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Today I want to help all you busy people out there learn how to meal prep so you can save money, eat healthy, and get back more of your time so that you can spend it doing what you love. This is our step-by-step “Meal Prep for Beginners” guide. Enjoy!
I have a confession to make. My wife and I really struggle with budgeting.
At one point we were spending over $700/month on groceries. For TWO PEOPLE! The second I found this out, we started finding ways to cut our food spending.
The thing is we didn’t want to go on a ramen and hamburger helper diet.
We both like eating really good food. We also see our health as an investment so we try to eat quality food.
The biggest thing that has helped us is meal prepping. We knew that if we wanted to eat high quality food and stick to our budget that it would take some meal planning.
This meal prep guide is jam packed with info to help you put together a weekly meal plan, meal prep on a budget, and all kinds of other goodies.
I truly think this is the most comprehensive and helpful resource that exists on meal prepping so if you like it, give it a share!
What is Meal Prep?
Meal prepping is simple. All you have to do is pick a recipe you like, double or triple the ingredients, and eat that same food several times throughout the week.
Instead of cooking meal after meal throughout the week, you intentionally make more or “batch cook” your meals for the week. That way you’ve got leftovers on hand for grab & go breakfasts, lunch during the work day, or dinner ready when you get home!
Meal prepping can be as little or as extensive as you want it to be.
Unfortunately, most fitness experts and nutritionists make a living out of making some of the most simple concepts difficult.
I want to make this as easy as possible for you. Let’s get started!
How do I start meal prepping?
The easiest way to start meal prepping is to just cook a few meals you’ve made before and double up the ingredients! You’ll have leftovers for the week and you’ll get a taste for how much time and money you can save.
The rest of this step by step guide will show you how to create your own weekly meal plan that you can stick to!
Who is meal prepping for?
There’s no question in my mind that just about anyone could benefit from meal prepping. Unless you have all the time in the world or have more money in the bank than you know what to do, then meal prepping is a habit you should get into.
Meal prepping is great for anyone:
- Working professionals trying to be more productive
- Raising kids and want to have healthy meals on hand
- Students who need meals ready to eat so you can get back to studying
- Anyone who wants to eat healthy
- All the people out there trying to save money
Other Meal Prep Resources I’ve Written:
I’ve been writing about meal prepping on the internet for a while now!
- Meal Prep 101
- 28 Ways to Eat More Vegetables
- The Best Meal Prep Resources for 2020
- 15 Tips for Meal Prepping on a Budget
- 32 Bodybuilding Meal Prep Ideas to Build Muscle
What are the benefits of meal prepping?
Meal prepping is one of the fundamental habits that helps me reach my goals. It saves me time, money, and keeps me on track with eating healthy.
My goal with meal prepping is to maximize my time, health, and effort by cooking in bulk. I’d rather spend a couple hours each week making 3 lbs of roasted chicken and vegetables than spend an hour each day cooking and cleaning.
So if you want to save money, save time, and eat healthy–you should love meal prep too!
1. Meal prep saves money
The average restaurant meal these days is $10-12 and the average American spends thousands a year on eating out! This list of cheap meal prep recipes are all less than $2 a serving, saving you almost $10 every single meal you eat.
More reading: How much money does meal prepping save?
2. Meal prep saves time
The biggest advantage meal prepping has over cooking as you go is the time it saves. I love to cook and so I used to spend an hour every night cooking and cleaning up! That’s time I just don’t have these days with everything I’m trying to get done.
Now I spend a couple hours a week prepping 20+ meals for the week!
3. Meal prepping makes it way easier to eat healthy!
I love meal prepping because it keeps me on track with my diet. It’s way too easy some days to pick up take out, which is almost never healthy! When you cook your own food you know exactly what you’re putting into it and you avoid all of the hidden calories that even “healthy” restaurant food is full of.
When you have some healthy meal prep options on hand ready to eat, then you’re setting yourself up for success!
Meal Prepping vs. Meal Planning
There’s not a whole lot of difference between meal prepping and meal planning.
Meal planning is exactly what it sounds like. Planning out your meals for the week, deciding what you want to cook, how much you’ll need, when you’ll eat what, and putting together your grocery list.
Meal prepping is actually cooking the food in one big batch process so that you’ve got the food ready to eat all throughout the week.
The problem for WAY too many people is that they spend all this time planning out their week but then they fail to meal prep. So when Wednesday night comes around it is 100x easier to pick up Thai food on the way home than go make those greek chicken wraps you found on pinterest.
So the food you bought ends up going to waste and gets thrown away.
Let’s work through the steps so you can stop wasting food, wasting money, and get back more of your time.
