Penny Pincher Meals: Not Your College Ramen

While I didn’t have ramen for Christmas dinner, it is one of my favorite (and cheapest) autumn/winter meals…also this post has been languishing in my “drafts” for several months.

In the United States, ramen is a largely misunderstood dish by those not of East Asian descent. While “ramen” is a hearty soup, usually made of a rich meat broth, meat or fish, and vegetables, in the United States, among non-East Asians, it has largely become synonymous with the sodium laden, nutritionally lacking, instant variant. As I am a personal finance blogger, and not a chef or historian, I am ill qualified to wax poetic about the history of the original East Asian dish. Instead, my focus here will be how I cheaply improve on the instant noodle packages commonly used in the United States.

There are many varieties of instant ramen noodle packages sold in the U.S. of various flavors and costs. My favorite brand, in terms of its accompanying seasoning packets, is the South Korean brand Nongshim. I was introduced to this brand by a roommate in my early twenties and quickly became addicted.

This brand is not particularly cheap and a single package could cost between $0.89 and $1.79 depending on where you purchase it (I know that isn’t incredibly expensive in the grand scheme of things but stay with me). Now that I am much older, and concerned about how much sodium I consume, I am unlikely to purchase this brand because I rarely use the accompanying seasoning packet. While I am not a connoisseur, what I have noticed about instant ramen noodle packages is that the primary differences between the “good” and “bad” kind is the quality of the seasoning packet as opposed to the noodles themselves. Since I don’t use the accompanying seasoning packet, I generally now purchase the much cheaper Maruchan brand just for the noodles. The Maruchan “Chicken Flavor” (again, the flavor doesn’t matter as I am only going to use the noodles) can currently be found at Kroger for $0.10/package.

Ultimately, for me, this meal is about $0.02-$0.10 more expensive than the Tofu Veggie Soup I make depending on ingredients; most of this additional cost is because even at $0.10 package, noodles are still more expensive than rice. That being said, they are a whole lot faster and it takes me less time to make Ramen than it takes my rice cooker to make rice.

The actual cooking is beyond simple, and like most of my Penny Pincher meals, uses one pot.

  1. I cook the egg(s) in the bottom of a five (5) quart pan on medium heat using one (1) tablespoons of olive oil.
  2. After the eggs have completely cooked, I empty them in a dish and set them aside.
  3. OPTIONAL: I cook the noodles in 3 cups of water on high for five (5) minutes. At this point, the noodles should be soft, but not completely cooked, and have released most of their starch. I then strain the noodles to remove most of the wheat starch.
  4. I rinse the pot, then adding vegetable broth (you can use a low sodium or homemade broth to control for sodium) or my soup base mix to enough water to cover the noodles, eggs, and turnip greens. The turnip greens will release water so I add slightly less water than I expect to need.
  5. Cook on medium heat until the noodles are fully cooked and the turnip greens are tender 5-10 minutes based on your heating element.
  6. I usually make enough for one large serving and add the entire pot to a large bowl.

Like all of the meals I feature in the Penny Pincher Meals series, the reason this is a staple for me is because it allows me to substitute whatever ingredients I have to quickly use up leftover bits or to take advantage of deeply discounted produce (like mushrooms or other veggies) at the grocery store.

Penny Pincher Meals – Zucchini Pasta

Zucchini is not the cheapest vegetable but this dish includes so few ingredients that it doesn’t really matter. I began making this after I found a spiralizer at Kroger for only $4.50. It’s so easy (total prep and cooking time is less than ten minutes) and cheap, that it’s now a staple meal for me. While I usually eat this alone, I could see myself adding some garlic bread. Perhaps some of that heavily reduced french bread found at Walmart or Jimmy John’s in the evenings with a bit of butter and garlic…

Item NameWeight/UnitTotal CostServingsServing CostRecipe CostSource
Zucchini2lbs (3 medium fruits)$2.092$1.045$1.045Aldi
Tofu – Soft14oz/396g$1.495$0.298$0.298Kroger
Mushroom/Onion Pasta Sauce24oz$1.495$0.298$0.298Kroger

The “cooking” for this is so simple I almost don’t need to include it…

  1. I begin by peeling and spiralizing one and a half zucchini. Alternatively, if the skin is in pretty good condition, sometimes I just clean it really, really well before spiralizing.
  2. Spiralizing the zucchini will result in the fruit being cored. I set the core aside and save it to add to the sauce.
  3. I put a medium (5) quart pot on the stove and heat the pasta sauce.
  4. I shred the unfrozen soft tofu and add it to the pasta sauce. I also add the cored zucchini that was leftover from the first step.
  5. Once the sauce is hot I add the sprialized zucchini. I mix this until the zucchini is fully covered by the sauce and warm. Note: The goal is not to “cook” the zucchini but to warm it up. If you cook it too long, too much water will release and you will get mushy noodles instead of the firm al dente style noodles you want.
  6. I add to a bowl and that’s it! You can add garlic powder or Parmesan cheese to garnish.

    Cheap, lite, healthy, and delicious.

But, but, Afro Penny, wouldn’t regular pasta be cheaper? Sure. Pasta, like other starch staples, can be found dirt cheap in most places. However, whenever I can easily incorporate more vegetables into my diet, I try to take advantage.

Penny Pincher Meals – Egg Fried Rice

When you have a huge debt and a rather modest income, in addition to earning more, you still have to find ways to make cuts to the budget. One of the ways I do that is by having a rather lean food budget. Dave Ramsey calls it, “Eating beans and rice.” The Penny Pincher Meals posts are where I share what “beans and rice” looks like for me.

