Ever since we started meal prep, my opinions about handy peripherals has changed. However, I can say that for less than $500.00, you can purchase essentials to make your life so much easier. And probably after 2-3 months, what you save in meal prep, you will pay it all off! Thus, if you can get a 0% offer for this stuff (maybe at Costco or Sam’s if you open a line of credit), it may even defray those costs pretty much completely until you save. Whether that is a good way to do it is up to you. But we did this when both of us were making about $20,000.00 less than we do now about 3 years ago and it was the greatest thing we ever did.
The first, which I discussed in my basic post, is a freezer. If there is one bigger-ticket item you can buy, this should be it. If you have space and $200.00 to spend, you can buy a new, small chest freezer. We paid $220.00 for our 9 cu ft freezer and about $180.00 for our 7.2 cu ft freezer when we lived in MO. You may also find a used one for $50.00 (what we sold ours for when we moved). You can spend a lot more on a large freezer or stand up freezer but that’s a big commitment to take on. What I will say is if grain fed, free-range meat is in your future, you need a larger freezer to house it because you should be buying whole or partial animals to get the most bang for your buck. For our family, that’s too much of an upfront investment at this time with only one person working (me). A freezer will extend to you the benefits of buying in bulk at a warehouse store or elsewhere (maybe when a grocery has a huge sale on chicken breasts). Organizing your freezer may be a challenge at first but there are things you can do to make even a large chest freezer manageable. I might make a tutorial about this.
The second must-have is a crock pot or slow cooker. If you buy nothing else, please buy this. A model that has an auto shutoff feature with a timer is, in my opinion, the best way to go. One of these models can be found for $40.00 or less on Amazon. I bought one when it was on sale for $30.00 5 years ago and it is probably our most used small appliance (apart from, I guess, my coffee pot). This appliance is so useful to busy families. Almost any simple on-the-stove recipe can be modified to suit a slow cooker. Soups are a huge sell for my family, easy to make, and are a fantastic way to make large meals to freeze. They are also the only thing my husband eats in leftovers so they give me two meals a week. If you want to convert a recipe to a slow cooker or are searching for some great ones, I suggest typing something into pinterest and google with “slow cooker” and “x meal”. Or just go to pinterest and type in “meal prep” and “slow cooker”. You do not have to buy a recipe book or a “meal plan” that people try to sell you. Just start here! The only downside to crock pots is that they cannot cook frozen food. Please, please follow food-safe advice and leave that to an electric pressure cooker.
Third, I am going to sell you on an electric pressure cooker. Please don’t worry about safety with these. They are safe and “set it and forget it”. Best of all, they cook from frozen. So, you are able to prep and marinade meat ahead and throw it in. If you cook lots of beans, they also cook beans faster than any other way. They also allow for you to turn one meal into several meals. Making a whole chicken (my favorite meal of many meals) becomes so easy. I am going to talk about this in a future recipe but the short of it is you can cook one from frozen (WOOT) in about an hour and then after carving, toss some additional ingredients in, set it an forget it for a bit and create a stock for a soup. I use mine at least twice a week. If “I didn’t thaw the chicken breasts” is always your excuse for takeout, then this prevents that from happening. For us, that was the main draw and now, it is a workhorse whenever we make tacos or make a chicken from frozen.
People think pressure cookers are a cult. I did, too, but then I purchased one while I was recovering from a hard pregnancy and dealing with PPD. I had to start cooking meals from almost the day I got home from the hospital (husband doesn’t cook and he doesn’t eat leftovers). I could eat prepped meals during the day but for dinners, I was on my own in that kitchen. The pressure cooker was a game changer.
Do you need an Instant Pot? No. Might you like one? Sure. I didn’t want one, if we are being honest. The selling point for me with another brand (Cuisinart) was a non-stick cook surface. My husband does our dishes and prefers this. Not my hill to die on, right? You can buy separate things for the Instant Pot (like a non-stick pot) but why spend more? The other barrier was the insane price difference. Back in 2017, an Instant Pot cost well over $130.00. It’s now $100.00 or sometimes, as cheap as $80.00. My model cost about $80.00. So, the price difference is not a concern for more. The other “advantage” to the Instant Pot are it has some default settings that I’d never probably use. I don’t make my own yogurt but it has a setting. It has a rice cooker setting, too. Honestly, my pressure cooker does those things and you can look them up on the internet. I think the recipe book that came with mine also had it. But I never really do recipe books that come with appliances.
