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Meal prep is a frugal superstar – because not only does it save money, but it also saves time. Whether you are novice cook or a pro in the kitchen, you can use my time- and money-saving tips for easy ways to meal prep your food.
What is Meal Prep?
Meal Prep is simply preparing food in advance – either to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer – so that it is ready to use when you are ready to cook.
In theory, food prepping is easy. However, putting it into practice is a little more difficult. Like most frugal things, the best meal prep takes a little work up front – and you reap the reward further down the road.
You will get a running start, however, with my best meal prepping strategies.
How Does Meal Prep Work?
How meal prep works is that you prepare food and meals for the coming week ahead of time. You can do it in one of two ways. You can either completely tackle menu preparation and keep ready-to-eat meals in your fridge or freezer or you can just food prep the ingredients that you will use for your meals so that there is less hassle when it’s time to cook.
Both methods require some advance thought and meal plan ideas – if not an exact day-by-day, meal-by-meal meal plan.
Cooks who meal prep complete meals for every meal of the week are tasked with a big job up front, but then relish in not having to cook the rest of the week. The one draw back to meal prepping an entire week’s worth of food is that eliminates choice. Finicky eaters and those who like spontaneity in their fare might struggle with this method.
Food prepping just the ingredients, but storing them separately in the fridge, allows for more flexibility in your meal plan and versatility in your dining options. The ready-to-go ingredients can be combined in dozens of different meals using a range of spices and sauces based on your taste of the moment. The one disadvantage, however, is that the food still needs to be assembled into a meal, which takes some effort (albeit minimal if all the ingredients are truly prepped!).
The best way to meal plan – whether you completely pre-make meals or just get the ingredients ready – is up to you! Personally, I do a little of both for my weekly meal plan.
Why You Should Meal Prep
There are an incredible number of benefits to prepping food in advance. I’m sharing a few of the top reasons why you might want to hone your meal prep skills.
Having prepared food at your fingertips is one of the top reasons to start meal prepping. With food in your fridge or freezer that is ready to eat, you will be much less tempted to abandon your budget and opt instead to eat out at a restaurant.
This is especially true for weekday lunches at the office. Meal prepping lunches in advance not only saves time and hassle during the week, but it is also a lot cheaper than eating fast food or pricey restaurant lunches.
Endure Less Stress
There can be a lot of stress when faced with the task to prepare a meal at the end of a long day. The idea of chopping, cutting and cooking is daunting on a day-to-day basis. With your pre-made easy meal prep recipes, however, your fridge and freezer become a grab-and-go zone.
Creates Freedom and Flexibility
Meal planning and preparation might sound like a chore – and, yes, there is work to be done – but that effort at the beginning goes a long way toward freedom later.
By preparing foods in advance, you create more freedom in your day to day living. You will have more freedom over your time, more flexibility in your meal options…and more money in the bank.
Save Money and Time with Budget Meal Prep
Ultimately, meal food prep is about saving time and money.
People who use cheap meal prep tricks will save money by making delicious and healthy meals to eat at home, rather than succumbing to expensive meals out. If done in conjunction with a good meal plan, meal prepping can help you eliminate food waste – which saves heaps of money, too!
Meal prepping in batches also saves time. You don’t have to stand in the kitchen cooking delicious dinners every single night if you make bigger batches of food. A multi-meal casserole or big pot of soup are examples of food that can be eaten throughout the week. Furthermore, by prepping ingredients – like chopped onions or cooked chicken – putting together nightly dinners becomes a breeze.
I’m sharing my top food prep tips to save time and money!
Should I Buy Food Meal Prepped?
Buying meal prep foods – like already cut carrots, jars of minced garlic or even ready-to-eat meals – is a great solution for saving time. However, the upcharge for these items is harsh. It can easily cost 4 times the amount (if not more!) than purchasing the product whole and meal prepping it yourself.
To figure out the cost, price compare the products by price-per-ounce – it’s one of my top Budget Grocery Tips!
