Talking about how to save money on food and meal prepping is something I do regularly with my friends. Maybe that’s weird, but I love cooking, and I am always looking for ways to cut my grocery budget.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago when I told her that my, then, a family of four spend $75/week on groceries. She was blown away.
Now that there are five of us, we’re up to $170/week or $680/month on groceries. This feels like a lot to me considering where we started, but kids just keep eating more and more.
Surprisingly, according to the USDA’s monthly Cost of Food at Home Study, we’re spending on the very lowest end for a family our size.
One of the ways we save money on food is by planning out our meals each week and meal prepping in advance. And, it does more than saving us money — it frees up a lot of time and headspace.
What’s the difference between meal prepping and meal planning?
Meal prepping and planning are a little different, but neither are strict terms. Meal planning can be as small as making a list of meals for the week, but it can also include organizing recipes and grocery shopping.
Meal prepping is when you start to physically prepare the food you’re going to cook for the week.
There are different types of meal prepping. There is mise en place, where you cut up all of your ingredients, measure things out, and have it all sitting in front of you in individual bowls before you start cooking. I call this “cooking show cooking,” which can be fun and is pretty visually appealing, but it doesn’t do much to save you money.
The most effective kind of meal prepping is when you do as much of the chopping, seasoning, and cooking well before you’re actually eating the meal. You can do this kind of meal prep days or weeks in advance.
Meal prepping helps you save money on food for several reasons:
- You aren’t making extra trips to the grocery store.
- You have ready-to-go meals when you’re too tired to cook.
- You can plan and prep meals around what ingredients are in season or inexpensive.
The biggest reason I meal prep is that it reduces the time and energy it takes to make dinner every night, over and over again. When I don’t want to cook, a prepped meal is there and ready to go.
To help you save money on food, I’m going to give you tips for finding low-cost dinner options, shopping for your meals, prepping them, storing them, and how to cut your costs even more.
Learn how to save money on food with these 9 meal prep tips
1. Know what produce is in season
Strawberries are something my family loves to eat, and when they are in season, we can buy them for as little as $1/pint. When they’re off-season, it’s more like $5/pint.
That cost difference is one of the best reasons to buy produce in season. Fruits and vegetables cost so much less when you buy them at the peak of their supply. It costs less for farmers to grow and harvest them and less for distributors to get them to your grocery store.
So, this first meal prepping tip is to plan your meals around what’s in season.
Out of season fruits and vegetables are usually grown out of the country, are picked way before they hit peak flavor, and shipped overseas. All of that costs money.
If you’re not sure what fruits and vegetables are in season, check out this Seasonal Food Guide to find out what’s available in your area throughout the year.
Planning and prepping your meals around the seasonality of foods does more than save you money:
- Seasonal produce often comes from farmers near you, so you keep money in your local economy.
- You get a wider variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet.
- Fruits and vegetables have more nutrients when they're picked in-season.
Knowing what’s in season is a healthy meal prep step that can help you choose what to make for the week, which leads to…
2. Make a weekly meal plan and shop for it
Before you can start meal prepping, you have to make a plan for the week and buy the ingredients. Besides making your meals around seasonal produce, here are more tips for choosing what dishes to cook.
Know what’s on sale
If seasonal fruits and vegetables reduce the amount you spend on produce, sales can help you lower the costs of everything else. Most grocery stores have online flyers that you can browse before you shop.
Sale on pasta? BOGO sale on canned beans? Chicken is a dollar a pound less than usual?
Planning your meals around what’s on sale will save you money, and it also gives you guidelines for what to make for the week.
Pick meals around common ingredients
If chicken is for sale this week, and you buy more than you need for one meal, you can plan several meals around it to shorten your grocery list and simplify your meal prep work. This tip is helpful with fresh herbs and other types of meat, too.
Get help with your meals plans
Knowing what to cook is one of the hardest parts of meal prepping. If you’re falling into a rut where you feel like you’ve cooked the same thing every week, then it’s the perfect time to get some help with your meal plans.
- Plan to Eat helps you choose recipes, gives you prep notes, and can make a shopping list for you. You can try them free for 30 days.
- Cook Once, Eat All Week Healthy Meal Prep Plan includes six months of dinner ideas for nearly any diet or lifestyle — Paleo, low carb, dairy-free, egg-free, etc. It also includes a seasonal guide and shopping lists.
