Cheap Ways to Fancy-Up a Meal

Chelsea Day on San Diego Living
Chelsea Day

Columnist –

Budget-Friendly in the Kitchen

Even those of us on a budget like to enjoy some nice, gourmet cuisine now and again. Restaurants mark everything up so much that it can be tricky to get out for a fine dinner without blowing your budget. There are actually a few tricks at home to take your food to the next level without spending a fortune. Here are my top ways to have a “fancy” meal, without the upscale price.  

Caramelized Onions

Somehow, caramelized onions make anything better. Toss them on a burger, throw them on some fries or a chicken breast and dinner goes from so-so to grand dining. It’s easy to enjoy the deep, sweet flavor of caramelized onions at home. Simply slice an onion thin and sauté it on medium-low for half an hour, stirring adding a couple tablespoons of water every five minutes. You know they’re done when they’re very soft and turn a deep golden brown.  


Your choice of cheese can make all the difference in the world. Swap out traditional American on a your burger in favor of jalapeño jack or Swiss. Toss some feta in with your romaine or spinach for a savory addition to any salad. Cheese price can range dramatically, but fortunately a little bit of cheese can go a long way in most dishes.  

Stuff It

What is it about stuffing something that makes it seem fancy? Stuffed mushrooms, stuffed bell peppers, stuffed chicken, stuffed wontons…if the recipe involves filling one food with another food, it seems to instantly take the meal up a notch.  


They’re super-cheap to make but add that French flair with ease. Try making mini croissants or puff pastries. You’ll be amazed at home impressed people get are by baked goods.  

Unusual Grains

Make a side of quinoa, amaranth of hummus. Any unfamiliar food adds a certain intrigue to the plate.   

Add an Appetizer

Almost any meal seems more special when you start adding courses. A simple plate of lunchmeat and crackers or an easy dip presented before the main meal makes dinner feel like an event rather than an afterthought.   

Think about your Drink

Don’t just throw dinner down with a glass of milk or water. Grab some wine on your way home – even the cheap stuff – or mix up a quick batch of lemonade. These little touches make all the difference.  


Lay down some placemats, break out the fancy silverware once in a while, and light a candle or two.  

If you’re really pressed for cash and just can’t get out of that macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly rut, try simply changing up the scenery. Pack a picnic and eat at the park for an instant meal picker-upper. Try dining on the porch or – if you live in a high-rise – on the roof! Escape the mundane TV dinner mentality and spice things up however you can afford to.

Photo: Chelsea shares her July 4th leftover meal idea on San Diego Living (Ch6) TV segment!

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One comment

  1. […] And if you’re looking for some other meal-changing ingredients, check out my latest Budget Kitchen column for San Diego Bargain […]

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