Have you ever found yourself standing in front of your fridge or pantry, wondering what to have for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? The problem with this approach is that it can be incredibly easy to choose not-so-healthy foods.
If you have a meal plan in place, you can avoid this scenario. You already know what you’re going to make, increasing the likelihood that you’ll stick to a healthy diet.
But there’s also another benefit of doing some advanced meal prepping. If you do it right, you can actually save yourself quite a bit of cash.
How Meal Planning Leads to Saved Cash
One way meal planning can help you keep more of your hard-earned cash is that it reduces the chances that you’ll eat out due to a lack of planning. A healthy meal at a typical fast-food restaurant is usually somewhere between $5 and $10. Order from a sit-down restaurant and you will often pay a higher amount.
If you do this just once per week, taking the time to meal plan can save you several hundred dollars per year. Do it more than once a week and you can cut your food-related expenses even more. This is money that you can put back into your budget so it isn’t quite so tight. Another option is to put your savings in the bank and have the comfort of a rainy-day fund.
Meal planning also reduces your food waste. Because you’ve put some thought into it, you can plan your meals in a way where you use the items you have on hand. This limits the items that must be thrown out because they are spoiled or past their safe use date.
Is It Possible to Do Healthy Meal Prep with Limited Monies?
There is a huge misconception that healthy meal planning is impossible when you are on a budget. However, nutritious foods aren’t only available to people in a higher financial bracket. You can also plan a healthy, cheap meal if you’re somewhat strapped.
The key is to know how to meal prep on a budget, which we’ll get into in a moment. But it also involves creating meals that are as satisfying to the taste buds as they are to the wallet. When you enjoy the foods you eat, you’re more likely to stick with your plan.
Experimenting with various spices can help. This helps keep you from getting bored with your diet and most spices last a long time. You can even grow them yourself if you want to save more money while giving your foods a huge boost of flavor.
5 Steps to Budget Meal Planning
If you’re interested in meal prepping in a way that doesn’t hurt your budget, follow these five steps.
Step 1: Review Your Fridge and Pantry
One of the biggest ways to waste money is to buy food items you already have at home. That’s why the first step to budget meal prepping is to take stock of your fridge and pantry. This keeps you from doubling up on things you don’t yet need. It also frees up more monies in your budget to get the things you do.
Step 2: Check Out Local Ads
Most grocery stores still mail out ads, giving local customers a preview of their current sales. Instead of throwing those ads away, take the time to go through them. Look for foods that you can work into your menu plan that week.
Don’t feel like you have to stick to your regular grocery store either. Check out the ads for other area supermarkets. It may be worth it to stop at a couple of different locations. Or you may find that your store isn’t as cost-friendly as you’d like and you could save more if you started shopping elsewhere.
Step 3: Download Coupons
Gone are the days where you have to sit down with a newspaper or circular and cut out coupons for the items you buy. Now, when you sign up for a store’s loyalty program, you can download or “clip” these coupons directly to your phone. Then, when you check out, the savings are automatically applied to your bill.
Make it a point to review available coupons at least once a week. The last thing you want to do is buy something only to get home and find that you could have got it at a reduced rate had you downloaded the coupon first.
Some stores send extra coupons to people who sign up for rewards. And these coupons are often customized, meaning that they are for items that you typically buy. This provides savings above and beyond what everyone else can get.
Step 4: Come Up with a Meal Plan
After seeing what you have at home, reviewing the ads, and downloading all available coupons for items you normally buy, it’s time to come up with meal prep ideas. Create a weekly meal plan that takes all of these into consideration, offering maximum savings.
Maybe you have brown rice in the pantry, but nothing to go with it. Then you notice that chicken thighs are on sale this week and the store has a downloadable coupon for a frozen veggie packet. These all work together to create a healthy, budget-friendly meal.
Step 5: Create Your Grocery Shopping List
Once you’ve created your meal plan, it’s time to write out your grocery shopping list. This ensures that you’ll get all of the items you need to follow through with that week’s menu. It also minimizes the need to go to the store more often than necessary.
This step is important because research has found that shopping with a list reduces the likelihood that you’ll make an impulse purchase. These types of purchases make it easy to spend more than you intend. So, the more you can avoid them, the easier it becomes to stay within your desired budget.
Additional Tips for Mastering Meal Prep on a Budget
There are a few other things you can do to take your meal prepping to the next level.
Turn cheap meal prep into a challenge. Make a game out of your meal planning to see how much you can save. Try to save more than you did last week.
Brainstorm meal prep ideas with family and friends. Talk with others about what they do to create healthy meals without breaking the bank. Some may have cheap meal prep ideas you’ve never thought about. You may be able to help them too.
Start a cheap meal prep recipe exchange. If you’re tired of cooking the same meals or aren’t an expert in the kitchen, start a recipe exchange. Set up a social media group where people can share their favorite low-cost, high-nutrient meals.
Set up a meal prep container. Every night, do your meal prep for the next day. Put all of the items you’ll need for tomorrow’s meals in a container for easy access. Healthy meals start with a healthy kitchen.
Always keep basic pantry staples on hand. You can have the best meal plan in the world, yet not be able to follow it because something suddenly pops up. You have to work late or take care of an emergency family situation. Having basic pantry staples on hand help you prepare a healthy meal on the fly. Food items to consider are brown rice, quinoa, cans of tuna, and frozen fruit.
Have a list of easy meal ideas for extra busy days. Also keep on hand a list of easy meals for those days where you know in advance that you’re going to be tired and won’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. A slow cooker or Instant Pot is good for this purpose. Put your meal in it in the morning before you head out and it’s ready to eat when you get home.
Nutrient-Packed Meal Prep Ideas for a Budget Meal Plan
Which food items work well together to make a healthy meal without hurting your budget? Chicken is one. Generally speaking, chicken is usually cheaper than pork or beef. You can save even more if you buy a whole chicken versus buying individual chicken parts.
Throw the chicken in a slow cooker and cover it with chicken stock. Sprinkle it in even amounts of cumin and chili powder. Once it’s tender, shred it with a fork and add canned beans. This makes a great white chicken chili that is low in fat but high in taste and nutrition. Throw in some bell pepper and onion for more flavor.
If you prefer chicken breast over a whole chicken, a cheap meal prep idea is to plan for a burrito bowl. Put a little olive oil in a pan and throw in a chicken breast. When it’s cooked through, add some taco seasoning and stir it well. At the same time, boil brown rice. Put the brown rice in a bowl and top it with the seasoned chicken. Add a layer of beans (black bean works well) then top it with diced tomatoes and a little bit of cheese.
You can also meal prep breakfast foods, helping you save even more cash. One of the easiest is overnight oats. You make overnight oats in the slow cooker, saving you the time of having to make it in the morning. For best results, use steel cut oats. If you’ve never made them, you can find a recipe online.
For a low-cost lunch on the go, make a tuna sandwich on whole wheat or pre-cook some ground turkey or lean ground beef and throw it on a bed of leafy greens. Add chickpea, a vegetable or two (chopped carrots work well), and your favorite salad dressing. Throw it in a container and take it with you.
An apple with a couple scoops of peanut butter is a great snack option that doesn’t cost a lot. Greek yogurt is another option and one that can usually be found on sale. If you want something sweet, a sweet potato sprinkled with cinnamon is a low-cost way to satisfy this urge.
Learn even more ways to put together a healthy meal plan by earning your ISSA Nutritionist certification. This course teaches you how to educate clients about what to eat and how to make it a healthy and doable lifestyle.