Down and Dirty, Hot and Cheap

Since back-to-school time is quickly approaching, I thought I would dedicate a post to it.  I am going to discuss cheap and easy foods for college students and others on a tight budget, and with limited kitchen access…..There will be ramen noodles.  And meat that comes from a can. My friends and readers in the culinary business, or die-hard foodies, may want to avert their eyes for this post.  

My sisters and I were fortunate growing up, in that my parents could afford both to send us to college, AND to feed us while we were there.   Bonus!

We were also fortunate in that we got to live off campus in nice apartments, with actual kitchens, and full size refrigerators.  I know that we all took this for granted, because in fact, we didn’t see much of what was going on behind dormitory doors. 

We did see dormitory life, but usually only late night glimpses when we were picking up our friends, or crashing in their dorm rooms.  There was party hopping at the Dobie Dormitory on the University of Texas Campus, and I am pretty sure I saw bras and boxers hanging from the hallway light fixtures at Jester.  Any movie you have ever seen around parties in college dormitories could easily have been filmed at, or based on life therein. 

Usually, we weren’t around during study time or dinner time, when the realities of sharing a 12 foot by 12 foot living space with another person were more apparent.  Hot plates were forbidden, but most people had one anyway, hiding under the dirty clothes in their closets, where no prefects were likely to look.  Only microwaves and mini refrigerators were allowed. 

I spent the night one time with my high school friend Andrea at her barely air-conditioned campus dorm.  She was so excited to prepare a meal for her first guest.  It was popped rice cakes, topped with peanut butter and sliced bananas.  It was tasty, but it was dessert. Or breakfast.  I was hoping that something hot and meaty would follow for dessert.   It never really occurred to me at the time that it was one of the few things to eat, given the lack of cold storage or heating mechanisms.

Over the years, I heard how the other half was living. Some of them subsisting on monthly meal plans from the commissary.   At Texas A&M, one such student dining hall was Sbisa (s-bees-uh), which my friends called S-grease-a.  I never had the pleasure of dining there, so I can’t say for sure, but I am sure my friends must have been over-exaggerating.  Or not.

My friend Lance went to Texas A&M at Kingsville.  I remember him telling how, while on Spring Break at the coast, they lived mostly on ramen noodles and beer.  I do not doubt the voracity of that for one moment.  He also said that if one of the guys failed to do his daily chores, such as taking out the beer cans from the night before, his punishment was that he would lose his flavor packet from his ramen noodles the rest of the day.  That would be difficult to bear.  Death by hanging might have been a more compassionate choice.

Over the years, though, I have seen more closely how people, not just students, struggle to pay for food.  I see people at work who live on spaghetti-o’s, bologna sandwiches, and ramen noodles every day, because they are cheap and filling. 

The recipes given today will not appear at the top of any haute cuisine favorites lists.  Hopefully they offer some tasty, cheap, and easy alternatives for college students and others without the equipment or financial resources for more.  Each includes microwave options for those without heating equipment.

Please quit eating spaghetti-o’s and canned soup cold, out of the can.  My little heart can’t take it.

Chopped BBQ Beef

Chopped Barbecue Beef Sandwiches

Serves 4– $1.00 per serving, 5 minutes prep time

  • 1 can corned beef, without potatoes ($2.30)
  • 1 small bottle barbecue sauce (8-10 oz), your choice ($1.00)
  • 4 small hamburger buns ($.70)

In a small skillet over medium heat, fry corned beef until heated through and getting a crust on it.  Add 1 cup of sauce, and heat through.  Add additional sauce if needed, for flavor.  Place on buns and serve.  Top with sliced onions and pickles, if desired.

**if using a microwave, place corned beef in a microwave safe dish, cover with paper towel and heat for 4 minutes.  Stop every minute to stir.  Add sauce, and heat through another 2 minutes.  Stir and serve on buns.

