Fast & Frugal: Cheap Meals That Don’t Skimp on Taste

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Feeding a family can take a big bite out of the monthly budget. And if a typical evening at your house feels like a frantic family free-for-all, you may be tempted to hit the drive-thru just to get a hot meal on the table. But fast food generally isn’t the cheapest (or healthiest) option.

Instead, consider stocking up on a few basic, affordable ingredients you can keep in your pantry or freezer. Canned beans and chicken broth are versatile pantry staples that can cost less than a dollar a can. And both add low-fat protein to your diet. While frozen vegetables may run you two dollars or more for a one-pound bag, they’re still a bargain because you can buy them on sale and store them in your freezer for several weeks (unlike that head of fresh broccoli that looked great at the market but is now practically unrecognizable in your vegetable drawer). Add half a box of pasta — and a little sausage, garlic, and cheese for flavor — and in just 30 minutes you’ll have a fast and cheap meal that you can feel good about serving your family.

Creamy Italian Sausage and Bean Pasta

8 ounces fusilli

1 16-ounce bag frozen broccoli florets

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 ounces sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Fill a large pot with a steamer-basket insert two-thirds full with lightly salted water. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. While the water is heating, put the frozen broccoli in the steamer basket, place over the water, and cover. The broccoli should thaw but doesn’t need to be fully tender. When the water boils, remove the steamer basket, add the pasta, and cook according to package directions.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until it starts to turn golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sausage to the pan. Cook thoroughly according to package directions, breaking the meat apart with a wooden spoon as it browns.
  3. Stir in the beans. Add the broth, broccoli, thyme, and pepper and bring to a simmer to finish cooking the broccoli.
  4. Drain the pasta and add to the pan. Toss all the ingredients together and cook for 2 minutes to let the pasta absorb any liquid. Remove from the heat, stir in the cheese, and serve, passing extra Parmesan at the table.

Serves 4

Fast and Flexible

Change up this cheap meal to suit your taste and the ingredients you have on hand:

  • If you don’t have fusilli, use penne, ziti, or any other short pasta.
  • Any kind of sausage, including breakfast sausage, works as well as Italian.
  • Chickpeas, navy beans, or Great Northern beans can take the place of cannellini.
  • No broccoli? Add two 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes instead. Just remember to drain the tomatoes before putting them in the pan.
  • For a vegetarian option, substitute meat with veggie sausage.