As a registered dietitian, I frequently see people who want to eat more healthily but aren't sure how to do it without breaking the bank. I'm here to tell you that meal prep on a budget is possible. That's why I've put together my favorite tricks for spending less than $ 100 a week on a variety of meals and snacks for my family of four.
Of course, affordability and accessibility of wholesome, nutritious food is complex and influenced by a variety of structural factors. The purpose of this article isn’t to assume that a few budgeting tips would address these issues, but to give a glimpse into how I make it work in a family of two adults and two children under three. With that in mind, here are some of my tips for economical grocery shopping and cooking, followed by what I spent and the recipes I used to turn my haul into delicious and satisfying meals and snacks.
Grocery Shopping Tips
- If you'd really like to save, focus on vegetarian meals and snacks. Not buying items like meat and fish is one way to cut back on grocery spending, if that's a goal of yours. The grocery list that follows is fully vegetarian.
- Select frozen produce instead of fresh. Frozen produce is picked and packaged at peak ripeness, so it's not just more affordable, it's also reliably tasty.
- Stick to your shopping list. Resist the urge to stock up on things you don't have a plan for, no matter how appealing they look.
- Look at unit pricing. If you compare two versions of the same product—say, peanut butter—you may just pick up the seemingly cheaper option to save money. However, if these containers are different sizes, it may be difficult to determine which is actually the better value. The price labels will have unit pricing to show you how much you are spending per ounce, milliliter, or gram. Go with the lowest unit pricing to truly get a good deal.
- Get dry or canned lentils, beans, and chickpeas, which will add protein and fiber to your meals. Even if you’re not eating fully vegetarian, adding plant-based protein to your meals can stretch them and make them more filling.
- Use price matching apps and coupons. You don’t have to become an extreme couponer, but you can take a look through flyers and price-saving apps to shave a few dollars off your bill.
- Find a balance between convenience and saving. Baby carrots are convenient but a lot more expensive than a big bag of carrots you can cut yourself. Dried beans are a lot cheaper but require soaking and boiling before using in recipes. Decide when you are willing to spend more time in the kitchen and save, versus paying the extra money for something more convenient.
My Grocery List
Here's what my grocery bill looked like after one trip to the store:
- Bananas: $ 4.48
- Oranges: $ 3.49 (on sale, saved $ 1.00)
- Apples: $ 2.06 (on sale, saved $ 0.66)
- Broccoli: $ 2.49
- Carrots: $ 2.49
- Cucumbers: $ 2.58 (on sale, saved $ 2.58)
- Pears: $ 2.30 (on sale, saved $ 1.26)
- Onions: $ 2.49
- Kiwi: $ 2.49 (on sale, saved $ 1.50)
- Green peppers: $ 4.65
- Spinach: $ 2.99 (on sale, saved $ 0.50)
- Parsley: $ 1.99
- Garlic: $ 0.77
- Ground cinnamon: $ 1.97
- Ground coriander: $ 1.69
- Ground cumin: $ 1.69
- Dried basil: $ 1.49
- Dried oregano: $ 1.49
- Dried red chilli powder: $ 1.49
- Garlic powder: $ 1.49
- Large flake oats: $ 2.10
- Olive oil: $ 5.97
- Red lentils (dry): $ 2.49
- Black beans (dry): $ 1.99
- All-natural peanut butter: $ 2.49
- Salsa: $ 3.00 (on sale, saved $ 0.99)
- Spaghetti: $ 0.88 (on sale, saved $ 1.61)
- Bottled tomato puree: $ 1.49
- Whole grain tortillas: $ 2.99 x 2 = 5.98
- Cheese: $ 4.99 (on sale, saved $ 1.30)
- Plain Greek yogurt: $ 4.99 (on sale, saved $ 0.80)
- Salad dressing: $ 0.00 (had a coupon, saved $ 3.99)
- Milk: $ 5.29
- Pomegranate arils: $ 3.99
- Vegetable mix for spaghetti: $ 1.99
- Frozen blueberries: $ 3.99
Note: I didn't buy sweetener for my oatmeal, salt, or black pepper since I already had these in my kitchen.
Total before tax: $ 98.23
Our Meals and Snacks
I spent a couple of hours on Sunday preparing different meals and snacks. Here are some examples.
