Pasta and sauce has always been one of my go-to dishes for dinner when I just don’t have the time or energy to cook something serious. But one can only have so much spaghetti with plain old tomato sauce.

I had this revelation a long time ago: just because you’re opting for a simple pasta dish doesn’t mean it has to be boring. And creative and delicious pasta dishes do you not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

Just like we did with good old fashioned boxed mac & cheese, let’s take a look at a few of the ways to amp up your boring old pasta dishes. Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below!

Pick a Pasta

The best thing about pasta is that it comes in all different shapes and sizes, and most varieties of pasta will cost you about the same. If you stick to simple pastas (i.e. ziti, angel hair, penne, spaghetti, rotini, etc.) you should be able to get boxes for just around $1 (or less!) at most grocery stores. Stuffed pastas like tortellini and ravioli will usually run you a bit more.

The first thing to do to spice up your pasta dishes is to mix it up when it comes to the pasta you use. Though they may be made up of the same stuff, a spaghetti dinner will feel different than a rotini dinner, and so on.


Now let’s move on to (arguably) the most important part of the pasta dish. The thing that transforms the dish into more than just bland noodles.

When it comes to pasta sauce, nothing may beat the taste of homemade sauce. However, in most cases, the jarred stuff is actually cheaper. In the Kitchn’s post, Make or Buy? Tomato Sauce, they make a comparison between Newman’s Own marinara sauce (priced at $2.99) and a basic homemade tomato sauce. The jarred stuff was actually cheaper by half per serving (and in my experience, you can get the jarred stuff for a lot less than $2.99, especially with sales and coupons).

That being said, there are cheap options all around for sauce, whether you need that homemade flair to your sauce or you don’t at all mind working with the jarred stuff. And a great sauce easily can transform your boring old pasta into a cheap and easy meal for any night of the week.

  • Doctor Up a Jarred Sauce: there are cheap and easy ways to doctor up jarred sauce. Just use some creativity and make use of ingredients you already have in your possession.
  • Basic Tomato Sauce: there are a whole lot of recipes for a basic tomato-based pasta sauce floating around there on the web. Some use a little as 3 ingredients where others are are more involved. The cheapest way to make a delicious homemade sauce that works for you is to make sure it’s simple and tailored to your liking. Keep basic ingredients on hand for when you decide to make sauce. And when you do make it, make extra to freeze for later.
  • Perfect Pesto: making a pesto sauce is a great way to make use of extra basil, mint or really any other leafy herb you’ve got. Here’s one way to do it:
  • Easy Bolognese: do you ever crave a nice meaty sauce to go with your pasta to create a hearty dish? You can make an easy meat sauce by opting for whatever ground meat is cheapest at the store. Don’t forget that a meaty jarred sauce may be a cheap and delicious alternative as well.
  • Oil/Butter and Cheese: sometimes, pasta needs little more than some simple extra virgin olive oil and shredded cheese. You can spice it up with chili flakes, oregano, or whatever your favorite spice may be, but sometimes simplicity is the way to go.
  • Cheesy Goodness: if you’re in the mood for a thick and cheesy sauce, a basic alfredo may be the way to go. Here’s a simple recipe from Home Ec. 101 that only requires 5 ingredients and about 20 minutes of your time. Use any cheese you have on hand to make this sauce and stir in your favorite add-in.
  • More Unique Ideas: the above sauces are just bases for you to start with. You can of course add your own personal touches on any of these foundations. And if you’re looking for some more adventurous sauces, check out some of these ideas from Tip Nut.

Cheap and Easy Add-Ins

Now, if the idea of plain pasta and sauce bores you to tears, or you’re worried that your meal doesn’t have enough nutritional value, you’ve got to rely on the add ins to take your dish to the next level. It’s especially great if you can use leftover ingredients to compliment your dishes. For me, there’s nothing like making a simple pasta primavera using whatever leftover veggies I have in my fridge!

Here are just some of the cheap toppers and add-ins that I’ve used in my pasta creations.


  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Dried herbs (i.e. basil, oregano, etc.)
  • Fresh grated cheese
  • Shredded cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Lemon juice/zest
  • Peanuts or pine nuts


  • Broccoli
  • Olives
  • Tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach (or any leafy green)
  • Canned Tuna
  • Peppers
  • Artichoke Hearts
  • Carmalized (or not) onions
  • Roasted garlic
  • Chick peas
  • Bacon
  • Ground beef/chicken/turkey
  • Squash
  • Capers

10 Fabulously Frugal Recipes

Alright, so now that we’re past the sauces and ingredients, here are some recipe ideas from around the web that you can try out. None of these dishes should cost you much more than $3 per serving to make.

  1. Angel Hair Pasta with Eggplant-Tomato Sauce: per serving, this easy dish should only cost about $1.14. Apart from the fixings for the sauce, cheese and pasta, you’ll just need a raw eggplant and a medium red bell pepper.
  2. Basil Chicken Pasta: this simple dish incorporates some boneless chicken, so you’ll get your fill of protein in a cheap and filling way.
  3. Lasagna-Style Baked Ziti: this yummy baked treat doesn’t require many ingredients and comes out like a yummy, sloppy lasagna.
  4. Pasta with Asparagus and Mushroom: at only $1.25 per serving, this oil-based pasta dish is a cheap, healthy treat. Use asparagus, fresh mushrooms, chicken or veggie broth, olive oil, ground red pepper, and of course, some parmesan cheese.
  5. Linguine with Squash, Bacon and Goat Cheese: this recipe makes use of butternut squash, which is currently in season. Also, it involves bacon. And let’s face – bacon just makes everything better.
  6. Pasta Carbonara: here’s another simple dish that features bacon (or ham if you prefer). You don’t need much more than some eggs, cheese and seasoning to make this one.
  7. Penne with Lemon, Potatoes and Cannellini: this one only costs about $.66 per serving and packs a big punch. The dish comprises of pasta, vegetable bullion cubs and small potatoes. The sauce is light, easy to make, and features cannellini beans and spinach.
  8. Pasta Salad: your pasta dish doesn’t necessarily have to be warm. Use up whatever leftover veggies, cheese, and salad dressing you have to make a mouthwatering pasta salad that could serve as a side dish or a main course.
  9. Turkey Sausage and Arugula Pasta: make this delicious dish to satisfy the meat fiends in your family for less than $3 per serving.
  10. Alpine Mushroom Pasta: inspired by dishes in northern Italy, this dish calls for portobello mushrooms, Savoy cabbage and any kind of smoked cheese. And this dish should also cost you less than $3 a serving.

Got any great pasta recipes of your own to share? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. Thanks for being a Tip Hero!

Photo credit: roolrool and Still Life