Videos on food TikTok can range from celebrity-loved salads and viral tortilla hacks to creative home cooks using a few staple ingredients to stretch your dollar.
Alanya Williams, aka Thundermane328 on the video platform, falls in the latter camp. His budget-friendly videos, including a series of upgrades to packaged ramen, show viewers how to take store-bought ingredients and whip up hearty meals for a few dollars -- and have garnered more than 3 million likes and counting.
Williams, who currently works as a cook at an assisted living facility in Southern California, told "Good Morning America" he has worked in kitchens for over 30 years and first learned the value of ingredients to keep the family fed from his grandmother.
@thundermane328 Another meal for a few dollars#dollartree #cheapmeals #dollarmeals #budgetmeals #easyrecipe ♬ original sound - Alanya Williams
He consulted her as a teen after spending nearly $200 on prepackaged foods like frozen dinners and snacks, but was shocked to find the groceries ran out within just a couple of days.
"She said, 'You're buying the wrong things -- you don't buy stuff like that, those are little snack things, but [they're] not going to stick to you. You're going to always be hungry and you're going to run through it fast,'" he said.
She suggested instead buying "bags of rice, a bag of potatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, ground beef, mixed vegetables" and other ingredients to make meals like soup, stews, casseroles and more.
That advice sparked his culinary journey and became the inspiration for sharing his own budget- and family-friendly dinner ideas with his followers on TikTok.
"One day we were in the Dollar Tree, [and] I was like, 'Hey, look -- you can get this,'" he recalled telling his wife about key foods to create a dish. That spurred the idea to make a video of himself cooking using just those products and keeping the entire meal cost under $5.
@thundermane328 Dinner for a few dollars#dollartree #cheapmeals #dollarmeals #budgetmeals #easyrecipe ♬ original sound - Alanya Williams
Williams has now become TikTok-famous for his use of canned vegetables, flavor starters like hamburger helper, pouches of pre-cooked chicken and other value food products to get dinner on the table for less.
"No matter what kind of food a person is going to cook, any kind of [cuisine], I say there's four seasonings to have," he said of his go-to base for flavor. "Lawry's seasoning salt, onion powder, garlic powder and pepper. That will season anything -- any kind of meat, beef, chicken, pork, lamb -- it's like the starter kit."
Williams encourages home cooks looking to stay on budget to get comfortable using staple ingredients and finding smart ways to make the most of them.
One base protein and a main ingredient that Williams said he relies on most for money-saving meals is ground beef, because "it could stretch in so many ways -- especially when you just fry it up."
A half-pound of ground beef for example can cook down in a skillet on low heat until very crumbly, he said. Add in a couple pieces of vegetables, like onion and bell pepper, "add a spoon of flour and mix that in there, put in two cups of water, lightly season with some salt and pepper -- it will make a big skillet of ground beef and gravy -- you can take a scoop and put it over a bed of rice."
"That's not even a third of the meat that you use and those are meals that stick to you," he explained. "You can feed like five or six people and then you could turn around and make soups with that with that same half a pound of ground beef -- or sloppy joes
As for chicken, he said he likes to use one chicken breast and add his four favorite seasonings, "take a cup of milk, pour it in there with that chicken -- because milk has lactic acid and it will help break it down -- then shred up all the chicken and now you've got a big thing of chicken that you can figure out what you want to make out of it -- enchiladas, pulled chicken, whatever."
"I just like to use things that can stretch things out," he added.