- Chunky Monkey Wrap
- Blueberry Oatmeal
Lunch and dinner:
- Spaghetti With Vegetarian Bolognese-Style Sauce
- Black Bean Enchiladas
- Greek Yogurt With Frozen Pomegranate Arils
- Veggie Platter With Dip or Hummus
Before we get to the recipes, I want to note again that this is what works for our family! As the main cook for a family of four, it makes life a lot easier to repeat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks throughout the week. This way, I don't have to worry about what to cook every single day, and I'm more easily able to plan meals that are nutritiously balanced. Keep in mind that successful meal prep is really all about finding what aligns with your tastes and lifestyle. If you're also a fan of generally eating the same meals and snacks from day to day, that's great! If you'd like a little more variety, that's cool, too. Do what works best for you.
Some of the items we ate throughout the week, like the snacks, are pretty intuitive. Others require a bit more work, which I've outlined below.
Chunky Monkey Wrap
Cost per recipe: $ 0.97
Cost per serving: $ 0.97
Makes: 1 serving
- 1 whole grain tortilla ($ 0.37)
- 1 banana ($ 0.45)
- 2 Tbsp all-natural peanut butter ($ 0.15)
- On a tortilla, spread peanut butter. Add sliced banana and roll up tortilla.
Cost per recipe: $ 1.43
Cost per serving: $ 0.36
Makes: 4 servings
- 1 cup large flake/rolled oats ($ 0.10)
- 1 cup water ($ 0.00)
- 1 cup milk ($ 0.33)
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon ($ 0.01)
- ½ tsp of sweetener of choice (maple syrup, coconut sugar, brown sugar etc.) ($ 0.00 – whatever you have at home)
- 1 cup frozen blueberries ($ 0.99)
- Optional: hemp seeds, chia seed, ground flaxseed, almonds
- In a saucepan, add all ingredients and cook on medium-high heat for 5 minutes until mixture thickens.
- Remove from heat and top with frozen blueberries. Optional: add seeds/nuts for added healthy fats and protein.
Spaghetti With Vegetarian Bolognese-Style Sauce
Cost per recipe: $ 4.90
Cost per serving: $ 0.61-$ 0.82
Makes: 6-8 servings
- 1 Tbsp olive oil ($ 0.12)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced ($ 0.08)
- ½ tsp salt ($ 0.01)
- ½ tsp black pepper ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp dried oregano ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp dried basil ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp dried cumin ($ 0.01)
- ½ tsp red chili powder ($ 0.01)
- 1 cup dry red lentils, rinsed ($ 0.28)
- 1 bottle strained tomatoes (or 1 can crushed tomatoes) ($ 1.49)
- 1-750g package frozen veggies (preferably veggies cut into small pieces) ($ 1.99)
- 1 cup water ($ 0.00)
- 1 package spaghetti, prepared according to directions on package ($ 0.88)
- In a large pot, heat olive oil on medium-high heat. If your frozen veggie mix does not have onions in it, you can add one fresh chopped onion to the oil. Add minced garlic, spices, lentils, strained/crushed tomatoes, frozen veggies, and water.
- Let mixture come to a boil then reduce to low-medium and cook for 30 minutes, until lentils are cooked through and mixture has thickened.
- In a separate pot, prepare spaghetti according to directions on package.
- After lentils are fully cooked, taste mixture and adjust seasonings if needed. Remove from heat. Add Bolognese-style sauce on top of spaghetti portions right before serving. Store separately.
Black Bean Enchiladas
Cost per recipe: $ 10.26-$ 11.33
Cost per serving: $ 1.28-$ 1.42
Makes: 8 servings
- 2-15oz cans of black beans (rinsed and strained) or 3.5 cups of cooked black beans ($ 0.87 for dried beans versus $ 1.94 for canned)
- 1 onion ($ 0.42)
- 1 tsp salt ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp black pepper ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp red chili powder ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp garlic powder ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp ground cumin ($ 0.01)
- 1 tsp ground coriander ($ 0.01)
- ¼ cup fresh parsley ($ 0.25)
- 1 green pepper, chopped ($ 1.55)
- 1 cup spinach ($ 0.50)
- 1 jar salsa or enchilada sauce ($ 3.00)
- 1 cup cheese, shredded ($ 0.62)
- 8 whole grain tortillas ($ 2.99)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Wet a piece of parchment paper, scrunch it up, then open it to line a baking dish. Keep aside.
- In a food processor, add black beans, onion, spices, and parsley. Pulse until mixture becomes a thick, uneven paste. Add mixture to a large mixing bowl and fold in green pepper and spinach.
- Fill a tortilla with ⅛ of the bean mixture, roll up tortilla, and place seam facing down in baking dish. Repeat with all tortillas until baking dish is filled.
- Top with salsa or enchilada sauce and sprinkle with cheese.
- Place in oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until cheese is bubbly.