One common strategy for saving money on food that shows up in a lot of frugality books and on many frugality websites is the idea of a “meal prep day,” sometimes simply called “meal prep Sunday” because people often use a Sunday to do it.
On that day, the idea is that you’ll do all of the prep work for several meals all at once, getting those meals to the point that all you essentially have to do is reheat them in order to eat them.
So, for example, you might fully prepare a lasagna on a meal prep day by cutting up all of the vegetables, cooking the noodles, preparing the various layers, and layering all of the ingredients in a 9″ by 13″ pan so that you’re ready to stick it right in the oven… but you don’t stick it right in the oven. Instead, you cover the pan and put it in the freezer.
Then, a day or two before you actually want to have that lasagna for dinner, you take it out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator to allow it to thaw. When you get home from work that evening, just pre-heat the oven, put the lasagna in there for 45 minutes or so, and go about your business. Very soon, you’ll have a homemade meal on the table.
You can follow almost this exact same blueprint for almost anything you’d cook in a slow cooker, bake in the oven, or even things you might grill. We’ve used it for preparing items for the grill (so that we just pull them out of the freezer, then straight to the grill), preparing soups and stews for the slow cooker (we just empty a container into the slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low, and leave for the day), preparing casseroles of all kinds, and even preparing the main ingredients of other meals, like cooking and seasoning the meat and/or other protein for tacos.
There are several advantages to using a “meal prep day.”
First of all, the entire purpose of “meal prep day” is to encourage eating at home. Eating at home is virtually always far cheaper than eating out, as you’re not paying for all of the labor and service and building costs and the additional profit margin that goes into a meal eaten at a restaurant. Because you’re making a lot of meals to eat at home, you’re going to save a lot of money.
Second, a “meal prep day” allows you to buy ingredients in bulk. If you’re making several copies of the same meal, or making several meals with overlapping ingredients, you can buy those shared ingredients in bulk and save yourself quite a bit of additional money.
Third, by preparing several copies of the same meal, you’re being more efficient with your time. Rather than boiling pasta for lasagna four times, you’re only doing it once and cooking four times the noodles at once. Rather than getting out the cutting board and chopping a single onion for a single meal and then cleaning the cutting board and knife, you’re getting it out, chopping enough onions for a bunch of meals, and then cleaning the board and knife, saving you several rounds of washing. Simply put, preparing a bunch of meals at once is just far more efficient than making them all separately.
Finally, by having a bunch of ready-to-go meals on hand, you reduce the amount of labor required on busy weekday evenings. Many families, particularly those where all adults are busy with jobs and careers, struggle to put a meal on the table in the evening, and the process often results in either some other important activity being abandoned or a pricy meal from a restaurant. Having a home-cooked meal in the fridge or freezer provides a third option, allowing people to balance evening activities and free time with the desire to have an inexpensive home-cooked meal.
Here are twelve strategies for getting your own “meal prep day” off the ground with great success.
Strategy #1 – Plan Out Your Meals and Shopping Beforehand
When you start in on your “meal prep day,” you should have every single ingredient in the cupboard or pantry or refrigerator and every single recipe laid out right in front of you. If you don’t, then you’re not prepped for meal prep day.
The first step in meal prep day should actually take place a few days beforehand, when you select a few recipes and decide how much of each you’re going to make. Are you going to make six batches of beef stew? Where’s the recipe? What ingredients will you need?
From there, you need to make a giant grocery list that incorporates everything you’ll need from all of those recipes, and do that shopping a day or two before your big meal prep day. This will probably be expensive, but the thing to remember is that you’re making a ton of meals all at once.
For example, the last time I did a meal prep day, I spent $325 on ingredients. However, I made four to five batches of seven different meals, each with enough food content to feed my family of five and provide lunch leftovers for Sarah and myself for at least a couple of days. Let’s say I averaged 4.5 batches of 7 different meals, and each batch covered 8 people’s individual meals. That’s 252 meals, which means that the average meal cost was $1.29 a pop. Yes, I dropped $325 dollars, but my family was then covered for 252 meals.
Strategy #2 – Synergize Your Ingredient Preparation
One effective strategy is to make sure that at least some of the recipes overlap in terms of ingredients so that you can prepare lots of that same ingredient in one batch.
I like to use onions as an example here. We eat a lot of meals with onions in it, so what I like to do is choose several recipes that include diced onions. Let’s say a lasagna recipe asks for one small yellow chopped onion that’s caramelized, and a soup recipe calls for it as well. I’m making five batches of each, so that’s ten small yellow chopped onions.
