My Cheapest, Tastiest, Healthiest Menus

We in the fortunate First World eat 1,095 meals per year. We eat half our meals from restaurants, including fast-food chains — at sky-high expense to our health and our finances. 

This post (a long one) is passionate encouragement on cooking and eating most of our meals from our own kitchens. Home-cooked meals make us richer in what matters: health and vitality, community, and loving relationships, since shared meals are central to sociability. See Top Ten Tips For Hosting People for encouragement on being a host. Let’s remember that in times of disaster or even normal economic hardship, restaurant meals aren’t an option. Knowing how to feed ourselves is arguably the very best life-skill we can have.

I enjoy restaurant meals as much as anyone, but this fact helps me cook consistently: over 90% of we in the U.S. will die of lifestyle-related diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Thousands of fatty, salty, too-rich restaurant meals over the years are a prime cause of those fatal diseases. Lack of exercise, also known as Sitting Disease, is the other main cause. Here are tips on curing Sitting Disease by building activity into our lives. 

If you don’t have an immersion blender, stop reading this post and go buy one right now.

Dinner Menus

Homemade soup is easy to make with an immersion blender. It’s a slender, lightweight wand that creates a velvety-smooth soup texture in seconds, no matter what ingredients you started with.  Here’s my savory pinto bean soup method.  Homemade soup is a great way to use leftover grains, meats, lentils, potatoes, sauces, and especially vegetables that are aging, and wouldn’t be appetizing on their own. You can combine one or more soups into a new soup, and you can use canned soup as a base from which to build a bigger, better soup.

Whole-wheat pasta with pesto is my favorite work-night dinner. Quick and delicious. Savory olives are a good meat substitute.

Curried dahl over rice, couscous or quinoa was the base of my cheapest, tastiest, healthiest dinner blog post of 2009. Cabbage salad was the side-dish.

A slow-cooker, also known as a crock-pot, is the best friend of many cooks. This is especially good for coming home from work to a good-smelling dinner that’s already made, and for making tough, thrifty cuts of meat more moist and tender.

Enchilada casserole can be vegetarian, or it can utilize whatever meat you have on hand, if you chop it.

Use meat as an accent rather than a main course, for both economy and health reasons. Make stir-fry with a little chicken, spaghetti sauce with a few meatballs, a taco or burrito bar with a small bowl of meat alongside bowls of beans, rice, and grilled onions and peppers.

Lunch Menus

Try a protein, high-fiber salad of fresh or canned corn, black or kidney beans and chopped walnuts. I toss this with olive oil, salt and pepper, and eat it with greens or fruit. It’s a great go-to if you are feeding a vegan friend or relative, and it lasts a long time without spoiling.

Curried tuna salad is a lunch dish that’s good enough to also be a potluck contribution.

Leftovers are my favorite lunches. I prefer them to sandwiches because they’re already made. Make your leftovers attractive and easy to use. Label with names and dates: “Stir-fry, Jan. 19”. When I do eat in a restaurant, I often assume I am taking half of my meal home. I ask my server for my take-out box at the same time that I order my meal. When I receive them both, I put half the meal in the box, before I start to eat the other half. That way I have lunch ready for the next day, and I don’t overeat and leave the restaurant feeling sluggish and half-witted as a cavewoman after a big kill.

Going on a road trip? My work (which I love) takes me on a couple dozen road trips per year. I manage to eat only one restaurant meal per day by bringing food like this for lunches and breakfasts. (And if you want to take the most wildishly beautiful, reasonably priced road trip in the continental U.S., go to Oregon’s South Coast. Great for bike touring, too. But I digress :)).

Breakfast Menus  

Smoothies are nutritious and a great way to use aging fruitespecially bananas. Frozen bananas are ideal, because they create frosty, creamy texture.  You don’t need a recipe to make a delicious smoothie. You just need 1.) a blender; 2.) liquid, i.e.  juice, milk, soy milk, (or any combination of those), and 3.) fruit.  Use some ice if you don’t have frozen bananas.

I make breakfast burritos by sauteing whatever vegetables are on hand (onions and black olives are typical), scrambling eggs into them, and bundling into a whole-wheat tortilla.

Oatmeal with raisins is my husband’s favorite breakfast — incredibly cheap and healthy. My friend Jen makes homemade granola — a great improvement over too-sweet, oily, overpriced commercial granola.


Homemade popcorn is the cheapest, healthiest snack, hands down. It’s best made in an air popper. Drizzling olive oil over our popcorn is healthier and less messy than melted butter. Buy it from the bulk section, or at the least, avoid those packets of microwave popcorn that are full of toxic chemicals. Sprinkling brewer’s yeast over popcorn is tasty and nutritious. Replacing a potato chip habit with popcorn would save about$200/year, and at least three pounds of body weight, by my in-the-air calculations.

Grocery Shopping Tips

Go shopping after eating a healthy meal. It sets you up for buying both the right types and the right amounts of foods.

Shop the bulk-foods section, if your grocery store has one. Beans, lentils, brown rice and lesser-known grains like millet and barley are the thriftiest possible foundations of a meal. Peanut butter, almond butter, sugar, salt, spices and also lots of snack foods can be bought in bulk, too, at great savings over the packaged versions.  

Buy only foods you will eat, and will be glad you ate. Cookies and ice cream fill the first condition but not the second condition in my household. So we don’t buy them. Celery fills the second condition but not the first condition. So we don’t buy it. 

