My Favorite Cheap, Easy, and Healthy Lunch and Dinner Meals Under $3

Cooking at home is one of my favorite ways to stay healthy, but it can be a little overwhelming sometimes. Lots of recipes take hours to make or require expensive ingredients you’ll probably never use again. And those that are quick often tend to be somewhat unhealthy (e.g. mac and cheese or a hot dog). It can really feel like there’s no winning.

To help fight off this feeling, I’m starting a recipe series where I’ll share some of my favorite meals that don’t fall prey to those same issues and occasionally a few that fall closer to the less healthy category. The goal of diversity in recipe suggestion is to promote balanced eating, something I strive for daily and talk about more in depth in my diet philosophy introduction here. I recommend checking that out for background on my views on food.

For this installation, I’m sharing a few of my favorite non-breakfast foods that can be made for cheap and that consist of relatively healthy ingredients.

1. Tofu Spring Rolls

Spring rolls are a classic Vietnamese staple. They’re simple, delicious, packed with vegetables, and infinitely customizable, which makes them almost a perfect food.

The main things you’ll need for tofu spring rolls are:

Rolls

  • 1 container (about 16 oz) of firm or extra firm tofu
  • 2 cups cooked vermicelli noodles (I like to use brown rice-based ones if I can find them, but if you can’t, white is okay too)
  • Around 12 rice paper wraps
  • Fillings of choice (recommended options include cabbage, shredded carrots, mint, and cilantro but you can pick and choose based on whatever you have on hand that sounds good).

Peanut Sauce

  • 1/4 cup peanut butter (try to find the kind with no added sugar and just peanuts/salt if you can)
  • 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce, based on salt desires
  • 1-2 tablespoons of chili garlic sauce (this stuff) depending on spice desires
  • Approx 1 teaspoon of rice wine vinegar
  • Juice of a small lime (or half a large one)
  • Some water for thinning

The recipe is super simple:

  1. Drain and press your tofu about 30 minutes before you’re ready to get started.
  2. Once your tofu is drained, you’re ready to go! Take everything that goes into the peanut sauce and mix it all together in a small bowl. Play with the proportions of ingredients until you find something you like. The amounts I provided are guidelines but peanut sauce is often up to personal taste. The sauce is usually pretty chunky before you add water, so once you’ve mixed everything else together, add water until it gets smooth and relatively fluid.
  3. Chop up your tofu into small chunks (I usually go for rectangular chunks rather than squares because they fit better into the wrappers) and toss into a hot pan over canola oil. Cook until these look brown and no longer wet.
  4. Cook your vermicelli noodles. While those are going, you can prep whatever veggies you’re putting in (shred your carrots/cabbage, etc).
  5. When the noodles are done, you’re ready to fill. Get a bowl of warm to hot water and get your rice paper. Make each roll by taking a sheet of paper, dunking it in the water until it’s soft, pulling it out, and filling with tofu, veggies, and vermicelli. When done, wrap the roll up however you please. I typically go for a burrito style where I roll up the ends first, then go lengthwise.
  6. Repeat until you run out of fillings.
  7. To eat, dip the rolls in peanut sauce.

To make this even better, I also recommend adding a step of marinating your tofu (for about 30 minutes) after you press it. I left it out to keep within the time constraints, but it does add a lot of flavor. I typically use soy sauce, chili garlic sauce and sesame oil as my main marinade ingredients but this is up to you.

2. Lentil Tacos

Lentils are one of my recent food discoveries and a new favorite. They’re hearty and packed with all kinds of nutrients. And as someone who doesn’t love the texture of many other vegetable protein sources–such as beans-these are a lot more palatable.

You can swap out ground beef in a taco recipe with red lentils to boost the healthiness of the meal. Although it doesn’t taste exactly the same, I think it’s a pretty good substitute and has a lot of great flavor in its own right.

