Home cooked meal prep for families on a time budget
Who says convenient and healthy eating has to be time consuming?
To keep this blog ad-free, this post may contain affiliate links and/or paid placement. Click here to read our full disclosure.
Busy lives mean that home-cooked meals for a family involves careful meal planning, researched grocery lists, and recipes that satisfy. In the kitchen, domestic engineers are all about being efficient with our time and cost-effective with money. I am going to share with you some ways to save time while feeding you and your family well using what the fitness crowd calls meal prep.
Prep meals to your taste and budget
I remember the days when cooking was entertainment and an experience shared over wine with friends, listening to music. I still get to do that every Thanksgiving, but the other days of the year look a little different.
These days, when I cook I am feeding four other people with various dietary requirements and culinary preferences. Meal prep has turned the experience of making food into a feat of home economics. I can see the allure of meal prepping. Time is money. Save time, save money.
In 2014, the USDA found that the average person spends 51 minutes a day getting meals ready and cleaning up. That rings true for me when I do not prep ahead of time. Those of us who cook for others on the regular need a little help with flavor inspiration, a faster way to shop and chop, technology for organization and price checks, or all of the above.
What exactly is meal prep?
Meal prep is preparing parts or whole meals for the week ahead of time in order to reduce the amount of time you spend making breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner during the workweek. The concept is similar to making your sandwich for lunch the next day the night before, only meal prep involves batch-cooking several elements and organizing meals into containers to pull from for the workweek all in one go.
Meal prep makes use of specialized equipment to optimize time-savings such as an Instant Pot or Slow Cooker. Meal prep also requires that you shop and store your meals for 3-5 days. Both factors will cause you to spend money to save on time. In the long run, you will have the ability to make many more types of dishes with an Instant Pot without having to stand over the stove for long periods of time.
From my perspective the big advantage of meal prep for families is portion control, and that you are better able to pay attention to total nutrition in every meal. Once your meals are in their lidded boxes and mason jars, you do not have to think about calories or dietary needs Monday through Friday because you did that on Saturday or Sunday.
Most of all, meal prep reduces your mental load. This was really true for me when I was training for a marathon and working full time.
I should mention that meal prep is not meal planning. Meal planning is figuring out what you are going to eat for each meal and ensuring you have those ingredients on hand to do so. A meal plan for a week’s worth of meals is key to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of meal prep.
One tricky part about meal prep for families is that choice is king. The same is true in the pantry and on our plate. Prepping five dinners for a whole family commits you to eat those dinners. This may sound obvious but, better make sure they’ll get eaten.
We all strive to stock up on healthy, delicious food options for everyone (even pickier eaters) needing to be fed at our table but achieving that efficiency should never come at the expense of your taste buds.
How to make frugal meals without sacrificing taste
Buy groceries for recipes that use spices people in your house actually eat.
I could buy a 5 lbs bag of long-grain enriched rice that I can store a long time and use for a multitude of dishes. I could also buy 1-lbs bags of jasmine, basmati, long-grain brown rice, and risotto. The first option takes up less space on my pantry shelves and provides much-needed variety to dishes. Either way works as long as your people will eat it up.
Recipe Ideas for…
Using one batch of rice all week
Making spicy food more approachable for kids
When you buy food for taste you’re also buying to prevent waste.
If you buy a 20 lbs bag of russet potatoes and you’re the only one who likes to eat them... better figure out how to work those taters into 40 servings (which works out to roughly 10 servings of starchy goodness a week for four weeks or the shelf-life of a russet). Buying in bulk or large quantities can be a great way to save money but even if Costco has the best deals on avocados or blueberries, it doesn’t mean you need to buy them. It’s tempting to go for deals but if they’re going to go bad in your house, you’ll end up overpaying.
Recipe ideas for…
Potatoes 34 different ways
What 34 ways did not include: How to make vodka
Stick to dishes that you know how to make and that your family loves to eat.
Maybe you have mastered lasagne or chicken stir fry or homemade pizza. Plan for success with meal prep by choosing familiar things to make and then, start to get creative. Okonomiyaki, anyone?
Recipe ideas for…
Mastering the classics
And for a bit of instruction and support on mastering classic dishes by the celebrated chef, Samin Nosrat listen to her brand new podcast.
Build-your-own dishes ensure individual satisfaction and take a little pain out of meal planning.
By adding meals like a taco bar, baked potatoes, haystacks, healthy bowls, or breakfast burrito that encourages customization into the weekly plan you’ve got lots of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner but you’re often using the same ingredients multiple times. Choice!
Recipe ideas for…
Haystack meal ideas kids will want to make
The original yummy bowl
Know your family’s taste buds.
Who else has a family member who hates cooked tomatoes but loves BLTs? As your kids grow their tastes change. Last year, our nine-year-old ate raw bell peppers like apples and this year peppers—raw or cooked—are poison! Things are going to change but paying attention to what they like to eat and how they like food prepared will save you time and hassle trying to find recipes.
Tired menu planners
Meal prep budgets your family time
If you want more quality time with your family on the daily but struggle to find it, meal prep can give you that quality time you crave. Who knows? Meal prep on a time budget may even make cooking for the family a better experience.
Here’s one last source. This one is all about frugal meals and it’s called 20 dinners for under $2.
Give these a try and please, let me know in the comments below how you were able to reach the $2 dollar price point! And be sure to share your favorites too—we can all use a little inspiration.