Healthy AND cheap?
The healthiest meals aren’t all about expensive, niche ingredients such as goji berries and chia seeds. In these recipes, vegetables are going to be your friend, your secret weapon, the key to building tasty, filling, nutritious meals which will feed a crowd. Plus cheap carbs such as rice and pasta (which can be as cheap as 50-60p per 500g bag!).
The good thing about vegetables is they take quite a long time to eat. For example, if you see someone eating a plate of salad, they’ll still be munching away LOONG after their pizza-eating friends have finished. This means you feel you’ve had a bigger/longer meal.
So, if I eat for 20 minutes, I feel I have had more of an “eating experience” than someone who eats for 5 minutes (Oh yes, I can finish a lunch in 5 minutes, I have timed it).
So, here are 10 of the healthiest meals you can make cheaply:
- Breadcrumb bake
- Cauliflower couscous
- Cashew chicken nugget
- Gammon and cider casserole
- Squash gratin
- Yellow split pea mash
- Sorseli on toast
- Roasted asparagus with chorizo
- Turkey meatballs
- Seaweed pasta carbonara
The breadcrumbs are the clever, saving-money bit here.
Now, bread isn’t expensive – but how about free?
Whenever I get a Middle Eastern/Lebanese takeaway they always seem to add, for free, flatbreads. I never want to eat them at the time, so I always whizz them in the blender into breadcrumbs and then freeze until required. Otherwise I’d just throw them away, and I hate waste.
So, make a fish pie (with coley – super cheap) but replace the mashed potato with breadcrumbs mixed with grated cheese and the oil from a tin of anchovies (never waste the oil – masses of flavour there). The actual anchovies go into the fish mix (make a white, bechamel-type sauce, then add partially-defrosted frozen coley, cubed, a few handfuls of frozen peas, the grated zest of a lemon – not the juice – the point of a fish pie is that it’s creamy, not tart), chopped dill (optional), black pepper and maybe a small tin of sliced mushrooms, drained, to bulk it out. The breadcrumbs here make a lovely, savoury, crumbly-crispy topping to this pie, or to any other liquidy stew/casserole that needs a bit of carbs/bulk towards the end of cooking.
The photo is a chorizo sausage stew. The basic recipe was 6 chopped, fat (raw) cooking chorizo sausages, a tin of chopped tomatoes (plus another tin of hot water sluicing out the tin), 200g dried yellow split peas (but Puy, green or red lentils would have been fine, or any other pulse probably). I put all this, plus a chopped onion, into my slow cooker for 8 hours (all day) then tested for flavour. SO much smokey, paprika-ey flavour comes out of the sausages that I wasn’t sure it’d need any other seasoning. I added the breadcrumbs/cheese mixture then browned under the grill for 5 minutes, and finally sprinkled over some chopped parsley. Yum. All it needed was a dollop of creme fraiche and I also used up a ripe avocado, sliced, on the side.
I was very sceptical about this.
Cauliflower can be very ammonia-ey, and have an unwanted effect on your digestion (ahem). But this is delicious and light, and not too cauliflower-y. If you’re cutting down on carbs, it’s a good option, and it’s wheat/gluten free.
You can also lightly cook the shredded cauli in a saucepan with a tablespoon of oil for 5 minutes first, for a less strong flavour.
Ingredients: serves 2-3
- 1 head cauliflower, broken into florets
- salt and pepper
- juice 1 lemon
- 25g parsley, de-stalked and chopped
- 25g pack mint, de-stalked and chopped
- 25g pack coriander, de-stalked and chopped (optional)
- 2-3 tbsp olive oil
- Finely chopped veg e.g. 1 grated carrot/few halved cherry tomatoes, diced cucumber etc.
Put the raw cauli in a food processor and blitz until the size of couscous. Microwave for 2 minutes with a tablespoon of water. Mix through all the other ingredients. Serve with grilled prawns, chicken breast, salmon steak, grilled halloumi, tuna chunks, or any other favourite protein. Or sprinkle with crumbled feta. It’s really much nicer than it sounds, especially as part of a buffet of different salads.
This is the recipe I cooked on MasterChef (when I entered over 15 years ago!). The great thing about it is that the sauce is made by pureeing cashews with fresh root ginger, yoghurt, cumin etc. It becomes fragrant and creamy, the sauce thickened by the nuts.
