My Frugal, Healthy, Easy $1.15 Quinoa Lunch Recipe
My Quinoa Lunch has been described as rice-n-beans 2.0. And for good reason. Four years ago, I brought you our epically frugal rice-n-beans recipe, which is what we used to eat for lunch.
Over time, Mr. Frugalwoods and I grew tired of the rice-n-beans routine and craved something novel. We’ve eaten many a thing for lunch over the years and will surely continue our culinary explorations in the future.
For now, I’ve landed on a winner–Quinoa Lunch–which combines the three core principles that guide my life:
- Easy to do
I was going to say that these are the three tenets of our food philosophy, but I actually think this trifecta applies to everything we do. So today, join me as we venture into the land of Quinoa Lunch.
I’m going to put the recipe right here because I HATE (yes, actually loathe) when I have to scroll for nine years before finding the freaking ingredients.
Frugalwoods Quinoa Lunch Recipe: $1.15 per serving (the short version)
I make a gigantic batch, which serves me, Mr. FW, our two kids, and various house guests for lunch for an entire week. Sometimes we have leftovers and sometimes we run out, depending on how much the kids eat and how many lunch guests we have in a week. Quinoa Lunch freezes just fine, so I make as much as my pot will hold.
- 5 cups of quinoa
- 7.5 cups of water (the ratio is 1.5 cups of water per cup of quinoa)
- One 2lb bag of frozen mixed vegetables
- 1/2 of a red onion, diced
- 2lbs (give or take) of chicken thigh filets (leave out for a vegan meal)
- Optional: hot sauce, salt, and pepper to taste
- Very large pot
- Roasting pan
- Cutting board
- Large spoon
- Roast chicken in oven at 350 for 40-50 minutes
- Bring quinoa and water to a boil; remove from boil and simmer on low for 10 minutes
- Dice red onion and add to cooked quinoa
- Dump frozen veggies (defrosted or still frozen) into cooked quinoa
- Chop up chicken and add to cooked quinoa
- Use a large spoon and stir
- Serve with hot sauce, salt, and pepper for added flair!
Frugalwoods Quinoa Lunch Recipe: $1.15 per serving (the long version)
And now, I’ll do a deep dive into the ingredients, going through the three core principals–healthy, easy, inexpensive–with each. We shall begin with:
Ingredient #1: Quinoa
What is quinoa, you may be wondering? And how do you say it? According to the Harvard School Of Public Health:
Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a type of edible seed that comes in various colors including black, red, yellow, and white. The plant has been cultivated for about 5,000 years and is indigenous to the Andean region of South America, specifically Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru.
The more you know!
Ok, so is quinoa good for you? Let’s go back to the Harvard School Of Public Health for their opinion:
Though technically a seed, quinoa is classified as a whole grain and is a good source of plant protein and fiber. One cup cooked provides about 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. Unlike some plant proteins, quinoa is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. Quinoa is also naturally gluten-free and can be eaten safely if one has gluten intolerance such as celiac disease. Rich In: Manganese, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Folate, Thiamine (B1).
Good to know! Thanks to researchers at Harvard University, we’ve established that quinoa is healthy. Also, it’s gluten-free, so if you’re GF, this is good news!
Now, for core principal #2: is it easy to prepare? I will take this question:
Yes! You bring water and quinoa to a boil (inside a pot), then remove it from the boil, and allow it to simmer on low for 10 minutes. Voila! Quinoa.
As you are likely aware, I am not the formal chef of our household. I perform perfunctory cooking duties and I bake things. Mr. FW is our culinary master and the one who handles all of our dinners and breakfasts. However, lunch duties have fallen to me–former dishwasher turned reluctant sous chef.
I’ll be honest: I do not enjoy cooking. The process does not spark joy for me and before Mr. FW and I lived together, I ate Lean Cuisine frozen dinners every. single. night. Mr. FW comes from a line of superb home chefs and his mother taught him to cook when he was 12 years old.
My mother-in-law is the best home cook I’ve ever met and her food rivals five-star restaurants. It’s tough to eat out with my in-laws because it’s super unlikely a restaurant will prepare better food than my mother-in-law. So, yeah, my husband is an excellent cook. But sometimes? You just need to put food on the table.
