A step-by-step guide to a once-a-week budget meal prep that will save time and money without taking up the weekend + budget-friendly meal ideas.
“You’re hungry again? Didn’t you eat yesterday?!”
Can you relate?
When three meals a day, plus snacks, seven days a week feels like a bit of a…drag?
When you want to feed your family healthy home-cooked meals but by golly, you could use a night off!
There’s a way to eat home-cooked whole foods and save time.
The trick is meal prepping – spending a small amount of time on Sunday (or your preferred day) to prepare budget-friendly meals for the week ahead.
In this article, I’ll share everything you need to know about meal prepping: how to get started, what you need, and how to make the most of your time without spending all weekend in the kitchen.
Because that would totally defeat the purpose of preparing food in advance to save time.
So without further ado, here’s how to meal prep on a budget.
5 Reasons Why Meal Prepping Will Make Your Life Better
But isn’t meal prepping going to ruin your Sunday?
Here’s the thing.
You don’t need to spend all Sunday preparing food for the week. I certainly don’t want to spend Sunday in the kitchen.
But an hour or two can save you double or triple that time during the week.
Exactly how much time you spend meal prepping will depend on the type of prepping you do.
There’s Not Just One Type of Meal Prep…Use All Three Types to be Super Efficient
There are three key meal prep strategies.
You can use one or two, but if you want to maximise your organisation and enjoy flexibility with your meals, then why not give all three a go?
Here are the three strategies in a nutshell:
- Fill the freezer with family-sized meals that can be reheated during the week – great for busy nights or when you don’t feel like cooking. Defrost, reheat, and serve.
- Pre-cook individually portioned meals that can be reheated – this is the Instagram version of meal prepping. It’s great for single people, couples, work lunches, people who don’t mind eating the same thing every day, or people trying to portion-control what they eat.
- Pre-prepare fresh food by washing, chopping, marinating etc., so that it’s all ready to be cooked each night. This method saves you time while still allowing you to eat freshly cooked meals each night. (I’ll share some easy one-pot recipes that are great for this).
I’ll cover more about how to do each of these meal prep methods and share some recipes later in the article, but first…getting started.
The Essential Equipment You’ll Need to Successfully Meal Prep
If you’re going to prep and store food, you’ll need containers.
If you want to reheat food, your container will need to be either oven-safe, microwave-safe or both.
Tempered, oven-safe glass containers are great for meals you want to reheat. Just remove the lid, cover with foil and reheat your meal in the oven or cover with a damp paper towel to reheat in the microwave.
If you already have casserole dishes and microwave containers, save money by using what you have.
If you use a microwave and you want to save money, look for BPA-free plastic containers that are microwave-safe. Keep an eye out for when containers go half-price at the supermarket. They usually do it every couple of months.
For storage when you don’t want to reheat food, you can use the glass containers above, stainless steel containers, or for a cheaper option, BPA-free plastic containers or recycled glass jars.
For freezing, you can use containers or freezer bags, which are not so environmentally friendly, but they do save space in the freezer.
You’ll also need a marker to label your containers and some masking tape.
A couple of cutting boards and a good sharp knife will make prepping vegetables quick and easy and prevent cross-contamination.
Helpful but Optional Appliances that Can Save Time
Apart from containers, you don’t need special equipment to successfully meal prep.
However, there are some appliances that can speed up the process. You don’t need all of them, but one or two, depending on what you like to cook and eat, can save you time and electricity. They include:
- a slow cooker
- a rice cooker or Instant Pot (or similar)
- an air fryer
- a blender or stick blender
- a food processor
The best tip is to start where you are and use what you have. As you get into meal prepping and you find you want to do more of it, gather equipment slowly. Meal prepping is all about making life easier, so don’t make it harder by increasing clutter!
Before You Begin – How to Make Meal Prepping Easier
Start with a clean kitchen.
It will save time and stress if you’re not cooking in a chaotic kitchen.
Organise your fridge and freezer so there’s plenty of room.
Clear the benches and sink.
Empty the dishwasher or put some hot soapy water in the sink to clean as you go.
Finally, a good playlist, audiobook or podcast will make the time in the kitchen more enjoyable.
Five Steps For Efficient Meal Prepping
Now that you’ve done the groundwork, you’ve got your containers ready, and your favourite tunes lined up, it’s time to put meal prepping into action with this five-step plan. The four steps are:
- Plan your meals
- Shop for groceries
- Plan your process
- Prep and clean
Make life easier by spreading the meal prep process over a few days: planning one day, shopping another, and meal prepping on a third.
Breaking it down into separate steps and making it routine reduces our mental load, makes it easier to fit into our busy schedules, and makes the whole process go more smoothly.
Step One: Plan Your Meals For the Week
It goes without saying:
Prepping in advance is impossible without a plan.
So the next step is to plan your meals for the week.
Start with recipes you already know so the meal-prepping process is easy. You don’t want to be juggling multiple new and difficult recipes all at once.
When looking for meal prep recipes, consider:
- meals you can bulk cook and freeze
- meals you can prep ahead and cook on the night
- meals you can individually portion
I cover all of these methods with recipe ideas below.
You can use Evernote or Pinterest to collect recipes, or you can use a meal-planning app. With an app, you can collect recipes, create meal plans, and write shopping lists all on your phone or computer. It’s pretty handy.
And if you’re looking for a step-by-step guide to making meal planning super easy, a plan that helps you eat healthy within your budget, check out my eBook Plan Cook Save.
Save Money on the Groceries eBook
For more ways to meal plan and save money on groceries, check out the eBook Plan Cook Save: How to Eat Well When Money is Tight and Time is Short.
