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It’s no surprise that fast food costs add up over time, but it’s also easy to dismiss those costs when you’re on the go. According to statistics from 2015, the average American spends a whopping $1,200 per year on fast food. That’s $100 per month that vanishes as soon as you’re done dining! Think about how much cash you could save by forgoing fast food.
Fortunately, breaking a fast food habit doesn’t have to be too difficult. Meal prepping is a growing trend among frugal folks who want to save money. The act of meal prepping involves preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bulk. This makes it easy to grab a meal from your fridge or freezer versus going out. In this post, I’ll cover some meal prepping basics along with 12 meal prep ideas to cut down on fast food costs.
Meal Prep Essentials
Before you dive into meal prepping, you’ll want to get a few essentials. These items are used for food prep and food storage. In my experience, they ended up paying for themselves very quickly. Here are the items that I consider must-haves:
- Reusable compartment containers – These reusable containers are affordable, durable, and excellent for holding multi-course meals. They can be stored in the freezer, used in the microwave, and they are dishwasher safe. The design makes portion control a breeze, too.
- Family sized meal prep containers – If you’re meal prepping food for two or more, family sized meal prep containers are a great investment. These oven-safe and freezer-safe containers are ideal for frozen pasta dishes, casseroles, and similar dinner meals.
- Programmable slow cooker – A slow cooker makes meal prep so much easier. This “set and forget” style allows you to prepare food without overcooking it. I typically use my slow cooker for dinner prepping, but it also works great for certain breakfast recipes.
- Glass mason jars – This item is somewhat option, but I like glass mason jars for several reasons. They’re easy to store in the fridge, they’re convenient to transport to work, and they double as cups. They also tend to hold up better than small plastic containers.
- Single serving blender – Single-serving blenders like the Magic Bullet are a true life-saver for meal prepping. From creating creamy sauces to whipping up smoothies, this kitchen appliance is a huge staple for me. As a bonus, I’ve noticed that using the Magic Bullet cuts down on the number of dirty dishes I make during meal prep days.
Meal Prep Ideas For Breakfast
1. Overnight Oats
Overnight oats are a simple, filling breakfast that can be made a few different ways. One option gives you a cold, parfait-like breakfast dish that contains yogurt. Your second option gives you warm, hearty oatmeal that’s perfect for colder days.
I enjoy this recipe for overnight oats that contains cup milk or milk substitute, old-fashioned rolled oats, yogurt, chia seeds, and optional add-ins. Some add-in examples include fruits, nuts, vanilla, and spices. You simply mix all ingredients and store in an airtight container overnight. This recipe is super easy to customize, and it’s very filling.
For overnight oats in a crockpot, you only need a few ingredients. This recipe for apple and cinnamon crockpot oats is simple and delicious. The recipe contains apples, skim milk or nondairy milk, steel cut oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, flaxseed, and butter. This recipe can also be easily customized to make it a bit healthier; dried fruits and nuts make excellent add-ins.
Compare To: Starbucks Hearty Blueberry Oatmeal, $3.45 for a 3.17-ounce serving
2. Breakfast Burritos
Breakfast burritos are easy to make and easy to customize. They’re also filling and can be pretty healthy. Prepping several breakfast burritos at once and freezing them allows you to make breakfast for the entire week. You can simply pop them in the microwave and eat them whenever you’re getting ready to start the day.
Don’t hesitate to get creative with your burritos. I like to start out with basic ingredients like flour or whole wheat tortillas and eggs. From there, I’ll add in things like spices, vegetables, and sauces. This simple yet tasty breakfast burrito recipe includes potatoes, sausage, cheddar cheese, salsa, and plenty of vegetables. Try using this as a base recipe, then customize it to suit your taste.
Compare To: Hardee’s Loaded Breakfast Burrito, $3.49 per burrito
3. Energy Balls / Energy Bars
Energy balls are bite-sized versions of protein or energy bars. They’re subtly sweet and packed with protein and other nutrients to keep you going all day long. These no-bake goodies are easy to make, and they’re perfect for a quick breakfast or snack. I know many runners and fitness enthusiasts who swear by these. I love them because they’re so convenient, and even my toddler enjoys them!
