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Cooking can become very expensive very quickly – especially if you are also on a budget.
It can be difficult and time consuming to develop a great meal plan for yourself or your family without going over budget or eating up all your free time.
How do you save both time and money while still ensuring that all your nutritional needs get met – meal prepping!
Meal prepping has been around since your great great grandma’s canning days, but it has come back into popular culture lately because of how convenient it is!
Meal prepping simply means that you make large batches of food then portion it out into ready to eat grab and go containers that will last for a week.
It’s an ideal way to save money for people or families who don’t mind eating leftovers for a few days at a time because it saves time and money as long as you put in the effort to organize.
We have 10 meal prepping ideas that are cheap to help you with your meal planning and these ideas will save your budget!
Some of these ideas are helpful strategies for meal prepping in general and some of them are our tested and true favorite recipes!
We hope you find these ideas helpful and delicious as you begin learning about meal planning on a frugal budget!
1. Plan Ahead
This is both the most and least obvious piece of advice that I can offer.
One of the fastest ways to kill a budget is by failing to plan in advance.
The old adage is never to grocery shop while you’re hungry because it inevitably leads to a shopping cart full of snacks and junk that you can’t turn into actual meals.
This is also true of a budget; never shop without knowing exactly what you are there to buy or you will spend more money than necessary.
This technique has two facets.
The first step in preparation is to look for coupons.
A lot of local grocery stores have a weekly advertisement magazine that is filled with coupons and the sales items for that week, and nearly as many will price match their competitors.
Knowing which items are on sale and where to buy will allow you to save a ton of money when shopping.
Pick the items you and your family enjoy eating from among the items on sale in a given week will allow you to create a menu, which is the second piece of the preparation you should do.
Having a list of the meals you plan to prepare will allow you to create a specific shopping list and buy sale items, then mix them into meals for a little bit of variety.
It will also save you time wandering around grocery stores aimlessly looking for things to throw together.
Finally, it organizes your preparation time so you don’t waste time and money running back to the store for the things you forgot and you won’t have regrets when you’re eating the same base protein for the third day in a row without a change in seasoning or dressing to make it feel fresh.
To ensure variety and cut down on plans taking too long, learn your favorite meals (and these may change when you figure out how time affects certain dishes) and start a rotation.
This drastically reduces your workload over time because you will already have a monthly chart that shows your weekly meal plans and your shopping list will be made already.
Just remember to save all your lists and menu recipes somewhere easy to locate.
To keep things exciting or make room for spectacular sales on certain things, you can incorporate a couple new meals each month in your rotation so you have room to shift things or get creative and discover potential new favorites.
2. Frozen Produce
Using frozen produce will save you tons of money!
Frozen fruits and vegetables frequently get a bad reputation for being stale or unhealthy, but that reputation is completely unwarranted.
It is actually better on all counts to buy frozen produce.
Frozen produce is actually much fresher than the fresh produce you see getting watered in sections of the produce aisle.
When companies who know they are freezing their produce for shipment pluck their fruits and vegetables from the vine, they flash freeze them right on site, preserving the produce at their peak freshness.
The fresh produce in the grocery store, on the other hand, frequently spends significant amounts of time moving from truck to truck, often even crossing country borders before arriving in stores with far less freshness and significantly shortened shelf life before needing to be consumed.
Not only is frozen produce a better, environmentally friendly choice, it is also much easier on budgets and healthy dietary needs!
Unlike canned foods, frozen produce containers do not include loads of sodium filled preservatives that render the veggies as unhealthy as French fries.
Despite this, they are often as cheap as other forms of produce, making it an ideal shopping decision.
It is also the best option for meal preparation.
It will last significantly longer than fresh produce, so you can use some of it and freeze the rest until you need it again in the future!
3. Check Unit Prices
Meal prepping frequently uses the same ingredients I different combinations throughout the week.
Because of this, it can often be tempting to buy too much or too little of specific ingredients, especially when you have to balance pantry and storage space with advanced preparation and meal space.
Unit prices can be a budget shopper’s best friend when paired with shopping lists.
The unit price tells you how much 1 item or 1 ounce of something costs; so instead of comparing a bulk price to a small one and not knowing which to get, you will know how much a uniform serving size of that item costs.
This allows you to determine whether it is genuinely worth buying more of something for a smaller unit price and storing or freezing it, or whether you’re better off just buying a couple of chicken breasts or thighs at the meat counter instead of the large pack of it.
4. Use Similar Ingredients
The phrase, “Variety is the spice of life,” may be true but it is not a good motto for meal prepping; in fact, the opposite is usually more true.
The cheapest way to prepare meals in advance (and also the least time consuming) is to pick a base protein for the week and prepare all of it at once.
For example, chicken is extremely versatile; so you could cook a week’s worth of chicken and still have different meals each day that center on chicken.
This gives you the option of variety without the extra costs; so that you can have barbeque chicken on one day, chicken salad another, and honey mustard chicken salad or chicken pesto the next.