3. Buy pantry staples in bulk
There are some food items that families use over and over again every single week. For any that are non-perishables, you can save a decent amount of money when you buy them in bulk. You don’t even have to buy Costco size quantities to save money — just going from a one to two-pound bag will inevitably save you some cash.
Here are some everyday pantry staples to buy in bulk:
- Dried beans
- Spices like chili powder and garlic
The one caveat is to store them properly. Seal the containers well after you’ve opened them or put the food in an airtight container.
4. Compare prices while you shop
If my husband and I went to the same grocery store, with the same list, and didn’t get any extras, he would always spend more than me. Always. He doesn’t even look at the prices, and it drives me crazy.
Prices labels give you more than the per-item cost, they tell you the per-ounce cost, too. Generic brands are usually less expensive, but not always.
It might only look like a few cents here and there that you’re saving, but those small amounts add up. Comparing the per-ounce cost of your food is an easy way to shave dollars off of your grocery budget.
5. Prep a week’s worth of meals in advance
You start with your week’s meal plan, shop for your ingredients (using the tips above), and then get to work.
You don’t have to cook everything at once, meal prepping can be:
- Washing, chopping, and storing all of the vegetables you’re using for a meal or two.
- Cooking and storing your proteins in advance.
- Store non-perishable components of each meal together in your pantry.
- Even measuring out the herbs and spices and storing them to the side will save time.
To really help you save time throughout the week, take an afternoon and cook several meals at once and store them for the week — I have tips for that in the next tip. When it’s time for dinner, you just reheat each meal. It’s like having a home-cooked freezer meal that is way healthier and cheaper than what’s in the grocery’s freezer section.
Read more at 7 Tips to Lose Weight and Save Money!
6. Learn how to store your food
If you’re meal prepping in advance to save money on food, then you want to make sure you’re storing everything the right way. Otherwise, you can waste food. Here are tips for storing meals, so they stay fresh throughout the week:
- For meals that you’ll eat in 2-3 days, store them in the fridge in airtight containers.
- For anything that will be cooked in four or more days, store in freezer-safe containers, then put your meal in the fridge to thaw on the day you’ll be eating it.
- Eggs, dairy, and pasta are best cooked the day of because they don’t do well in the freezer.
- Invest in reusable containers — these ones are great — so you’re not spending more on things you’ll just end up throwing away.
7. Repurpose your leftovers
Leftovers always make great lunches, but you can repurpose some meal components for other meals. Leftover chicken can be added to a salad for a filling meal, put in a wrap, or add it to a soup. Extra vegetables plus some eggs can be turned into a frittata. Leftover beans can be mashed into a dip, put in tacos, or added to salads.
If you stick to basic flavor profiles (garlic, salt, and pepper), you can add extra herbs and spices to change the flavor.
8. Have a few go-to quick and inexpensive dinner ideas
Most people have a few recipes they’ve nearly memorized because they’re so quick and easy to make. While meal prepping takes a lot of the work out of planning and cooking meals, another one of the best ways to save money on food is to have ingredients for those recipes on hand.
One of my go-to meals is bean and cheese quesadillas. I keep a can of black or refried beans in the pantry, we always have some kind of cheese, and tortillas are easy to store in the fridge. I add whatever extra vegetables we have in the fridge (even veggies like broccoli and asparagus are good), then serve with salsa or Greek yogurt in place of sour cream.
Another favorite at my house is Quick Pasta and Chickpeas from Smitten Kitchen. It’s olive oil, garlic, tomato paste, chickpeas, and small pasta like orzo. It comes together in 20 minutes or less and is great served with a salad.
Budget Bytes is an excellent resource for inexpensive and easy meal ideas if you need some of your own. Each recipe is broken done by cost, and there are lots of ideas for under $5.
9. Do meatless Monday on more than just Mondays
Full disclosure, my family has been vegetarian for a few years. However, we never really ate a lot of meat before that change because it’s so darn expensive.
While meat alternatives can cost just as much as meat, beans, and eggs are inexpensive alternatives to meat that still have lots of protein to fill you up. My kids even willingly eat fried tofu these days, especially when it’s cooked like General Tso style chicken.
If you’re skeptical, start with just one meatless meal a week. I promise it’s not as hard as it sounds.
The final word on meal prepping to save money on food
In a dream world, we would all have personal chefs on-call for when we didn’t feel like making dinner. They’d work for free and would cook us whatever we wanted and clean up afterward. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
While we wait for that fantasy to happen, meal prepping is one of the best ways to save money on food because you’ll always have ready to go meals.