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Initially, I thought a meal plan sounded boring. I soon realized how beneficial it was! Having a set menu for the week saved me much time and angst. Additionally, it is a great way to stick to a budget.
I’d know exactly what to buy and how to prepare it. I took mental notes and saw the benefit of meal preparation, financially and otherwise. However, is meal prepping worth it, and how much does it cost compared to cooking every night or dining out?
How Much Does Meal Prep Cost?
Many variables will determine the meal prep cost. For instance, the type and number of meals you prepare, where you buy your groceries, and the appliances you use will contribute to the overall cost. Once you have considered all the costs involved in making a large batch of food, you divide the total by the number of meals to get the average price per meal.
Total Meal Prep Costs ÷ Number of Meals = Average Cost per Meal
What do you need to calculate meal costs accurately? For instance, you won’t use a whole bottle of olive oil when preparing a meal, only a few ounces. However, you might use an entire packet of shredded cheese. To accurately calculate the cost of meal prepping, you’ll need the following:
- Your grocery store receipts
- The original product packaging
- Pen, paper, a calculator
- The store’s website (if you need to refer back to prices or package details)
Now, here’s how to calculate the cost of a meal:
- Write down all the ingredients, and how much you need for the portions you will make.
- Fill in the prices of the “whole” products. For example, a whole tin of beans or a packet of chicken breasts.
- Work out the cost of individual items sold in bulk. For example, if you paid $2.14 for 8 onions, 1 onion would cost about $0.27. Record the cost per item on the packaging for future reference.
- Work out partial ingredient costs using the package labels. For example, if a 1 lb. packet of noodles costs $1.60 and you only use half of the pack, you’d divide its price by two to get $0.80.
- Estimate the cost of herbs and spices. Working out the exact cost of herbs and spices isn’t easy or practical, so estimating these costs is better. A generous cost estimate for herbs and spices is about $0.10 per teaspoon.
- Add up all the amounts for whole, partial, and estimated ingredients to get the total meal prep cost.
Below are some examples of calculating the meal prep costs for various meals.
- Calculating Meal Prep Costs for Breakfast
- Calculating Meal Prep Costs for a Snack
- Calculating Meal Prep Costs for Lunch
- Calculating Meal Prep Costs for Supper
- What Are the Best Foods for Meal Prepping?
- 6 Ways You Can Reduce Meal Prep Costs
- The Benefits of Meal Prep
- Related Questions
Calculating Meal Prep Costs for Breakfast
As an example of a breakfast meal prep idea, let’s look at what it would cost to make breakfast burritos that can be frozen for up to 3 months. The prices were obtained from Walmart for illustrative purposes only.
|8 x Breakfast Burritos|
|1 tablespoon olive oil||$0.18|
|1 cup ham (cut into small cubes)(You can substitute with bacon, tofu, or whatever you prefer)||$5.26|
|½ cup salsa||$0.80|
|2 cups bell pepper (finely chopped)(You can substitute with a vegetable of your choice, e.g., mushrooms or tomatoes)||$3.44|
|2 cups shredded cheese||$3.56|
|8 tortillas (large; 12-inch)||$2.98|
|Salt & pepper||$0.05|
|Other: Plastic Food Cling Wrap||$0.15|
Using the calculation above, I can work out the average cost per burrito as follows:
Total costs ÷ the number of meals = $19.57 ÷ 8 = $2.45 per burrito
Calculating Meal Prep Costs for a Snack
Below is a delicious snack containing apples, celery, Medjool dates, pretzels, and peanut butter. The snack provides a healthy balance of fruit, fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and a bit of fat to keep you going to lunch.
|4 x Healthy Snacks: Peanut Butter, Fruit, and Pretzels|
|¾ cup peanut butter||$1.49|
|60 mini pretzels||$0.26|
|8 Medjool dates||$1.33|
|4 sticks celery||$0.70|
|1 tsp lemon juice (optional)||$0.01|
The total cost of one serving of this healthy snack would equate to the following:
$4.57 ÷ 4 = $1.14 per serving.
Calculating Meal Prep Costs for Lunch
How does chicken salad sound for lunch? Mason jar meals are becoming popular with meal preppers, and a tasty chicken salad is a perfect example of calculating costs. So let’s look at how much it would cost to meal prep 6 chicken salads for two adults’ lunches.
|6 x Mason Jar Chicken Salads|
|2 cups Lettuce||$2.88|
|½ cup Celery, chopped into small pieces||$0.50|
|2 cups Cooked chicken, diced or shredded (price for 16 oz cooked chicken)||$9.97|
|½ cup Nuts (Walnuts/pecan/sliced almonds)||$1.50|
|½ cup Seedless grapes, cut in quarters||$0.50|
|½ cup plain Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, or dressing||$0.50|
|½ cup diced onion (optional)||$0.62|
Using the equation above, the price per serving of chicken salad would be:
$16.67 ÷ 6 = $2.78 per salad. Compare that to Subway, where Buffalo Chicken Salad costs $8.49.