Using the same base ingredients and combining them creatively is the fastest and most economical way to meal prep; just plan your base protein, pick a grain for the week, and vary your vegetables and seasoning.
Sauces and salad dressings are a fantastic way to add a little variety to the basic meals because they will often keep for weeks or even months in refrigerator condiment racks.
Another great reason to use similar ingredients is because you can incorporate leftovers into new meals instead of just eating the same meal again.
If you prep fajitas one day, and get sick of them by the third, you can just take the beef and add some extra sauce then slap it on a bun and have sloppy joes or put the chicken over some noodles or lettuce and add sauce or vegetables to make it into a salad or pasta dish!
But what ingredients should you use?
Okay, so you know that you want to cook in advance and have similar ingredients… but how do you know what ingredients to use?
That’s a valid question, and an important one to consider.
The last thing anyone wants when they snag a fork full of salad is to bite down on lettuce or spinach that has wilted to the point of having no snap left.
Here are some ideas for the basics that will keep for longer periods of time.
Proteins are the cores of any meal, so I will start there.
It is clear already that I’m a big fan of chicken – and that is because it is extremely versatile, requires very little work to prepare, and keeps for longer periods of time.
Other good proteins to use are turkey, lean beef, steak cuts, and eggs.
Salads are a fantastic meal that is healthy and requires very little prep time, but they are also something you should eat earlier in the week because lettuces tend to wilt faster.
Try using spinach instead because it will keep for a bit longer – especially in a produce drawer in your refrigerator, and if you really want the shining star of crunchy salad ingredients, then kale keeps foe the longest of any salad base.
Other great vegetables are green beans, cucumbers, brussel sprouts, asparagus, peppers, and my favorite – carrots, which are great with hummus or several salad dressings!
Grains are the easiest, because they tend to stay good for the longest amount of time.
Quinoa is a grain that nearly every health conscious meal prepper loves, and it is usually pretty cheap.
If you’re not a huge fan of the wild flavor and texture of quinoa, try couscous, spaghetti squash, lentils, legumes, brown rice, and pasta.
The only caution I have is to under cook these just a little bit while prepping, then add a little dollop of water if you reheat them because grains don’t reheat as well; the water adds the moisture back and keeps them from getting too hard or dry when reheated.
5. Seasonal and Misshapen Produce
I know we recommended frozen produce earlier, but there is one exception to the rule: seasonal, local produce.
A lot of cities have begun hosting fantastic farmers markets, and if you’re lucky enough to be living near rural agricultural areas you can often walk right onto their land and pick and purchase their produce for a very small price.
When produce is in season, the prices plummet because there is an abundant supply of those crops and farmers are often producing far more than they can sell before it all goes bad.
This means that you can get great produce at the peak of ripeness in the season it was meant to grow best for bargain pricing.
Likewise, misshapen produce frequently gets discarded by grocery stores because they feel it is too unattractive to sell.
They will take several pieces of misshapen produce and stick them in a single bag at a heavily discounted price so they can recover some of their costs.
The shape of produce has to do with where it was in relation to the sun or how crowded the area it grew up in was, so there is no reason not to buy it; it remains just as fresh and delicious as the perfectly shaped ones.
6. Make It Convenient
Most people meal prep for one of three reasons:
- Health (because they want to regain control of their diet and portion sizes)
- Budget (because they want to trim some fat in their finances and most people find that the easiest place to make cuts in their budget is expenditures of food)
- Convenience (because no one wants to come home from a hard day at the office and spend an hour or more cooking and cleaning, and because 30 minuets can barely be enough time to eat food on a lunch break – never mind get it, prepare it, then eat it)!
Convenience is a budget killer.
When you are too tired to cook meals, or you run out of time, you will more than likely grab junk and eat it, or order food from your favorite take out place.
This kills your budget and is not cheap.
The point of meal prepping is to make it easy on yourself, so don’t over commit or try to do too much too fast.
Plan times for you to stop what you are doing and work on your meals – and it doesn’t all have to be at once!
Take one time for planning your meals and shopping list, another time frame for shopping, and a third window for actually preparing meals.
Make it entertaining!
You can get other people in on it with you – host meal prepping parties with friends so you can all prep together and enjoy the time socializing, get the rest of your family involved and make it dedicated family time, or crank up the tunes and have some personal time to yourself while you cook.
My point is, if you try to cram meal prepping into over crowded scheduled and dread doing it, then it probably will not last.
You will end up eating out more, or else grabbing frozen dinners and junk food to eat because it doesn’t require as much cooking and preparation time.
Make sure that you choose a convenient time to plan and prepare your meals and it will save you lots of money in the long run.
If you keep convenient prepared meals on hand, then you can grab those instead.
Crockpots can be a meal prepper’s best friend.
They are relatively cheap to buy, they last forever, and they are easy to use!