*Learn how to set the right grocery budget for your circumstances.
*Find out the easiest and quickest way to reduce the grocery bill.
*Discover a meal planning strategy that will only take you a couple of minutes a week but will save you hours.
Step Two: Grocery Shop
As you plan your meals, write a grocery list. Double-check your recipes to make sure you don’t forget anything.
(You don’t want to waste time shopping more than once).
Then check you’ve got all you need for breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
Finally, check your staples: toilet paper, washing powder, toothpaste…all the things you need but might not have made it to the list yet.
Then go shopping or shop online and have the shopping come to you.
To make meal prepping easier, wash and store vegetables when you unpack your groceries.
Step Three: Write a Prep Plan
Don’t be tempted to skip this step.
Pro chefs write and follow a work plan because cooking is quicker and easier when you have a written plan.
A scribble on a scrap piece of paper is all you need to make your meal-prepping session flow seamlessly.
Here are some tips for meal prepping:
Here’s a suggested prep outline, but adjust it to your recipes and schedule:
- Pre-wash and soak dry beans if using (may need to be started the day before).
- Start any food being cooked in the slow cooker.
- Get any baking in the oven.
- Put on some eggs to boil.
- Wash and prep vegetables and salad and portion in containers.
- Chop, portion, and prepare meat. Freeze for later.
- Pre-cook meat if needed.
- Prepare sauces.
- Pre-cook grains and beans for the next couple of days.
- Cool, wrap and freeze any freezer meals.
Step Four: Get Prepping
Now it’s time to put on your playlist, fire up the cooker and show off those knife (or food processor) skills.
Make sure you’ve got your recipes at hand so you can refer to them as you need, and then simply follow the prep plan you wrote down.
You will thank yourself for taking the five minutes to write it out because prepping will be so much easier, and you can focus on your favourite tunes, the latest Dan Brown novel or perfecting your French.
- Gather your recipes.
- Create a meal plan.
- Shop for groceries.
- Create a meal prep plan.
- Plan to spend just an hour or two on Sunday prepping, not the whole day.
- Don’t try and do it all! Start small and prep just one or two meals in the beginning. Plan as much or as little as works for you.
- Use convenience ingredients and cheat meals where you need to save time.
- Don’t forget to make Sunday night’s meal at the same time to avoid the ‘I’ve cooked all day, let’s have pizza now’ scenario.
Freezer-Friendly Meals That are Great for Meal Prepping
Save time making freezer meals by preparing a double or triple batch.
Most freezer meals will last in the freezer for three months, so you don’t have to be eating the same meal every day or even every week.
Stews, casseroles, pies (or pie filling), curries, and soups all make great freezer meals. Most slow cooker meals can be frozen in batches.
If you prefer not to spend your Sunday afternoon cooking, use the cook once, eat many times method of filling the freezer. With this method, you cook a meal at night as normal, but you double or triple the amount and freeze the leftovers in meal-size portions.
A freezer full of food with no extra effort!
You might also like to check out: Homemade Oven-Ready freezer Meals for Busy Nights.
Meal Prepping Individual Meals
This is what many people think of when they think of meal prepping – individually portioned meals in containers that can be eaten as is (salads) or reheated in the microwave.
This meal prep method is a favourite of weight loss sites and Instagram influencers. It works great for busy individuals, couples, or for work lunches.
Use the 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 method to build your meals.
- One protein like chicken breast or thigh, salmon, lamb steaks, pork steaks, tofu or beans.
- One starchy food like rice, sweet potato, quinoa, potatoes.
- One (or a few) vegetable or salad items; and
- Flavouring like marinade, sauce, herbs or spices.
Pre-cook several portions of protein using your favourite spices, marinades or flavourings.
For example, I like to slice open chicken breast to make a couple of thinner pieces and marinate it in a combination of olive oil and spice mix OR some pesto. Then I cook the breast in the air fryer or oven before dividing between meals.
Pre-cook your vegetables either by steaming them or roasting them. Alternatively, you can use salad that doesn’t need cooking.
Cook your starch. I love cooking a mix of rice and quinoa in the rice cooker. A rice cooker automatically switches off so I can focus on prepping other items while the rice cooker does its thing.
Then divide into individual containers for perfect portion control, ready to be reheated through the week.
If you’re using sauce or dressing, put that in a separate container for easy transportation to work.
For lots of recipe ideas for this kind of meal prep, check out FlavCity. These recipes also have reheating instructions.
3. Pre-Prepping Fresh Food For Later
You don’t need to pre-cook a whole week’s worth of meals to get the benefit of once-a-week meal prepping.
You can still save a ton of time by pre-washing and pre-cutting salad and vegetables for the week, chopping, portioning and marinating meat and pre-cooking grains and beans etc.
Then when it comes time to cook each night, all the prep work is done, making it so much easier and with less washing up as well!
Other Meals You Can Prep Ahead Besides Dinners
Breakfast Meal Prep. Overnight oats and pre-made frozen smoothie bags make for quick and healthy breakfasts.
Lunch Meal Prep. Leftovers make great lunches but also try individually portioned meals (above) or salad in a jar.
You might also like Meal Box Delivery Review – Four Boxes Compared.
Life is busy. You’re trying to do it all. As much as I would like to say to slow down, simplify, and do less, I know that’s not always practical.
The alternative is becoming a little more organised (and cheat when you need to).
Meal planning and meal prepping is an organisational super strategy for feeding yourself or the family while saving time, saving money and still eating healthy, home-cooked meals.