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Cheap Meal Recipes From Elite Marathoner McKale Montgomery

She’s got a Ph.D. in nutrition and a marathon PR of 2:34. Healthy food does not have to be expensive—if you’re careful about shopping.

kung pao chicken, chicken enchilada, pancakes and egg, spinach and mushrooms on plates
Trevor Raab

McKale Montgomery has run the fastest marathons of her life in recent years. She qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2020, finished in 30th place, and later in 2020 set her PR, 2:34:36, at The Marathon Project. In late 2021, she ran 2:35:01 at the California International Marathon.

All her racing and training is fueled by groceries from Walmart.

Montgomery, 37, lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she is an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Oklahoma State University. Although she and her husband, Scott, who is a software engineer, are at the point in their careers where they could afford more expensive food on occasion, they avoid it. It’s in their nature to be “thrifty,” she said.

Her habits have been with her her whole life. She grew up in rural Fairfax, Oklahoma, where the nearest grocery store—again, Walmart—was 40 miles away. Her parents shopped at Dollar General and ate vegetables they grew in their garden. When Montgomery got to college on a running scholarship, she didn’t have much extra money in her budget for snacks or eating out, and that persisted into graduate school.

The first time she ever went to a Whole Foods, Montgomery was in her 20s. “It was like heaven to me,” she said. “I had never seen anything like it. Then I saw the prices, and I had to catch my breath.”

She hangs onto the old patterns she established when she was in school. For instance, she still spices up her chili with extra red pepper flakes from Pizza Hut. “I kind of got used to buying the cheap stuff,” she said.

As food prices have risen in recent months, Montgomery’s been keeping a close eye on her family’s bills. She knows she’s at an advantage: As a professor with a Ph.D. in nutrition, she’s well versed in how to pack her meals with healthy, affordable ingredients.

mckale montgomery
McKale Montgomery running in the elite-only road race, The Marathon Project in 2020.
Kevin Morris

But you don’t need a Ph.D. to benefit from her strategies. Here’s how Montgomery feeds herself, her husband, and her 3-year-old daughter on about $125 per week:

→ Embrace leftovers: She cooks dinner for a family of four, even though she says they eat like a family of two and a half. Her daughter doesn’t eat a full adult portion, but Montgomery always packs the leftovers for lunch the next day.

One shop a week: Friday night is grocery shopping night. “I run 20 miles on Saturdays and Sundays are for getting ready again,” she said. “So I go on Friday night.” She is less likely to have to fight through crowds on Friday evenings.

Plan the menu: Montgomery goes to Walmart armed with a meal plan and a list of all the ingredients she’ll need for the meals she’s making that week. “When I leave for the grocery store, I know what we’re having for dinner the entire next week. Planning helps you save money. You do less impulse buying.”

Buy fresh products you know you’ll use: Montgomery hates food waste, so she is careful with what she buys fresh. She’ll buy bagged salad for her lunches (to go with her leftovers), and she always checks the date to make sure it will last the week. She also wants to give herself some leeway, so if she gets home from work one night and has a coupon for pizza, she can buy it, without worrying her fresh produce will go to waste.

Pay attention to runner staples: When it comes to bananas, Montgomery buys half a bunch of yellow, half a bunch of green, which will ripen later in the week.

Make cereal last longer: Her favorite cereal is Kashi Go Lean Crunch, which is now up to $5.68 a box. To make it last longer, she’ll mix it with the Great Value Shredded Wheat from Walmart, the store brand, which cost $1.98 per box. “They mix together so nicely,” Montgomery said.

Pick it up yourself: She never pays for delivery—not for groceries, not for pizza.

Eat red meat sparingly: Montgomery’s family eats red meat only once or twice a week, in accordance with American Institute for Cancer Research guidelines. It saves money, and it’s healthier for the planet, too.

Add extra vegetables and beans: Doing so will allow you to use less meat in recipes. Montgomery makes cheese steaks (recipe below) with extra pepper and onion, which reduces the amount of meat she needs.

The slow cooker is your friend: Tough, inexpensive cuts of meat turn tender in the slow cooker.

Frozen foods make good substitutes during the winter: It takes delivery trucks a long time to get from California to Oklahoma in the winter, and she’s not paying $6 for a box of blueberries or strawberries. At those times, she substitutes frozen instead.

Remember the plate basics: Runners need twice as much protein as sedentary people, and about half their plates should be fruits or vegetables. Montgomery herself strives for 100 grams of protein per day, and she looks for inexpensive sources, like high protein pancakes, eggs, and beans.


5 Weeknight Dinners on a Budget

Philly Cheesesteaks

a complete philly cheesesteak sandwich and the ingredients to make it
Courtesy McKale Montgomery

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. of stew meat
  • 1 10-oz. can of French onion soup
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 4 slices of provolone cheese
  • 4 buns
  • sweet potatoes/1 package of frozen sweet potato fries

    Put the stew meat in the slow cooker, and add the can of French onion soup. Cook on low for 5–6 hours or on high for 2–3 hours, until the meat is tender.

    Sauté pepper and onion in 1 oil for 5 minutes. Add the cooked stew meat and continue cooking for another 10 minutes.

    Divide the meat mixture evenly between four buns. Top with provolone cheese. Broil for 1 minute until cheese is melted. The remaining French onion soup in the slower cooker can be used as a dipping sauce.

    Serving suggestion: A sweet potato on the side serves up added vitamin A and fiber. Frozen sweet potato fries cook faster.

    1. Tips: She makes a sandwich that’s about half vegetables, half meat, but the provolone cheese hides those vegetables for those in her family who are vegetable-averse.