Here’s what you need to make lentil tacos:

  • 3/4 cup dry red lentils
  • A little under 2 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable, up to you)
  • A little under 1 cup of your favorite salsa
  • Some sort of oil. I like using olive oil but it does have a strong taste, so something more neutral could work better for you.
  • 1 small yellow or white onion, diced
  • 1 clove minced garlic or about heaping teaspoon of the jarred kind
  • Spices! Salt, cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, paprika, and oregano. They also make packets of pre-made taco seasoning at the store but it’s a lot less customizable to your preferences.
  • Tortillas (either flour or corn)
  • Whatever taco toppings you typically enjoy (chopped tomato, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, etc)

When you’ve got everything together, follow these steps:

  1. Rinse your lentils in water.
  2. Chop up your onions and garlic.
  3. Get your seasoning ready. Here, I can’t recommend exact amounts to you because it’s all up to preference. I tend to put the most cumin, though, followed by chili powder and garlic powder, with a little less paprika and oregano and the least salt. Note that you might not even need salt if you’re using a high sodium broth. This is up to you. It’s usually a couple teaspoons total that I end up with across all the spices.
  4. Heat up some oil on medium heat (a tablespoon or so) and cook the onion and garlic until it starts to brown and get soft. Note that you’ll want a pretty big pan for this since everything will be getting added together.
  5. Add your lentils and your seasoning mix and stir for about 30-60 seconds to get it all mixed together.
  6. Add your broth and heat it up to boiling. After the mixture has boiled, drop the heat to low and cover. The lentils should finish cooking in close to 30 minutes or a little sooner.
  7. When the lentils are tender, stir in your salsa and you’re ready to go! Serve the lentil mixture in tortillas of your choice, with whatever toppings you like!

3. Asian Chickpea Power Bowls

Chickpeas are another new staple in my diet. Super healthy and really tasty when prepared a lot of different ways. One of my favorite ways to use them recently has been to make power bowls: healthy and hearty whole foods mixed together and topped with a sauce.

My favorite right now is an asian style bowl that I made up. It actually shares a common ingredient with the first recipe on today’s list: the peanut sauce.

These bowls are really quick, tasty, and a great way to boost your energy. Here’s what you need to assemble the bowl:

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes
  • 1 can of chickpeas (16 oz)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt, pepper, garlic powder to taste
  • About 5-6 handfuls of kale, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic or a heaping teaspoon of the kind from a jar
  • About 1/2 to 1 tsp of soy sauce, based on salt desires
  • Dash of sesame oil (optional)
  • Powdered or grated fresh ginger (optional)

Plus, the ingredients for peanut sauce:

  • 1/4 cup peanut butter (try to find the kind with no added sugar and just peanuts/salt if you can)
  • 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce, based on salt desires
  • 1-2 tablespoons of chili garlic sauce (this stuff) depending on spice desires
  • Approx 1 teaspoon of rice wine vinegar
  • Juice of a small lime (or half a large one)
  • Some water for thinning

And here are the steps for assembly:

  1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Open and drain the chickpeas, then give them a quick rinse.
  3. Chop up the sweet potatoes into small chunks (about 1/2 x 1/2 inch or so, but this can be flexible).
  4. Rinse and chop your kale.
  5. Get out a baking sheet and put a piece of aluminum foil on it. Take the chickpeas and sweet potato chunks and put them on the sheet. Try to keep them from mixing with each other.
  6. Pour a little olive oil over the chickpeas and sweet potato and toss to cover. Then add salt, pepper, and garlic powder based on how much potency you want. Honestly, I have never measured this myself and just eyeball it until it looks good. Just be careful not to put a ton of salt. Mix again.
  7. Pop the baking dish into the oven. It should take about 20-30 minutes to be ready, based on how small your sweet potato chunks were.
  8. Mix up your peanut sauce. Combine everything except the water. You can play with the proportions until you get a taste you’re happy with. Then, add water to thin the sauce until it is relatively fluid.
  9. Put a dash of olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. When warm, add your chopped kale and cook down until it’s wilted. Add your soy sauce and stir, then add your garlic. If you have some ginger and sesame oil on hand, I recommend adding a dash of both to the mixture as well. Let it all cook for a minute or two and you’re ready to go.
  10. When the oven stuff is done, pull it out and start plating. I usually keep each ingredient separate in my bowl. 1/3 for chickpeas, 1/3 for sweet potato, 1/3 for kale, then put peanut sauce on top. But if you’re feeling like it, you can just mix it all together, too!

And that’s it! Those are three of my top recipes right now for quick, cheap, and simple meals that ensure you’re getting a balanced diet, but not in exchange for flavor.

If you try any of them, let me know your thoughts and tag me (@audreysathleticadventures) on Instagram with any pictures you share!

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