Sorry for the long as all get out hiatus. Work life has been both amazing and overwhelming. More on that later. We moved (twice in 4 mo) across the country. We bought a house. I have a new, amazing job. I hosted a huge data event. But now, things are starting to slow down.
I’ve been getting some requests for how we keep our budget to a minimum and how to start meal prep. I also get asked “what recipes do you recommend?” So, I’m reviving the blog and talking about some meal prep hacks and recipes. I am a meal prep evangelist because it is the only way we’ve survived moving, me being a single-earner, and saving for a house. Now, we’re relying heavy on it to recover the INSANE hit to our savings that this cost us. It also saves me time and mental energy I don’t have. I assure you the reason your friends talk about meal prep is it makes their lives easier. It is not some insane KonMari cousin. You do not to take days off of work to do it. You do not have to spend all day doing it.
My meal prep hacks are somewhat simple but some require some peripherals. More on that here. For the most effective meal prep, you need a bit of space and some appliances. There is some upfront cost but it can be done on the cheap. You can also modify some of this to fit your needs.
This post is going to outline the basics of the approach but subsequent posts will outline some things in more detail.
To begin, why should you even do this?
- It saves money – BOATLOADS of money.
- It saves time on cooking but also SHOPPING.
- It lessens the stress burden many people feel if they are the primary cooks. I assure you that my husband does NOT cook but he is capable of popping something in the crock pot. That saves me wasted emotional energy.
For meal prep, you absolutely need:
- A plan.
- A list of recipes that you know are proven “winners”.
- A menu.
- Days “off”.
- Dedicated freezer space and a containment plan.
- Serious grocery store game.
You absolutely DO NOT need:
- A meal service or subscription. I’ve talked about this before. I think they are expensive, wasteful, the portions disappoint, and find the environmental cost appalling. If you’re big on meal kits or services, try meal prep and see if it can save you money or time! You might even find that a balance between the two is ideal.
- To coupon. Seriously, I don’t have time. I am sure you could save even MORE this way but the most I will do is search for some big-ticket items on my list that I actually buy. Kroger allows for coupon “stacking” and if it happens awesome, great. If not, let it go. We’re busy and buying generics works for a lot people.
- Complicated or fussy ingredients. Keep it simple. I am an excellent cook and baker. I am not daunted by incredibly difficult things but I am not able to cook huge fests every night. I keep it simple. You can, too!
- Cooking knowledge beyond the basics. My husband cannot cook a potato. It’s a long story but teaching him is stressful and I’ve given up. If you are beyond that stage of cooking and can make pasta effectively, you can do this! You might lean heavily on youtube tutorials or pinterest but it’s a good way to expand your horizons!
- To spend money on recipes. Pinterest and blogs like this one will give you amazing options. I can assure you that spending extra money for someone to do this for you is probably not worth your money! And who knows if their recipe tastes will suit yours? I’ve seen these services run as high as $20.00 and I’m pretty shocked! Don’t fall for it.
So, if you’re still reading, you’re sold, right? Great! Let’s talk about the basics!
First things first, get a freaking plan together. When are you going to spend time planning a menu? What will work best for grocery shopping? How will you get your family on board? How will you set a budget?
I recommend talking to your family first about your goals and if you have a partner, express to them that you need to take control of your budget and time. Stress that you know there will be hiccups but you will listen to their concerns. I think they will be on board if it means no more crappy takeout or ramen an even no more overspending on meals out. Women carry the burden in most relationships to do this stuff. It’s BS, of course. However, if you’re going this route, you probably already spend more time on cooking than these tips require. Once you get into a groove, you will save time. If you have expectations for that partner beyond emotional support and picking up groceries (more on that in a later post), then express that!
Once they are on board, talk about a budget. I think for most families of 3 or 4, $500.00 a month is doable (including the occasional bit of alcohol). I keep us to a pretty strict budget – $400.00 a month. Set a goal for the first couple of months. If you overshoot, look at why. It may simply have been too small a budget. It’s all up to you and your family to adjust that budget!