It looks like a lot of ingredients but most of them are store cupboard (I keep fresh root ginger, peeled and chopped, in the freezer).
Ingredients: for 4-6
- 30g fresh root ginger, peeled and chopped
- 100g roasted, salted cashews
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 150g plain yoghurt (soya yoghurt also works)
- 4 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp paprika or dried chilli flakes
- A few grinds black pepper
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, 4 breasts or about 500g chunks
- 1 onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 200ml water
- 1 chicken stock cube
- 2 tbsp fresh chopped coriander leaves
Puree nuts with ginger, garlic, cumin, yoghurt, chilli or paprika and pepper (it shouldn’t need salt as the cashews are salted – but taste). In a large saucepan, brown the chicken in the oil (you can leave the thighs/breasts whole or chunk them). Remove the meat and fry onion for a few minutes then add the nut paste – be careful it doesn’t catch. Add back in the meat, bay leaves, stock cube and water. Simmer for 20-30 minutes on a really low heat. Garnish with the chopped coriander and serve with rice and any other curry accompaniments (lime pickle, poppadoms etc).
This is a very mild curry, suitable for kids, so hand round the hot sauce for any heat junkies. To make it go further, you can add drained, tinned mushroom slices at the end.
Casserole is such an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? Is there a trendier word we’re using? Stew? Braise? Slow-cooked gammon in cider? That’s better.
Anyway, this came about because I had half a bag of Puy lentils and several bottles of cider I bought two years ago when I was convinced I was going to make hot spiced cider for Bonfire Night. Well, that didn’t happen. I also noticed gammon joints at Lidl for £3.99 – very reasonable.
This is a great, family meal to have bubbling away all day in the slow cooker while you’re out, and it can be dished up in seconds as soon as you’ve got your coats off.
- 750g smoked (or unsmoked) gammon joint
- 1 onion, peeled and chopped
- 500ml cider
- 1 chicken stock cube, crumbled
- 250g Puy (or green, not red) lentils
- A few sundried tomatoes in oil, chopped
- 1 tsp mixed dried herbs
- 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
- A sprinkle of chopped fresh parsley (to garnish)
- For the wasabi mayo (optional):
- 1-2 sachets wasabi (from a sushi takeaway)
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp creme fraiche
Put the gammon joint in your slow cooker (remember to take any plastic wrap off – I missed a bit and had to take it off half way through cooking). Surround it with all the other ingredients, pouring the cider round last. Cook on high for 12 hours (it’s a long time but it seemed to take that long). Check it doesn’t need topping up with a bit more water or chicken stock. Flake the meat with two forks before serving. Put a dollop of wasabi mayonnaise mixed with creme fraiche on top of each dish, and a sprinkling of additional fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, sage) if you like.
Keep any leftovers in the fridge – they’re delish – I had them three days running.
I am as clueless as the next man about squashes. Are they pumpkins? Are they courgettes? Well yes, to both questions, sort of.
The tougher ones – with a hard outer skin – need to be treated like pumpkin and peeled, then roasted or made into a gratin. Boiling or steaming makes them too watery and mushy. Even if you’re doing a squash mash (which has a nice ring to it), I’d roast it, then mash with butter etc.
The softer-skinned ones don’t need to be peeled, or deseeded – just treat them like a courgette and fry in slices, or roast in a little oil. I picked all of these squashes at my local PYO farm, for pence! They kept for weeks in the fridge and would last for months, if stored correctly. The varieties I had were acorn squash, harlequin squash and something else. Anyway, I had a little cream, so decided to go for a gratin. I also love using the slicer attachment to my food processor. A very satisfying – and cheap – hour’s cooking all round.
Ingredients: (for 6)
- About 6 little squashes
- 1 onion
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- Freshly-grated (or ready-ground) nutmeg
- 1 chicken stock cube (I like the crumbly Oxo)
- 1/2 cup water
- 150ml double cream
- A few knobs of butter
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Peel and de-seed the thicker-skinned squashes, and quarter. Slice the chunks in a food processor. Any softer-skinned squashes, just leave the skin on, and seeds in, and slice too. Peel and slice the onion in the processor as well. Layer up the squash slices and onion in an ovenproof dish, seasoning with garlic, salt, pepper, a little nutmeg and the crumbled Oxo cube as you go. Pour over the cream and water. Dot with butter and cover with either foil or greaseproof paper (I had run out of foil but I’d use it for preference). Bake for about 30 minutes, covered. Check it’s done by prodding with a knife to see if it goes in easily. You can remove the foil for the final 5–10 minutes to crisp up the top but I didn’t bother.
