25 Clever Ways to Dress Up Cheap Food


We have all been there: Not quite close enough to payday, or an unexpected expense arises... and where can you scale back? With your food budget, that's where. However, you needn't suffer just because you're staring at packages of macaroni and cheese, tomato soup, hot dogs, or chicken legs. Here are 25 ways to dress up cheap chow. (See also: Cheap and Healthy Filler Foods)

1. Enhance Macaroni and Cheese

My husband will groan at this one (although he still eats it) because when we were newlyweds and saving for a down payment on a house, we ate a LOT of macaroni and cheese. At the time, I could buy four boxes for a dollar. I did some pretty crazy stuff to it, then, but now I like to think I possess more mac-and-cheese sophistication (cue laughter). Try these tips.

  • Top with homemade bread crumbs, and bake at 350 for about ten minutes, until golden-brown.
  • Drizzle with a little pesto.
  • Have bits of fancy cheese around? I like to toss in the last chunks of feta or bleu cheese for a little more flavor.
  • Put the mac-and-cheese into a casserole dish, top with a layer of thinly-sliced tomatoes, and sprinkle with cheese. Pop into the oven until the cheese is bubbly and brown.

2. Add a Sauce

As I wrote in this sauce post, a great sauce will transform an inexpensive dinner into something glamorous. My favorite one is this peanut sauce, because it makes even diced cabbage (34 cents a pound) or a piece of tilapia seem more exotic.

3. Throw in Bacon Crumbles

I usually fry a slice or two more than I need when I cook bacon. I then drain it and refrigerate or freeze. When something cheap or boring needs a little pick-me-up, I get that bacon out, crumble on top, and people are happy because, well, it's bacon.

4. Switch to Panko Crumbs

I buy the huge packages of panko crumbs at Costco (2.2 pounds) and find the crumbs are very versatile. They are great for fish, vegetables, meats, and poultry. It also just looks a little more exotic than, say, crushed saltines. (See also: Things You Should Buy at Costco)

5. Poach That Egg

I had a devil of a time learning to properly poach eggs. My daughter finally bought me a special pan that solved that problem. I've noticed that poached eggs became rather fashionable over the past year. Saute some kale with mushrooms, poach an egg, and place it on top. Add a little parmesan. Not only is it good for you, but it's absolutely delicious. I also like to boil spaghetti, drain, and swirl with olive oil. Add some baby peas, and again, top with a poached egg and cheese. (See also: 6 Ways to Cook Eggs Perfectly)

6. Re-Shape the Food

Huh? Yes, get a mallet and beat those $1.69/lb chicken thighs into flat pieces. Roll, stuff, and cook. Here is a delicious recipe for Chicken Stuffed With Ham and Cheese. (See also: Chicken Thigh Recipes From Around the World)

7. Same Idea, Different Meat

Spinach-Stuffed Rolled Steak. This uses round steak, normally a good buy.

8. Put It on a "Bed"

Make a chopped salad, or thinly slice some cabbage. Top with a grilled pork chop, or a salmon cake, or a piece of fish. Top that with dressing and some homemade croutons. Delicious!

9. Float Something (in Soup, That Is)

To a creamy soup:

  • Make croutons from your stale bread and add a handful.
  • Grate Monterey Jack and sprinkle over tomato soup.
  • Slice tortillas thinly, toast in the oven, and place over a chicken tortilla soup.

To a clear soup:

  • Sprinkle chopped chives or green onions.
  • Add some leftover sprouts.
  • Add leftover, cooked noodles or tofu cubes.

10. Fake It

Sure, sushi can be expensive, but substitute surimi seafood ("imitation" crab, for instance) and use that in your sushi roll. That way, you get the look and flavor you're craving, but not the cost. (See also: Simple Seafood Appetizers to Impress Your Guests)

11. Garnish

Feeling fancy? Try going '80s style and type in "How to garnish a plate" on Youtube. There are many videos about how to garnish. Aren't we all charmed by a carrot cut into the shape of a flower? Well, here are some easier garnishes: Paprika over mashed potatoes, parsley on spaghetti, or just a drizzle of sauce on a plate. Simple lemon slices, served along fish, are practical, as well.

12. Flavor Your Butter

One of our neighbors makes flavored butters each year to give as Christmas gifts. They keep well in the freezer or refrigerator. Just a little cube of this over a steak, or swirled into rice or pasta, and of course on bread, really jazzes things up. Watch for butter to go on sale, and stock up. (See also: 25 Unusual Uses for Butter)

13. Get Nutty

Saute sliced almonds, pumpkin, or even sesame seeds in a little butter; add salt. The nuts will really perk up a plain baked chicken breast, slab of sole, or tofu.