Of course, you can buy meal prep food or subscribe to a meal prep service, but I can guarantee you that learning how to prepare meals on your own is cheaper. A lot cheaper.
In fact, the cheapest meal prep method is doing the work yourself. Don’t worry though – I’m sharing my best meal prep tips and tricks to make it easy!
9 Meal Prep Tips
My nine tips on meal prep cover everything from how to do a meal prep to specific foods to prep in advance. While my list focuses on meal prep for beginners, I share a few gems that even seasoned budget cooks might enjoy!
#1 Start with a Meal Plan
My first tip for how to start meal prep is to start with a meal plan. Meal prep strategies simply won’t work if you don’t have some sort of structured meal plan to work from. You don’t necessarily need a 3-Meals a Day for 7 Days of the Week plan (although it’s not a bad idea), but you do need to carefully consider what meals you intend to make in the coming week.
One of the easiest meal plans to employ – and one of the often touted meal prepping tips and tricks for beginners – is to simply make one of two meals for the entire week. Personally, I caution against this. While chicken and rice sounds great today, it will likely lose its luster by Day 5 (and definitely by Day 7!).
Make sure there is a little diversity in your meal plan so that you don’t get bored with it!
#2 Prep the Food that Takes the Most Time
When first learning how to meal prep, I recommend focusing on the big things – the foods that take the most time to prepare.
This, of course, will depend on what you plan to eat for the week. Generally speaking, however, think about things like baking chicken, cooking beans and chopping vegetables.
Preparing dinner is so much easier when the time-consuming foods are already prepared.
#3 Meal Prepping Tips for Organization
One of the major components to learning how to prep food is creating a method of organization. Spending your valuable time preparing food is not beneficial if you are just going to push it all into the fridge in a haphazard, disorganized fashion.
The best meal prep plan is organized. I recommend portioning the prepared foods into meal size servings. Arrange the food in your fridge so lunches are easy to grab before work and your dinners (or dinner ingredients) are paired together and ready to be pulled to be reheated or assembled.
#4 Bulk Meal Prep Containers
A key to organized and easy to make meal prep is the right storage containers. While I admit that I use some cheap meal prep containers (like my old yogurt and cottage cheese dishes) for some prepped foods, investing in a set of good storage containers can make a big difference in your food preparation success.
I share more details about the best meal prep storage containers a bit later.
#5 Bulk Meal Prep
One of the fabulous things about preparing meals ahead of time is that you can make things in bulk – and then freeze batches of food to be consumed the following week or even next month.
Some of the top freezer meal prepping ideas for beginners are soups and casseroles, but let me tell you, there are so many more make ahead dishes that can be frozen for later consumption.
A few of the healthy food preparation items that I like to make in big batches and then freeze are homemade hummus, crustless quiche and DIY veggie patties.
#6 Don’t Get Bored with the Chore
There are no hard and fast rules about how to properly meal prep. That said, one of my personal top tips for meal prepping is to double down with some entertainment.
Once you are beyond the point of making a beginner meal prep plan and are comfortable and confident with the recipes you are making, add a little enjoyment to the chore.
Listen to your favorite tunes while cooking – or an audiobook while making meals for the week. (Did you know you get audiobooks from the library straight to your device for free? It’s one of the best ideas on my list of Free Things To Do!).
#7 Enlist Meal Prep Help
If you are cooking for you and your significant other or your entire family, don’t go at it alone. Ask for meal prepping help. The more people chopping and dicing, the quicker the task will be completed. Plus, it can be a fun way to spend time together.
On the other hand, if you are cooking just for yourself, one of the fun tips to meal prep is to find a meal prepping friend. It’s not only more fun to prepare meals together, but you can even swap dishes of your 1 Week Meal Prep to diversify your own weekly menu.
#8 Set a Time Limit for Efficient Meal Prepping
Meal prep can be time consuming…if you let it be. Avoid an All Day meal prep by setting a time limit for your cooking endeavors.