Nearly everything can be cooked in crockpots, and you can leave them running and forget about them while you do other things, which makes them extremely convenient.
Furthermore, you can prep a bunch of ingredients for a crock pot meal –chopping vegetables in advance – and then just drop them in the crock pot on your way out of the house in the morning on low and come home to a delicious smelling home with dinner ready and waiting.
Then, when you finish your meal, you can pack the leftovers into multiple containers and voila – your meal prepping for the next few days is done!
One of the great secrets to crockpot meals is that they are generally meals that are more likely to get better over time.
While oven roasted foods or foods that have been cooked in frying pans and sauté pans frequently dry out quickly and lose their luster, crockpot recipes tend to be meals that are made to soak in some juices and cook without losing moisture.
Because of this process, the foods you make will stay tender and flavorful long after the day they are made – especially chili, stews, and pot roasts!
8. Favorite Recipe Base: Noodles
Noodles are one of my favorite bases for meal prepping.
You can make tons of different meals for any dietary needs with noodles as a base.
For example, if you are worried about carbohydrates or gluten then you can use spaghetti squash, whole wheat noodles, and sesame noodles for variety.
You can also change your protein for different flavor dimensions – whether you use chicken or fish, steak or tofu, noodles make a convenient prep base for every diet.
Here are some convenient and budget friendly ideas for prepping with noodles.
Pesto is cheap and easy to make and pretty friendly to most diets – it’s just basil, cheese, some garlic, and optional pine nuts.
It keeps for long amounts of time and you can add it to noodles for some pesto pasta; then, other days, toss your spinach, tomato, and mozzarella in it for Caprese salad options and recycle noodles with marinara or alfredo later in the same week.
If you want a more versatile option, then try making some basil vinaigrette instead so it can be used with pastas or salads!
Sesame Noodle Variations are also really easy for meal prepping because these noodles taste as good cold as they do hot!
Spiral some vegetables and mix them into your noodles. Then pick your protein (chickpeas, chicken, tofu…) and grab your favorite dressing – my favorite for this style is a spicy almond butter sauce or a soy ginger lime vinaigrette, or any other variant of Asian dressing!
9. Favorite Protein: Chicken
I decided that I like chicken so much that it should be its own cheap meal prepping tip.
Chicken keeps well, cooks quickly (especially if you boil a whole batch instead – finishes in 10 to 20 minutes and prevents chicken from drying out since it’s being cooked in liquid), and is extremely versatile.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, then simply substitute tofu here, because it is very similar in terms of versatility.
The same cooked batch of chicken can be used for several different meals throughout the week; no matter how healthy or lazy you want to get with it.
For example, you can simply prepare chicken strips and pack them with some fresh vegetables and a dip of some kind – ranch, honey mustard, barbeque, and even balsamic vinaigrette.
This is a great way to make use of a very small prep container, too, because you can stack the veggies and chicken on top of each other and drop a smaller sauce container into the top.
Chicken can be dropped into any salad you make for a protein boost at lunch time, too.
Whether it is kale and wild berries, or spinach and those same chopped carrots again, this is extremely easy to prep and drop as long as you remember never to pre-dress any salads.
Chicken makes an excellent compliment to any grain.
Chicken, wild rice, and mushroom gravy is a delicious and cheap meal that can be made quickly.
Chicken, noodles, and any type of pasta sauce will make several days worth of meals.
Chicken and barbeque sauce is delicious – especially when you mix it with macaroni salad of some kind and make a picnic type meal.
Chop the chicken and some salad ingredients (like grapes, nuts, berries, celery, and apples) and mix them in mayonnaise (or Greek yogurt if you are health conscious) to make chicken salad sandwiches.
Use the chicken with your produce and some corn tortillas for street tacos!
The possibilities are truly endless for meal variety on a budget because you can buy chicken in massive bulk sizes and freeze whatever you don’t use for future meal prepping, then cook a week’s worth of chicken all in 1 boiling pot or roasting rack.
10. Delicious Recipe Lists
If you need a little bit more than just idea combinations, there are tons of meal preppers willing to share their experience with you.
Browse Pinterest and online forums until you find some recipes that fit your budget and food preferences.
In fact, this site lists 50 different meal prep recipes that cost $2 per serving or less!
His list includes a lot of my favorite meals – like beef stroganoff, chili and pot roast recipes (which only taste better with a few days to soak in their juices and seasonings), so many fantastic crockpot recipes (like Tuscan chicken, carnitas, and stew), and a wide variety of healthy and quick options for several meals throughout the day.
Whether you are looking to meal prep as a way to trim some budgetary fat, to save time, or to find an option to realistically manage a healthy diet that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg or take hours every day, we hope this has helped you.
Just in case you need a quick point in the right direction, we have also compiled a list of the 10 best healthy foods to buy on a budget!
I know that these tips will have you on your way to a happy home full of meal prepping ideas that are cheap before you can even say, “I’m hungry!”