When I meal prep energy balls, I usually use this recipe. The peanut butter and oats keep me full, the seeds give them a nutrient boost, and the remaining ingredients add to the flavor. Soy protein balls are equally delicious and have a bit of extra protein. When I make any of these energy balls, I let them firm on a parchment-lined cookie sheet for about 30 minutes. From there, you can toss them into plastic containers to snack on all week long.
Compare To: Clif Bars, $0.93 to $1.50 per bar
4. Mason Jar Smoothies
Meal prepping smoothies ahead of time sounds like a strange concept, but it’s actually pretty easy. To do this, you’ll simply need your favorite smoothie ingredients and some freezer-safe Ziploc bags. You can also use freezer-safe mason jars. The bags or jars will contain the fruits and veggies that you want to mix together. Some ingredients I use include strawberries, spinach, bananas, peaches, blueberries, shredded carrot, and mango.
Before you go to bed, place a jar of fruit/veggie mix into the fridge to slightly defrost. You can add milk or yogurt in the morning, blend it up, and you’re good to go! You can also pre-make smoothies using these directions in batches of two or three. I find that 2-3 days is the maximum time a pre-made smoothie stays fresh. This helpful article can give you more ideas for meal prepping smoothies.
Compare To: Starbucks Strawberry Smoothie, $3.45 for a 16-ounce smoothie
Meal Prep Ideas For Lunch
5. Burrito Bowls
Burrito bowls are a huge hit in the meal prepping community, and it’s easy to see why. The ingredients are inexpensive, versatile, and incredibly filling. From vegan recipes to toppings like Monterey Jack cheese, the choice is 100% yours. You can prep a week’s worth of customized burrito bowls with ease.
This recipe for chicken burrito bowls creates one week’s worth of lunches and takes about one hour to make. If you’re a vegetarian, you make want to check out this recipe for quinoa burrito bowls. This meal prep recipe only takes 20 minutes to make, and it creates five burrito bowls. As you can see, these are truly tasty and healthy options.
Compare To: Chipotle Burrito Bowl, $6.50 to $7.50 per bowl
6. Mason Jar Salads
I love eating filling, colorful salads for lunch. They give me all of the nutrients I need to get through the afternoon, and they’re pretty tasty. Mason jar salads are all the rage among meal preppers, too. All you need is a few glass mason jars and your favorite salad ingredients. You layer the ingredients in the jar and mix it up when you’re ready for lunch.
There are tons of excellent recipes for different types of mason jar salads. I found that this BuzzFeed article about mason jar salads is super helpful. It covers 18 unique recipes that suit all tastes and preferences. My main source for mason jar salad recipes is Pinterest. Check out these two resources, and you’ll find ideas to create hearty salads for weeks.
Compare To: Panera Chicken Caesar Salad, $8.99 per full salad
7. Pasta Salad
Pasta salad is hands down one of the easiest foods I’ve ever meal prepped. One big batch can make lunches for an entire week or longer. Like the other lunch options on this list, pasta salad is super versatile and customizable. No matter what add-ins you enjoy, you can get a satisfying lunch by meal prepping this food.
For a super filling pasta salad, check out this hearty sesame chicken salad recipe. According to the recipe, it only takes about 30 minutes to make an entire week’s worth of this lunch. I’m also a fan of this truly simple five-ingredient pasta salad. If you’re a vegetarian, you can easily swap the meat in these recipes for more veggies or meat substitutes.
Compare To: Doris Italian Market & Bakery Pasta Salad, $4.99 per lb
8. Veggie Fried Rice
Rice is one of my favorite foods because it’s filling and can be prepped in dozens of different ways. One easy meal prep recipe that I’m fond of is veggie fried rice. All you need is the rice of your choice, your favorite veggies, and spices. If you want an extra boost of protein, you can always add in a scrambled egg or two.