The one major thing that the Instant Pot that mine doesn’t do is “slow cooker” mode. I would never have used it as a slow cooker for two reasons – you have to buy a different lid, apparently, which is pricey and it doesn’t work as well as a traditional slow cooker when reviewed by various outlets and friends who have one. So, I would say, expecting to get rid of your slow cooker may not be an option. Thus, I think Instant Pot is a good option for some but it’s not essential. Any electric pressure cooker will do. Also, I don’t recommend a smaller version of a pressure cooker. I’ve seen them. They still take up space and they don’t make a lot. For meal prep, you need space. You can’t cook a chicken or beef roast in one. Reviews say two large chicken breasts. If you’re a single person, it may work for you, but that’s probably not why you are reading this blog!
Fourth, an optional but incredibly useful thing is a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. For me, it saves me time and energy when making mashed potatoes or do any baking. One recipe I have on this blog is for a very, very easy loaf of bread. With the mixer, I spend only 15 minutes prepping my dough. 10 of those minutes are in my mixer letting it knead my dough. If you wan to make your own bread to save money on good bread, this is the way to go. I started baking our bread when I was pregnant with my daughter. It even became my default thing to do. I was gifting loaves for people. I realized we were spending a ton on good, local bread. Bread is not fussy. It’s simple. If you are spending $10.00 a week on good bread (or even more if you have a large family), you can may a few loaves of this a once for immediate use or freeze loaves. I do this A LOT. We don’t buy mass-produced bread, so our loaves are $6.00 at the store or farmer’s market. If you don’t need to knead bread (see what I did there?), any brand of mixer will probably do. But my parents have had a stand mixer since I was like 5 and it was still working last I checked. Mine is about 10 years old now. Still going.
Are there things I do not recommend? Absolutely!
- Expensive blenders. Unless you live on smoothies, I don’t see the point in having one. If you plan to prep baby food ahead of time, get a food processor. A Vitamix may be worth it if you do the smoothie thing but that’s not really meal-prep. You do not need to waste money on this to do meal prep.
- Incredibly expensive food processors. I have been asked about this. We had a food processor and I found it to be laborious to use. They all have a lot of parts. These parts may be dishwasher safe (never wash your blades or any knives in a dishwasher, though, no matter what they say!) but I found storing it to be a huge pain. They don’t fit in traditional cabinets (they are huge). It can significantly reduce your meal prep cutting time, though. We don’t presently own one (I know, shocker!) because I am the food processor. My husband does all of our dishes and making him clean this thing and then put it together and store it somewhere – the basement – is not a hill I’m going to die on. If you think you have room for it and you don’t mind getting it re-assembled and put up or hand washing parts if, like us, you are dishwasher free, buy something affordable with good reviews. We used one for baby food prep and making things like hummus and our $50.00 model worked just fine. You can spend a lot on one if you really want to but it’s not a “must” for this stuff!
- Air Fryers. People assume that this will save them time and make things awesome. I am not convinced after reading reviews and talking to friends. You still need to use oil FYI. Also, it’s not going to get things crispy like a deep fryer. And the actual cooking space in one is incredibly limited. It’s a single-use appliance as far as I can tell (you may make some fries or chicken strips) which I’m pretty opposed to. Also, it is not that fast. My friend who has a large family was excited to get one and I was excited to hear her experience about it but she said it was disappointing since it takes a long time, does not make all that much at once (doubling the time she has to spend standing in the kitchen and dealing with children whining) and doesn’t meet the “frying without oil like a deep fryer” thing. If you have a convection oven or a nice toaster oven, you can probably use it instead Honestly, if you’re going to blow $200.00 on one of these, you’re better off getting a Breville oven on sale! That is one of my #lifegoals when we re-do our kitchen.
So, overall, your meal prep can be enhanced and simplified by only a few things. If you purchase a freezer ($200-$300.00), a pressure cooker ($100.00 or less), and a crock pot ($40.00), you’re under $500.00. Say you were spending $250.00 a month on takeout because you ate out three times a week and you, instead, meal prep like a boss, these things pay for themselves in two months. How’s that for cost-benefit? A break-even point in TWO MONTHS is pretty amazing. We found that the freezer paid for itself in a month the first time we bought one And that was just paying for the two of us to eat out!