It may take beginners a little longer to get into the swing of the process. However, once you establish a meal prep routine, making meals for an entire week can take just a few hours.
I typically complete the task on a weekend, when it conveniently fits my schedule. My weekly basic meal prep plan takes approximately two hours to complete. However, when I’m making big batches of freezer meals (that will last for a month or longer), I allow for an additional hour.
#9 Plan your Meal Prep
Without a doubt, the best way to meal prep is with a solid plan. In fact, planning your preparations is one of my top tips for meal prep cooking.
Before turning on the oven and getting out the cutting board, make a plan for your entire meal prep session. Ideally, you will multitask your meal prep – so that you will prep ingredients for several meals at once…at the same time that you cook multiple complete meals.
To do this, first look at the recipes you plan on using for the week – and see what common ingredients you will be using. For example, if two of your recipes require chopped carrots, peel and chop enough carrots for both recipes at once.
Next, look at which recipes require the longest cook times and get those started early in your session, if possible. Follow up with a well-timed schedule of simultaneous cooking so that there is little to no downtime.
Later in the article I share my most recent Meal Prep Planning Schedule as an example of how to meal prep for beginners and those looking to streamline their system.
How To Do Meal Prep
If done right, meal prep can be a game changer to your cooking routine. It can help you save time and money. It can help you stick to a meal plan and stick to your budget. It can help you to actually use what you buy at the grocery store and waste less food.
But where do you start? What can you prep to freeze and what food can you prepare ahead for the fridge? I’m sharing a few specific tips on the best ways to meal prep to help get you started.
Things To Prep Ahead to Freeze
Some of the best meal prep foods are ones that can be prepared and frozen. I love freezer-made meals and ingredients, as it makes lunch and dinnertime so much easier!
Onions and Garlic
Garlic and onions are my favorite healthy and cheap flavor enhancers. They can jazz up any frugal food and I use them in almost all of my meals. Of course, they are both tedious to peel and chop – but buying already minced garlic and pre chopped onions comes at a high price.
Therefore, the best meal prep trick for onions and garlic is to chop and freeze them in batches. In fact, with a food processor, you can dice onions and mince garlic in huge batches (separately, of course!). Then, line a baking tray with parchment paper and spread the onions and garlic in a single layer – and put it in the freezer. Allow 3-4 hours to freeze completely, then transfer to a jar or baggie.
This way, it’s simple to get as much as you need for a recipe. It’s so much easier than chopping them for each individual meal…and so much cheaper than buying the product already chopped at the grocery store.
Cooked Potatoes and Rice
Potatoes are often found on budget grocery lists, as they are inexpensive and contain vitamins and nutrients. However, I have always dreaded having to clean, peel and cut potatoes for my meal. Making them ahead of time, however, makes it easy to incorporate potatoes into weeknight meals.
To be honest, already cooked potatoes are one of the best cheap meal prep ideas.
Roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes and even hash browns can be made in advance and then frozen for easy meals throughout the week.
You can also prepare food, like cooked rice, ahead of time and freeze it in serving size portions. Although I don’t find cooking rice to be a tedious chore during the week, pre-made rice in the freezer is great for households with teenagers who don’t want to fuss with cooking rice.
Using beans in dishes is one of the top tips on meal planning on a budget. They are a fantastic and inexpensive source of protein. I typically use canned beans for my meals, but it is much more cost efficient to buy dry beans and prep them yourself. The big bonus is that beans freeze extremely well.
Therefore, you can cook a big batch of beans, store them in 2-cup portions (about the size of a can) and have them ready to go for soups, chilis, casseroles or side dishes!
The one caveat is that dry beans cook best if soaked thoroughly. Just make sure to add this step to your meal prep routine!
Cheese is one of the foods that is much cheaper when purchased in bulk. Additionally, the price per ounce for a bulk block of cheese costs significantly less than already shredded cheese.