For a spicy and savory rice dish, try out this sriracha cauliflower fried rice recipe. The recipe makes 4-5 large servings, so you’ll have lunch for your entire work week. If you’ve never fried rice before, check out this simple how-to article. It seems a little intimidating at first, but it’s honestly pretty easy! This is one dish that you can really get super creative with.
Compare To: Panda Express Fried Rice, $2.70 to $3.70 per serving
Meal Prep Ideas For Dinner
9. Shredded Buffalo Chicken
Buffalo chicken is a high-protein dinner dish that really packs a flavorful punch. When it comes to shredded buffalo chicken, you can meal prep it in so many ways. I enjoy using it as a filling for sandwiches when I need a quick bite to eat. It also mixes well with starches like rice and potatoes. If you’ve got a slow cooker, making shredded chicken is an absolute breeze – these instructions are great for beginners. You can also boil the chicken to get the same results.
This is one of my favorite recipes for shredded buffalo chicken sandwiches. It incorporates ranch salad dressing mix for an extra boost of flavor. You can also try making a buffalo chicken dip to serve with pita chips, celery, and other finger foods. I’m personally a fan of using Frank’s Red Hot Original Sauce, but you can use whatever you’d like.
Compare To: Chick-fil-a Spicy Chicken Sandwich, $3.29 each
10. Hearty Chili
I have to admit that I didn’t know the first thing about cooking chili until I started meal prepping. Once I found some great recipes, I really fell in love with this dinner dish. I started out making batches of vegetarian chili using textured vegetable protein. I’ve also used chicken and beef; all of these ingredients are easy to prep and freeze.
There’s really no “wrong” way to make a hearty batch of chili. You can try out this classic chili recipe if you want something simple. To change things up, you can opt for white chicken chili with green chilies and chicken broth. And once again, exploring chili recipes on Pinterest produces hundreds of great results.
Compare To: Culver’s George’s Chili, $2.89 per regular serving
11. Slow Cooker Soup or Stew
Soups and stews are the holy grail of winter meal prepping. There’s nothing like coming home to a warm, savory bowl of your favorite dish. When you prep ahead of time, you simply need to put the frozen dish in your programmable slow cooker. Once you’re home, an indulgent dinner will be waiting for you.
You can prep and freeze pretty much any soup or stew recipe imaginable. I really like the diverse recipes found in 9 Healthy Soup Recipes To Meal Prep This Week. Some examples from the article include kale, white bean, and chicken soup, chickpea pasta soup, and spicy vegan black bean soup. For an easy stew recipe, try out this beef stew recipe by McCormick. Don’t hesitate to change these recipes to suit your taste buds!
Compare To: Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup, $4.39 to $5.29 per serving
12. Baked Pasta
Baked pasta dishes are some of my favorite items to meal prep. From baked ziti to a veggie lasagna, it’s so easy to make huge portions of the pasta that you love. For these dishes, I strongly recommend buying the family-sized meal prep containers I mentioned under “Meal Prep Essentials”. You can simply pop them into the oven when you’re off work, and you’ll have a delightful dinner ready in about one hour.
As someone who adores pasta, narrowing down my list of favorite recipes was hard. I really enjoy the options in this Buzzfeed article, but you’ll need to double the ingredients to make larger batches. I also really like this vegetarian-friendly textured vegetable protein pasta bake. Alternatively, you can simply use the recipes you already love, freeze them, and cook them when you’re ready.
Compare To: Fazoli’s Baked Spaghetti, $6.49 per meal
Save Money And Eat Well With Meal Prepping
As you can see, there are tons of filling, healthy and delicious meal prep options. In addition to eating well, you get to save over $1,000 per year – that’s a win-win situation! If you want to find more recipes and ideas, I suggest exploring meal prepping on Pinterest.
There are so many unique ways to save money on everyday essentials. Frugal For Less has you covered when it comes to cutting down costs while living comfortably. Check out 41 Unusual Ways to Save Money.