The last few weeks have been, well, different.

We’re all feeling it, maybe not in the same ways, but the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving its mark on all of us. Small as it may seem, the simple act of cooking and eating can do wonders to nourish body and soul in the midst of crisis. With many households struggling financially right now, though, affordable food and budget-friendly meals are more important than ever.

With that in mind, over the next few weeks, I’ll offer recipes that stretch your food dollars without sacrificing taste. I’ll include a rough estimate for the total cost of each dish, though the cost won’t include staples that many of us already have, such as oils or butter, dried herbs, salt and pepper, and vinegar.

I’m also asking you, the readers, to share your favorite recipes and tips for inexpensive meals and budget shopping.

I’m starting with a favorite: spaghetti. Dried pasta is cheap, usually $1 or less for about a pound of generic and even sometimes name brands when they’re on sale. It can feed a lot of people, not to mention it has a shelf life of at least a year. Spaghetti’s greatest asset is its versatility — it’s a blank slate for just about any flavor profile and works both as the main element or as a tasty side dish.

I’m preaching to the choir, I know. I see the pasta aisles at just about every grocery store these days — those shelves are bare. So if you’re looking for new ways to use up all those starchy strands you bought in bulk, here are four relatively inexpensive ways to elevate pasta night. To save money, these do not include meat — and really, they’re good without it — though you can certainly add your favorite meatballs, ground beef, sausage or chicken if you like.

With tomato sauce

First up, the classic: spaghetti with my homemade tomato sauce. Commercial spaghetti sauces are generally inexpensive, but if you want to go a bit cheaper, and regulate the salt and leave out the sugar by making it yourself, you’ll only need tomato sauce, butter, garlic and some spices.

I learned long ago that the best spaghetti sauces were nothing more than fresh tomatoes left to simmer for a long time. That robust tomato flavor is second to none, lifted only by a little butter for richness, some salt and garlic, and fresh herbs. When I don’t have time to make sauce this way, I employ a quick shortcut using plain tomatoes in a can, labeled “tomato sauce.”

Simply melt unsalted butter, and when it’s completely melted and foamy, add the tomato sauce and then whatever dried or fresh spices you have around. I add lots of garlic, either minced or garlic powder — we’re safe from vampires, believe me — plus Italian seasoning (or any combo of dried parsley, oregano and basil). If you’re feeling spicy, add red pepper flakes to the melted butter so they have a chance to bloom before the tomato sauce is added.

Simple, yes, but flavorful and better for you than the stuff in the jar. You never know, your family members might just decide that this is their new favorite.

Cost: Roughly $2. The pasta was $1 and my 29-ounce can of tomato sauce was 94 cents, though you might be able to find it even cheaper than that. I already had the butter, garlic and dried herbs.

With peanut sauce

The opposite of classic spaghetti sauce is Spicy Noodle and Vegetable Primavera. Spaghetti noodles are laced in a silky peanut butter sauce that can be as spicy (or mild) as you can stand. This one gets depth from soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar — I used white wine vinegar because it’s what I had, but you could also go with red wine or even plain vinegar in a pinch. Honey adds just a touch of sweetness, but it’s not crucial. Next time, I might even leave it out. Then add those red pepper flakes until you’re satisfied. I’m a heat wimp. I used 1 tablespoon, which was too much, so I’d reduce that next time to 1 teaspoon. However, feel free to pile it on if you can take the heat — maybe even add a dash of hot sauce or Sriracha.

The pasta is paired with vegetables — canned or frozen work here — for a well-rounded meal that also makes great leftovers. The longer the flavors meld together, the better the dish.

Cost: About $4. The pasta was $1, canned corn and carrots were each 50 cents, the frozen spinach was $1 and the red pepper was 79 cents. I had the ingredients for the peanut butter sauce already.

With brown butter

Brown Butter Spaghetti with White Beans and Spinach is a rich meal that belies its simple ingredients. Browned butter is one of the seven wonders of the (cooking) world, making better everything from cookies to dishes like this one. The trick is making sure not to burn the butter — there can be a fine line, and if you’re distracted and leave the stove, you’ll quickly cross it. Fortunately, browned butter takes only a few minutes to get to that signature golden color and foamy state, so it’s not a tedious process.

White beans are a great way to add protein to your diet. White beans and pasta are a match made in heaven, though if you’re looking to cut out some carbs, you can leave out the beans. Nutrient-rich spinach and some Parmesan round out the dish.

Cost: Roughly $3. The pasta was $1, canned great Northern beans were 79 cents, and the frozen spinach was $1. I already had the butter, garlic, grated Parmesan and red pepper flakes.

Pasta salad

Lastly, not all pasta has to be hot. I know some people actually prefer cold spaghetti to a hot bowl. But this Cold Spaghetti Salad is a great option to make on the weekends and then eat during the week for lunch or a lighter dinner. I’d suggest making it at least a day ahead — the longer it chills in the refrigerator, the better it gets. This one starts with a bright lemon vinaigrette and ends with crunchy vegetables and cold spaghetti. Fresh lemons are always superior when you need lemon juice, but the bottled stuff can be used, too. I used maple syrup for a little sweetness, but honey works, or even sugar in a pinch.

Cucumbers, tomatoes and olives are a nice trio, but feel free to bring other vegetables, such as onions, squash or peppers, to this party. The more the merrier — more vegetables mean a heftier meal.

Cost: This one was about $6. The pasta was $1 (though I didn’t use the full box), the cucumber and pepper were each 79 cents, the lemons were each $1, the can of diced tomatoes was 59 cents, and the can of black olives was about $1. I had the rest of the ingredients for the vinaigrette, plus the white wine vinegar, herbs and spices.

— Adapted from EpicureanEva.com

— Adapted from ContentednessCooking.com

— Adapted from YayForFood.com

— Holly Prestidge

hprestidge@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6945

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