As such, one of my meal planning tips is to buy the large block, shred it yourself and store it in usable portions in the freezer. If you find that your shredded cheese clumps together in the freezer, shake in a little cornstarch when it is freshly shredded.
Chicken features regularly in my weekly menu meal plan – which is why I love to batch cook chicken and then freeze it. Seriously, frozen chicken makes prepping dinner an absolute cinch!
Personally, I think the best meal prep chicken is a whole chicken. Whole chickens are typically the least expensive (especially if you use the carcass to make broth) – plus, you get a variety of white and dark meat, which helps differentiate your meals.
Once cooked, the whole chicken can be shredded, cubed or sliced into usable portions and then frozen. I also keep some in the fridge – and I discuss that in the next sections.
Fruits for Smoothies
I love consuming fresh fruit smoothies – especially in the summertime when the weather is hot. They are great as frugal snacks or can be a complete meal.
Fruit that is ripe – or even slightly over ripe – is great for smoothies (so grabbing discount fruits from the grocery store that are about to go off or freezing what is about to go bad in your fridge is ideal).
The best way to meal prep smoothies is to freeze your fruit combinations together in one container. Then, all you need to do is grab that one container, toss it into the blender with a little water (or liquid of your choice) and blend!
Tips on Meal Prepping Seldom Used Ingredients
Seldom used ingredients – such as lemon juice or herbs – are some of the best meal prep items to freeze. In fact, these are a few of my favorite frugal food hacks.
Squeeze fresh lemon juice, then measure into 1 tablespoon portions in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, transfer the lemon cubes to a bag or jar in the freezer. You can do the same thing with fresh herbs in olive oil. Wine for cooking can also be frozen in small measurements in your ice cube tray!
Frozen Meals to Meal Prep
Freezing entire meals – such as casseroles, pot pie, lasagna and stir fry dishes – are great, especially for large families. In fact, most of these meals can be assembled, then frozen and cooked from frozen – making the process of making a mid-week dinner even easier.
My homemade veggie patties are a classic example. I triple the recipe to make 30 patties at one time. I form the patties and stack them (using parchment paper to separate the patties). Then I freeze them in large baggies or casserole-size containers. For lunch, all I need to do is pop the frozen patty into the toaster oven and it’s ready in 30 minutes.
Many already cooked meals can also be frozen – and I find it particularly useful to freeze already cooked meals in single serving sizes.
For example, my large crustless quiche makes 6 servings. Rather than eating quiche for lunch for an entire week, I can store two in the fridge and 4 other individual pieces in the freezer. The frozen pieces can be reheated in the toaster oven from frozen.
Likewise, hummus is a great light meal or simple frugal appetizer that can be frozen. With my food processor, I can make a triple batch of hummus just as easily as I can make a single serving. So, I make the triple batch – and store multiple portions in the freezer. It just needs to be transferred from the freezer to the fridge a day before consumption.
Best Meal Prep Ideas for Fridge
Preparing food for a week requires some thought and organization – especially when it comes to what to prep ahead to store in the fridge. You don’t want your food to spoil – and some foods won’t last in the fridge for a full 7 days.
That said, hearty vegetables, pastas and some proteins are great make-ahead ingredients that can be used throughout the week.
Note: How long food safely lasts in your fridge depends on several factors – including type of food and fridge temperature and efficiency. If you are unsure how long to leave food in your fridge, you can adhere to the advice from the FDA.
One of the top cheap healthy meal prep ideas is to cook a whole chicken (as I mentioned above). While I do often freeze chicken, if I intend to consume it in the next 5 days, I simply store it in the fridge. I use chicken in salads and stir frys that I prep beforehand and then combine at mealtime.
I also use chicken in soups, stews and casseroles. If I use chicken for these fully prepared meals for the week, I make sure to eat it at the beginning of the week, when it is fresh.