How to meal prep: Step by Step Meal Prep Guide
Step one: Decide what meals you want to meal prep for
The first thing you’ve gotta do is decide how much meal prep you actually want to do.
If you’re new to meal prepping, start with prepping for one meal slot (breakfast / lunch / dinner) for the week!
So what’s your weakness when it comes to food?
- Are you always snoozing through your alarm and skipping breakfast every day?
- Are you trying to stop eating out for lunch?
- Do you work crazy long hours? Maybe you want to come home, heat up some food for dinner, and crash for the night.
Personally, we usually meal prep all of our lunches and a couple of dinners each week! Breakfast I make fresh. If you’re following a specific diet like keto, whole30, or an eating protocol like intermittent fasting, then you’ll want to account for that in your meal planning.
Step two: Find recipes you want to try & map out your week
The next step is to find some good meal prep recipes and map them into your week.
You can use a meal planner or simply type them into a google spreadsheet like we do! We now have a database of various meal plans that we can re-use if we ever want to keep things simple.
- Typically the weekends are when we get creative and also prep food for the week ahead!
- We always keep some healthy snacks on hand
For this weekly meal plan, we only have to prep a few things:
- Taco meat for lunches
- Grilled chicken: works for both the greek & caesar salads
- Smoothies for breakfast
- Chopped lettuce & toppings for salads
What foods are good for meal prepping
Carbs: Brown Rice, Sweet Potato, Spaghetti Squash Lentils, Legumes, Whole Wheat Pasta, Quinoa, Low GI Fruit
Protein: Chicken, Turkey, Lean Ground Beef, Lean Cuts of Steaks, Tuna, Eggs, Fish
Veggies: Spinach, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Green Beans, Asparagus, Cucumbers, Brussel Sprouts, Kale, Mushrooms, Carrots, Bell Peppers
Step three: Put together a grocery list
After you have your weekly meal plan mapped out, all you have to do is put together a grocery list!
You can put this together split up by recipe or by area of the store. Whatever works for you. We put this in our google spreadsheet so we can have sample grocery lists on hand.
Step four: Set aside a time & get cooking
Now, go shopping and get cooking! Remember, it is very important to buy fresh vegetables (as opposed to frozen) as the vegetables will retain more nutrients. However, with meat we’ll often buy more than we need to and just store excess in the freezer. To thaw, put frozen meat out in the refrigerator 1-2 days before hand. You can also use a microwave which is great for ground meat like turkey to thaw it out, but using a microwave isn’t always ideal for other meats.
You can’t forget to actually set aside time to meal prep your food for the week! Put it in your calendar so you can get into a weekly rhythm.
My wife and I meal prep every Saturday or Sunday night so we have food for the whole week. If you love to meal prep on the weekends, be sure to check out our list of Sunday dinner ideas!
Meal prepping for beginners: 11 Tips
1. Create a rotation with your favorite cheap meal prep recipes
One of the keys to meal prepping is to keep things as simple as possible. These days, I stick to a short list of cheap meal prep recipes (like these slow cooker carnitas) that I rotate through on a monthly basis. This takes the guess work out of meal planning every week.
2. Find Ingredient Overlaps
This is one of the best things you can do to have an easy meal prep. My favorite thing is to make 3-4 lbs of meat and then find ways to incorporate it into different meals. It makes my meal prep easier and cheaper because I don’t have to buy as many ingredients This also gives you decent variety throughout the week. This is the best thing to do if you’re meal prepping for picky eaters.
3. Chop veggies ahead of time
The biggest time-suck in meal prepping is chopping vegetables, especially onions! They make me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME. I can’t help it. But I freaking love onions, so I push through the pain. The point though, is that having to chop vegetables every meal is a huge time drain. If you don’t want to actually prep a whole meal, one simple tip is to just prep your vegetables early on in the week.
4. Break out the crockpot
The #1 way to have an easy meal prep is to use a crockpot! Dump the ingredients in, turn it on, and wait 6-8 hours. There really is no easier way to make a week’s worth of meals ahead of time. Here are 75 cheap crock pot recipes that you can make for less than $3 a serving!
5. Get the best meal prep containers
If you really want your meal prepping to be as easy as possible, then you want to invest in these meal prep containers. Glassware makes storing, reheating, and cleaning 10x easier.
6. You don’t have to cook everything you prep
I prefer to eat most of my vegetables freshly cooked rather than after 3-4 days in the fridge, so whenever my wife and I finish our weekly grocery trip, I usually spend an hour listening to a podcast while I chop up and bag a week’s worth of vegetables. The less work I have to do to eat healthy, the better.
7. Start Small & Simple
If you’re new to meal prepping, don’t try to make and prepare an entire week’s worth of food on your first attempt! Take some time to learn what recipes you love and start small. You don’t want to waste a bunch of time and money on a meal you won’t enjoy. These overnight oats recipes are super easy to make and get started with!
