mindful, purposeful and natural eating habits. For example, using natural ingredients, spices, vegetables that are from the Earth, having holistic healing properties and are in-season. This is why Indian food generally contains many spices such as turmeric, ginger, fenugreek, chili, and vegetables, because these ingredients are meant to balance the diet and contain properties that help with immunity, digestion and more,” says Naik.


Cardamom Cashew Granola

8 oz rolled oats ($0.44)

2 oz coconut oil ($0.60)

1 oz roughly chopped cashews ($0.42)

Pinch freshly ground nutmeg ($0.05)

Pinch freshly ground cardamom ($0.10)

Pinch of kosher salt

1 oz dark chocolate chunks ($0.15)

1 oz cup dried cranberries ($0.15)

1 oz dry shredded unsweetened coconut ($0.24)

Total $2.05


Whole Roasted Spiced Cauliflower

1 small head of cauliflower ($1.00)

¼ onion, peeled and diced ($0.25)

1 clove garlic, peeled ($0.04)

½ inch fresh ginger ($0.20)

0.04 oz fennel seeds ($0.10)

0.04 oz turmeric powder ($0.15)

1 Indian green chili or Serrano chili ($0.10)

0.04 oz fresh lemon juice ($0.07)

Total $1.91


One Pan Skillet Eggplant Parmigiana

1/2 medium sized Italian eggplant – split lengthwise in half ($0.80)

1 clove garlic – roughly chopped ($0.04)

4 oz cup jarred marinara ($0.20)

0.25 oz tomato paste ($0.15)

1 sprig of fresh oregano or 0.04 oz dried ($0.05)

1 oz water

0.25 oz sugar ($0.05)

0.04 oz red pepper flakes

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cooking spray/neutral oil

0.16 oz olive oil ($0.10)

1 slice vegan mozzarella ($0.35)

1 oz plain breadcrumbs ($0.05)

Total $1.79

Daily Total: $5.75

The Cuisine: Italian

Recipes by: Chef Pete Ghione of the Las Vegas and Canyon Ranch Spa + Fitness

“My family is originally from the northern part of Italy, near Lombardi. In Italy, yogurt, cereals, and croissants are very common for breakfast. Italians prefer to wake up to something sweet and enjoy it with a cappuccino or espresso,” says Chef Ghione.

Chef Ghione loves making fresh pasta, but to fight the impact of [refined] carbs, he adds a combo of whole grain flour and turmeric powder with black pepper for dinner.

“I like to combine indulgent foods with ingredients that will create a healthier balance. Add that to moderation and I can still enjoy family favorites,” says Chef Ghione.


Summer Yogurt with Stone Fruit

4 oz organic white peach ($0.60)

3 oz organic unsweetened cashew milk yogurt ($0.78)

1 pinch ground cinnamon ($0.02)

1/4 oz toasted sliced almonds ($0.15)

1 leaf fresh Italian basil ($0.03)

Total $1.58


Melanzane Parmigiana (Grilled Eggplant Parmesan)

1 clove large garlic ($0.04)

½ large Italian eggplant ($0.80)

3 Roma or plum tomatoes ($0.69)

1 oz plant-based shredded parmesan cheese ($0.35)

3 fresh oregano leaves or 0.41 oz dried oregano ($0.07)

4 leaves fresh basil ($0.12)

Total $2.07


Pasta Fagioli

4 oz cannellini beans ($0.24)

2 oz dry Ditalini pasta ($0.16)

2 oz diced celery ($0.14)

2 oz diced red onion ($0.08)

2 garlic cloves ($0.04)

12 oz vegetable broth ($0.72)

Total $1.38

Daily Total: $5.03

The Cuisine: Gluten-free

Recipes by: New York City dietitian Lisa Moskovitz, the CEO of NY Nutrition Group

Gluten-free eating has become more and more prevalent. Some adopt this lifestyle to improve digestion issues, and others have a serious, life-threatening gluten-intolerance called Celiac Disease. In either scenario, explains registered dietician Lisa Moskovitz of NY Nutrition Group, “…it is a common misconception that following a gluten-free diet, while still eating balanced, and nutritiously, equates to $$$. However, the truth is, you can definitely do both without breaking the bank.”

With a little creativity and guidance along the way, you can affordably eat what your body needs with minimal distress.

“The trick is to think simple, include plenty of frozen, and even canned options as needed, with a little bit of fresh here and there. Whole foods with minimal to only 1 ingredient is a smart way to ensure food safety. No need to overstock on gluten-free alternatives when there are plenty of foods that are born that way naturally, such as beans, veggies, fruits, nuts, and proteins.”


