Meal prep eases the strain of weekday cooking, simplifies healthy eating and reduces the need to reach for takeout. Plus, it can also be beneficial for your wallet. From shopping your own kitchen to swapping pricy ingredients for less expensive ones, here’s how to spend less on meal prep.
MAKE USE OF WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE
If you’re trying to cut your grocery bill, the easiest first step is to take stock of everything in your fridge, freezer and pantry. Half-empty boxes of pasta, bags of grains, cans of beans or tomatoes, frozen chicken pieces (bought in bulk and “saved for later”) and last week’s leftover fruits and vegetables are just some of the things you’re likely forgetting about.
Make it a priority build your meal plan around these items for a few weeks, buying only what you need to round out your meals. You’ll make a significant dent in your stash and spend far less on groceries.
MAKE A GROCERY LIST
Choose the recipes you’ll be making in advance and pick ones that share similar ingredients. This ensures your grocery list is shorter and you don’t end up with half-eaten boxes or bags of food (see above). When in doubt, choose a few different proteins, starches, veggies and sauces you can easily mix-and-match.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SALE ITEMS
Maybe you planned on making a warm rice bowl with chicken and Brussels sprouts, but you get to the store and see Brussels sprouts are particularly expensive and broccoli is on sale. Be flexible enough to swap similar ingredients in recipes, which can add up in savings.
When you’re shopping pay-by-weight bulk bins, take advantage of the fact you can buy as much or as little as you want. For instance, if you only need 1/2 cup of almonds as a snack or to top breakfast bowls, buy exactly that much. The same goes for things like grains, dried fruits and dried beans.
Some grocery stores also sell spices in bulk. If a recipe calls for a new-to-you spice or one you likely won’t use often, this can be a great option to only buy what you need.
MAKE GOOD USE OF FROZEN FRUIT
When it comes to berries, stone fruits and tropical fruits, like mango and pineapple, frozen is often a much cheaper way to go. These fruits have relatively short seasons, so they’re either imported or brought in from storage for much of the year. This means they’re more expensive out of season, and they likely won’t taste as good.
Frozen fruit is great for smoothies, but it’s also perfect for stirring into oatmeal, tossing into pancakes or waffles or microwaving as a warm yogurt topping. Dried fruit can also be used in breakfast cookies, salads and grain bowls.
STOCK UP ON FROZEN VEGGIES
Like frozen fruit, frozen vegetables are easier on your wallet and are packed at peak ripeness. Frozen vegetables are perfect for soups, stews, stir-fries and frittatas. In addition to saving money, you’ll save time since they don’t require any chopping. And, you don’t need to stick to classics like broccoli, peas and carrots — you can find plenty of veggies in the freezer case these days, from cubed butternut squash to okra.
Meal prep is great, but some weeks you get sick of eating the same thing several days in a row. Instead of forcing yourself to eat a meal you don’t want, or tossing it at the end of the week, portion leftovers and freeze them. This won’t work for everything, but it’s a great way to save soups, stews and even cooked meat or grains.
On the same note, consider making freezer-friendly recipes in bulk and storing them for weeks when you might have less time for meal prep, or when you’re bored with what’s in the fridge and want to shake things up. Big-batch meals are often more cost-effective and have the added bonus of saving you from expensive takeout.
INVEST IN A FEW SPICES AND MAKE YOUR OWN MIXES
Jarred spices won’t break the bank, but loading up on dozens that will sit on your shelf until you eventually throw them away is still a waste of money. Instead, build a small arsenal of basic spices such as chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, paprika and mustard powder and make your own mixes. For example, instead of buying pre-made ones like Chinese five-spice, poultry seasoning or pumpkin pie spice, create your own simple spice mixes with what you have.
DIY HUMMUS, GUACAMOLE, AND SALAD DRESSINGS
Store-bought hummus tastes great, but it only takes about 3 minutes to make an equally delicious (and less expensive) version at home with canned chickpeas, olive oil, salt and maybe a few cloves of raw garlic or a sprinkle of spice.
The same goes for guacamole, which you can toss together with avocado, tomato, red onion and lime juice. For salad dressings, combine acid (citrus juice or vinegar) with salt, olive oil and whatever seasonings you want.
OPT FOR WHOLE CHICKENS OR BIGGER CUTS OF MEAT
Meat is the big-ticket item on most grocery lists, but it’s still possible to save money. For example, buy whole chickens, which are less expensive than pre-portioned breasts or thighs. Bone-in, skin-on poultry is also more flavorful and won’t dry out during cooking. If you don’t want to roast a whole chicken, you can portion it yourself and either cook the pieces separately, or freeze some and cook them another week.
Similarly, instead of pre-cut beef stew meat or pounded pork cutlets, buy a big cut like the butt or shoulder, then portion it yourself and freeze what you don’t use. You can also use a slow cooker to make less expensive, tougher cuts of meat extremely tender.
HAVE ONE OR TWO MEATLESS MEALS A WEEK
You don’t have to give up meat entirely, but a few vegetarian meals each week can make a big difference in your grocery budget. Staples like grains, beans, legumes and soy products are inexpensive and still make for satisfying meals. If you’re looking for inspiration, try these six meatless dinners under 400 calories or these seven high-protein meatless meals.
AUGMENT MEAT WITH BEANS AND GRAINS
Consider using less meat and bulking up your meals with less-expensive, nutrient-packed plant-based foods like beans, legumes, vegetables and grains. Adding beans to chili is commonplace, like in this white bean and turkey chili, as are soups made with a combination of meat and grains.
However, you can get creative with pretty much any recipe to make a little bit of meat go a long way. Try mixing cooked rice with ground turkey when you’re making taco filling. Add chopped mushrooms and black beans to your beef burger patties. Or use meat as a garnish on veggie-packed grain bowls, instead of treating it like the main event.
SAVE MEAT AND VEGGIE SCRAPS FOR STOCK
One of the easiest ways to reduce food waste is to turn meat bones and vegetable stalks into homemade stock. It tastes much richer than the store-bought stuff and is one less thing to buy. Throw chicken and beef bones, herb stems, onion and garlic scraps (the peels and the ends, minus any dirty roots) and any other little veggie pieces into a gallon-size tupperware container in the freezer. Once the container is full, put everything in the slow-cooker, cover it with water and let it cook on low for 10 hours. Use the stock for soups and stews, or add a splash to stir-fries as they cook, which helps vegetables cook a little quicker and adds extra flavor.