5 Minute Pad Thai

5 Minute Pad Thai

Serves 1–$.54 per serving, 5 minutes prep time

  • 1 packet ramen noodles (oriental or pork) ($.15)
  • 1 T peanut butter ($.08)
  • 1 T plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce ($.10)
  • 1 egg, beaten ($.15)
  • 1 green onion, green and white parts, thinly sliced ($.06)
  • Optional add ins: chopped cilantro, cooked shrimp or chicken, chopped peanuts, bean sprouts

Mix egg with one teaspoon soy sauce.  In a non-stick skillet, cook the egg until done, disturbing as little as possible to make a “sheet” of eggs, rather than fluffy little scrambled eggs.  Remove from heat, cut into strips or 1” pieces and set aside.

In a small bowl or cup, mix together peanut butter and soy sauce.

Cook ramen noodles according to directions, but drain completely before adding the seasoning packet.  Stir in the peanut butter mixture, then toss in the onions and eggs.  Add any of the optional additions, if using.  Enjoy.

**if using a microwave, cook eggs in a small glass bowl, covered with a piece of plastic wrap for 1 minute, or less, until done.

Broccoli Cheese Rice, With Chicken

Broccoli Cheese Rice Casserole, With or Without Chicken

Serves 2—$2.52 per serving, 10 minute prep time

  • 1 can condensed broccoli cheese soup ($1.00)
  • 1 12 oz can evaporated milk ($.89)
  • ½ cup water (free!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (basically free)
  • 2 cups instant rice ($.75)
  • 1 12 oz can white chicken meat, drained, if using ($2.39)

In a small saucepan, or microwave safe bowl, combine soup, milk, and water until boiling.  Remove from heat, and add rice and chicken (if using).  Cover with a lid, a plate, or plastic wrap, and allow to sit for 10 minutes.  Stir again, and enjoy!

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51 Comments on “Down and Dirty, Hot and Cheap”

  1. ankoku1331
    2012/07/18 at 11:29 am #

    I like this post and your ideas a lot. I spend a few days a week showing and teaching several of the younger students foods like this that they can make in their rooms, that is when they aren’t over sitting at our dinner table. 🙂

  2. 2012/07/18 at 11:56 am #

    The JIT (Just-in-time) post; thanks!

  3. 2012/07/18 at 12:09 pm #

    Love the 5 minute pad thai idea! Very cool!

  4. gracegothealthy
    2012/07/18 at 12:34 pm #

    What a great and thoughtful post.

  5. 2012/07/18 at 1:37 pm #

    Great ideas for dorm rooms or business travelers tired of eating fast food.

  6. 2012/07/18 at 2:02 pm #

    Down & dirty, hot & cheap – sounds like my best friend.

  7. 2012/07/18 at 2:16 pm #

    Yum! Just in time as the whole family is headed back to school. Thanks for these ideas!

  8. Ms. NIne
    2012/07/18 at 2:36 pm #

    Down & Dirty, Hot & Cheap — sounds like my best friend.

  9. esargeant
    2012/07/18 at 5:47 pm #

    Will definitely be trying some of these this fall & I’ll write all about it! Thanks!

  10. 2012/07/18 at 6:20 pm #

    Definitely going to try Pad Thai on my next backpacking trip!

  11. 2012/07/18 at 6:52 pm #

    Yum; some really good ideas there… and a great story to boot..!

  12. 2012/07/18 at 7:24 pm #

    fascinating glimpse into college life, whch I would love to have experienced! love your writing. Interested in the thai recipe too, looks like something to experiment with.

  13. Message In A Fold
    2012/07/18 at 9:27 pm #

    I got so sick of Ramen Noodles. They stay in the store and I usually run past them in the grocery aisle. Fantastic recipes you have here, and the costs are the best part.

    Love your stories before the recipes.


  14. jetr1
    2012/07/18 at 10:27 pm #

    Very nice. I like the way you put the prices down so that the students will know what they have to spend and how much they are saving

  15. 2012/07/19 at 1:15 am #

    You don’t need a shout out from little old me, but I gave you one for almost making me wish I cooked!