I weigh them at the store and realize that ten small onions weighs about the same as six large onions, so I buy the six large onions in a bundled bag and save some money. Then, when I start the meal prep, I chop all of the onions at once, then caramelize all of those onions at once in a skillet.
Boom – all of the onion prep for ten different meals is done at once, saving me a lot of time and a little money.
Strategy #3 – Do Those Little Prep Tasks a Day or Two Early, If You Can
With that onion example above, I actually did that on a Thursday evening rather than on a typical meal prep Saturday. I had about an hour and a half free on Thursday evening, so I just chopped all of the onions and sauteed them, then put all of those sauteed onions into a big container and put them in the fridge.
Yes, I could have easily done that on my normal meal prep day, but because I happened to have a block of time free, I could actually take care of that specific small task earlier in the week. The sauteed onions will keep perfectly well in the fridge for a couple of days, after all, and then I can just pull them out and use them immediately in recipes on my actual meal prep day.
That’s why it’s a good idea to make a checklist of such tasks that you’re going to have to do on your meal prep day. Once you’ve figured out the recipes and identified some synergies between them, identify some shared tasks between the recipes, like chopping up onions or chopping up celery or dicing potatoes or cutting up stew meat. Then, if you find yourself with a bit of spare time in an evening, do that task early and save the results in the fridge. It’ll save you time on your actual meal prep day and it can really cut into the sense of being overwhelmed on that day.
Strategy #4 – Give Yourself Plenty of Time
No matter what you do, do not put yourself in a time crunch on a meal prep day. Don’t. Do. It.
If you’ve got a weekend day where you have an appointment in the late afternoon or something like that, don’t use that day as a meal prep day.
The reason’s simple: something is likely to go a little bit wrong and take you longer than you expect. It happens almost every time. If you’re on a very tight schedule, you’re going to suddenly find everything going off the rails. If you start rushing, something else is going to go wrong, and something else, and something else.
Do not take on a huge amount of meal preparation like this within a tight time window. Small things will go wrong, and then they’ll lead to bigger issues if you’re in a time crunch.
Instead, select a day where you don’t anything going on the whole day, then start early enough so that if things go perfectly, you’ll have some significant free time at the end of the day. That way, if things take longer than you expect – and they probably will – it’s not a problem in any way.
Strategy #5 – Make Sure You Have the Needed Containers
Another thing to consider is whether or not you have adequate containers to store all of the food you’re making. Do you have enough baking dishes to store all of your planned casseroles? Do you have enough freezer-ready soup containers to store all of the soup?
For casseroles, we use these Glad OvenWare 9″ by 12″ pans. They’re inexpensive and highly reusable and work great in the freezer.
For soups and stews, we use these reusable deli soup containers. Again, very reusable and freezer friendly.
For things like sandwiches and burritos and individual meals, we use a mix of freezer Ziploc bags and these individual meal containers. Again, freezer friendly and highly reusable. That’s kind of the theme here.
Those container options alone should store almost anything you might want to consider making on a meal prep day.
Strategy #6 – Make Sure You Have the Storage Space, Too
You’ve got food. You’ve got containers. You’ve got a plan. Make sure that you have plenty of space to actually store all of the stuff you’re making.
If you have a deep freezer, you should at least verify that you have enough space remaining in there to store everything you’re making. We can store at least a month’s worth of meals in our freezer, so that’s handy.
If you don’t have a deep freezer, you’re going to be using the smaller freezer on top of or on the bottom of your refrigerator for long term storage. I wouldn’t prep more than a week’s worth of meals unless you’re single and prepping lots of small individual meals.
Remember, you can keep a couple day’s worth of prepped meals in the fridge without freezing them. There’s nothing wrong with preparing a meal on Saturday and leaving it in the fridge to finish cooking on Monday or Tuesday, for example.
Strategy #7 – Label EVERYTHING!
One of the most important elements of my meal prep days is a Sharpie marker and a roll of masking tape. Nothing goes into the freezer without being labeled with those tools.
I just tear off a piece of masking tape, affix it to the container, and write today’s date and the contents of the meal. I’ll usually mark things with a “V” for vegetarian and a “V” with a circle around it if it’s vegan, so that I know what I can/should pull out for specific situations with guests.
So, if I made a batch of root vegetable stew, I’ll mark it with something like “1/24/2017 – Root Vegetable Stew – V” with the V in a circle if the stew is actually vegan.
