Beginners Guide to Meal Prepping On a Budget
Cooking & Meal Prepping 101
A lot of people ask me how I have a $60 per month grocery bill. Do I eat cardboard? Nothing but rice? Well no…
Is everything boring and bland? Complicated? There has to be a catch right?… Well no again
In this post I’m going to focus on the tools and principles you’ll need to up your meal prep game. I can’t promise this will lead to lowering your grocery bill all the way to $60 but this article can give you the guidance to either start cooking or cook more efficiently. Once you understand this post you can pair it with my Budget recipes and shopping list post.
So now it’s time to convince you that you’re ready to start cooking all your own meals.
Won’t I Need a Bunch of Expensive Appliances or a Big Kitchen?
One of my favorite things to do when teaching is first removing excuses. I like it so much I wrote an entire blog about eliminating excuses. Now that doesn’t mean I’m trying to shame or scold anyone. I know we all, myself included, talk ourselves out of things because we’re great at manufacturing excuses.
Let’s Tackle These Excuses
I need a big kitchen
I would have totally understood this one…until I got my current home. We don’t even have a stove or a dishwasher. We also don’t really miss a normal setup. We make due with a counter top oven, a single portable stove eye, the Instant Pot and occasionally the Sous Vide
It takes too long
How long does it take you to drive somewhere and pickup some food. 15 minutes? If you did that twice per day that’s 2.5 hours per work week. I can promise you that it does not take me 2.5 hours to cook 10 meals for myself. The trick is cooking big batches which is possible even with my baby oven.
I need to be a skilled cook
Can you toss something in olive oil? Operate a salt and pepper shaker? Turn on an oven? Then you have plenty of skill for this and any recipe I’ll provide.
Recommended Tool Set for Cooking at Home
I often hate cooking at someone else’s house because I can’t find anything. The list of things you need are very limited but unfortunately more people seem to have three types of mixers but not a single sharp chef knife. If you have the following basics, you’re good to go.
Chef Knife - absolute must. Using a dull undersized knife is no fun and dangerous. You don’t need to spend a fortune, just sharpen it periodically.
Silicon Spatula - Much easier to clean, better for getting every bit out of a pan, safe for nonstick cookware
Large cutting board - You’ll quickly get frustrated and make a mess with a tiny cutting board
Large metal bowls - When you start making giant batches of food, these are life savers
Aluminum Foil - When you’re baking things, lining with foil eliminates the need to wash the pan
Large baking sheet- Basically whatever the largest sheets your oven can handle
Food Containers - Having individual meal containers allow you to portion control yourself and visualize your food for the week
Non-Stick skillet - Eggs are a cornerstone of my budget an my single T-Fal skillet has been a champ for years
These are just a few simple rules of thumb that I always use when grocery shopping and cooking. Everyone has their way but these methods have never let me down.
You’re Freezer is Sacred
What? Sacred? Yes you read me correctly. Typically when your shopping, proteins will be the most costly. I eat a good bit of meat and if I’m not careful, it can wreck my budget. I solve this by always keeping an eye out on those amazing manager special deals and filling up my freezer so that space is extremely valuable.
I Like Big Batches and I Cannot Lie
I just had to do that… Anyways, when cooking you’ll want to avoid cooking again. If you try to cook everyday, you’ll get burned out on cleaning up and frustrated by all the time you’re spending. The answer is cooking giant amounts of food. A common one for me is 6 lbs of chicken in the Instant Pot, 6 lbs of sweet potatoes in the top oven rack, 3 lbs of broccoli in the bottom rack. I’m only limited to this because of my baby oven. You could cook even more and all within the oven if you have a standard kitchen. Don’t forget that aluminum foil so you can avoid heavy cleaning.
Keep Grocery Lists Generic
Yes I try to do a quick front page scan of the two local grocery stores to see about specials but in general I have little idea what in the world I’ll be buying until the sale paper comes out, or more likely, I’m in the store. I don’t image what meals I’ll have before I go, instead I go and find items that are deeply discounted and then create a recipe with the ingredients I’ve gathered.
For instance, I might say I need a protein, but if pork is much cheaper than chicken, I’m getting the pork. I don’t make ultimatums on my grocery list. If you start going to the store with your mind made up, you’ll miss a lot of good deals.
Avoid Ingredients Creep
The main reason I hate recipes online is because they’ll have 30 ingredients and half I’ll never use again. So many of those ingredients add almost no value but really tip the scales on cost. Salt, pepper, EVOO, garlic powder…these are your friends. Not the random sauces and garnishes.
It even goes beyond that. If you’re making tacos and you left off the bell pepper, would it ruin it? What about the cheese? Blasphemous right? Well just try it and see. You’d be surprised how many ingredients your paying for are being masked by the other more dominant flavors.
Hoard, Hoard, Hoard
If someone is throwing some food away, grab it. If that table in the break-room has some free food for the taking, grab it. When I travel, I normally have food containers with me because whether it’s a lounge or a hotel there’ll probably be a hoarding opportunity.
Just this week I found these rice side dish packs down from $1 piece to $0.30 so I grabbed 12. Reese’s puffs for $1.38 a box, so I grabbed five. There will be times when deals are hard to come but you’ll have your stash to fall back on.
Know Your Staples
When the sale gods are against you, the staples provide hope. No matter what is going on, I know I can always revert to breakfast tacos for all my meals. That’s because eggs are a great cheap staple. Boneless skinless chicken breast is my next staple. I’ve lived in three areas of the U.S. and never had great trouble finding it for $1.69-$1.99 per lb. Bread $1 loaf. Then you have Potatoes, rice, and beans. Grow your list of things you like that always give a good price per ounce ratio and fall back on those when deals are scarce.
Putting It All Together
So you have the tools and the principles to find the groceries. You’re going to season that food in a simple but tasty manner. You’re going to cook it in large batches with minimum cleanup. Then you’re going to portion it out into individual meals for the week. It’s likely you’ll only be doing this once a week.
That’s all well and good but maybe you’re still needing some inspiration on exactly what is you should cook or what your shopping list might look like. Head on over to the Frugal Recipe and Shopping List guide for further inspiration.