Eating healthy doesn't have to mean a big grocery bill, and eating cheap doesn't have to mean a sack of 99-cent cheeseburgers from a fast food joint.
Follow these basic tips, buying ingredients in quantity to get the lowest per-unit prices and cooking from scratch, and you'll be on your way to healthy cheap meals for under $5.
Carbohydrates can be the cheapest part of a meal but they can also be the unhealthiest part of a meal. White bread and French fries are cheap but offer little in the way of nutrition.
Healthy choices for carbs include brown rice, whole wheat pasta, barley, quinoa and polenta. You can often stock up on cheap whole grains, flour and pasta in the bulk section of supermarkets--packaging is often the majority of the cost of these products. For example, $5 will get you several pounds of cornmeal for polenta or grits, enough for many meals.
Cooking and baking from scratch are big money savers for serving carbs. Even if you're cooking for a large family or for friends, you can easily stretch a meal (and a few dollars) by making more rice, grains or bread.
Cooking with a variety of vegetables is essential to keeping cheap meals healthy. Fresh vegetables are great, but unless you find a great deal, they can be quite expensive.
Instead of spending your time searching the produce aisle for deals, buy big bags of frozen vegetables so that you always have several types on hand. You can toss a few vegetables in a meal without a lot of prep work, and without opening a whole can of one item.
Always buy onion and garlic fresh, however. These are easily stored and can make up for any flavor lost by using frozen vegetables in your meals. Under $5 will easily get you at least a week's worth of garlic and onions.
When you think of protein in meals, don't think of a big steak or chops. Expensive pieces of meat are the fastest way to break your food budget. Instead, use meat as a flavor agent for your carbs and vegetables. Chicken and beef broths are an excellent way to get a meaty flavor without the cost and often without the extra fat or calories. You can make a little meat stretch in stir-fries, soups and many world cuisines.
Another way to get your protein is through vegetarian options. Combining corn and beans, peanut butter and whole wheat bread or soy products all offer you the complete proteins that your body needs. Eating vegetarian has a triple benefit--it's cheap, it's healthy, and it's not meat, which is generally not a very healthy option.
Now that you have an idea of the kinds of cheap, healthy ingredients to use, what are some meals you can put together for under $5?
Stir-fries are an excellent option for making the most of any vegetables and meats you may have, either fresh, frozen or leftover. Cook more rice than you will need so that you have enough to use at another meal, then saute onions, garlic and just about anything else you have on hand with a little soy sauce and hot pepper flakes for a cheap, healthy meal.
Use a similar philosophy with pasta for Italian dishes, simply altering the herbs and spices. Use basil, garlic, black pepper and a little Parmesan cheese for an Italian flavor.
It's generally a good idea to avoid dishes that feature a single ingredient like a special cut of meat or unique vegetable so that you can use whatever ingredients are cheapest at the time.