I invented this quinoa recipe by accident and in the manner that many a great recipe comes to pass: I found an old bag of quinoa in the pantry while participating in the Uber Frugal Month Challenge (day 5 is clean out your pantry day) and decided to use it up.
Core principal #3: Is quinoa inexpensive?
Why yes, yes it is. We buy 3lb bags of organic quinoa (from BJ’s) for $9.49. See chart at the end of the post for the full cost breakdown.
It would probably be even cheaper if we bought non-organic quinoa, but I prefer getting the organic version.
Ingredient #2: Vegetables
I’ve been making Quinoa Lunch for almost a year and, in this time, I’ve experimented with a wide range of vegetables. The overarching conclusion is that you can throw any veggies you like into your vat of quinoa. They pretty much all taste fine.
In my early, unschooled days of making Quinoa Lunch, I laboriously chopped up the following:
- Green peppers
- Red onion
- Other stuff I’ve forgotten
The above veggies all taste terrific in the quinoa. However, they were impinging on the “easy to do” requirement and, as a person who does not find bliss while chopping food, I was angling for a way out of this drudgery.
Enter: the frozen vegetable.
When Mr. FW first suggested this blasphemy to me, I retired to my fainting couch with one arm held aloft to my trembling brow.
“Frozen vegetables?” I gasped! But we are a family that prizes health! We are a family that tries to feel good about itself based solely on the number of fresh vegetables we buy every week. What will everyone in the check-out line think of us?! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!
It was time, clearly, for me to learn something new. According to the New York Times:
… the differences in nutrient levels between fresh and frozen are so minor that they would be unlikely to have an impact on overall health…
Le gasp!!! Prepare ye-self, there’s more:
Dr. Bouzari and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, compared the vitamin content in eight different fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables — corn, carrots, broccoli, spinach, peas, green beans, strawberries and blueberries — and found no consistent differences over all between fresh and frozen. The vitamin content was occasionally higher in some frozen foods; frozen broccoli, for example, had more riboflavin (a B vitamin) than fresh broccoli. But frozen peas had less riboflavin than fresh peas; and frozen corn, green beans and blueberries had more vitamin C than their fresh counterparts.
The researchers also analyzed the amount of fiber, levels of phenolic compounds (good sources of antioxidants) and minerals like calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium in the same eight fruits and vegetables. They found no significant differences between the fresh and frozen varieties.
Not only are frozen vegetables as good as fresh vegetables, in some instances they’re BETTER. Mind. Blown.
Furthermore, NPR notes:
When you freeze fruits and vegetables, it locks in nutrients, and several studies have shown that this helps retain high levels of vitamins. “You can store them in the freezer for a year and the nutrient level pretty much stays the same,” says plant scientist Hazel MacTavish-West…
Wow. Ok, so after these scientists convinced me that frozen is fine (and potentially even better), I was converted. Our weekly grocery cart looks like we robbed the frozen vegetable section. Because we pretty much do. Although to be clear, we pay for these vegetables. No robbing going on here.
Frozen Vegetables = Triple Win
Oh yes, frozen vegetables are the hidden superstars of Quinoa Lunch as they’re:
- Cheaper than fresh ($1.99 for a 2lb bag!)
- Easier to prepare than fresh (just open a bag and dump–no washing or chopping required!)
- Just as healthy (if not healthier!)
Since this revelation, my family now uses frozen vegetables and fruits as much as possible. Here’s what we still buy fresh:
- Salad greens
- Cucumbers: to cut into slices for the kids to dip in homemade hummus and for inclusion in salads
- Carrots: ditto
- Green peppers: ditto
- Sweet potatoes: I’d happily buy these frozen, but our supermarket doesn’t have them and Littlewoods loves them
- Clementines: for the kids’ snacks
- Avocados: excellent for sandwiches since Kidwoods’ preschool classroom is nut-free
- Bananas: we all eat one every day for breakfast (along with our infamous oatmeal)
- Limes and lemons: for use in recipes (including my healthy pumpkin oatmeal bars) and, of course, in properly made gin-n-tonics
- Onions, ginger, and garlic
In our garden and yard we grow:
- Hot peppers
- Ground cherries
- Berries (blackberries, blueberries, black raspberries)
More about our gardening efforts (and failures) in my This Month On The Homestead series.
