Meal Prepping On A Budget
Wouldn’t it be nice if you had the time and money to whip up a delicious, healthy gourmet dish for every meal? One can only dream…
Unfortunately for most, that luxury doesn’t extend beyond a few dinners a week. Most meals are either fast food, some grab ‘n’ go item, or unplanned leftovers that may or may not have the right portion size. Generally (although not always), the quicker you can get your food, the less healthy it is.
Meal prepping has become an extremely attractive solution for those trying to eat healthy on a time crunch. Meal prepping entails cooking up several meals (usually the same meal) one or two days a week to save time on healthy eating.
The problem is many don’t feel they have the financial means to prepare meals they don’t have to force themselves to choke down.
And rightfully so: the price of many healthy meals seems to be much higher than the cost of a quick Big Mac.
Despite that, it’s very possible to prepare several healthy meals ahead of time without breaking the bank.
But before we show you how, why should you meal prep at all?
Why Meal Prep?
Our modern society of convenience and 24/7 access has made it harder by the day to keep ourselves fueled with a healthy, nutrient-dense diet. Meal prepping aims to fix that.
You spend a day or two each week shopping, planning, and cooking up multiple meals so you have access to healthy, satisfying food on demand. They can be the same meal, or you can make different meals if you crave some variety in your diet.
Meal preppers experience several benefits:
- Save money on eating out – No more paying a premium to have a restaurant worker make your food for you
- Healthy food when you need it – Just snag your prepped meal from the fridge, warm it up if need be, and eat it; you also can control the portions ahead of time so you aren’t tempted to overeat when mealtime rolls around
- Easy tracking – If you’re a fitness junkie or just trying to lose weight, meal prepping helps you track calories, macro nutrients, and other info
- Less stress – You already have a lot on your plate (no pun intended); by having meals handy, you don’t need to add stress from deciding where to eat
Meal prepping on a budget will require extra discipline, but the benefits of meal prepping make it all worth it.
Should You Prepare Every Meal?
In theory, you can prepare every meal AND snacks ahead of time. Those on a constant time crunch may find this necessary.
However, don’t sacrifice enjoyment for convenience. You’re allowed to have a home-cooked meal every once in a while. Save your meal prepping for weekday breakfasts and lunches, and maybe the occasional dinner if you’re busy. Cook a little more on the weekends.
Look At Your Pantry First
Don’t be tempted to head straight to the grocery store and buy brand new groceries. Take a look at your fridge and pantry. Chances are you have the ingredients necessary to prep a few meals that’ll tide you over a few days.
For example, maybe you have some oatmeal in the pantry. You can turn this into several breakfasts in the form of overnight oats. Even if you don’t have all the ingredients for your preferred form of overnight oats, you at least have the main component!
Determining What To Buy
Looking in your pantry doesn’t just ensure you use up any ingredients you already have; it also points you towards things you should and shouldn’t buy on both a preference basis.
See, if you have food that’s been sitting in your pantry for a year and a half, you probably shouldn’t buy a ton of it for meal prepping purposes.
This is more apparent in your fridge. Do you find yourself buying certain foods in an effort to eat healthy, just for it to go bad after a week of not touching it? Probably not a good idea to waste your money on more of it.
Reduce Your Food Spending
Buy In Bulk
Stores have an incentive to move as much product as possible, especially spoilable products (which encompasses many grocery items). Thus, it’s possible to save money by buying in bulk.
Membership stores like Costco operate primarily on a buying in bulk model. They offer amazing prices on their groceries that could save you thousands over the long run.
Some may scoff at having to pay to shop, but it’s only $60 per year. You could easily save that much in only a couple months, causing your membership to pay for itself.
You don’t need a Costco or other membership to take advantage of bulk savings, though. Many products, such as coffee beans, are sold in various sizes. At first glance, the larger sizes are more expensive, right?
Well, the price tag might be higher since there’s more product, but the key is to reduce your cost per “unit”. You can do this by looking at the unit price. The larger sizes most likely have a slightly lower cost per unit. Back to coffee, one size may be $0.24/ounce, while a size up might lower that to $0.20 per ounce.
The savings won’t be noticeable at first. But when it takes you several extra days or even weeks to get through the larger, “bulk” product, you’ll start to see why you should start buying in bulk.
Buy In Season
Seasonal foods are often cheaper to buy in season because companies don’t have to spend as much producing and storing them. For you, that means in-season food will be the least expensive.
Your wallet isn’t the only thing that’ll benefit from seasonal purchases. As foods sit around longer, they lose nutritional value. So not only are you paying more for your out-of-season food, but you’re also getting fewer nutrients per dollar.