Finally, with this step, know how you will plan for this. Are you including your partner (if you have one) in the meal choices? Kids? Are you starting a family recipe pinterest board? Will you plan meals monthly? Weekly? Rotate? Will you keep them in a spreadsheet? A word doc? A calendar? Figure out what will work for you.
Next, work on a menu. This is usually the part that trips people up. Again, don’t get overwhelmed. Brainstorm your favorite things you either like to order or cook (and include your kids and partner if applicable). Love a thai curry? Great! Let’s talk about how you can make that work. Come up with 10-15 recipes you think your family would like. Then get to google and pinterest. For example, one of my favorite recipes (a chicken curry) was created by combining various crock pot versions of curry. A good strategy is typing in “freezer meals” + “x thing” or “crock pot” + “x thing” or “instant pot” + “x thing”. Most recipes which are already winners on a weeknight can be modified for freezer meals or peripherals that simplify your life. I think of recipes that can be made in a pressure cooker or crockpot, can be used in a variety of ways, and freeze well as “triple threats”. You can find those all over – FOR FREE! Pin those suckers and then move on. You can always expand your horizons later. Or you can add in “cheater recipes”. More on in a later post.
After you’ve gathered recipes, write up a menu. This is not as hard as it sounds. I break down my nights into planned meals we have every week that I could make in my sleep or delegate to my cooking-averse partner, nights where I don’t plan to cook an actual meal, and nights where I cook varied meals. I prefer to do this monthly because it helps me figure out what I need from a Costco run. However, and advantage to weekly planning is you can shop sales and build a cheaper menu if you don’t go to club or discount stores like Aldi or Costco. More on that in my grocery post later. Based on this menu, you can draft a grocery list. If you are looking for a template for a monthly menu, MyPlate.gov has amazing options. I use the weekly planner for my family (I do them 4 weeks at a time).
Build in downtime! In your menu, it may be helpful to build in days I lovingly describe as “fend for yourself” nights. That was the term my mom used. And it’s now abbrievated as “FFYS” on my menus. My husband knows what is up. If your family eats leftovers (my husband doesn’t which has frustrated me for ages), maybe you build those in. My leftovers go to my lunches so I don’t really have to prep those! Either way, build in 2 nights a week at least when neither partner has to make a real meal or spend more than 15 minutes on cooking. Know what your busy nights are. For us, it’s DND nights for my husband. He eats on his own and I cook a simple meal for my daughter and I (usually Annie’s mac n cheese if we’re being honest). If you allow for takeout a night or two a week, build this in, too! Don’t think it’s possible to go without takeout? We went 4 weeks between orders just now. It’s possible with planning.
Also, a huge menu weapon perhaps underutilized is settling on a night or two where you know you make the same thing every week. We have a Taco Tuesday most weeks (I will add a chicken taco marinade and recipe later). We also always have a roast of some sort on Sundays. That makes my plan easier. If you plan for a similar type of recipe two nights a week and FFYS 1 day, takeout/restaurant 1 day, leftovers 1 day, you’ve only got to think up recipes a couple nights a week! This is why I say your recipe can be broken down into steps to calm things down.
When your menu is settled, post it somewhere! Either on the fridge or with a board like this (this is actually our menu). We installed our board before we put up a single picture at either of our past two dwellings. It cost like $10.00 at Target. The menu is sacred, I tell you! It holds everyone accountable and it stops unrelated snacking or takeout whining.