When I previously shared my monthly budget, there was some concerns that I might be making unhealthy (lacking in nutrients and volume) cuts to my food budget. To be fair, that is a pretty valid concern. I love watching YouTube videos on extreme budget meals but I have found that many are either very involved/time consuming or incorporate very few fresh vegetables. Which makes sense. To save money you often have to trade time/convenience or nutrition. Fortunately, as an African American woman with roots in the South, I grew up eating and loving the relatively cheap leafy greens. Read: Collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale (way before it was cute). Many of my meals substitute greens for other more expensive veggies like broccoli or spinach. I even substitute turnip greens for lettuce in salads. (Seriously, try this.)

Egg Fried Rice

Perhaps my current favorite greens for veggies substitution is egg fried rice. A couple of my variations are below…

Egg fried rice with turnip greens and scallions.
Egg fried rice with curly mustard greens.
Egg fried rice with mushrooms and turnip greens.

“Ummm, AP, doesn’t all fried rice have eggs in it? Why is this egg fried rice?” Yup. Traditionally, fried rice does include eggs, however, they usually also feature a meat (pork, chicken, etc.). Because I am a vegetarian, I don’t include meat and feature (include a lot) eggs.

You’ll notice that my recipe cost for some items is much higher than the manufacturer suggested serving size/cost. That’s because for some things like rice, I know I eat more than the suggested serving size; and, I am definitely heavy handed with seasoning. You could make this even cheaper if you stuck closer to the recommended serving size but I want to be honest about how I prepare the dishes and what it cost me. Another point is that the eggs and the greens are the only consistent items in this dish. I added portobello mushrooms here because they were in the reduced bin at Kroger for $0.75 a carton.

The actual cooking is pretty simple and only uses one pot.

  1. I cook the egg(s) in the bottom of a five (5) quart pan on medium heat using one (1) tablespoons of olive oil.
  2. After the eggs have completely cooked, I add the turnip greens.
  3. Once the turnip greens have cooked down, and most of the water has evaporated, I add the cooked rice and mushrooms.
  4. In a small bowl, I mix one part rice wine vinegar to one part soy sauce, and add it to the pot. Note: This step is completely optional and you can just use straight soy sauce. However, soy sauce tends to overwhelm this dish for me (perhaps less so if meat was incorporated) so I lighten it a bit with rice wine vinegar.
  5. Cook on high heat.
  6. Once the mixture is “dry,” I add mushroom seasoning* to taste.
  7. Plated (or bowled) I add garlic powder to taste, and that’s it!
This stuff is amazing and is a delicious salt substitute in many dishes. (Note: It is not a low sodium salt substitute). You can find it at almost every Asian grocery store.

I have definitely cooked this other ways that had a lot more steps and a lot more ingredients, however some things went away because I just didn’t happen to have the ingredient on hand one day (onions/scallion or green onions) and then it became one less ingredient for me to buy; however, I do incorporate them when I have them. Other ingredients, like fresh garlic, went away over time as I tried to figure out how to make the dish cheaper and easier (I’m kind of a lazy cook). I began with fresh garlic, which turned into minced jarred garlic, which finally turned into garlic power. Honestly, at this point, there is no reason to go back to using fresh garlic for this dish.

Penny Pincher Meals – Tofu Veggie Soup

I love food. Lo-ve it. If I look back at all of my spending since I was an adult, by far, most of my spending has been on food via traveling for good food, making food at home, and dining out. However, it is only this past year, in my own apartment and with adequate time, that I have really started to learn how to cook. This has been a game changer for my budget and, like learning to do my own hair, I can only wish that I had learned to do it sooner.

Tofu Veggie Soup

I am a vegetarian who loves tofu but only kinda likes eggs. However, eggs are a great source of protein, and many Asian or Asian inspired dishes allow me to easily incorporate them. This soup is great because you can use whatever vegetables that are in your refrigerator or pantry and it will probably still be tasty. I like to put it over rice for a very hearty meal.

While I won’t calculate the cost of pantry items like salt or oil, I have tried to calculate the relative cost of everything else I have used.


Note: If you don’t generally like tofu because it doesn’t absorb the flavor of whatever you are cooking, it’s not the tofu’s fault. You just aren’t preparing it correctly. Freeze the tofu first and then unfreeze before for use. It breaks up the fibers, while retaining much of its structural integrity, and the tofu is much more flavor absorbent and meaty in texture.

The actual cooking is pretty simple and only uses one pot.

  1. I cook the egg(s) in the bottom of a 5 quart pan on medium heat using 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil.
  2. After the eggs have mostly cooked, I add the tofu, half of the onions and half the garlic and cook until the onions are a bit more translucent and the garlic begins to brown.
  3. I added five cups of water and the soup base to the pot. I also add the remaining onions and garlic.
  4. I bring the pot to a boil.
  5. Once the pot is boiling I lower it to medium heat and add the roughly chopped cabbage and dark leafy greens (today I used turnip greens because they were on sale, but in the past I have used mustard greens, collard greens, or whatever green is on the deepest sale).
  6. I cook until the cabbage is tender.
  7. I put the soup over rice. – If I am using up old rice, then I usually add it at step 5 to give it time to absorb the soup.

And that’s it. This is what my dinner looks like tonight. If I am not very hungry this can easily become two meals. (What is pictured is just one bowl. There is still a bowl+ in the pot.) If I eat late, I usually eat the second half the next day for lunch. However, while hearty, it doesn’t really stick to your bones. What usually happens is that I eat it for dinner and then eat it for a snack a bit later. It’s simple but so very good and I eat this at least twice a week during the cooler months. I hope this allays some of your concerns that I’m not eating my veggies 🙂