You're on an airtight budget and are committed to eating in.
As you browse the grocery aisles, you realize cooking is still expensive, and the meals that are cheap can be pretty depressing.
Luckily, it can be pretty easy to take something dull and turn it into culinary success at a low cost.
The key is choosing one part of the already inexpensive dish to spend a little more on. One little splurge can make a cheap meal feel pretty fancy.
So, here's how you can upgrade all those cheap college meals into better dishes:
1. Fancy ramen
Ramen is arguably the cheapest dinner one can make, but it doesn't have to send you into flashbacks of your college dorm room.
Let's instead flashback to that expensive noodle spot.
While your ramen noodles are cooking, sautée a little garlic, onion, kale and mushrooms.
Splurge a little on the mushrooms. Maybe get a nice oyster, shiitake blend.
Mix them in after the flavor packet, and if you're feeling crazy, top it with a fried egg.
It fits the budget of your frat party days, but tastes like that $17 entrée.
2. Mac and cheese
You wanted it for every meal as a child, but your tastes have refined in your adulthood.
If we're eating mac and cheese for dinner, it has to be fancy.
The noodles and primary cheese are affordable, but extravagant toppings are key for a fancy mac. Opt for an upscale accent cheese to sprinkle on top, maybe a strong Italian parmesan that you have to shave off with a peeler.
Breadcrumbs are generally inexpensive, so get the most expensive ones for an elegant crunch. To really treat yourself, cook some thick-cut bacon and mix it throughout the mac.
Add some jalapeños if you're really going nuts. Fancy!
I love tortillas because sometimes, you can feed two whole families with one package.
It's difficult to find a cheaper carbohydrate, and plus, they're round! Fun!
Quesadillas are a quick and cheap meal that you can easily fancy up. If you want to stick with the traditional Mexican style, stick with affordable pepper jack cheese, and find a quality salsa and guacamole to go on the side.
Put them in tiny bowls like a restaurant, and top it with a little cilantro. It's an inexpensive way to add a lot of flavor and feel like a real chef.
Quesadillas are also the perfect opportunity to think outside the box. Go for a non-traditional cheese. Indulge in gouda or white cheddar, or maybe a creamy goat cheese.
Add some white beans for sustenance and mushrooms for a complimentary flavor.
Noodles and sauce are pretty cheap. Let's make it fancy with a nice protein.
Maybe seafood? Shrimp, clams and mussels are available fresh or frozen. Splurge on fresh if it's in the budget, but most frozen brands are still high quality.
You can keep the sauce cheap and simple with an olive oil and garlic sautée with a splash of the white wine you already had open.
Choose the noodle of your preference, but I think a delicate angel hair pasta would feel the fanciest.
An angel hair seafood pasta with a white wine sautée? Wow, you sound qualified to open an Italian restaurant.
(Think that through first.)
5. Grilled cheese and tomato soup
Ah, one of the most simple and delicious culinary combinations.
Not to mention, it also has that comfort food effect.
There are endless ways to make this fancy.
Still have some cheese left over from the quesadillas? Use it!
In the mood for some fancy carbs? Splurge on some gourmet bread, maybe a nice sourdough.
Find an affordable soup you can spice up with some fresh basil and minced onion for flavor and texture.
With these cheap food hacks, there's no way you can't have fancy and delicious food on a budget.
Good luck in the kitchen!