Even when we had a teeny-tiny kitchen in our small Manhattan apartment we always cooked lots and had people over for dinner. Even when we were on a modest food budget we always ate healthy meals. Even when I don't have a lot of time, I always prepare from-scratch meals. It's a matter of priorities and strategies.
Dialing back your meat consumption, maybe a little, maybe a lot - good meat is expensive - is better for your health and the environment, even if you're not on a modest food budget. But if you are, there are a few other strategies too. Plant-based foods cost less money. If you can, buy organic for the ones on the Dirty Dozen list and keep to conventional produce for those on the Clean 15 list. If you cannot do the organics, wash your produce carefully with a produce cleaner to get rid of all external pesticide residue. Prepare more legumes (vegetable protein). Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas) are very filling, versatile and extremely healthy because of their fiber content. Never waste any food. Make stocks with chicken carcasses or bones, and save your vegetable scraps to make a quick broth for use as a soup base. Stock up on what's on sale and in season. Buy tea in bulk, instead of those expensive tea bags, and cut your tea expense by about 2/3. In general, buying in bulk can save up to 50%.
Working with ready-to-go meal building blocks, which I only assemble at night, helps me to get a healthy dinner on the table even if I've worked all day. Simple, wholesome meals is the idea, nothing lengthy or complicated. Work your leftovers - I always make and have lots of them. Make them a new meal component. Two nights ago, I made leftover chicken into a quick stir-fry by adding broccoli, leeks, noodles and some Asian inspired soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice and sesame oil - took about 20 minutes. I always have eggs and cheese in the fridge (for frittatas, omelets, roasted vegetables broiled with some cheese), as well as ready-to-go portion size freezer bags with pre-cooked grains and legumes (for salads, vegetable mixes, as side dishes). When I do have time to cook, I'll make something lengthier that also freezes well (lasagne, eggplant parm, meatloaf, soups).
And every once in a while I don't cook at all! We’ll have a cheese platter, or pull a bunch of saved leftovers from the freezer, or I’ll make a quick tomato/mozzarella/roasted pepper platter. In my workshops I cover a lot more ideas - come see. Be creative, be simple, be wholesome.