14. Poach It in White Wine

A chicken breast or piece of salmon gets a boost from white wine — and I'm talking about the $4 or $5 range of white wine, not anything fancy. Poaching is easy.

15. Copy a Japanese Omelette

Fold some ordinary fried rice (I like to add whatever vegetables or chopped meat I have left over into the rice) and top with an Omuraisu. Suddenly, it's extra-special!

16. Hide It in a Crepe

I recently saw that Safeway now carries pre-made, packaged crepes. Very handy, but they are so easy to make yourself. Although delicious on their own, if you stuff a crepe with leftover chicken or shrimp (buy frozen, and cook and clean yourself to save money) and cover it in a bechamel, you are set.

17. Make a Fake Sauce

Yes, I'm talking about cream of mushroom soup. I prefer the "healthier" versions of canned cream of mushroom, but in a pinch, you can use el cheapo. Add just a little sherry, and spoon over any cheap cut of meat.

18. Try a "Starter"

My mother would occasionally "start" us with a cup of consomme, served in a fancy cup. I think she did that to divert attention from the forthcoming budget entree, but it made you think you were about to have a very classy meal. It also fills you up a little, so you won't eat quite as much.

19. Stick It on a Skewer

Easy, fun, and inexpensive. I really like skewers done on the grill, but you can also make them in your broiler. If you use wooden skewers, soak them first in water so they don't catch on fire (pro tip). Here is a great selection of skewer recipes. I like to do some that are just vegetables, because I love the smoky flavor of the barbeque on peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. I like to do extras because the leftovers are so great. (See also: Fancy Ways to Use Leftover Food)

20. Hauten the Dog

A dab of Dijon mustard, spicy chutney, or Sriracha sauce will liven up an ordinary hot dog, as will shredded cheese. Talk about endless possibilities! (See also: 20+ Ways to Use Sriracha)

21. Fancify Your Burgers

Boring burgers? Never! Try one of these burger toppings.

22. Sprinkle Chopped Herbs

So simple! Try adding:

  • Dill to cooked carrots.
  • Marjoram to fish.
  • Sage to pasta.

You'll find a lot more combos on this comprehensive list of suggested herb pairings.

Even if you live in a small space, an herb garden takes very little room and can be grown year-round.

23. Puree It

I like sweet potatoes and yams, but if you whip them with just a little butter and milk, they're a lot more fun. Sprinkle with toasted nuts for even more delicious flavor. Try sweet potatoes with roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds).

24. Spice Some Nuts

A simple salad with feta or bleu cheese and pear, or apple, really gets dressed up when you top with spiced nuts. Easy to make, and even if your nuts are slightly stale, they'll perk right up. I like these nuts from Emeril because they are really zippy. Try this salad with a raspberry vinaigrette.

25. Get Out the China

A very simple, inexpensive meal is made more special by using the good china.

How do you jazz up your cheap food?

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Guest's picture

My favorite part of any dish is the sauce or dressing. I make a mean balsamic and an amazing pesto, both of which make a world of difference if I need something to throw on some plain greens or noodles. My next project is learning to make an incredible enchilada sauce.

Guest's picture
Finsbury Lane

Emeril’s red enchilada sauce
is easy and good, and a bit less expensive to make than it is to buy a can.

Marla Walters's picture

Love your "next project" idea with the enchilada sauce. I'm in.

Guest's picture
Finsbury Lane

Curry it, especially leftovers. Or put it in an exotic sounding soup, like hot and sour or minestrone.

Marla Walters's picture

Oh, good one (curry). YUM. Also, Finsbury Lane, thanks for the enchilada sauce recipe. 20 minutes! I can do that. That is going on this weekend's list. Thinking chicken enchiladas with that sauce you linked. It's hard to find canned sauce that doesn't contain MSG.

Guest's picture
Finsbury Lane

Marla, I use that enchilada sauce to make Crockpot Chicken Enchiladas, only i just roughly follow the recipe. I toss in tvp or any leftover meat or beans instead of chicken, flavor compatible leftover veggies and olives, stale tortilla chips (watch the salt)... I also make a white sauce with bouillon and powdered milk instead of the canned soup. My family fondly calls this “crockpot slop” because it isn’t pretty, but there are seldom leftovers when I make it.