How to Meal Prep and Save Time (and Money) Every Week
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Cooking is not for me.
There, I said it.
My schedule stays pretty packed, and I always feel like cooking takes time away from more important things I could be doing, like making more money with a side hustle, hanging out with my dog, or other things I actually enjoy.
At least that’s what I thought.
But then I started meal prepping on a budget and everything changed.
And now, thanks to meal prepping, I reduced my grocery expenses, eliminated decision fatigue, and saved tons of time during the week.
How to Meal Prep on a Budget
I had heard of “meal prepping” awhile ago, but I finally decided to give it a try. At first it sounded like too much. Planning things in advance isn’t really my forte.
But I recently started batching my tasks at work and noticed an increase in my productivity. This is what happened:
- Fewer distractions and interruptions
- Less time spent wondering what to do next
- Doubled productivity
- Projects completed ahead of schedule
The success with batching tasks got me thinking. If it generated these kinds of results at work, what could it do for other areas of my life? So I decided to experiment and gave meal prepping a go.
And after several weeks of tweaking my system and learning how to meal prep on a budget, I have to say I’m loving it. The outcome:
- Less time fumbling around my kitchen wondering what to make
- Fewer trips to the grocery store
- Money saved from not eating out because I already had food prepared at home
- No more hangry rage
You can’t argue with those results.
In a relatively short period, I went from being someone who hated cooking and never had the time to making basically every meal at home. All because of meal prepping.
So as someone who has experienced the life-changing magic of preparing your meals, here are my tips for getting started.
1. Take control of your grocery budget
If you’re trying to get your budget under control, one practical place to start is with food costs. If you’re finding your grocery bill is too high, meal prepping can help bring that down to a more reasonable number. Not only will it reduce your trips to the store each week, but it’ll also make sure that you have food on hand on even the busiest of days.
Meal prepping helps save money because you have to shop with a list and a purpose. When you go to the store, you know exactly what you’re buying; there’s no room for impulse or extra purchases.
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This helps you get through your shopping more quickly and efficiently and, by avoiding the aisles that don’t have what you need, you stick to your budget. You can save even more money but pairing your shopping list and Ibotta.
Apps like Ibotta are pretty simple: choose the rebates you want, answer a question or complete another simple activity to select your rebate, and send in a picture of your receipt after you’ve made the purchase. It can save a few dollars per week with this one.
Every extra dollar counts.
Create a cheap meal prep grocery list with $5 Meal Plan
Another tool you can use is $5 Meal Plan, a subscription service that sends meal inspiration weekly. For $5 a month, you receive a new list of delicious meal prep recipes sent to my email every week — usually Friday, which gives time to look over and plan for meal prepping on Sunday.
Every recipe they send is easy, relatively quick, and costs less than $2 per person. They even include a cheap meal prep grocery list.
You might think that this $5 monthly investment isn’t exactly a money saver, but that’s not necessarily true. This tool alone saves hours of scouring the internet for ideas.
2. Check your inventory
Before you head to the grocery store to meal prep on a budget, see what you have on hand. This way you don’t end up wasting food (and money) by purchasing more than you need.
Taking stock of what you already have will also give you some inspiration for the next week’s meals. For instance, on my last meal-prep day, I found a can of coconut milk, an unopened bag of rice, and half a jar of curry paste. Just a few more ingredients and I had a simple, delicious chicken curry.
3. Invest in the right tools
If you want to make life even easier as you meal prep on a budget, take some of that extra savings and put it towards some quality kitchen appliances and tools. A slow cooker for easy stews, large mixing bowls for bulk cooking, a blender for smoothies.
You don’t have to go all out and purchase kitchen appliances you’ll never use. But once you get into a routine and figure out what kind of meals you like best, it’s worth the investment to have some tools that simplify your life and your meal prepping.
In addition to some practical appliances, you’ll probably want to invest in some sturdy containers like bento boxes, mason jars, or reusable food bags. While it’s a bit of a cost upfront, it’ll save you money and benefit the environment over the long term.
4. Designate time to plan and prep
Meal prepping can save you a lot of time and money, but it calls for a bit of an upfront time investment. An easy way to solve this problem is to pick one day per week to do all your cooking. For example, maybe you don’t work on Sundays. This is the perfect day to set aside a couple of hours to plan and prep for the week ahead.
Here’s a sample schedule. But you can change the day to whatever works best for you.
But what if you don’t have time to do all your planning, shopping, and cooking on a single day?
Try to set aside one day of the week to plan and buy groceries for that week’s meals. If you need to plan and shop one day and then cook and prep the next, that’s okay, too.
Also, try to develop the habit of writing down your grocery list and buying only what is on it. It will help you resist impulse purchases.
Consistency is the key to forming any habit. Making meal prepping part of your weekly routine increases your chances of success.
While it may seem like your meal prepping day lasts for hours at a time, that does decrease. Once you develop a system and go-to recipes, it’ll shorten the amount of time you’re in the kitchen.
5. Eat what’s in season
Produce that is “in season” is more abundant, and therefore cheaper. It’s also more nutritious since most fruits and vegetables begin to lose their nutrients as soon as they are picked.
Examples of in-season produce include apples, pears, and squash during the fall or cucumbers, peaches, and corn in the summer.
6. Meal prep on a budget by buying in bulk
This doesn’t necessarily mean stocking your pantry. It also means shopping the bulk bins at your local grocery or health food store.
Buying items in bulk means you can purchase exactly what you need, which will help you save money. This is especially useful for uncommon ingredients like spices, ancient grains, yeasts, etc. You can even purchase dried fruit and nuts and mix them together for a homemade trail mix. It makes for a nice snack throughout the week.
7. Get friendly with your slow cooker
When I started meal prepping, I didn’t realize how much I’d come to rely on my slow cooker.
Cooking becomes a lot more pleasant when you have tools that do all the work for you. With a slow cooker, all you do is buy the ingredients, chop them up, throw them together, and wait.
Not only is it super easy, but slow cooker meals are usually also cost-effective. You can find a ton of cheap slow cooker recipes on the internet or Pinterest, or you can make your own with whatever is on hand.
Using your slow cooker (or Instant Pot) also gives you the time to tackle other tasks like laundry, paying bills, walking the dog, or even watching an episode of your favorite Netflix show.
8. Let nothing go to waste
To get the biggest bang for your buck, keep track of what you have and what you’re using. Look for new ways to incorporate spare ingredients, like tossing it in with a stew or salad.
The beauty of meal prepping is that you take inventory about once a week, which in most cases is enough time to catch items you forgot about and use them before they go bad.
Like many other things, meal prepping can seem cumbersome or not worth it until you actually give it a shot. But once you’ve gone through several weeks and worked out the kinks, you’ll be prepping like a pro.
And your body, mind, and wallet will thank you.