Now, dedicate your freezer space and decide how you will contain your food. Frozen meal prep requires freezer space regardless of your situation. You can’t do it without! Now, we did just fine for a few months with an amended schedule in an apartment freezer that was SO TINY and had no shelves but it cost more. I could not go to Costco or load up at Aldi. The afternoon after we closed, I bought another chest freezer. We left the old one in Missouri. A chest or stand up deep freeze is your best weapon. I love to fill mine. I keep my lunches frozen in our small side-by-side portion of the fridge-freezer. I hate that you can’t even store a frozen pizza in there, though! It’s not for me. The basement deep freeze is everything. You do not need a huge one. Ours is 9 cu ft, I think. If you can’t get a deep freeze or are afraid of the investment, you can still manage a weekly prep with a small fridge-freezer.
Containment is about how you will store pre-portioned things like meat and veggies (or even bread) but also how you will save cooked meals. I try to store as much as I can in reusable containers but for meat, I usually stick to Ziplock bags. I prefer the Qt sized bags for this. For meals that I am storing, sauces, and stock, I stick to some quality, durable containers. I like the sealable containers they have at Target with vents (plastic) and pyrex containers. I used to only have glass pyrex but taking those heavy things to and from work on the bike was difficult. I prefer to store stock and sauce in them, though! Find some containers that work- 1 or 2 and stick to those for easy stacking! You can find some nice ones on Amazon in bulk for lunches. That may streamline your life. This mealprep I’ve got as the main image was a chicken curry that I put in my two main mealprep containers of choice. For large things, Pyrex freezer-safe things are my go-to. For lasagna, though, (which I honestly avoid like the PLAGUE because of the time required), recyclable tin pans are your best bet. Seal with press and seal and then heavy-duty foil. Trust me on this.
Finally, GO SHOPPING. This is the bane of my existence and perhaps where I spend more than other people on services. I plan to post a whole thing about this because it’s so major. However, shopping is where the rubber meets the road. If you prep weekly, you can go through the circular and pick those 2 variable meals (assuming that is your strategy) based on what is on sale and what is in your recipe arsenal. Oh, whole chicken is on sale. Great! I’m making a chicken in my instant pot and then making a chicken-based soup later.
If you prep weekly, I think trips to things like Costco and/or Aldi are formidable weapons. Their prices are always low. Is Costco or Sam’s worth it? Well, do you buy diapers and formula anyhow? Yes. Then it totally is. Do you eat meat? Then yes. It’s not the cheapest for many things (you need to know the costs of things and compare price per ounce) but the quality of chicken I can purchase there vs. my grocery is much higher and much cheaper. Steaks are fantastic. And the rotisserie chickens and frozen pizzas make us money back within a few trips (my husband lives on frozen pizza). Aldi is a lifesaver, too. I buy many things there for cheaper than Costco and MUCH cheaper than at the traditional grocery. We do one Costco run a month and usually do an Instacart of Aldi once a month, too.
Grocery pickups or deliveries maybe worth it for you. I’ve had really mixed experiences with Kroger’s pickups at one store (and while I love Hyvee, their service burned us sometimes out in MO) but I find that it saves me time and frustration. And, since my husband is pretty challenged by shopping off even a detailed list, it’s something I can have him do with the toddler while I’m at work. Instacart is even more expensive but if you use it a lot, you can buy a membership and get unlimited deliveries for an even lower price. The prices will be slightly higher for Aldi goods but still cheaper than the store. And during a stressful part of the month, it’s a godsend. If your Aldi is nice, you may not care. Mine is poorly located and sketchy (unlike the ones I had in Missouri), so I avoid it. Some people swear by WalMart pickup but I find that for fresh food, they are a poor choice. The produce selection is always terrible and while you may save on many processed foods, whole foods that meet your dietary needs may not be cheaper or they may not even have them! Also, while the stores in Missouri were amazing, the store here is scary. I’d rather do anything than go there. Your mileage may vary. Yeah, grocery shopping here is a serious disappointment vs. back in mid-Missouri.
Great! I’m going to post much more about this in future days. For those of you who expressed interest in this series, thanks for joining me on this voyage! I hope my learning over 3 years of meal prep helps you. Still to come? Talk about peripherals that can help, recipes, and a deeper dive into groceries.