Back to the recipe at hand. If you go the frozen route–and you’re super lazy like me and only want to cut open and pour one bag of veggies–I have one word for you: Succotash. This is a mixture of frozen carrots, green beans, peas, lima beans, and corn. Done. I dump that puppy into the cooked quinoa and call it a day. I usually forget to defrost it ahead of time and it works fine to pour frozen veggies in (the heat of the cooked quinoa thaws them out… mostly… it also helps it you have low standards like me).
Ingredient #3: Red Onion
The lone hold-out for my chopping block is the red onion. Not a required member of the recipe, but I find it adds much flavor and buoyancy. Much yum. And so, weekly I chop half a red onion and pop it into the pot. Onto our next ingredient!
Ingredient #4: Chicken
Number four is optional and, if you prefer a vegan lunch, then quinoa + veggies will suit just fine. If you want some meat in your Quinoa Lunch, I use chicken because it’s cheap, easy, and healthy. You could sub in any other protein of your choice: beef, fish, black beans, hard boiled eggs, etc! Let’s see how chicken performs on the healthy, easy, inexpensive scale.
Is chicken healthy? There are differing opinions out there and, if you prefer not to eat chicken, I’m not here to convert you. You do you!
If you’re genuinely wondering about the health benefits of eating chicken, then you might be interested in this academic study, which I found via the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health while researching this article:
A variable but moderate energy content, highly digestible proteins (with low levels of collagen) of good nutritional quality, unsaturated lipids (mainly found in the skin and easily removed), B-group vitamins (mainly thiamin, vitamin B6, and pantothenic acid), and minerals (like iron, zinc, and copper) make poultry meat a valuable food. Epidemiological studies performed across the world, in highly diverse populations with different food preferences and nutritional habits, provide solid information on the association between poultry consumption, within a balanced diet, and good health.
Consumption of poultry meat, as part of a vegetable-rich diet, is associated with a risk reduction of developing overweight and obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Also, white meat (and poultry in particular) is considered moderately protective or neutral on cancer risk. The relevance of poultry meat for humans also has been recognized by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), who considers this widely available, relatively inexpensive food to be particularly useful in developing countries, where it can help to meet shortfalls in essential nutrients. Moreover, poultry meat consumption also contributes to the overall quality of the diet in specific ages and conditions (prior to conception, during pregnancy up to the end of breastfeeding, during growth, and in the geriatric age) and is suitable for those who have an increased need for calorie and protein compared to the general population.
Good enough for me, let’s get to our second consideration:
Is chicken cheap?
Well, it depends. We don’t buy the dirt cheapest chicken, we buy all-natural, hormone-free, steroid-free, antibiotic-free, cage-free chicken thigh filets, which are more expensive. However, even with this expense, the cost per serving is still super cheap (see spreadsheet below for full breakdown).
We buy a 2.73(ish) lb package from BJ’s for $2.99/pound. I don’t use the whole 2.73lbs in Quinoa Lunch because I set aside several thighs for the kids to eat plain (or dipped in spicy mustard as Kidwoods prefers).
Would it be cheaper to buy a whole chicken? Yep. However. Roasting and breaking down a whole chicken would impinge too much on my third goal of Easy To Prepare. There’s a limit to how much time and energy I want to spend in the kitchen and, in the case of chicken, I’m happy to spend more money in order to spend less time on prep.
How do you cook your chicken, Mrs. FW?
The dirt easiest way: I plop it into a roasting pan and shove it in the oven at 350 for 40-50 minutes. That’s it. I don’t add anything to it, I don’t turn it around or over or sing it a song. I just throw it in there and set the timer. Or I forget to set the timer and eventually remember and it seems to always be fine. After it’s cooked, I chop it up into bite-sized pieces, remove the fat, and toss it into the vat-o-quinoa.
