10 Tips for Preparing Budget-Friendly Meals (It’s Always Healthy)

This story is part Tips for the houseCNET’s collection of handy tips for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

In an effort to save money and eat healthier, I challenged myself not to eat out for two weeks. (Full disclosure: I spent eight days cooking all of my meals before splurging on a bowl of burrito at Chipotle.) For those of you looking to boost your home cooking but not your expenses that are More willful than me, I’ve got 10 tips for planning your meal prep on a budget, before you hit the store, at the store, and once you get home.

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For this challenge, I focused on foods that are affordable, nutritious, and filling. As a college student on a shoestring budget and limited kitchen supplies, I hope these tips will be helpful to anyone looking to save money on simple, healthy home-cooked meals. (You can also check out our stories at whether it’s cheaper to buy groceries online or in-storeand whether meal kits are worth the money compared to regular groceries.)

Read more: Best Cheap Meal Delivery Services

Before going to the store

1. Determine your nutritional goals

Everyone is different, so think about what you need to fuel your lifestyle. Are you active? Do you have any dietary restrictions? Do you have an allergy that makes it harder to get the right nutrients?

To get your money’s worth, the base of your meal should aim to have all three macronutrients: a carbohydrate, a protein and a fat. To make a perfectly balanced meal, include fruits and vegetables whenever possible. According to the Center for Disease Control, only one in 10 adults in the United States eat enough vegetables and fruit (2-3 cups of vegetables and 1.5-2 cups of fruit daily).

To help you plan, check out our article on the most affordable fruits right now.

2. Set a budget

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It is important to budget for groceries and meal preparation.

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So how do you budget for groceries? The US Department of Agriculture recommends that men ages 19 to 50 with low to moderate budgets spend about $66 to $82 per week, based on dietary intake recommendations. For women in the same age group, this weekly budget is $57 to $70. This will also vary depending on the price of groceries where you live, but will help as a general guideline if you’re not sure where to start.

For all the basics like bread, milk and butter etc, I recommend a store like Aldi or Trader Joe’s which have business models that keep prices lower than many other supermarkets. For example, at Aldi, I recently purchased almond milk for $1.45, which is nearly $2 cheaper than the generic Whole Foods brand. So, check out these options if you have one near you for most basic items before heading to another store.

Read more: Best Healthy Meal Delivery Services

3. Find recipes and make a grocery list

It seems to go without saying, but many people end up impulse buying things they don’t need. The grocery store is designed like we do! Before you go, search for easy recipes online, open a cookbook, or plan to double the revenue you can already make. There are many websites, YouTube channels, and TikTok videos dedicated to healthy meal planning.

If you are preparing meals, write down the ingredients for each meal and the amount of each needed. By making a shopping list, you can focus on what you need and stick to it.

If you don’t know where to start, I usually aim to buy:

1 lean meat

2 meatless protein products

3 starches, preferably whole grains

  • Brown rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • groats

2-3 different servings of fruit (frozen or fresh)

  • Bananas
  • Strawberries
  • blueberries
  • Pineapple

2-3 different servings of vegetables (frozen or fresh)

  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach

1-2 sources of fat

If you need some inspiration for your meals, here are some of my go-to recipes and ingredients for different meals:

Breakfast

  • Smoothies (frozen fruit, milk, spinach, Greek yogurt)
  • groats (and fruit)

Lunch

  • Flatbread wraps (whole grain wrap, chicken, beans, cheese, lettuce, corn, chipotle mayo, avocado)

Having dinner

  • taco bowl (rice, beans, meat (optional), red onion, lettuce, fajita vegetables, cilantro, avocado)
  • Jumped up (rice, frozen sautéed vegetables, meat (optional), soy sauce, peanut butter, honey, red pepper flakes)

Read more: The best meal prep containers to buy for 2022

At the store

4. Read nutrition labels

Scroll down to the bottom row and take the time to read the nutrition label to see if what you’re buying actually provides the nutrients you’re looking for, whether it’s fiber, vitamins or protein. Discover our guide to what to look for and avoid on nutrition labels.

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Check these nutrition labels before buying your food.

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5. Do the math

I know you want to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, but a few extra minutes could save you money. Many companies have reduce the size of their food portions while keeping the same prices. Cross-check between brands and different sizes to find the best deal by dividing the total price by the total weight. While you pull out your calculator, try to add up the total while you shop. You will start to remember the prices of items and you will not be surprised by the register.

6. Buy Private Label

Everyone knows private labels are generally less expensive than premium brands, but the margin is higher than you think. Buying private labels everywhere you shop can save you money up to 30%say expert grocers.

7. Shop grocery sales in-store and online

Pay attention to in-store sales. Many grocery stores put out a weekly ad that you can scan beforehand. Choose the items you want to use and try to plan your meals for the week around the discounted items. If you know you buy an item often and it’s on sale, stock it up. (A lot of seasonal fruits are cheapertoo.)

Many department stores have apps or websites, so look online for specific discounts and offers. Coupon websites such as Coupons.com have a section dedicated entirely to grocery stores. Pre-selecting the items you want to buy also helps you diversify your meals as you incorporate new items on sale.

8. Prioritize versatility

The key to grocery shopping isn’t to be fancy – you don’t need that expensive truffle oil that you’ll only use in one recipe. Keep it simple with ingredients that you know you will use and use a lot. Save the experiment for when you have more money. Preparing ingredients is less daunting than preparing meals, so if you have similar basics while varying spices and sauces, you’ll be able to stretch a handful of ingredients into different meals.

9. Buy frozen or canned

Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are not your enemies. A 2017 study showed that not only are frozen vegetables and fruits nutritionally comparable to fresh, but frozen produce can actually retain vitamins more effectively than fresh produce stored in the refrigerator for five days or more. Canned products are processed more than frozen products, but they are both harvested and stored at full maturity. Either way, eating frozen and canned foods is a great, easy and inexpensive way to add essential vitamins and minerals to your diet.

frozen fruit

Frozen fruit has the same nutritional value as fresh fruit, if not more.

Getty Images/ Zecchinon/ Eyeem

after the store

10. Make your food last

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Keep that fridge nice and organized.

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The steps you take after grocery shopping are crucial to effectively using the foods you’ve just purchased. Take steps to keep your food in the fridge longerincluding your fruits and vegetables, and organize your kitchen to save money and stay motivated to eat the good food you just bought.

Happy meal prep! For more tips on preparing healthy meals, check out the expert picks at the best fish to grilland the best air fryers.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

About Keith Johnson

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