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Mr. TYMP had a way with ramen in college. I remember visiting and watching as he combined the cooked noodles with barbecue sauce and frozen peas. As a sort of food-hacking experiment, he would use the fifty-cent delight to make endless unhealthy (and to me, unappetizing) meals.
Now looking back, it’s probably better that he didn’t just use the packet of seasoning. Those things are loaded with enough sodium to give you cankles for eternity. However, the decision of swollen ankles or BBQ ramen shouldn’t be a choice you have to make.
There are plenty of low-cost ramen alternatives. Granted, many will be slightly higher than fifty cents, but at least it won’t cost you your health.
Meal Building Blocks
When you’re meal planning you should look at your protein (generally how I start), vegetables/fruits, and whole grains/starch.
Let’s break that down a little more to get some perspective on good-for-you-food that doesn’t cost a fortune.
This will always be the most expensive part of the meal if you choose animal protein. Chicken, beef, pork, fish, etc. don’t come cheap. That’s why it’s great to buy in bulk, use coupons, and look for special deals that need to be used right away. But if none of that is available, there are some other great low-cost alternatives:
- Beans – Beans are fantastic and versatile. Plus, they are so quick if you buy the canned variety. Of course, if you really want to watch every penny, it’s best to buy dried beans and make a ton so that you can freeze some for quick meals later on.
- Tofu– I swear tofu is not gross, you just have to make it right. Just like chicken, it can take on any flavor you impart. But you have to drain it well and make it crispy by baking or frying…I love to toss it in cornstarch to help that, too. Check out this blog for a recipe on making the best damn baked tofu ever.
- Sardines – KEEP READING! I saw you starting to scroll past this one. Listen, canned sardines are really not that gross. Try them, I bet you’ll think they taste a lot like tuna. But the benefit here–they are super healthy and loaded with Omega-3s. Plus you don’t have to worry about mercury levels. The whole TYMP family loves these little fishies. Little Mister TYMP will go to town dipping bread into the leftover olive oil in the can.
- Eggs – Eggs are the perfect food. They are healthy, affordable, and can be made in so many different styles. Don’t limit these little gems to just breakfast.
Fruits & Vegetables
The key to saving money with fruits and veggies is to buy what is in season. But as soon as I tell you that, I’m going to break my own rule. Buying out of season frozen fruits and vegetables is a great way to get a variety of produce at a fraction of the cost. There’s also another big benefit–the freezing process happens at the peak, preserving nutrients and quality.
Here are some suggestions for affordable fruits and vegetables by season:
- Winter: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, citrus fruits like clementines, cauliflower, rutabaga, and parsnips
- Spring: Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, beets, peas, rhubarb, and swiss chard
- Summer: Zucchini, green beans, melon, corn, tomatoes, and peaches
- Fall: Leafy greens like spinach, kale, apples, winter squashes like butternut and acorn, mushrooms, pears, and pumpkin
Grains & Starch
If you want to be extra healthy, you can leave this category out of your meals once and a while. But overall, incorporating some type of starch will leave you feeling satisfied. So you’ll want some affordable options:
- Rice – I love rice. It comes in so many varieties from white to brown, black forbidden, and wild. Try finding rice in bulk sections to save extra money, or go to your local ethnic store for even greater savings.
- Potatoes – Buy a big bag of potatoes and keep them in the dark. They will stay good for weeks and you’ll have a versatile option on hand.
- Pasta – If you aren’t going to have ramen, you can at least still have some noodles. You can often find whole wheat, quality pasta for $1/box or less.
Recipes for Ramen Alternatives
Now that you have a basic understanding of affordable building blocks for meals you can start creating recipes yourself. But if you’re still struggling, I’ve put together a list of meal ideas that use price sensitive ingredients and aren’t too hard to make.
- Fried Rice – Take rice and combine it with eggs, frozen vegetable mix like peas, corn, and carrots, and soy sauce.
- Overstuffed Potatoes – Bake a sweet or white potato and stuff it with black beans, roasted broccoli, shredded cheese, and salsa.
- Spaghetti and Marinara with Sardines – If you aren’t having ramen, you can still have your noodles. Dress it with marinara sauce and serve it with a side of sardines and a vegetable like sautéed spinach.
- Oatmeal with Fruit and Peanut Butter – Oatmeal is a great affordable base. Add in peanut butter for protein and fruits to make it more flavorful.
- Homemade Hummus and Veggies – Blend together chickpeas, water, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and tahini for a much more affordable hummus. Serve it with vegetables for a quick, easy, and healthy meal. Don’t have a blender or food processor? Mash chickpeas with lemon, minced garlic, olive oil, and salt for an even more affordable hummus.
While recipes like these will cost you a little more than a packet of ramen, the meals will keep you full longer. That means no more spending money on snacking. Plus, it’s healthier too.
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