If something goes awry in my meal plan and I won’t get to the chicken in the allotted time, I switch it from the fridge to the freezer before it goes bad.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Hard boiled eggs are one of the basic meal prep ideas – and an item I love to have on hand in the fridge. Ideal for a good cheap breakfast, as a snack or as part of lunch, hard boiled eggs can be kept in the fridge for a full week.
On the same note, did you know you can prep other eggs, too? Scrambled eggs, fried eggs and even omelets can be cooked then kept in the fridge (for 4 days) or even the freezer.
I love getting vegetables chopped, sliced, diced and ready for a week’s worth of meals.
The best meal prep vegetables are root vegetables (like carrots), leafy vegetables (like cabbage and Brussels sprouts) and squash (like zucchini).
Some of the other best meal prep veggies are celery and peppers – and I like to at least wash tomatoes in advance.
When I cut vegetables for stir fries and salads, I typically use one storage container for all of the ingredients for that stir fry or salad.
A few of the best meal prep salads are Asian salads (using cabbage, carrots, yellow peppers and edamame), Mexican salads (with black beans, corn, red peppers, avocado and salsa) and Mediterranean salads (with tomatoes, cucumber, kalamata olives and feta cheese).
Do note, however, that some veggies – like cucumbers – only last a day or two in the fridge once cut. To help make them last longer, wrap cut cucumbers in a damp towel.
Pasta is one of the cheap easy meal prep ideas for the fridge – especially if you crave diversity or have kids in the house.
Cook an entire box of pasta – then toss it with olive oil and store it in the fridge. It can then be dressed up with different sauces and toppings to make a variety of different meals.
Alternatively, you can make pasta meals – like an Italian pasta salad filled with fresh veggies, ham and black olives or a basic spaghetti with sauce – and store that in the fridge for a few days, as well.
Food Prep for Pantry
You may be wondering, How do you meal prep the pantry? Not to worry, it can actually be quite simple! You just need to keep it stocked with the basics for preparing a healthy meal.
Keeping your pantry stocked with ready prepped food is helpful if you find yourself in a pinch.
Dry, whole grains – such as oatmeal, barley and wild rice – are pantry staples that can be used in an array of meals.
Whole rolled oats are a personal favorite of mine – as they serve as a quick and easy breakfast meal, but can also be used as a healthy filler to stews, soups and casseroles.
Dry beans are a solid frugal choice, but keeping a couple of cheap canned beans in your pantry can save the day if you don’t have any in the freezer or forgot to soak your dry beans overnight.
Canned diced tomatoes are another pantry item that can help to make a meal in a hurry.
Sauces and Broth
Salsa and pasta sauce are great to have on hand to help enhance ready made meals.
It’s a good idea to keep broth in the pantry, too (but it’s more cost effective to make your own from your chicken bones and veggie scraps!).
Kitchen Tools: How To Make Meal Prepping Easier
Above, I shared some of my best meal prep tips for beginners regarding how and what to prep for meals throughout the week. I have a few more tips, however, about how to make meal prep easy – or at least as simple as possible!
One of the top tips for meal prepping for the week is to store your pre-made food in the right storage containers.
The best meal prep containers are made of quality products that are freezable – as well as dishwasher and microwave safe. Furthermore, it is essential to choose a product that seals tightly and won’t leak. Ideally, your containers will come in a variety of sizes, be stackable and are made of clear material so that the contents are visible.
A set of good meal prep containers can be expensive, but the right product – one that will last – is a good investment. A meal prep container set – like this one – comes highly recommended.
Glass containers – and even glass mason jars – also work great for storing meal prepped food in the fridge and freezer. That said, they can cost a bundle to buy from the store. I recommend seeking out used mason jars at thrift stores or garage sales for the best price.
A food processor is a great tool in the kitchen and is often the easiest way to meal prep. So many ingredients and complete meals can be made in a food processor – and it saves you from having to spend your precious time hovering over a cutting board.