8. Put it in your schedule
“Failure to plan is planning to fail.”
I hate that quote because it’s so freaking cheesy. But it’s also true. If you never plan to meal prep, then you almost never will. Set aside a time in your weekly calendar and block it off for meal prep.
9. Use a meal planner
I’ve been meal prepping for so long that it’s mostly intuitive for me. If you’re new to meal prepping, then go pick up a planner like this one! You can map out your weekly meal plan, recipes, grocery list, etc. We recently put together a list of the best meal planning apps.
10. Well stocked fridge / freezer / pantry
There’s nothing more frustrating than not having that one ingredient that you need to complete a meal! We try not to buy more than we need, but we do have a list of staples that we keep on hand. We always have a pack of chicken (2-3lbs) and our favorite spices on hand so that if we’re in a pinch we can make some grilled chicken for the week!
11. Prepare ingredients ahead of time
You don’t have to do a massive meal prep every time. Sometimes prepping a few ingredients can go a long way to saving you time throughout the week. I’ll slice up carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers and have some ready to go veggie snacks throughout the week!
For more tips, check out these Meal Prep Tips to Save Time and Money
11 Strategies to Meal prep on a budget
1. If you’re trying out a new recipe, stick to the regular amount.
After you’ve tested it out, feel free to double or triple the amount so you can have more leftover. The last thing you want to do is spend a bunch of money only to cook a meal you don’t like at all.
2. Buy in Bulk
The easiest way to meal prep on a budget is to buy as much food in bulk as possible. You can get meat, rice, potatoes, oats and all kinds of spices and canned goods in bulk. Buying in bulk only makes sense if you know you’ll eat it before it all goes bad.
I eat a ton of protein and one of my favorite ways to load up on meat is when grocery stores run sales. Walmart, HEB, and some other stores do this, but when food is close to expiring, they’ll mark it way down. This is a great time to stock up and stick it in the freezer.
Here’s a list of other cheap foods to save money.
3. Unit Price per Food
If you’re trying to meal prep on a budget, the most important thing is to keep an eye on the unit price for the food you’re buying. The less you pay per ounce or pound of food, the better.
4. Eat Less Meat
If you’re used to a high protein diet, then you know how expensive meat can be. If you can find ways to eat sub in cheaper protein sources like nuts, beans, or dairy products, it can be a huge money-saver. Eating less meat is by far the easiest way to prep cheap meals. Here are some vegetarian meal prep ideas to help!
5. Reduce Food Waste
The average American throws away over $600 a year in food! One of the easiest ways to meal prep on a budget is to simply eat the food you buy. The less food you throw away, the less food you have to buy!
6. Meal plan based on what’s on sale
Most people get to the store, buy everything on their list, and then hope to find some coupons along the way. One of the best ways to meal prep on a budget is to plan your meals based on what is on sale at the store. This will help you really make some cheap meals and spend less on groceries.
7. Freeze it
Whenever I make chili or soup, I try to make enough to freeze for the days where we haven’t had time to go by the store and don’t have any food. The biggest weakness when it comes to eating out is the desire for convenience. I’m all about finding easy meal prep recipes! If you’ve got any favorites, share them in the comments below!
8. Clean out the pantry & freezer
Go take a look at your pantry and freezer! It’s way too easy for pantry and freezer foods to start piling up. You probably have a bunch of half-eaten bags of rice, oats, grits, and pasta.
If you’re looking to save a bit of cash the next few months then do a quick check on everything you have stocked up to and use those foods for your next meal prep.
9. Keep convenience meals on hand
The biggest diet & budget killer is convenience. After a long day at work it is way too easy to stop by chipotle on the way home. Eating out for lunch and those quick take-out stops can quickly add up and break your budget.
Having a few convenience meals on hand can go a long way towards staying consistent. We love to make chili and freeze half so we always have a meal ready to heat up in a pinch.
10. Shop at cheaper stores
An easy way to meal prep on a budget is to shop at cheaper stores. Places like costco, walmart, and ALDI tend to be cheaper than upper-scale grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
11. Eat food in-season
Fruits and veggies are staples of any diet, but they can have wide swings in cost depending on the time of year. Sometimes we’ll see blueberries and strawberries going for $1/lb and other times they’ll be 3-4x as expensive!
Keep your eye on what’s in-season to save money meal prepping.
Richmond Howard started Meal Prepify in 2019 and has helped over a million people learn how to meal prep, get better at meal planning, and create a kitchen they love to use. He’s an avid home chef and loves to bbq, grill out, and make awesome food for family and friends. He’s been featured on MSN, Renaissance Periodization, and Good Financial Cents.