Cooking In Bulk: Friend of Those Who Hate To Cook and/or Don’t Have A Lot Of Time
I cook once a week. One day per week, usually Thursdays, I cook everything I need to cook for the entire week. Mr. Frugalwoods does the same with his cooking responsibilities. Here’s what I cook on my cook day:
- Quinoa Lunch: lasts in the fridge all week. Some weeks I freeze some of it and it defrosts just fine too.
- Pumpkin Oatmeal bars: I freeze half the batch and keep the rest in the fridge. My recipe is here.
- Bread: I bake whole wheat bread (using this recipe) in my $5 garage sale bread machine (an upgrade from my first bread machine, which was a free hand-me-down and which bit the dust).
- Salad: I prep a giant salad (greens, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, green onions) once a week and it usually stays fresh all week. I keep it in the fridge in a stainless steel bowl with a lid. This occasionally experiences mortality over the course of the week, but since it’s all veggies, I can compost it.
- Veggie sticks: I chop raw carrots, peppers, and cucumbers for veggie stick snacks.
- Hard boiled eggs: I boil up hard boiled eggs for me and Kidwoods–the only family members who appreciate them. I stand by my resolution that they make a great snack!
- Sweet potatoes: I roast these in the oven for Littlewoods. I typically roast 7 or 8 taters at a time and freeze half of them (whole, with skin on).
I like doing all of this in one day because it allows me to focus my energy in the kitchen and make efficient use of my time. For the same reasons, I do all of our laundry in one day and all of my computer work in two days. More on my time-use approach another time because I need to get back to what I’m supposed to be writing about today…
Quinoa Lunch FAQs
Q: Feeding Quinoa to Babies and Toddlers: Should I Do It?
This depends on how much you enjoy cleaning quinoa out of the crevices of your floorboards. If you enjoy such work, then yes, by all means, feed quinoa to your babies. Bonus: picking up individual grains of quinoa and flinging them against the wall is an excellent fine motor skill building activity for baby.
Pro tip: send quinoa with your preschooler to school for school lunch to avoid having quinoa consumed in your own home. Alternately, feed quinoa to children outside to avoid peppering your home with granules of quinoa.
Q: Is Quinoa vacuum-able?
Yes, oh yes it is. I vacuum it up on the regular, by which I mean whenever we eat it, which is every day.
Q: Is Quinoa Lunch portable?
Totes! I pop a serving into one of these glass containers for Kidwoods to take to school and she feasts on it for lunch (affiliate link). Or she leaves it untouched and complains that she’s been hungry all day. Even odds, that.
Total Cost Breakdown
And now, what you’ve all been waiting to nerd out over. I present to you–courtesy of saved grocery store receipts and an excel spreadsheet–the precise cost per serving of Quinoa Lunch:
|Ingredient||Cost||Size of Package||Amount Used in Recipe||Cost Per Unit||Cost Per Recipe|
|Quinoa||$9.49||3 lbs||5 cups (2.5 lbs)||$3.16 per lb||$7.90|
|Chicken||$8.16||2.73||2 lbs||$2.99 per lb||$5.98|
|Frozen vegetables||$1.99||2 lbs||2 lbs||$1.99 per package||$1.99|
|Red onion||$1.29 per pound||1 onion (0.27 lbs)||1/2 an onion (0.14 lbs)||$0.17 per half onion||$0.17|
|Total Cost (14 servings):||$16.04|
|Cost Per Serving:||$1.15|
I will note that the per serving amount is actually lower because:
- Our kids eat it too (although not daily)
- Lunch guests (if we have any) eat it
Since I can’t precisely pin down those two variables, we’ll stick with $1.15 per serving. By the way, if you’re ever curious about your cost-per-serving for something you prepare, use my above spreadsheet to punch in your numbers.
I think I can conclude that Quinoa Lunch is: frugal, healthy, and easy to make! I’ll concede that it’s a trifle more expensive that my Epically Frugal Rice and Beans Recipe, which clocks in at $0.39 per serving. So if you’re looking for the cheapest option, rice and beans still wins. But if you want to shake things up a bit, try out Quinoa Lunch and let me know what variations and substitutions you come up with!
What do you eat for lunch? Will you try out Quinoa Lunch and report back?
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