An affordable food processor – like this mini processor – can get the job done (and it’s great for a minimalist kitchen setup!). However, a larger processor might be more beneficial for chefs who like to batch cook or are cooking for a large family.
Cutting Board and Knife
One of the best food prep tips is to invest in a good cutting board and knife. Even if you use a food processor, you still need to trim and chop veggies, fruits and meats into the right size pieces.
Personally, I like to use wooden cutting boards. This board is great because it features a groove to keep juices from spilling over the edge and slip-proof corners.
A good knife set is imperative for meal prep. That said, you don’t need an entire block of knives – just two really good knives – like these knives – should do the trick!
Slow Cooker or Instant Pot
A slow cooker – like this one – is an awesome device to batch meal prep large meals – like stews and soups.
That said, an Instant Pot is likely even more useful – as the best are multifaceted and can function as a rice cooker, a slow cooker, a steamer and a yogurt maker.
Meal Planner Lists
Just as important as it is to organize your food in containers in your fridge and freezer, it is also important to organize your weekly meal plan, grocery list and favorite recipes. My Meal Planner Kit features all three – so that you can stay organized and efficient!
Example Meal Prep Plan
While my best tips and tricks for meal prepping likely already have you on your way to your kitchen to get started, I want to share a real-life example of how I prep meals in my kitchen.
I’m sharing the strategy of my most recent 2-hour weekly meal prep to better illustrate how the process works. I cook for 2 people, myself and my husband.
My meal plan for the week includes different variations of chicken salads (Asian Chicken Salad, Mexican Chicken Salad), Chicken Stir Fry, Sweet Potato Black Bean Casserole and Garlic Lemon Chicken and potatoes. For lunches, barley veg stew and hummus are on the menu (as well as veggie patties, but those were made and frozen the previous week!).
The Food Prepping Process
First, I prep the chicken (a whole chicken in this case, but it could be chicken breasts) and get it in the oven. While the chicken is cooking, I cut and chop vegetables for the stew and casserole. Then, I start the stew and once that is going, I mix the casserole.
When the chicken is done, I slide the casserole in the oven. While the stew and casserole cook, I boil potatoes…and while those are boiling, I whip up hummus in the food processor.
As the potatoes cool, I shred or cube the chicken. I put meal-size portions of the hummus, potatoes and chicken into containers – some are designated for the freezer, while others go in the fridge.
I continue cutting veggies for specific salads and stir fries – as well as meal prep vegetables to dip in hummus. I combine the ingredients together for each meal in one single storage container (although I do keep them separate from the lettuce).
Finally, while letting the casserole and stew cool, I make the sauces and dressings for each salad.
Food Prep Meals for the Week
With my 2-hour meal prep, I have created 12 meals, with 2 servings per meal (one for me and one for my husband).
My meal prep lunches include 3 meals (6 servings) of barley veg stew and 2 meals (4 servings) of hummus. Our other 2 lunches for the week are 2 veggie patty meals, already frozen from the previous week.
My meal prep dinners include an Asian Chicken Salad, a Mexican Chicken Salad, a Chicken Stir Fry, 2 meals of casserole and 2 meals of chicken and potatoes.
Because I made a large 6-serving casserole and I tripled the recipe for hummus, there are extra portions that I froze – so those meals are ready made to be eaten on a future date.
It’s as simple as that!
More Tips for Food Prep and Cooking Frugal Meals
My top tips for food prepping should put you in the right direction for success – but I have a few more tips for making frugal meals.
Novice cooks might also find my Frugal Cooking Tips to be helpful – and cooks looking to budget every last cent should take a look at my $50 Weekly Grocery List for inspiration.
Up for a real challenge? Take on my $5 a Day Food Challenge – and see how low you can with your grocery food bill!
Interested in more of my Frugal Food Tips? I round them all up (including my favorite Frugal Snacks) on my Frugal Food blog page!
And, find more of our saving money Pinterest Pins on our Pinterest Boards!