Produce makes up the majority of seasonal food items. For example, apples are in season from late summer through the fall. Rotating your choice of fruits and vegetables based on season throughout the year will help minimize your food costs while maximizing your nutritional benefits.
Did you know that produce isn’t the only seasonal item? Meat and eggs are seasonal as well. In fact, that’s part of the reason we eat turkey for Thanksgiving. Buying your meat in the right season can save you money just like it can with produce.
Coupons can reduce your food bill even more. Each individual coupon may not do much, but if you can stack a few coupons each week, your savings will be huge.
Try couponing if you want to further reduce your grocery bill.
If you want to make this as easy as possible, apps such as Ibotta are really simple to use which will give you rebates on products that you were going to buy anyway. Simply use the app to send in a picture of your receipt after you made a purchase and this will save you a few bucks every shopping trip.
Always look out for sales when you’re at the store, but make sure these sales are on items you’ll actually use.
Contrary to what economics would tell you, some stores actually drop the price of beef quite low before holidays like July 4th and Memorial Day; stock up during these sales and throw your beef in the freezer.
Dedicate A Day (Or Two) To Meal Prepping
It isn’t meal prepping if you aren’t doing it all in one go. Set aside a day each week where you cook all your meals at once. With a little bit of planning, you could cook up a week’s worth of food in a little over an hour!
You should be shopping on the same day as you’re cooking too. Otherwise, you risk losing ingredient freshness and some items like meat could even go bad.
Some people prefer their prepared meals to be a little fresher when they warm them up. You can set aside an extra day for meal prep halfway through the week. You’ll only need to do half the cooking on each day, and each meal should taste slightly better due to more freshness.
Some Things To Keep In Mind
The whole point of meal prep is to create a ton of healthy meals without having to spend hours each day cooking. Failing to prepare the proper portions negates some of the health benefits if you end up over- OR under-eating.
Also, you’ll end up going over budget in order to afford the additional food, negating the whole “on a budget” aspect.
Cheap Meals That Are Easy To Prepare
Chicken and Rice
A staple in the diet of most bodybuilders, chicken and rice is an extremely versatile dish that fits into every budget. You can make it barebones or you can add your own flare with veggies, seasoning, and other ingredients.
Prepping isn’t hard either. Large quantities of rice can be made quickly and without much attention. While the rice is cooking, grill up your chicken breast whole or cut them beforehand to mix into the rice.
Slow Cooker Meals
Virtually any meal that can be made in a slow cooker is excellent for meal prepping on a budget. Things like stew, chili, pulled pork, and roasts can be made in large quantities relatively hands-free. Simply cobble together the ingredients of the dish you’re making, throw them in the slow cooker, and let everything cook throughout the day.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Eggs might be the cheapest food money can buy relative to its nutrient profile. They’ve got tons of healthy fats, proteins, and vitamins to keep you healthy and full, and you can pick up a dozen for like $3.
Hard boiling makes eggs a viable on-the-go snack. Because eggs are small, you can hard boil a ton in one go, and hard-boiling takes well under a half an hour. Eat just a few when you’re hungry, and the fat and protein will keep you full for a few extra hours.
We touched on these earlier, but we’ll do it again because they’re just so versatile and cheap.
Overnight oats are a non-cooked method of making oatmeal, but you aren’t stuck with bland oats. A quick google search brings you thousands of overnight oats recipes to satisfy any palate.
Common overnight oats additions include
- Yogurt (regular or Greek)
- Peanut butter
In truth, you can add nearly everything to overnight oats, but the above are fan favorites because they’re healthy without sacrificing taste. Sweeteners can be used to further enhance taste, but if you want to keep sugar intake down, use sugar-free sweeteners.
Assembling the overnight oats is simple. First, add your oats to a number of mason jars, bowls, or other dishes based on how many servings you want to make. Then, add either water or milk. Most people use milk because it adds flavor, but water works fine for those looking to save more.
You can add your toppings at this point as well.
Then, you throw the oats in the fridge. Overnight oats can be ready in as little as 2 hours, but they’re best if you eat them the next morning, hence the name “overnight oats”.
The Trifecta: Save Money, Save Time, And Stay Healthy
A cooking method that’s friendly on your time, wallet, and waistline? There’s gotta be a catch, right?
Meal prepping on its own takes some self-control, self-discipline, and willpower. Add in major budgetary constraints, and all those are turned up a notch.
But it’s much better than the alternative: eating junk food all the time from places that are draining your wallet. Sure, you might save some time at your local McDonald’s, but your wallet and health will suffer over the long term.
Which erases any minimal time savings you gain from going to McDonald’s in the first place.
So yes, there’s a catch to meal prepping on a budget, but spending a couple hours each week creating budget-friendly, healthy meals will pay off significantly in the long run.
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