This makes a lovely side-dish to serve with roast chicken or fish, some tinned tuna or even grilled/roast halloumi. It’s a great, lighter alternative to a carb (potatoes, rice or pasta).
I remember my mum putting yellow split peas into stews and slow-cooking casseroles to thicken them, or red lentils and sometimes pearl barley.
So I have a soft spot for cheap pulses (about 55p/500g). They’re high in protein (25%) and carbohydrate, so form the basis of a good veggie meal.
Today’s recipe is adapted from a Yotam Ottolenghi one – the Israeli chef of the moment, and is delicious. My kids ate it, although I have to say, I probably liked it more than them, as it had capers in (which are quite an adult taste but they compliment the bland peas well).
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 3-4 medium onions, peeled and sliced
- 300g yellow split peas
- 2-3 ba
- y leaves
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 100ml olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- juice 1 lemon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 3/4 pack (30g) chives, chopped
- 2 tbsp capers, drained
Put one of the sliced onions, the split peas, bay leaves and turmeric in a medium saucepan and cover well with cold water (so it comes a good 2cm above the level of the peas). Simmer for 1 hour until the peas are soft, although still retaining their shape. Top up with a little extra water if needed. Meanwhile, saute the rest of the onions gently in 1 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan 15-20 minutes until golden brown and caramelised. Put the garlic, lemon juice, rest of the 100ml oil, plus salt and pepper into a food processor. Remove the bay leaves from the peas. Spoon a few tablespoons of the peas into your serving dish (if you forget to do this and just blitz the whole lot, as I did, it’ll just be a smoother mash). Tip the rest of the peas into the blender and blitz – leaving it chunky with a little texture is nice too. Spoon into your serving dish on top of the whole peas and scatter over the caramelised onions, chives and capers.
Serve either as a side dish (with perhaps roast chicken thighs or grilled/roast salmon fillets) or as a veggie main with feta crumbled over. I also like it with a tin of tuna, or grilled crispy bacon.
You can’t get easier than toast and if you choose wholemeal, sourdough or rye/seeded, it’s super healthy. My father-in-law gave me this recipe for what he calls Sörseli-sandwiches (he’s Swedish). The word Sörseli derives from Azerbijani and means surface. Here is Bob’s recipe:
Ingredients for 2-3 persons (could feed more):
- “Toast bread” (what we call white sliced) but you can also have wholewheat, or any type
- ½ litre Béchamel-type white sauce
- 3 hard boiled eggs
- 300g ham preferably smoked and in slices.
- 1½ tablespoons French Dijon mustard
- salt and pepper
Slice the eggs 2 ways in an egg slicer, or chop. Chop the ham into small cubes. Add the mustard to the sauce, stir and add finally the sliced eggs and the small ham cubes. Toast the bread. Pour a suitable amount of the sauce on the toast. Nice side dish – pickled gherkins.
It also makes a delicious filling for jacket potatoes (eat the skin – fibre and vitamins!), or on pasta. Plus you can add parsley or thyme, or even rosemary.
Veg again – love it. My husband gets asparagus from the farmers’ market, when it’s in season, 2 huge bunches (30 spears per bunch?) for £7. So I made a meal around one bunch, a great supper for 4 with an added bean salad (see pic) but we all agreed it’d make a very impressive starter on its own (for 6 as a starter).