Calculating Meal Prep Costs for Supper
To give an example for calculating the meal prep cost of supper, I’ll look at a roasted vegetable and smoky sausage bake served with rice.
|8 x Roasted Vegetable and Smoky Sausage baked with Rice and Vinaigrette|
|24 oz. smoked sausage||$5.50|
|2 lbs. broccoli crown||$3.38|
|2 bell peppers||$2.00|
|2 red onions||$0.88|
|2 cups long-grain white rice (uncooked)||$0.40|
|2 handfuls chopped parsley||$0.40|
|½ cup olive oil||$1.28|
|4 Tbsp red wine vinegar||$0.40|
|2 tsp coarse deli mustard (or Dijon)||$0.16|
|½ tsp garlic powder||$0.04|
|½ tsp dried oregano||$0.04|
|1 tsp smoked paprika||$0.10|
|½ tsp salt||$0.04|
|freshly cracked black pepper||$0.06|
|½ tsp sugar||$0.04|
The ingredients for eight portions of this meal cost $14.72. Therefore, the average cost per serving is
$14.72 ÷ 8 = $1.84 per serving.
What Are the Best Foods for Meal Prepping?
When meal prepping, you’ll want to use foods that can be refrigerated or frozen well without losing their appeal. Additionally, since you’re meal prepping, you can prepare balanced meals that suit your dietary requirements.
Vegetables and Fruits for Meal Prep
If you like fresh fruits and vegetables, you can buy those more frequently and add them to your prepped meals as a salad. However, most cooked or prepared vegetables and fruit can last well in the fridge or freezer under the right conditions.
Carbohydrates for Meal Prep
Tortillas are very popular carbohydrates for meal prepping because they are so versatile and practical. However, the following carbohydrates are also great for meal prep:
- Pasta in its various forms
Legumes for Meal Prep
Legumes are excellent for meal prep as they add carbohydrates, protein, and fiber to a diet. They can be used as fillings for burritos, as thickeners in soup, or as a filling base for a salad. Legumes beneficial for meal prep include the following:
Proteins for Meal Prep
Proteins can be derived from animal and vegetable sources. Most meals that include animal protein can be stored safely in the fridge for up to 4 days from the day it was cooked. Otherwise, it is better to freeze the prepped meals. Animal-based proteins that are well-suited to meal prep include the following:
- Cooked chicken, beef, or pork
- Cooked fish
- Cured meats (e.g., salami and ham)
6 Ways You Can Reduce Meal Prep Costs
If you’re prepping your meals in advance, you’ll order less take-out or eat out less (theoretically). So, there’s a saving already – you’re not paying for fuel, fare, or delivery to get a meal at an inflated price. Additionally, prepping meals in advance means you’re not using as much gas or electricity for cooking your meals daily.
If you want to reduce meal prep costs further, here are some excellent tips.
1. Plan Your Meal Calendar for a Week, Fortnight, or Month
Planning a meal calendar will help you to organize your diet for a set period. Then, when you know what you want to eat for those days, you can plan your grocery list accordingly. That way, you’ll buy what you need and look for sales on the items you need.
Another advantage of a meal calendar is it eliminates the number of decisions you must make. This is especially helpful if you’re a lazy cook like me. If I must cook, I prefer to do so in bulk and then freeze the excess in serving-size portions.
2. Buy Your Own Groceries From the Store
When you buy your own groceries, instead of meal kits, for example, you can save on costs. Even the most budget-friendly meal kits are more expensive than buying groceries for the same meal because you’re paying for convenience.
While in the store, you can compare prices and look for specials on other staple foods that work well for meal prep. Then, when you find a good deal that is a meal prep favorite, you can buy that product in bulk.
3. Buy Store-Brands Instead of Brand Names
While many people don’t know this, many of the store’s home brands are made by big-name brands, just packaged differently. And they’re usually much cheaper! Like almost 40% cheaper on average.
4. Cook One-Pot Meals
I firmly believe in one-pot or one-dish meals. They reduce the number of dishes and require less preparation and electricity. Additionally, these meals can include vegetables or perishable items in your fridge that would otherwise go to waste.
5. Choose Economical Cooking Appliances
Invest in appliances and stovetops that are energy efficient. For example, an air fryer could save you cooking time and money. Additionally, match the pot size to the stove plate to maximize energy efficiency when cooking on a stovetop.
6. Invest in Reusable and Durable Storage Containers
Using reusable and durable storage containers for your prepped meals reduces pollution and saves you money over an extended period. Consider investing in some mason jars, glass containers with clamping lids, and trusty Tupperware.
The Benefits of Meal Prep
Prepping meals in advance saves you on costs and has many other benefits. So, if you’re not yet convinced that meal prep is the way to go, here are a few things to ponder:
- First, meal prep has direct and indirect financial benefits
- It can help to boost your emotional wellness
- Prepping your meals in advance saves you time
- You can enjoy a healthier, more balanced diet
- Meal prep can help you monitor your weight
- Finally, meal prep lowers the amount of food waste
How Much Should You Charge if You Prep Meals for an Income?
Suppose you’re preparing meals for others as income. In that case, you should consider the cost of the groceries, supplies, cooking, and delivery first. Then, whatever that amount will be, multiply it by 1.25 to work out your meal prep fee. This fee, plus all the costs, should be the total charge.
How Should You Start Meal Prepping?
The best way to start meal prepping is to start small. Then, as you become used to it, you can prepare more meals in advance. Additionally, as you go through trial and error, you’ll refine your meal-prepping skills.
Meal prep can reduce the average cost of your meals dramatically. For example, the average cost of a prepped meal can be less than $4, compared to a take-out or restaurant meal which usually costs more. So, by preparing your meals in advance, you enjoy the benefits of saving time and money and eating healthier.
Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. He is a contributing chef at Mashed, and his recipes and contributions have been featured in Tasting Table, Edible Arrangements, Insanely Good Recipes, and The Daily Meal.