Superfood Cheerios

6 oz cheerios General Mills ($0.25)

6 oz organic milk ($0.31)

½ box or 0.5 oz raisins ($0.25)

1 oz organic flaxseed ($0.20)

Total $1.01


Burrito Bowl

1 oz Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($0.12)

12 oz Uncle Ben’s brown rice, cooked ($0.24)

8 oz of canned black beans ($0.50)

4 oz shredded cheese ($0.62)

½ beefsteak tomato, diced or sliced ($0.75)

Total $2.23


Peanut Butter Banana

1 banana ($0.20)

1 oz organic peanut butter ($0.28)

Total $0.48


Sweet Potato Toast with Scrambled Eggs

8 oz sweet potato baked or roasted ($1.00)

0.5 oz extra virgin olive oil ($0.24)

2 cage-free eggs ($0.50)

8 oz frozen broccoli, organic, cooked ($0.25)

Total $1.99

Daily Total: $5.71

The Cuisine: Allergy-friendly 

Recipes by: Lorene Alba, AE-C, Director of Education at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)

The cost of an allergy-restricted diet can be a major factor that negatively impacts family food budgets. In fact, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s (AAFA) My Life With Food Allergies report, 84% of families surveyed stated food allergies had a negative effect on their finances.

Lorene Alba, AE-C, Director of Education at AAFA suggests that when possible, aim to use whole ingredients when cooking to ensure meals do not contain allergens. Prepackaged allergy-friendly foods are available but can be expensive.

Since food allergies can be life-threatening, Alba advises carefully reading every label and understanding every ingredient listed is key. “Even if you have purchased an item before, read the label before you purchase it again,” says Alba. “Ingredients can change without notice. If you are unsure of an ingredient, check with the manufacturer.”

For kids, the most common allergens are milk, egg, and peanut. For adults, it is shellfi
sh, milk, peanut, tree nuts, and fin fish (for which the following meal plan was developed in mind).


Old School Apple and Cinnamon Oatmeal

4 oz old fashioned oats (certified gluten-free if needed) ($0.62)

8 oz water ($0.00)

½ whole apple, sweet ($0.33)

0.16 oz dark brown sugar ($0.20)

Dash of cinnamon and nutmeg ($0.11)

Pinch of salt

Total: $1.26


Buddha Bowl

1/2 can of cannellini beans (or garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained ($0.24)

1/2 cucumber, small to medium, diced ($0.25)

1/2 green bell pepper, diced (any color pepper works) ($0.36)

6 – 8 grape tomatoes, cut in half ($0.37)

5 pitted Kalamata olives, cut in half ($0.33)

1 teaspoon of avocado oil (or olive oil) ($0.15)

Juice from ¼ lemon ($0.14)

Salt & pepper to taste

Total: $1.84


Sausage and Lentils

1 link sweet Italian sausage ($0.73)

8 oz red or green lentils, rinsed ($0.25)

1/2 large onion, diced ($0.35)

1 large garlic clove grated or diced small ($0.07)

12 oz of broth ($0.40)

Dashes of thyme, oregano, cumin, red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper to taste ($0.10)

Total: $1.90

Daily Total: $5.00

The Cuisine: Vegetarian

Recipes by: New York City dietitian Alina Zolotareva, RDN

“My biggest piece of advice is to build meals around affordable, powerhouse plant-based ingredients that you can buy dry in bulk, mainly beans, legumes, and whole grains like brown rice and oats. These ingredients can last in storage for a long time and can be remixed in tons of delicious ways,” shares Zolotareva.

Moreover, says Zolotareva, beans and whole grains constitute a complete protein, so they contain all the essential amino acids we need.


Banana Oatmeal with Raisins & Sunflower Seeds

4 oz dry quick oats ($0.22)

1 medium banana ($0.26)

1 oz raisins ($0.17)

2 oz roasted sunflower seeds ($0.27)

Total: $1.14


Spicy Southern-Style Tofu Taco Salad and Salsa

2 oz extra firm tofu, cubed ($0.37)

16 oz romaine lettuce, shredded ($0.50)

1 oz corn (canned or frozen) ($0.25)

2 oz black beans (boiled or canned) ($0.19)

2 oz cherry tomatoes, halved ($0.33)

1 oz salsa ($0.27)

Total: $1.64


Mediterranean Pasta with Chickpeas, Broccoli & Tomato Sauce

6 oz whole wheat pasta ($0.40)

0.5 oz olive oil ($0.10)

1 clove garlic ($0.05)

2 oz broccoli (cooked) ($0.60)

2 oz tomato sauce ($0.28)

2 oz chickpeas (pre boiled or canned) ($0.25)

Total: $1.68

Daily Total: $4.46

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