    • 2012/07/19 at 7:28 am #

      Awesome! Maybe soon I can bring you to the dark side and have you cooking!

  16. Lance Conn
    2012/07/19 at 1:51 am #

    Good Lord, you have a good memory! Yes Ramen noodles without their flavor packets is a harsh punishment, but it worked! 🙂

    • 2012/07/19 at 7:31 am #

      Yes, my memory is tight. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Haha.

  17. 2012/07/19 at 2:35 am #

    I’m sending this to my son at college. It’s fabulously better than potted meats and cans of spaghetti-os. Thanks.

  18. 2012/07/19 at 3:03 am #

    Only in the past year or so have I really started cooking. It’s great to look at easy recipes and think, “that’s easy! Now what can I do to take it one step further.” Thanks for the tips! I’m looking forward to making some pad thai.

  19. 2012/07/19 at 7:04 am #

    You took me back! UT-Austin in the Eighties. I too was fortunate to have parents who let me live off campus in a real place with a full stove, oven and refrigerator but my food budget was always tight. I often lived on pasta with cream cheese, with possibly a drained can of tuna thrown in and, when I was feeling fancy, some canned peas. Tuna surprise! Couldn’t get much cheaper than that. Thanks for the memories!

    • 2012/07/19 at 7:34 am #

      Yes, it was the late eighties when I was there too. Very vivid memories!

  20. 2012/07/19 at 7:46 am #

    Reblogged this on Fields Family and Friends Home Cooking and commented:
    Great ideas for cooking in dorm rooms or for the business traveler tired of fast food.

    • 2012/07/19 at 9:10 am #

      Cool. I think they are probably good for camping, too.

  21. 2012/07/19 at 7:49 am #

    A good college go of it 😉 and it gets the brain pan thinking about possibilities. -Nikki

  22. 2012/07/19 at 3:47 pm #

    Thank you for this post! I will definitely bookmark this page and share w. my friends who are like me and have to budget from time to time! I’ve been living off campus now for a couple of years (and ironically I am a UT Austin student too) and I was fortunate enough to have a kitchen in my dorm where I could go and cook from time to time. But as you could imagine, with more than 30 people living in the same building, cooking there was not always an option and storage space was limited. The dining halls weren’t bad — until you ran out of dine-in dollars and bevo bucks (or got hungry at 2 am). Now that I live in an apartment, I can cook whatever I want, but sometimes after the rent is paid and it’s close to the end of the semester, money for food is hard to come by and I’m stuck eating my go-to meal — Ramen Noodles. I love them, but sometimes I do want a variety. And while I have been able to make cheap meals out of random things in my pantry, I always look for more ideas. So I pretty much said ALL of that to say this: Your post has given me more meals to add to my cheap meal list and I can’t wait to use them 🙂

    • 2012/07/19 at 4:17 pm #

      When I liveed in Austin, me and my friends knew where all the restaurant deals were too, every night of the week. There were 2 for 1 fajitas at Fajita Rita’s on Tuesdays, six for a dollar tacos at Pancho’s on Wednesday, half price burgers at Hut’s on Mondays, etc….We had the town wired!

      Ha! Man, good I really go for a Dirty Burger right now!

  23. 2012/07/20 at 9:30 am #

    My student life revolved around shake’n’bake chicken, frozen mini chicken pies, frozen pizzas, and, of course, Kraft Dinner. And we ate spinach with every dish. But I’ve go to ask, what’s a “Dirty Burger?” It’s obviously something that hasn’t made its way North of the border, but it sounds like it should.
    I love the Pad Thai recipe, but I have a soy allergy. Any suggestions on something I can do to make it soy-free?

    • 2012/07/20 at 10:27 am #

      Hmmmm. I have no idea what products might be out there to replace soy sauce for those with soy allergies. I research and let you know.

    • 2012/07/23 at 12:35 pm #

      I found a recipe for a soy sauce alternative for people with soy allergies…It looks plausible…

      • 2012/07/23 at 4:49 pm #

        Thank you so much! I’m going to check it out now.

