Introduction: Meal Prep - How to Save Time and Money.
Meal Prep is something that if properly done will keep your family feed very well on a smaller budget than you think. Not only will you have plenty to eat, you will have plenty to store in case of emergency, and plenty of extra time! So, how is this possible? It all starts with planning!
I work full time and attend school full time. I am also a mother or two boys. I have got this to a science and so it does not take me much time to prep for the upcoming week or month. This started as a way for my family to be able to eat real food without us going over budget. It took a little bit of time until I could find the right stores to shop in and how they put things on sale. Once that was figured, I needed a way to do this either monthly or weekly and make it stick.
With the help of my husband and children, we came up with this method. It works! We will spend a few hours on the weekend prepping for either the month or week and that's it!
We not only started eating healthier, but we saved so much money and realized our freezer and pantry had more food in them when the month ended than it did before.
Step 1: Planning
Planning is everything! Take a few minutes and check out your grocery stores weekly ads. I shop at three different stores. Most people do not like doing this, but the amount of money that is saved is worth it. I shop on Wednesdays and Saturdays. These are the two days the store I go to have the best sales. Check the weekly ads to see if your staples are listed, ex: bread, milk, eggs, rice. Then move on to your needed items, ex: butter, oil, coffee, chicken. Then go back through the ad and see what is on sale that is worth buying at the moment.
After you have done the research use the Dinner Menu word doc and plan out your dinner for the upcoming week. I plan breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire month then just go and assign what we want to eat on what days.
To save some more time and money, plan on meals with the items you already have on hand. That way I can see exactly what it is I need to buy for the meal.
Once you have your menu planned out, take out the Shopping List word doc, and start with your needed staples first. The shopping list is broken down into the categories I use most. Change this to your liking. Once all your staples have been listed start breaking down your meals. For example, let's say you are just working with your dinner menu. On Monday you plan on having Chicken Alfredo with broccoli. You already have the fettuccine, broccoli, and jar Alfredo sauce on hand. So on your shopping list you would only need to buy the chicken. (Very basic chicken Alfredo, lol) Continue this way until all of your menu has been broken down.
A lot of breakfasts and lunches can be pre-planned and frozen. We add this to our menu as well at this point. Things like pancakes and omelets for breakfast and burritos and corn dogs for lunch are added to the menu. For these foods, we don't just make enough for that one or two meal. We prep these in larger quantities so that they are done and in the freezer ready to go whenever!
Note: if you are having chicken twice in one week, you wouldn't have to write chicken down twice. If you know you'll need 4 breast for one day and 4 breast for the other, just write down Chicken breast-8 breasts. I like to take my menus with me when I go shopping. This way on my list I can write, " 4lbs chicken", on my list. When I get to the store I will look at the menu and see that one night I need breast and the other night I need thighs. I also do this in case one cut of meat is on sale over what I need, so that I can take advantage of the sale and know for sure that I can substitute one meat for another on the menu.
Make sure you are buying the best priced item. For example, if you need breast for only one meal this week, buy the larger packet of breast with skin and bone that is marked at $1.99/lb rather than the boneless skinless breast that is priced at $3.75/lb. Also remember, the smaller the pack the higher the per pound cost is.
Step 2: Gather All Items Needed
After you've planned your week or month with meals. You will have noticed that you spent a lot less at the grocery store than normal. So you decide to buy a few extra things. Before we get into saving for later, lets talk about time saving for the upcoming week.
Once I've done all my shopping, I come home and start to put groceries away, just like most people would. Except, I leave out certain items. All meat, especially those bought in large packs will be left out to weigh and separate. Any snack items and long storage items. Anything that will be made in bulk will also be left out.
This is where certain items come in handy. I have small condiment containers with lids, 1 cup size storage containers, sandwich bags, snack bags, mason jars, aluminum foil, gallon bags, food dehydrator, and food scale.
Of course other items might be needed such as, cutting boards, measuring spoons/cups, marker, bowls, etc.
If you are making bulk bean and rice burritos for lunch for example, go ahead and get all your items out needed for this at this time.
Step 3: Prep Your Meat
I like to start with my meat. (Get your mind out of the gutter!)
Of course, one type of meat at a time.