Consider a household ban on bottled water. It’s expensive and I’ve read research stating it’s no more pure than what comes out of many cities’ faucets. Plus, plastic water bottles are a disaster for the environment. Only a small percentage ever get recycled, and they’re made from petroleum. I use a small bottle with a big green screw-top (it originally held orange juice) for water on my road trips. 

What are your favorite meals or snacks to make at home? What makes it fun for you, rather than a chore?

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photos courtesy of: Walter Lim, Wikimedia and Steven Vance.

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  • Jan Morrison
    August 26, 2014

    Great stuff - especially the bottled water truth! I live in Labrador and in Canada half the water companies try and tell you their water is from here - land of the great uncontaminated water. Still, people here buy bottled water! Gah! It comes out of the tap cold and absolutely tasteless, just how water should be. By the way - here is a popcorn skinflint tip - if you have a microwave but no popper don’t buy those grisly terrible bags of popcorn full of oily ick - get a paper bag (sure, you can find one of those!) put a half-cup of popcorn in it - just regular doesn’t have to be ‘gourmet’. Fold the bag over twice and put it on your popcorn setting or for three minutes - listen until it isn’t popping. FRESH popcorn - untouched by deep yellow oil - tastes great - add a dab of olive oil, a bit of Parmesan maybe, some cayenne and sea salt and yummy!

    • Alison
      August 28, 2014

      Jan, I am so with you on the water thing. And I love your popcorn tip. I’ve brought along a paper bag with some popcorn in it for my current work road trip. Thanks so much!

  • Amy Reaney
    February 23, 2014

    Great tips! Especially the one about popcorn- I can’t believe how little ‘real’ popcorn my friends and family eat these days, although I still think it’s best with real butter :-). Your article made me think about how a big barrier to eating well, especially in less affluent communities, is access to fresh and healthy food. I think I remember reading in a previous post that you live in the Mt. Tabor area, so I wanted to share with you (if you don’t already know) that your neighbors down in Montavilla are working to form a cooperative grocery store that would provide better access to great food in an community lacking in grocery resources- you can find more information here:

  • Alison
    January 26, 2014

    Great suggestions, Kathy. I love them, and also the mental picture i get of the dance you often do with Denise in your kitchen. The family that dances together (or cooks or bicycles together) stays together. Rock on, my friend! Skype you in next Sunday unless i hear from you otherwise.

  • Kathy
    January 26, 2014

    I’m going to suggest two SWEET cook books upon which we groove at my house. While not completely vegetarian or vegan both contain uber nutritious meals and more vegetarian options than meat options. 1) The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook; perhaps my all time favorite; I love the recipes b/c they make huge amounts which can easily be frozen for easy meals in the future, served up for lunch or breakfast - dinner for b-fast is my all time favorite time-saver (save some of your dinner for breakfast the next day) AND it usually means you will get a high quality protein which is crucial for setting your blood-sugar off right so you don’t crave carbs about 10:30 or 11 am; she also has an awesome recipe blog ( so you don’t even have to buy the cookbook! 2) Feeding the Whole Family - I especially like this one for households with new babies or toddlers at home; but it also has great recipes that adults love too. Lastly, regarding eating at home vs restaurants… After one evening meal we had all happily prepared together, our guest exclaimed “this was better than a restaurant!” Denise and I now have a “better-than-a-restaurant” dance; it is performed quite often in our kitchen!

  • Beth Teliho
    January 22, 2014

    Oh my, there are some yummy recipes here for me to try! We have cut down our eating out by a huge margin since we’ve gone vegan! Although, we did discover Papa john’s has an amazing cheeseless pizza…..That was more for my husbands pizza addiction than anything. I personally could live without it. Anyway, the enchilada casserole looks SO good! Must try!

    • Alison
      January 22, 2014

      Good to hear this, Beth. I respect veganism a lot. The United Nations even issued a report stating that less meat in our First World diets is needed in order to slow climate change. I know health is the usual motive for eating vegan. But then, climate change will have enormous impacts on health worldwide.

      Great to meet you, Beth. Come back to visit again soon.

  • Alison
    January 22, 2014

    It’s a pleasure, Debra. I’m looking forward to your next post at Comm Before The Storm. Food for my brain, every time.

  • Debra Yearwood
    January 21, 2014

    Great health sense, smart advice and some recipes I can look forward to trying out for myself. Thank you Alison!

  • grnpwrguy
    January 20, 2014

    Its always interesting for me to see bottled water offered at conferences, seminars and business meetings here in Portland. Not only do we have some of the best tasking municipal water in the US but its available for nothing at literally tens of thousands of drinking fountains in every building and lots and lots of street corners. All that plastic (petroleum) put to no good purpose.

    • Alison
      January 21, 2014

      I agree! I don’t think Portland really lives up to its reputation as Sustainability Central. It’s more like mainstream with some good intentions and pretty edges.

  • My Inner Chick
    January 20, 2014

    Curried Tuna would make me complete!


    • Alison
      January 21, 2014

      Kim, I like your enthusiasm. But I’ve got to say you and your blog already vibrate with life and completeness :).

  • Alison
    January 20, 2014

    Mike, I know you’re a passionate traveler, as well as a foodie. If you and Phoenix travel here to Portland, Oregon, I will make you the meal of your choice, with the help of my husband Thor (the real foodie in my family). Come on up!

  • Mike
    January 19, 2014

    Oh my gosh you had me at menu, Alison! As you know I’m a big time foodie. Curried tuna salad, whole wheat pasta with pesto, enchilada casserole? Yes, please! Now you have my mouth watering! Great post :)