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You know those people who can effortlessly whip up dinner while simultaneously holding a conversation, corralling their kids, and setting a beautiful table?
Jordan and I are not those people.
That is why we learned how to meal prep – to simplify our cooking. Saving money from meal prepping was a bonus. A big bonus.
To meal prep on a budget, start with a list of staples like quinoa, eggs, and farro. Then find recipes that use those in different ways. On Sunday, chop the produce and cook the grains. The goal is to prep so you can combine ingredients into 10-minute meals.
This meal prep system has reduced our weekly food budget by 30%. Learn our Taco Bell inspired system and find some healthy meal prep recipes below.
Why we switched to meal prepping
We’re kind of terrible cooks.
Jordan has a go-to stir fry that he makes (no recipe). It’s more like he just emptied a bunch of things from the fridge rather than tried to make a real meal. And I have an aversion to following pretty much any recipe, which often leads to overcooked food that lacks all taste.
Needless to say, we’ve leaned on eating out for a majority of our adult lives. In early 2019, we decided it was time to make a change
Americans spend a bulk of their money on food, housing, and transportation. Our housing and transportation costs are a little more difficult to change. But food? We could make a real impact on our spending, quickly.
Before Henry was born we tried out a number of meal kits, which I liked. But rather than using them for a go-to weeknight meal, we’d use them on a Friday or Saturday evening, when we could take a little time and make it special.
After Henry was born, I wanted to see what all this meal prep chatter was about. So I got a subscription to Prep + Rally and learned the basics. (If you’re interested in signing up for Prep + Rally, you can use my referral link for 20% off.)
Now that I have a little more experience under my belt, I created a meal prep on a budget system that was inspired by Taco Bell.
Our meal prep system – inspired by Taco Bell
You know how Taco Bell always seems to be coming out with a new creation? But the actual ingredients still remain pretty basic: meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, crunchy or soft tortilla, and hot sauce. You can use the ingredients in a slightly different way to get the taco supreme, crunchwrap supreme, nachos, or chalupa.
(Yes, I have a strange affinity for Taco Bell. I can’t explain it.)
To learn how to meal prep on a budget, look no further than Taco Bell.
We have a list of basic staples and then a bunch of recipes that use said staples in different ways. For example, our quinoa goes into grain bowls, salads, soups, veggie burgers, and breakfast bars. Mushrooms get put on toast, into salads, roasted as a side, or thrown into an omelette.
We don’t generally meal prep specific recipes, but we prep a lot of staples that can be used in different ways.
Cheap meal prep grocery list
We are so fortunate to live in a place where grocery delivery is the norm. By placing our order on Thursday, our groceries are delivered on Friday.
We have a list of things that we order regularly and rotate through. Here’s what’s generally in our budget friendly meal prep grocery rotation:
Grains: Quinoa, farro, whole grain bread, oatmeal
Protein: Salmon, canned tuna, lentils, chickpeas, eggs, chickpea pasta, veggie burgers or vegan sausages
Dairy: Yogurt, milk, cheddar cheese, parmesan cheese, feta
Produce: Zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, onions, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, kale, spinach, apples, bananas, green beans, lemons, limes, berries, basil, and cilantro.
How I meal prep on a budget every week
I should clarify here that ‘meal prep’ is a really loose definition of what I’m doing. I’m really just getting the food into its easiest usable form.
- All of the produce gets washed.
- Some of it gets chopped.
- One or two grains get cooked.
- Some eggs get hard boiled.
- A few dressings get made.
- And if I’m really ambitious I’ll make a sauce, like a simple marinara or basil pesto.
My goal isn’t to fully prep meals, but to get things to the point where I can easily use them during the week. For me that means that I can take a few things out of the refrigerator and with 10 minutes or less of hands-on time, dinner is ready. And it’s a bonus if I can make dinner with just using one pan or one pot.
I don’t like a lot of cleanup.
This whole prep process takes around an hour and I’ve started doing it on Friday afternoons because meal prepping on Sunday just wasn’t my thing.
Meal prep dinners
We keep a list of meal prep dinner ideas on the refrigerator. When dinner is approaching, I’ll look at that list and grab what I need to. Everything is washed. Almost everything is chopped. And it’s all very, very easy. Remember, 10 minutes or less of hands-on time and I try to use just one pot or one pan.
Healthy meal prep ideas for the week
Here’s how this process played out over the past week. Groceries were delivered at 3:30 pm on Friday and I was able to mostly prep while Henry played with me in the kitchen.
I cooked a cup of quinoa and hard-boiled eggs.
Then I washed and chopped: mushrooms, sweet potatoes, onions, celery, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, and kale. And I washed some remaining produce: strawberries, cilantro, basil, zucchini, and green beans.
With this, I put together a small tray of chopped vegetables and hummus we could snack on. And put the rest in glass jars to stay fresh in the fridge.
Finally, I made basil pesto, tahini dressing, and a cilantro yogurt dip.
On the meal prep menu this week
- Mushrooms on toast with green beans
- Salmon with roast mushrooms, green beans, and potatoes
- Veggie burgers with sweet potato fries and cilantro dip
- Chickpea pasta with roast vegetables, pesto, and vegan sausages
- Red lentil soup with garlic cheese toasted bread
- Quinoa grain bowl with roast veggies and tahini dressing topped with a fried egg
- Vegetarian Cobb salad with balsamic dressing
Plus, I also made strawberry quinoa breakfast bars for Henry one afternoon when he was a bit grumpy. With everything already prepped and on-hand, I was able to whip them up in just a few minutes (note: they did nothing to help his grumpiness).
How much we’ve saved on our meal prep
The title really gives this away, but we’ve cut down on our food spending substantially. Our meal prep has reduced our weekly food cost by at least 30%. And we probably could save even more, but we’ve made decisions to spend a little extra on organic produce and locally caught fish because that’s important to us.
Not only have we cut down on how often we’d eat out (a huge cost savings), but our grocery bill has decreased. Shopping this way helped us shop more strategically and make sure our food doesn’t go to waste. At the end of each week, our goal is to have an empty refrigerator, just in time for another Friday delivery.
This is what’s working for us now, but it’s always evolving. Have any suggestions for how we can meal prep on a budget better? Let me know!
Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project: personal finance and family travel. website. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker. When she's not writing about personal finance you can find Erica exploring Europe from her temporary home base in London.
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