      Total cost: $3.48 per serving


      Kung Pao Chicken Over Fried Rice

      cooking kung pao chicken stir fry and the ingredients to make it
      Courtesy McKale Montgomery

      Ingredients:

      • 1 lb. of chicken: about 2 large boneless breasts or 4 chicken thighs
      • 1 Great Value kung pao chicken kit (contains garlic paste, kung pao sauce, and two dried red chili peppers)
      • 1 package Great Value frozen broccoli stir fry vegetables
      • 2 cups instant brown rice rice
      • ½ cup of chopped onion
      • 3 Tbsp. of soy sauce
      • 1 Tbsp. canola oil
      • Optional: peanuts, for topping

        Coat the chicken in garlic paste. Place chicken in the slow cooker. Top with kung pao sauce from the kung pao chicken kit and drop in the red chilis. Cook on low for 4–6 hours. Discard the chilis, shred the chicken, then add the frozen vegetables and cook on high for another 30 minutes.

        For the fried rice

        Cook rice according to the instructions on box. Sauté a chopped onion in oil until translucent. Add cooked rice and soy sauce. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, for another 5 minutes.

        Serve chicken over rice and top with peanuts, if desired

        Tips:

        1. Pick your favorite mix of frozen vegetables. I like this colorful mix because each color represents a different phytochemical (the natural bioactive compounds that gives fruits and veggies their colors) that has a uniquely beneficial health property. For instance, red peppers are high in vitamins A and C, potassium, and antioxidants. White vegetables are good for immune health and controlling cholesterol.
        2. The rice does not have to be fried, but doing so adds a lot of extra flavor.

          Total cost: $2.52 per serving



          Breakfast Scramble for Dinner With Pancakes

          pancakes on griddle with egg scramble ingredients
          Courtesy McKale Montgomery

          Ingredients:

          • 8 eggs, well beaten
          • 1 Tbsp. butter
          • 4 cups of fresh spinach or 2 cups of frozen spinach
          • 1 cup of sliced mushrooms
          • ½-¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
          • 1 box protein pancake mix, which yields 18–20 pancakes
          • In a large frying pan, sauté spinach and mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of butter. Add 8 eggs to spinach and mushrooms and stir continuously until eggs are fully cooked.
          • Melt on cheese

            Prepare pancakes according to the instructions on the box and serve with eggs. (The Krusteaz pancakes are great because they are high protein and whole grain)

            Tips:

            1. Spinach is a great source of iron, mushrooms boost the immune system, and eggs provide a complete source of amino acids.
            2. Prep the whole box of pancakes at one time and store them in the freezer. Heat in a toaster when ready to eat.

              Total cost: $1.72 per serving


              Chicken Enchiladas and Corn

              chicken enchilada on a green plate and the ingredients to make them
              Trevor Raab; Courtesy McKale Montgomery

              Ingredients

              • 1 Lb. of chicken: about 2 large breasts or 4 chicken thighs
              • 1 15.5-oz. can of white beans, such as Great Northern, navy, or cannellini
              • 1 28-oz. can of enchilada sauce
              • 1 7-oz. can of mild green chiles
              • 1 8-oz. package of Great Value reduced fat cream cheese
              • 1 8-oz. package of shredded pepper jack cheese
              • 8 Mission whole wheat tortillas
              • 1 package Green Giant Simply Steam honey roasted sweet corn

                Place the chicken, enchilada sauce, green chiles, and rinsed and drained beans in slow cooker. Cook on low for 4–6 hours. Remove the chicken to a cutting board, shred with forks, then return shredded chicken to slow cooker.

                Cut the cream cheese into 1-inch cubes, and blend it with chicken and bean mixture until the cream cheese has melted.

                Evenly divide the chicken and bean mixture into tortillas. Roll them, and place them seam side down in a 9x13-inch baking pan.

                Cover the tortillas with shredded pepper jack cheese and the remaining sauce from the slow cooker, if desired.

                Bake at 350 for 15–20 minutes or until bubbly.

                Prepare honey roasted sweet corn according to the instructions on bag, and serve as a side dish.

                Tips:

                1. Adding beans to this dish adds fiber, veggies, and protein and lets you cut the amount of meat you might typically use in half.
                2. Whole wheat tortillas add fiber to the recipe, and they hold up better the next day for leftovers.

                  Total cost: $2.86 per serving


                  Pulled Pork With Broccoli Slaw

                  kung pao chicken, chicken enchilada, pancakes and egg, spinach and mushrooms on plates
                  Courtesy McKale Montgomery

                  Ingredients

                  • 2-pound pork roast, cut into chunks
                  • 1 bottle of barbecue sauce
                  • Slider rolls, Hawaiian rolls, or rice for serving
                  • Sides:
                  • 1 package of broccoli slaw
                  • Creamy or sweet salad dressing to taste.
                  • Cauliflower onion rings

                    Cut pork roast into 2-inch cubes. Add the pork and a full bottle of barbecue sauce to the slow cooker, and cook for 6–8 hours on low. Shred the meat with a fork, and serve over rolls or rice.

                    Add desired amount of dressing to broccoli slaw, and stir well. Cook cauliflower onion rings according to the instructions on bag

                    Tips:

                    1. The sweet, healthy crunch of the broccoli slaw is a great source of vitamin C and complements the spicy barbecue flavor of the pork.
                    2. Leftover pork goes well on top of a salad the next day or on nachos or quesadillas. To incorporate more vegetables and stretch the leftovers longer, Montgomery will mix half of the pork with an equal amount of black beans.

                      Total cost: $3.63 per serving

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