I’ll also often put another strip or two on the item and describe what needs to be done to finish prepping. For example, on a pan of lasagna, I might write something like “Bake 350 F for 50 min uncovered after 1 day thaw in fridge.” The goal is to minimize the amount of thinking or work that I have to do when I pull that item out to use it.
Strategy #8 – Make Your Soups Thicker Than Usual
One thing I’ve learned from my meal prep days is that almost everything ends up giving off moisture in the freezer. In the case of soup, the water just escapes the vegetables and makes the soup a bit more runny.
My philosophy with soups is to make them a bit thicker than I normally would before I freeze them. I use a little bit less liquid than normal or else I add just a touch of corn starch to thicken the liquid.
That’s because, in the freezer, the vegetables in the soup will give off just a touch of moisture, adding to the water in the liquid. Thus, when you heat it up again, you’ll actually have a bit more moisture in the broth, making it seem more “normal.”
Remember, you can always add a bit more liquid when you’re reheating it if you think it needs it, but you can’t remove liquid at that point without ditching flavor.
Strategy #9 – Make Your Burritos With Rice or Potatoes
One of my favorite meal prep items is breakfast burritos. I usually make burritos with scrambled eggs with a lot of vegetables and other items cooked right in the scrambled eggs. (My personal preference is mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and a little bit of diced tomato.)
However, if I use just that mix, the burritos are going to be very watery when I cook them later on. So, my secret ingredient in breakfast burritos is to mix in some shredded potatoes and/or rice into the mix, mostly to absorb the extra liquid. Another good strategy is to cook the ingredients of the burrito down before you ever add eggs, so cook the onions to a translucent or even caramelized state first and make sure there’s basically no liquid in the pan.
You want the burritos to seem rather dry when you put them in the freezer. If they seem wet at all, they’re going to be soggy afterwards. The same is true for things like enchiladas and lasagna.
Speaking of soggy lasagna…
Strategy #10 – Get Your Cooked Pasta/Noodles as Dry as Possible
If you’re making any dish with pasta in it, you’ll find that the relative dryness of the pasta makes a huge difference as to how moist the meal is when you’re cooking it again after a stay in the freezer.
If you pull the noodles straight out of boiling water and use them immediately, everything will be wet. If you strain them, you’ll still probably find more dampness than you want in your casserole.
The solution is to get those noodles as dry as you can before using them. You may want to even consider using “oven ready” noodles in their dry form for things like lasagna; though I don’t like their texture, they will help to ensure things aren’t too damp in there.
My usual strategy for lasagna and other meals with pasta is to lay out the noodles on parchment paper after I cook them and then dry them off even a bit more with a paper towel before I put them in the casserole. I also cook down whatever liquids I’m using – if I’m using a marinara sauce, I cook it down in a saucepan before using it to get rid of some of the liquids, or I make my own with a large proportion of tomato paste. Sometimes, I’ll even use a bit of corn starch to thicken it even further.
These steps help keep a lasagna from being runny after some time in the freezer.
Strategy #11 – Leave One of the Meals You Prepped for Dinner That Evening
Whenever we take on a meal prep day, we leave one meal completely unused and in the refrigerator; that’s the meal we use for dinner that very night. We usually just choose a batch of whatever meal we’re most excited about from the meal prep process.
This means that after everything is done and cleaned up, we don’t have to prep yet another meal for supper. We just grab one of our prepped meals from the fridge and toss it in the oven or into a pot and we’re ready to go.
It’s a nice way to end a long day of meal prepping.
A final tip: a big meal prep day is a great thing to do with a friend or two. Invite a friend over for the day and do all of this meal prepping together.
My strong suggestion is to have one of the two of you plan out all of the recipes and then split a shopping list between the two of you. You each buy the ingredients on that list, then one friend comes over with the ingredients they bought and the containers they want to use in a laundry basket (for ease of carrying) along with any other items or tools needed, like an extra bowl or two.
Then, just make huge batches of everything! Make ten batches of soup at once in a giant stock pot, then dole it out a ladle at a time into ten different soup containers! Make eight pans of lasagna at once!
Not only will you have an extra set of hands for all of this, you’ll also have someone to hang out with and socialize with throughout the whole process.
A “meal prep day” can save you enormous amounts of money and time if you can commit to setting aside an afternoon solely to handling advance meal preparation. If you can, the savings from bulk buying and from eating so often at home, plus the time saving from synergizing so much cooking, will end up providing a huge benefit to your financial and personal life.