Ingredients: (serves 4)
- 1 bunch fresh asparagus
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- salt and pepper
- few flakes dried chilli (optional)
- 200g chorizo slices, julienned
- 100g grated/shaved parmesan/mature cheddar or similar
Cut off about the bottom inch of the asparagus (or do the cheffy thing of bending it and seeing where it breaks – ditch the bit that’s too woody to eat). Stand it upright in a small saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil. Once it’s boiling, give it 2 minutes then drain. Spread out on a baking tray you’ve already scattered with the oil, salt and pepper and chilli, if using. Jiggle! Pop under a hot grill for 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile julienne (or cut into matchsticks) the chorizo (or other spicy salami) and scatter over. Grill again for another 2 minutes till the chorizo is crispy, slightly charred and has given up its oil onto the asparagus. Scatter with the cheese on the tray, and serve. Or let everyone add their own, as I did. To make this go further (using mostly storecupboard ingredients) drain a tin of cannellini beans, add a few chopped/torn salad leaves (I had rocket) and quartered cherry tomatoes (or sundried tomatoes). Make a dressing out of:
- 1 tsp mustard
- 1 tsp pesto
- 1 tsp chutney
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp vinegar (I used white wine vinegar)
Mix around and serve with the asparagus. Mmm. Even the kids wolfed it.
It’s healthier than red meat but – what is turkey mince actually good for? Not bolognaise or lasagne. It comes out rather anaemic-looking and tasteless. You end up adding loads of beef Oxo cubes to it, and Worcestershire sauce, just to get it to taste beefy. Which isn’t the point.
What it IS good for is turkey meatballs, or turkey burgers/patties. You’re not trying to get it to taste like beef (and only being disappointed). But you do need to add a few distinctive ingredients to it, lemongrass, spring onions, lime juice, to get it to sing.
Ingredients: (for 4 people)
- 500g turkey mince
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 egg
- handful breadcrumbs
- 1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
- 1 lemon, grated zest and juice
- sea salt and pepper
- oil for frying (sunflower or olive)
- salad, dressing, tzatziki, potato wedges or bread to serve
Mix everything in a bowl with your hands, squidging and squelching as you go. Form into small meatballs or patties/burgers. Heat 1-2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan on a high-ish heat and place the meatballs quickly into the pan. Resist the urge to jiggle them about, move them or faff! They have to form a crust on the bottom so they won’t fall apart. After 3-4 minutes, gently loosen them and flip over, or roll the pan so they brown on all sides. test to see if they’re done by piercing with a knife and he juices should be clear, not cloudy and there’s no pink meat left. I like to serve these with a salad plus honey dressing and hummous thinned with a bit of milk or tzatziki. Potato wedges are also nice.
If you eat bread, you could cram several into a pitta or burger bun and dress with the same salad/dressing/tzatziki. My kids love them, plus they’re cheap.
If you think about how vast the sea is, how many plants, fishes, seaweed, crustaceans and creatures that we could eat – it’s a huge resource.
Which is one of the reasons I wanted to try seaweed pasta. It’s not actually got any flour or eggs in; it’s not a pasta with a little seaweed powder added. It’s just long strands of seaweed, harvested and dried, which we rehydrate and then add to other pasta dishes. I got a useful little pamphlet with mine which recommended only doing, say, 1/4 seaweed to 3/4 ordinary pasta (in my case gluten-free spaghetti). This was definitely the right approach because it has a chewier texture than regular pasta, and a slightly different flavour. The organic brand I used is called I Sea Pasta – a slightly annoying (to me) name but hey, I’ll just have to get over it. The website has loads of recipes. 100g (which rehydrates to 5 times its weight) is about £5.
Ingredients: (serves 4-6)
- 25g I Sea Pasta dried seaweed (soaked for 45 mins in cold water)
- 300g dried spaghetti
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 200g smoked bacon lardons or chopped bacon
- 1 onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- black pepper
- 150-200ml double or single cream
- 1 tbsp pesto or green olive pasta sauce
- 1 egg (optional, to beat in)
- parsley, chopped, for garnish
- Parmesan, grated or shaved, to finish
Soak the seaweed in cold water for 45-90 minutes – this takes out the maximum sea/fish smell. Cook the pasta according to instructions.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan (becuase this is going to hold the whole of your finished dish) fry the bacon in the olive oil over a high heat for 5 minutes to render the fat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the cream and pesto/pasta sauce, plus the beaten egg if you are using it, plus a few good grindings of black pepper. Add the DRAINED seaweed (some people keep the water and drink it as a broth but I tasted it – admittedly cold – and it was a bit too seawatery for me). Drain the pasta once it’s cooked and add to your main pan, and mix everything together. Sprinkle over parsley and garnish with parmesan shavings. Really good actually. My kids and husband even ate it.