Food prep can sometimes seem complicated, but that doesn’t have to be the case, especially if your goal is to cut down on grocery spending.
The concept behind meal prepping is pretty simple: You plan out meals for a week or so, then prepare all the food you’re going to eat during that time. You can also opt to prepare ingredients, like chopping vegetables and measuring out spice blends, ahead of time so you can assemble meals quickly.
If done right, meal prep can not only save you time, but it can also help you save money. Just as a list can keep you from buying unnecessary food at the store, a fridge full of cheap healthy meals can keep you from spending money on takeout. Plus, if done thoughtfully, it can help cut down on food waste.
If you’re not careful, however, you might encounter some common meal-prep pitfalls that could end up costing you more money.
7 Meal Planning Tips That Won’t Cost You a Fortune
The key to budget-friendly meal prep is making it work with what you already do. What does your family enjoy eating? Can you make a double batch of a favorite recipe and save the rest for school lunches? What are some ingredients you can buy in bulk (even if that means mooching off of a friend’s grocery club membership)?
Answering those questions will help you get your meal prep off on the money-saving foot, but following a few other guidelines will help keep your weekly meal prep easy and cheap.
1. Skip the Special Containers
You don’t have to drop $20 to $50 on meal prep containers at the store. Whatever you have in your pantry — whether that’s hand-me-down Tupperware or washed and reused yogurt tubs — will do just fine.
2. Get Your Spices From Bulk Stores
Food prepping usually means making bigger batches of a few staple meals, packing the extras and then eating them throughout the week.
But making bigger batches of your staple meals means you’re probably going to need more of your staple spices. Buying your spices in bulk can keep you from adding pricy jars of the same spices to your grocery list every couple of months.
New to buying in bulk? These guidelines will help you do it the right way.
Buying in bulk is also convenient for those spices you rarely use. Why spend $7 on a packet of star anise pods if you’re not sure you’re going to use them more than once every few months?
Grocery clubs are great places to buy bulk, but if you don’t have a membership, Amazon and some popular grocery chains also have options, too.
3. Eat the Same Thing for Breakfast Every Day
Variety may be the spice of life, but variety can also be the enemy of your budget.
Eating a different thing for breakfast every week means buying more ingredients. That’s why I eat Greek yogurt with granola and peanut butter every morning. Here’s the cost breakdown, using prices from my local Aldi:
- 2 32-ounce containers of generic plain Greek yogurt: $3.85 each
- 2 boxes of generic honey-almond granola: $2.45 each
- 1 40-ounce container of peanut butter: $2 (every 3-4 weeks)
That comes down to about $14 for two weeks of breakfast, or a little less than $1 a day for a healthy, nutritious, tasty breakfast.
If you have kids, convincing them to eat the same thing week after week or even day after day may not be an option, so you can alternate between a meal-prep recipe like breakfast egg cups, and a favorite cereal. That way you can still limit how much grocery shopping you do while still giving your kids some variety in their breakfasts.
4. Pick Your Entrees Wisely
I usually pick two or three meals a week I can make in bulk. I’ll make something like a chickpea potato curry on Sunday and eat it for lunch or dinner until Tuesday or Wednesday. Then, I’ll make a big helping of veggie risotto and eat that until Thursday or Friday. Stir fry is usually my end-of-the week staple because you can throw anything into a stir fry. I find it helps me use the last of my veggies.
If you’re cooking for more than just yourself, try this strategy: Pick your family’s favorite meal, and make it at the beginning of the week, but make a double batch. That way you can portion out the extras for school or work lunches.
You could also do this twice a week. Picking one meal to cook in bulk on Sundays and another on Wednesdays can give you and your family a little extra variety.
I’ve found that when I’m doing meal prep for more than just myself, casseroles are king. Not only are they usually easy to cook in large portions, but their ingredients tend to be versatile, which brings me to my next tip…
5. Make Your Ingredients Pull Double Duty
Using one ingredient for multiple meals can go a long way toward keeping your grocery list from getting out of control. My favorite food for this purpose is peanut butter, which I use both as a breakfast ingredient and my go-to snack.
But the technique could just as easily apply to entrees. If I’m buying pasta sauce, for example, I’m probably making vegetarian baked ziti. Then, later in the week, I can use the remaining sauce to make another portion of pasta. You can also buy a larger container of pasta sauce and make another pasta-based casserole later in the week.
Figuring out ways to make your ingredients pull double or even triple duty is an easy way to save money on food prep.
6. Limit Your Snacks
We all love snack food, but buying a variety of snacks to suit every craving can also be really expensive. Pick one or two snacks you know you love and stick to them.
I already buy peanut butter to eat with my breakfast, so peanut butter toast with honey is one of my go-to evening snacks. Homemade popcorn is another inexpensive option that can easily be made sweet, salty or savory, depending on your craving.
If you’re looking for some protein-filled snacks you can make on the cheap, try hummus. Just double or triple the ingredients and you’ll have enough for a week of snacking. You can also try making pinwheels, which are super easy and very tasty, too.
7. Take It Easy on Yourself
In the past, when I’ve tried to be the perfect, frugal food prepper, it usually lasted about five days. And then I’d spend the next two to three weeks spending too much money grocery shopping trips and meals out.
To avoid that, I’ll make sure to add at least one option to my grocery list that’s easy to make and will keep for a while. That way I have something easy on hand for times when I don’t feel like eating what I’ve prepped. Right now, my go-tos are frozen black bean burgers. I keep them in my freezer and also buy some hardy veg, like cauliflower, carrots or sweet potatoes, that will keep from one week to the next. I throw it all in the oven and within 15 minutes I have a meal.
Also, about once a week, I skip the prepped meals and pick up food from a restaurant I love or I’ll go to the grocery store and buy the one thing I’m craving. Then I get back on track and return to eating black bean burgers and roasted vegetables for dinner.
Anna Brugmann is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.