    • 2012/07/23 at 12:36 pm #

      Oh, not sure I answered your question about a Dirty Burger…It’s a burger from Dirty Martin’s–a little dive right across from the UT campus. Excellent old fashioned style burger. Plenty of grease, served in waxed paper with hand cut fries…..Mmmmmmm.

      • 2012/07/23 at 4:52 pm #

        That does sound yummy! I am absolutely going to try the soy-free soy sauce from the link you sent me. Awesome.

  24. Suzanne Banfield
    2012/07/20 at 6:04 pm #

    I ate Tuna Helper (forgive me) and macaroni and cheese at Texas A&M. Gumby’s pizza delivered a nasty one topping pizza and a soda for about $7. It was called the Gumby Dammit. I could make it stretch 2 meals! I also ate instant oatmeal for dinner too many times. But all that was better than Sbisa.

    • 2012/07/20 at 6:08 pm #

      Suzanne, what I remember most about your college culinary experiences was that sweet tea concentrate your one roommate kept in the fridge….

  25. Bobby Gough
    2012/07/20 at 9:38 pm #

    Umm Ramen.

  26. 2012/07/20 at 11:42 pm #

    I do not miss dorm food at all! Haha. But I love your pad thai idea, never would have thought of that! Thank goodness those days of being a poor student are over!

  27. 2012/07/21 at 12:53 pm #

    My daughter lived in a dorm and I bought her an electric sandwich maker. She made some great stuff with that.

    • 2012/07/21 at 10:02 pm #

      Oh yeah….I had some of those…you really CAN do a lot with them…

      • Lance
        2012/07/22 at 2:08 am #

        You can get quite creative with a Jaffle Maker. I wish I would have know about them when we were in college. They are quite popular here in Australia.

  28. 2012/07/21 at 11:39 pm #

    You had me at Cheap. Thanks for the quick meals. Definitely gonna need these recipes when my girlfriend’s gone!

  29. 2012/07/22 at 1:15 am #

    I’m familiar with sending “care packages” myself. Your ideas are wonderful.

  30. 2012/07/23 at 12:45 pm #

    Hey! I could have done with these ideas before I went to uni, would have helped big style! Even now, although I can cook far better I reckon the five minute pad thai is in with a chance of a regular work out! Anyway, thanks a lot for following my blog – hope you’re enjoying my book “In That Other Dimension”. You’ll be pleased to know (I am!) that I’ve now finished it, so you’ll definitely get an ending !!!

  31. 2012/07/23 at 4:07 pm #

    I am very lucky that my school is close enough to home that I don’t have to live in student res. These are some very creative suggestions though, especially the pad thai!

  32. 2012/07/23 at 6:12 pm #

    This post is soooooo important ! I have 4 children and they were all taught to cook When in college I didn’t always want to know what they were eating but, they had the ability to feed themselves. For many years I have been cooking for customers that I refer to as “my people” I only do this once a week. The most frequently asked question is ” How do I reheat this” This leads me to believe that not enough people know how to use their kitchens. Starting with basic recipes like yours might just be the encouragement that people need to get in there and use pots and pans or the microwave and start to put their own supper on the table.You have touch on a very important subject you go girl.

  33. 2012/07/29 at 10:23 am #

    these are good and nutritional.

  34. 2012/07/30 at 11:54 pm #

    These are great recipes! I really love the rice. It looks amazing. Thanks for the follow on my blog I really appreciate it!

  35. 2012/08/01 at 12:12 pm #

    This is FANTASTIC! My mom actually got me a “101 recipes with ramen noodles” book – and couldn’t believe when I used it 😉 hahaha

  36. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez
    2012/08/08 at 8:28 am #

    Love it, love it, love it!

  37. 2012/08/27 at 3:43 pm #

    Yum! Quick and dirty – I love it! I’ll definitely be trying these out 🙂

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