With the price of food slowly and steadily rising, putting together a meal for you and your family can be a challenge. Raise your hand if you feel like you are in a meal inspiration rut. I am right there with you. After getting bored of eating the same lineup of entrees over and over, and hearing mumbles and groans from eating the same thing quite frequently, I decided to dig a little deeper into my creative repotaire to bring some life back into the home menu. I challenged myself to come up with ways to stretch my dollar and still come up with tasty eats.

I am a huge fan of eating seasonally not only for the food budget, but for the variety. When I start growing tired of the heavy, heartier foods that we enjoy in the cold fall and winter months, such as white chicken chili, enchiladas, lasagna, etc. the season changes and here comes spring and summer. Those months burst with colorful, fresh produce and new meal inspiration. In the hotter temperatures, my first instinct is to eat fresh fruits, salads, sandwiches, and wraps; basically all things cold.  

While I love cooking in the winter, summer is my absolute favorite time of year for kitchen creativity. You can not beat the taste difference of fresh herbs added to a dish, a juicy slice of watermelon, or a cool cucumber in a salad. If you find yourself in a dinner rut, take a cue from nature. Explore a farmer’s market or a roadside stand to gain new seasonal summer inspiration. If you do not have easy access to these, your local supermarket can provide several options as well. This year especially, I am trying to enjoy the bounty of the summer while staying within a budget.

So what is in season during the summer? You can take a bite out of items such as:

  • corn
  • peppers
  • zucchini
  • tomatoes
  • squash
  • eggplant
  • cucumber
  • fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, sage, tarragon, parsley, dill, and more)
  • greens
  • okra
  • cabbage
  • fresh fruit (peaches, berries, melons, cherries, etc.)

Now that we know what is easily accessible in the summer, we need some insight on how to use summer’s bounty. The good news is that normally summer produce is fairly inexpensive and shopping for what is on sale will also help protect the bank. Another hack is to check to see if your grocery store has a clearance produce section. If you plan on using the items right away, you can get a lot of bang for your buck using these items. Here are some of my favorite budget friendly summer meal ideas that can be rotated all season.

Try chicken thighs on the grill all summer long. You can eat these alongside many recipes including a salad, add your favorite thai sauce for an asian inspired lettuce wrap, pair them alongside peppers for fajitas, or put them in your favorite stir fry. Not only are chicken thighs less expensive per pound then chicken breasts, but they are less prone to drying out and offer the flavorful dark meat alternative. If you are going to grill chicken breasts, you will need a marinade. Lemon herb chicken kabobs utilizes a simple lemon herb marinade made of fresh garden herbs, a few seasonings, oil, and fresh lemon juice. Not only are they yummy, but who does not love food on a stick?  One last simple chicken idea, barbecue chicken legs. Everyone likes the flavor of barbecue in the summer and barbecue chicken legs could not be more simple. Plus chicken drumsticks are cheap and kid friendly. They can be made in the oven or on the grill. Just slather your favorite barbecue sauce on the chicken, bake and eat.

Moving onto beef recipes, a classic goulash takes me back to my childhood when my mom made macaroni and tomatoes.  Add some inexpensive ground beef for extra protein and top with fresh herbs for a cheap summer meal. Stuffed peppers make use of inexpensive ingredients like tomatoes and beef combined with peppers, seasonings, and cheese. Although peppers are not always cheap in the store, typically in the summer they are more affordable. It is a delicious Italian dinner without the pasta. For a quick and simple meal using pork, who does not love a good BLT? You know the drill. Crisped in the oven bacon, fresh lettuce and tomato slices with a smear of mayo on the best bread you can find. BLTs are an absolute easy summer staple.  

Consider some meatless recipes like black bean and corn salad, which is great for snacking along with tortilla chips or just grab a spoon and eat it all by itself. If you want to add some protein, you could also serve it with chicken or fish. You can throw just about anything in with some eggs and call it a meal. A garden vegetable frittata is healthy and packed with protein. Feel free to substitute in any combination of fresh vegetables to your liking.

Pasta is another great vehicle for using just about any fresh summer vegetable. Simply sauté your vegetables in some olive oil, add some salt, fresh herbs, and toss with your pasta of choice. Add some starchy pasta cooking water if you need more of a sauce. Parmesan cheese adds even more flavor. Fresh summer produce goes great on a homemade pizza. Use traditional toppings, but also venture outside the box when selecting toppings. I am talking about peppers, fresh herbs, spinach or arugula, pineapple, zucchini, artichokes, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, and even peaches. Use a variety of cheese (mozzarella, pepperjack, swiss, goat, gouda, etc.) and sauces (tomato, alfredo, garlic parmesan, barbecue, etc.) that you have on hand and consider other types of crust (tortilla, naan, baguette, etc) and you cannot go wrong.

Building your own salad bar is a great way to accomplish a no-cook way to clean out the fridge dinner. Cut up any produce that you have along with any proteins that you have (eggs, meat, nuts, seeds) and serve it buffet style. Everyone can customize their salad to their liking. Make sure to offer a few salad dressing options. Homemade dressings can easily be whipped up using ingredients you already have in your fridge and pantry (salt, pepper, sour cream, mayo, fresh herbs, etc.).

After you partake in any of these recipe ideas and find yourself requiring more inspiration, you know Salina Public Library has got you covered. Our catalog is full of several types of cookbooks for everyone’s taste buds. First, consider “America’s Test Kitchen: The complete summer cookbook: Beat the heat with 500 recipes that make the most of summer’s bounty.” These are recipes for the year’s warmest months, including make-ahead meals best served cold, fix-and-forget recipes, dinner salads, and recipes for the grill. Second, check out “BBQ Cookbooks: Make Your Summer Go With A Bang!  A Simple Guide To Barbecuing.” With barbecue being one of the most popular summer activities, it is no wonder that there are so many different BBQ cookbooks to be found. True barbecue fans find this one a convenience since all sorts of recipes are all in one place and some secrets to successful barbecue are included.  

Next is “The vegetable gardener’s cookbook: 75 vegetarian recipes that will help you make the most out of every season’s harvest.” When you know how to cook and utilize produce, it is easy to prepare standout meals. Author Danielle Majeika, farm-owner and founder of the blog The Perpetual Season, derives complexity of flavor from a harmonious balance of herbs, simple spices, farm-fresh vegetables, and cooking methods in this cookbook. She goes far beyond traditional steamed vegetables, utilizing techniques that help bring out unique, vibrant flavors. Lastly, if you are hosting a summer cookout or attending one, take some inspiration from Katie Lee’s “Endless Summer Cookbook.” Lee is the co-host of the Food Network’s show, The Kitchen, and is known for her summer parties. This cookbook shares more than 100 recipes that are celebratory staples. 

Happy exploring, creating, and eating.