I check out my menu and see what it is I need. If I need chicken for two meals, I go ahead and grab the scale and freezer bags. I weigh out the amount of chicken I need and place it into the freezer bags. Go ahead and label your freezer bags before adding the meat. Whatever meat is left over, I weight and freeze as well and mark the bag with the type of meat and weight. This is done with all cuts of meat until done.
After cleaning up the mess I just made, I go back and see if I can save some time by adding items into the freezer bag for the meal to make it easier for the day of cooking. For example, if we are having chicken fajitas, I will go ahead and add the needed sliced onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and seasoning to the bag. Then seal and place in the freezer laying flat to save space.
I do the same with meat, fish, and poultry until all my meals for the week have been separated. If any of my recipes call for the meat to be sliced, this is the step that I would do that; before placing meat into bags.
Note: if you have a bit more time on your hands you can also take this time to bread anything that needs breaded, ex: chicken nuggets or panko breaded fish fillets. This will save prep time the day you cook. Anything that needs to be cooked before being prepared go ahead and do this now. While you are weighing and bagging up chicken for upcoming dinners, you could be cooking up the rice you need for your burritos.
Step 4: Sides, Snacks, Etc
With two growing boys at home and a limited budget, I have to make sure my kids do not eat everything in the house in one day. By separating their breakfasts, snacks, and condiments, I not only have saved money but they have learned what a true serving size is.
I start with any snacks or meals that involve any kid of dip or condiment. Example, salad dressings, pudding, yogurt, peanut butter, humus.
I use small condiment containers that I find at my local dollar store. (*You can also get these for free at your local gas station, hint, hint.) These are great as most are about 3 oz. Which is a perfect size for peanut butter, salsa, humus, and salad dressing. If my kids are having celery with peanut butter, carrots with humus, tortilla chips and salsa, and veggies with ranch as snacks; I will go ahead and get all the condiments in their containers and then into the snack basket that is in the fridge. I then move on to the veggie part of those snacks. Any veggies, such as, carrots, celery, broccoli, are taken out, washed, cut, and weighed. Then placed into snack bags and placed into the snack bin in the fridge.
Then move on to breakfast items. Oatmeal and cereal are also placed in snack bags and placed in the breakfast dry bin. These are simply serving sizes of dry cereal in baggies or oatmeal with added dried fruit and sugar added. These are great for the whole family, as I can grab one on my way out the door to work.
Other snacks such as yogurt or pudding are done my kids while I work on the veggies. I buy yogurt in larger tubs as it is cheaper this way and I place a serving in my reusable storage containers. Pudding is also made and then placed into these containers. This is way cheaper than buying snack packs!
Step 5: Extras, Leftovers, and Special Buys
Time permitting, this is the step that helps to get food stored for later or help later meals.
If the store happened to have frozen vegetables on sale I will go ahead and buy a few bags. My local dollar store has frozen fruit at a fraction of any other store, so I make sure to buy some of those too. I go ahead and take any frozen vegetables, fruits, or any fresh fruits or veggies out and wash, cut, separate them. I will take advantage of this and go ahead and start dehydrating them. I can fit about 2 1/2 lbs of dehydrated vegetables into a standard mason jar. That is a lot of food for storage.
Dehydrated fruits I store in air tight containers and are used for oatmeal packs and cereal. Also some are placed in mason jars for long term storage.
(*If you own a vacuum sealer like a Food Saver, you can go ahead and use that to store your dry goods, frozen goods, and even snacks. If placing your dehydrated foods in mason jars then using the jar sealing attachment to remove all the air will make your efforts in this step last much longer.
There are many of hand held sealing devices out there as well. These are great for everyday meal prep and long term storage. I don't own one so I can't show you how to properly use it. Sorry.)
Special buys, such as plantains that are on sale, I go ahead and prep for tostones (twice fried plantains, Google the recipe) I fry the first time, flatten the plantain, then place in freezer bags. Then they day we want to eat them, we just remove from the freezer and fry.
Now with all that done, you have more time left throughout the week to do other stuff. This is how I manage my household when it comes to food. I can normally spend about $100 /wk on groceries and make plenty of meals for us. We are a family of four but all my meals are for six people. Anything extra that I spend goes into keeping our pantry full and freezer stocked. With a little time and proper planning you will see how much further your money will go on food. You love the great tasting meals and snacks, and also the extra time you'll have since most prep was done beforehand. I hope this you enjoyed this Instructable and maybe it taught you something new. Thanks!