How to Meal Prep on a Budget

How to Meal Prep on a Budget

It’s official: Meal prep can be a crucial part of achieving your weight-loss and fitness goals.

A study shows that people who spend more time thinking and preparing ahead about what they’re going to eat tend to make better choices, incorporating more fruits and vegetables into their diet.

That same study also showed  that spending less than an hour a day preparing food at home is linked to eating more fast food and spending more money eating out.

Now, you might think that healthy meal prep is for those who have plenty of time and money to spend, but experts beg to differ.

“Healthy meal prep can actually be very economical,” says health and fitness specialist Jim White R.D., A.C.S.M. “Plan well and you could save time and money, not to mention your health.”

Ready to get planning and save yourself some dough while eating healthier and getting in shape? Here’s how!

Woman writing down a meal plan

1. Make a Plan

A great first step in making a saving is to have a pretty solid idea of your food needs throughout the week before you do anything else.

Take a moment to think about the week ahead: Think about where you’ll be at mealtimes — home, work, on the move — whether you’ll have the means to reheat food if you’ll need something that’s ready to go and the kinds of containers you’ll need to store that food.

Most importantly, think about the clean meals and snacks that you want to eat. If planning clean meals becomes a drag or a bore, you’ll resent the whole endeavor.

Here are a dozen fantastic ideas for appealing, healthy meals that cost between 45 cents and $2.72 per serving.

2. Make a Clean-Eating Grocery List

Once you’ve thought about the clean, healthy, nutritious meals you’d like to have ready to go when you want them this week, work backward to come up with a grocery list.

“The biggest expense will be your protein,” says White. “Getting the chicken thigh instead of the chicken breast can be less expensive and not a huge difference in the nutritional profile. Or use canned tuna instead of fresh tuna for some of your meals.”

Beans or lentils are also a good (and less expensive!) alternative protein source instead of meat, he adds.

Once you’ve made your list, think about where each of the items can be bought at the best price and get your groceries on a day when you’re not rushed.

Amy Shapiro M.S., R.D., C.D.N. lists a few common mistakes that lead people to spend more when meal prepping: “Always shopping organic, not shopping in bulk, only buying fresh food when frozen can be just as healthy,” she says.

Here are examples of healthy foods that should make up the core of your clean-eating grocery list:

1. Lean protein (fish, chicken, turkey, lean cuts of beef, tofu, etc.)

2. Dark leafy greens and vegetables of different colors (frozen and canned work, too)

3. Fruit (frozen and canned work, too)

4. Healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts/seeds

5. Whole grains

6. Eggs, Greek yogurt (2%)

Man, woman with baby unpacking groceries

3. Stick With the List

Ever gone to the store to buy groceries and come home to find that you bought a lot of things you hadn’t planned on and maybe even forgot some things you meant to buy?

Turns out that supermarkets put a considerable amount of time, money, and effort into making sure that customers stray from their lists and make impulse purchases.

That’s bad for your budget and, because impulse buys are generally not the healthiest items, bad for your overarching health goals, too.

And you’ve probably heard that going to get groceries with a rumbling belly is a bad move for your weight-loss goals.

Well, a 2013 study showed that when people go shopping when they’re hungry or they’ve gone a long time without eating, they tend to buy foods with a higher caloric density.

4. Shop the Bulk Foods Aisle

What do beans, grains like quinoa and barley, nuts, seeds, rice, and legumes have in common?

Most supermarkets offer these items in bulk bins.

Not only does shopping in bulk save you money because you’re not paying for the fancy labels, you can also take as much or indeed as little as you need — meaning that you can experiment with new things and new meals without getting stuck with something that’s not up your alley.

Beans – rich in both protein and fiber – are particularly cheap when bought dry and from the bulk bins.

Soaking them might sound like a hassle but if you’re already planning your meals for the week, it ain’t no thang. To save even more time, you might consider investing in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot.

One upfront cost might be to get some airtight jars to store them in. Put them on a shelf (avoid placing them in direct sunlight), and they have the added bonus of making your kitchen look pretty homey too.

Two friends shopping at a farmers market.

5. Shop Seasonally

Shop local.

The farmers market can be a win-win: You can find fresh, locally grown food that may actually be cheaper than what’s at your grocery store.

So if you come across fresh produce at your local farmers’ market, then, by all means, add them to your week’s meals!

6. Go Really Big

Consider investing in an annual membership to a wholesale market like Costco, especially if you’ve got a family.

One caveat: Get your quantities right. The savings you make by bulk buying will disappear if you don’t eat what you buy before it goes bad.

Plan ahead (sense a theme here?) and figure out what can be stored in the fridge and what you can freeze for later.

If you’re freezing food, write the date on the package or container so you don’t have to guess whether you should keep it or toss it when you defrost.

Get Cooking

You had a bulk mindset when you bought this stuff, and to really unlock your savings, you should adopt a bulk mindset when cooking.

Set aside a few hours on a Sunday (or whatever day is most convenient) putting together three or four dishes that can be frozen in batches to give you the benefits of variety and economy.

And while you’re putting food into containers, make sure portion sizes are in step with your weight-loss goals. Or take the guesswork out of the equation and use Portion Fix containers to assemble your meals, then freeze. (Don’t freeze the containers themselves!)

“If you are not measuring your portion sizes you could not only be consuming too much food and costing more money,” says White. “By keeping foods at the correct portion size you will be trimming your waistline and also trimming costs.”

The Bottom Line

It may seem daunting at first to plan an entire week of meals, shop, then cook it all.

But if you stick with it and start meal prepping on a regular basis, you’ll figure out what works/what doesn’t work, and you’ll save yourself time and money.

Here are some meal prep ideas to help you get started!

A Beginner’s Guide to Meal Prep

10 Tips to Make Meal Prep Easier

7 Clean-Eating Meal Prep Tips

No-Cook Meal Prep for the 1,200-1,500 Calorie Level

Meal Prep Tips From the Pros