For less than $10, top 10 meals for your money

These days, you can go just about anywhere for a cheap lunch. Taco Bell has their 79-89-99 cents menu; Burger King and McDonald's have similar values. But the real questions is "How much quality do you get for your loose change?"

There's nothing wrong with bean burritos from Taco Bell. In fact, they were a big part of my diet back in my college days. But now that I'm a little older, I want more culinary bang for my buck. So I set out to find the 10 best meals for less than $10. But before I began, I put some parameters into my search that should help you replicate my results.

The ground rules:
  • I stuck with national chains. I left out Mom & Pop places, even though I love eating at them.
  • I found specific meals (not "the combo menu at Olive Garden").
  • I mostly stayed away from the all-you-can-eat salad, soup, and bread deals.
  • Most meals on my list are lunch only, though a few are available at dinnertime.
  • While prices, participation, and availability may vary, the meals I selected should cost less than $10. Of course, you'll still want to follow the normal tipping etiquette guidelines where they apply (at sit-down restaurants with waiter service), but you can still use other strategies to save money while eating out.
The list is in no particular order and made up of meals I've concluded are both great deals for your money, while offering quality, tasty fare. You may even find additional deals and discounts on sites such as Groupon and the Entertainment Book, which are packed with coupons for regional and chain eateries.

If you've got a gem of your own that should make this list, feel free to add it in the comments section below! Bon Appétit!

1. Atlanta Bread Company: Half-sandwich-and-soup combo
This chain boasts a ton of lunch options below $10, but my favorite has to be the half asiago roast beef with cream of chicken and wild rice soup. While I doubt that their soups are homemade, this combo is simply delicious. It's quite a pairing whether it's hot or cold outside. The sandwich comes with melted cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onions, and some kind of special sauce. Price varies depending on location, but it should be under $10 anywhere you go. It comes out to $7.69 here in Georgia.

2. Ruby Tuesday: Mini burgers
Give me mini burgers ... gotta have more mini burgers ... can you tell I've developed an addiction to these puppies? While I get a kick out of seeing such a small burger, they're pretty darn tasty as well. They come with your standard burger toppings and fried onions. You can also throw in the salad bar and stay under $10 -- it's around $8 in my neck of the woods (Atlanta. No hidden gems at the salad bar, but it's typically fresh, solid fare, and very well-maintained.)

3. Denny's:Bacon Chipotle Chicken Skillet.
Man, I can hear it already: at least 20 nasty comments for including Denny's on my list. Well, so what? They have an $8 menu there with dinner portions -- and I really like the Bacon Chipotle Chicken Skillet. Is it a culinary masterpiece? Perhaps not, but it sure tastes good. You also get bread, a drink, and two sides. They have about 15 sides available; my favorites for this entrée are the red-skinned potatoes and the fiesta corn. Eight bucks? Can't beat it, Denny's bashers!

4. TGI Friday's:
"Right Portion, Right Price" menu
The "Right Portion, Right Price" menu selections may not serve up tons of food, but offer an ideal option for anyone watching their weight. My choice here is the Key West Grilled Shrimp. This dish consists of a couple of grilled shrimp skewers with a little Cajun seasoning sprinkled on along with some kind of lime juice. Throw in a side of broccoli and you're only looking at 12g net carbs. The Atlanta area has it for $9.09.

5. Outback Steakhouse
: The Outback Special
The Outback Special is a 6-oz. sirloin cooked to your liking, with two sides, for $9.95. It's a steak cooked on a flat top, but pretty boldly spiced to give it a great flavor. If you like your meat without frills, you might want order it without seasoning. For sides, you have the standard choices of fries, veggies, baked potato, sweet potato, or garlic mashed potatoes; the mashed potatoes taste pretty good.

6. Fuddruckers: Original Burger

The burger bar here lets you dress your patty any way you like it. If you want sliced tomatoes three inches thick, they've got 'em, along with just about any other common burger topping. My favorite is the Original Burger, a half-pounder on their value menu that comes with fries and a soft drink, totaling less than $10. You can even get a draft beer in place of the drink and not break the $10 mark. Now that's a bargain. The one-third pound burger special comes out to $8.59.

7. Chick-fil-A: Chicken Salad Sandwich

The Chicken Salad Sandwich rocks! It certainly doesn't seem like it comes from a fast-food joint; it's made of fresh chunks of chicken with eggs, celery, sweet pickle relish, leaf lettuce and mayo. However, the best part is the Wheatberry bread, which comes toasted. It's got to be the freshest tasting bread I've ever sampled from a fast-food place. Throw in fries and a drink and it goes for just $6.79. I'm not the only one who likes eating healthy for cheap at Chick-fil-A either.

8. Longhorn Steakhouse:
Grilled Salmon Salad
I love fish. I'd eat a piece every day if I could. Nine times out of 10 I like my fish plain so I can enjoy the flavor. But Longhorn Steakhouse has a Marinated Salmon that's out of this world. I don't know the exact ingredients in the marinade, but it's got a little whiskey and brown sugar in it. But to keep it under 10 bucks, you have to get their Grilled Salmon Salad. To get it as an entrée that comes with sides, it's about $12. The lunch salmon salad is $9.99.

9. California Pizza Kitchen:
BLT Pizza
Just about all of their pizzas cost less than $10. While some say their more exotic varieties go off the deep end, I quite like their BLT Pizza. If you like BLT sandwiches, you'll love this. It comes with Applewood smoked bacon and mozzarella cheese, topped with sliced roma tomatoes and chopped lettuce tossed in mayonnaise. You can even get it on honey wheat dough. Priced at $10 in my part of town.

10. Chili's
: Bottomless Soup & Salad
Is it homemade soup? Probably not. Is it the greatest salad on Earth? Nope. But the flavor wins me over; I'm partial to the chicken enchilada soup, good whether it's warm or cold outside. You get a Caesar or house salad, and another reason why I included it here is that it comes with chips and salsa rather than bread. I think it's good stuff -- and an amazing deal at $6.49.

Do you have any favorite meals for under $10 that can beat any of these awesome deals? Let's hear them!

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