Follow My One-Week Meal Prep Plan If You're on a Budget
We often see articles and books giving advice on how to meal prep and plan ahead when cooking for families. Having a solid meal prep plan is a great way of maintaining a budget and resources, while also saving time and making sure everyone in your household has healthy and hearty meals ready to grab and go no matter how much running around you're all expected to do each weekday. But when cooking for one, we don't talk about batch cooking as often. However, as a single person living and working in the food media in New York City, I can tell you that making a good meal prep plan can be a lifesaver.
There are a lot of reasons that cooking for one person is easier than cooking for a family. First of all, I don't have to worry about anyone else's dietary restrictions or food preferences; I can just make what I want to eat. However, that doesn't mean I want to cook every day. I go to work events a few nights a week, and even when I'm home all day, I don't always feel like cooking—which is when I run the risk of blowing my budget on delivery or resorting to quick but unhealthy convenience foods.
I have some good friends that insist that the cost of ingredients plus the time that goes into preparing them makes no sense as a single person, and they live off delivery. I completely disagree. One day during the holiday break, I had a 40% off $25 coupon from one of the major third-party delivery apps. I decided to splurge and order dinner. The resulting meal somehow cost me more than what I could spend on groceries for one meal I could batch cook—and eat for a week.
This is why I decided to spend a week solidly devoting myself to meal prep and seeing how it went. My goals were a solid meal prep plan that was healthy, and balanced, in addition to just making my life easier during this exceedingly busy time of year. After attempting my meal prep plan for one week, these are my top takeaways from the experience.
My Meal Prep Game Plan
I always begin by looking at my calendar. What does my week look like? Do I have dinner plans? Am I traveling? You want to prep all the food you will eat, but not more than you will eat. Remember, the goal here is eliminating food and money waste, not adding to it.
From there, I create and keep maintaining a pretty intricate shopping list. I just do this in the notes app on my phone, but I plan ahead for what I will be making each week and what I need to make it. You don't want to start out making meatballs and then discover you have no eggs or breadcrumbs and derail that whole plan.
Also, I look for foods that could be prepped easily, but also enjoyed and repurposed in various ways so that each meal felt fresh and interesting. Over the weekend, I started out with the intent to make three dishes:
- A slow cooker brisket
- An air fryer turkey breast
- A slow cooker batch of meatballs
Additionally, I bought a giant family-sized container of mixed greens and broke those into various containers.
What Happened During the Week
While this may have all translated to quite a large grocery haul and a lot of cooking on one weekend day, it also meant that just about all my cooking for the next week was about to be handled. Also, I was avoiding food waste because I was making exactly what I would be eating as the week progressed.
I used that turkey breast for dinner that night—it felt like a mini-Thanksgiving, all roasted and juicy and crispy. But the leftovers made for a delicious veggie and turkey stir fry the next day.
The brisket was a delicious dinner, as well. (Don't ever sleep on leftover brisket—it always tastes even better the next day!) I paired these leftovers with some of the beans I had prepped for salad, and turned that into brisket taco bowls another night for dinner.
Always a crowd-favorite, those meatballs also store and freeze so well. They are excellent for a quick dinner on their own or added to sandwiches as a special lunch treat.
Here is how my three squares for the week generally played out:
My average morning is a yogurt cup and banana, or a bowl or cereal and some fresh fruit. Also, having delicious dried fruit options like blueberries or cranberries are excellent to throw in yogurt, cereal, or even salads at lunch when you don't have time to run to the grocery store for the fresh variety.
Overall, this was simple in that it is inherently ready to grab and go. I keep bananas on standby as well as some plant-based yogurt cups in the fridge. I also have a few favorite cereal options on standby.
My lunches tend to be salad-focused, but I can't believe it when my friends tell me they spend over $10 a day on takeout salads at local spots. I buy greens one day a week, and prep out salad ingredients for that week in Tupperware.
Salads are by far the easiest to prepare because you can make a whole lot of them at once and they'll be ready to grab and take to work all week. As protein, I will include turkey breast I made for dinner over the weekend and portion that out, as well.
One key benefit of meal prep is that ideally, you can continue to use all the ingredients in various ways. I had made containers of lettuce, beans, and various veggies. These could be mixed into a salad of choice each day, but also repurposed in other ways. For example, the avocado and beans from my salad prep also got involved in my taco bowl, as did a lot of the veggies in that turkey stir fry. One key benefit of meal prep is that ideally, you can continue to use all the ingredients in various ways.
I am a big fan of making a roast chicken or turkey breast in the air fryer on the weekend, and then using that for various meals throughout the week. This works for dinners in various capacities. I also did the same this week with a brisket and meatballs—so, I had a solid protein foundation for every meal.
Meal Prep Pro-tips
My goal in coming up with a meal prep plan was to not feel restricted, or like I was eating the same meal again and again—a learned this lesson the hard way after making this exact mistake. In the past, I made a delicious pot of chili early in the week to eat all week long, and then discovered three days in that I was really bored and tired of eating it.
I think one of the biggest meal prep trappings people can make is falling into a similar redundant cycle. No matter how much we love a meal, we will eventually get bored eating the same food over and over. The idea behind meal prep planning is to take those core meals that we use as the foundation of the week and find ways to switch them up a bit and make them feel new and interesting. That brisket that eventually became taco bowls could also easily be sandwiches or wraps or turned into burritos. Keep things fun and tasty.
But we're also doing ourselves the favor of not having to give ourselves a headache wondering what to make, or making bad food choices and then feeling crappy about it. We're saving ourselves from spending our hard-earned money on groceries that we then don't pull together into meals—and then just let go to waste. It's the difference between "I don't feel like cooking" and "NOW, I DON'T HAVE TO COOK." Emotionally and mentally, it's a whole new world.
Embrace storage space
Your freezer, your fridge, they can all be used for food storage. I always make enough of things like meatballs, soups, stews, chili, to freeze a few batches for another day. It's so nice to know if you aren't feeling great or have six deadlines that you can just take some meatballs out of the freezer, defrost it, and instantly have a delicious sub. Also, you can keep stuff like cookie dough or even ice cubes of pesto in the freezer as well for when they are needed.
I also keep a stocked pantry. If you can't make it to the store one week or the grocery budget is tight, having a pantry ready with beans and pasta and rice can be a perfect foundation for planning meals around. All the "extras"—the fancy cheese, the good olives, your favorite spread, come after you have the essentials you need for meal prep and planning your week.
Buy in bulk
Don't be afraid to buy in bulk even though you are only feeding yourself. You save a lot of money that way, and it helps with prep. Buying the giant package of greens and using it for a week of salads is going to be a lot cheaper than buying those mini chopped salad bags and running out mid-week and buying more.
Stop calling it 'leftovers'
I know, I did it all throughout this essay. But calling food leftovers feels sort of negative. (I mean, isn't that why restaurants call it a doggy bag?!) Stop thinking of a single meal as a standalone culinary blip on the screen. Instead, think of all the dishes you whip up as a building block for other deliciousness.
I look forward to my stir fries of various odds and ends. Let me tell you, when you are eating homemade brisket or roast chicken and sides for lunch at work on a Thursday, and someone else is eating soggy takeout from a corner deli, there'll be nothing second-best about your meal.
Remember, we are cooking more now to cook less later. Yes, my Sundays are a ball of laughs: I'm cooking all afternoon on Sundays, and that makes my tiny studio apartment kitchen look like a disaster hit. But I do this so that I cook a lot less during the week. But you'll be so grateful for it when Tuesday comes, it's a busy day, and you open your fridge and see yummy and hearty food just waiting to be enjoyed—no cooking or ordering expensive takeout required.