Even when you live a simplistic life at home, outside forces can bring about a busyness to your day. This is something we’ve been learning in great detail during our internship (for missionary/pastoral work) and I’ve had to come up with solutions that can ensure that we are still able to enjoy maximum family time.
Ingredient Meal Prep on a Budget
One of the areas of difficulty that I’ve discovered is with making meals. I enjoy the process of making a delicious meal and don’t mind spending an hour preparing a delicious supper for my family. I love to cook and bake for other people! But we when have obligations that leave me with less time to prepare our breakfast, lunch, and supper and I have nothing ready, it often leaves me feeling a bit frustrated.
Meal Prep is something I’ve done quite a bit of in the past but probably not in the same way that you’ve seen many bloggers post about it. I have shared about how I do Large Batch Cooking which is wonderful for making sauces and preparing basic meats for the week. But we also eat an extensive amount of fruits and vegetables along with our meal.
In my blog post on Large Batch Cooking, I shared about how typical freezer meals aren’t something that’s worked well for our family. (Read the whole blog post here) Everyone has a different meal planning style as I talk about in my ebook, Meal Planning Made Simple. When something works for one family and their schedule, it doesn’t always mean it’s going to work for you.
So today I’m sharing with you how I do our Ingredient Meal Prepping and how we use it to stick to our budget. Our current monthly food budget is about $600 a month and that’s for a family of 5 with significant food allergies. It’s become more of a challenge since we lost all of our meat a few months ago due to a power outage/freezer issue but I’ve been doing my best to stick to what we have by doing things like having a Pantry Challenge Month and Making Homemade Kombucha.
Storing Meal Prep Ingredients
I use a variety of containers for food storage, both glass, and plastic. I know that some people are against plastic containers altogether but I highly prefer them for storing foods in the freezer. If you’ve ever had glass containers break in the freezer, you know how I feel. Here are the main containers that I have and use to store the foods.
I have one set of these containers and I like to use them for things that I’m going to store in the fridge and re-heat up later (in the same container). Since I don’t have more than one set and often use them for leftovers, these don’t always get used for meal prep since they have other uses.
I discovered these last year and I really like them for storing things in the freezer. These are particularly good for storing sauces and soups since they aren’t overly big and they and be closed better than just popping the lid on. I use these for things that I plan on putting in the freezer, liquids, or for foods that I won’t be heating up in the same container.
I’ve used this style of storage container for many years. They are very similar to those “old style” square containers that used to be used for the freezer. I don’t use these for foods I’m going to store in the fridge, only for foods for the freezer. I show my usage of these in my Large Batch Cooking blog post.
Side note….meal prep can be done anywhere in any sized kitchen! Just get containers that fit the space you have. In the picture above, I’m using mostly zippered bags because I took that picture in the RV we lived in. Not a lot of fridge space but enough space to prep and store food in!
Preparing whatever grains or legumes you might need for the week is very helpful, especially if you are unable to eat wheat. You have fewer carbs to choose from and unless you don’t eat carbs for dietary reasons, they are an important way to fuel the body, especially for growing littles! I try to serve one carb item at each meal. Here are some of the things we make and how I prep them for the week to come.
I buy all my grains/legumes from Azure or Costco (when they have them) so I’ve included the links to what I buy below.
How I Prep This: First I take my small Dutch Oven and I fry a little bit of fresh garlic and onion in some oil. Once it’s slightly browned, I add in my quinoa and water, give it a stir, and cover it with the lid for about 15-20 minutes on a low heat. Once the quinoa has “popped” I let it rest for a minute or two and then fluff it.
How I Store This: Cooked Quinoa can be stored in the fridge or freezer. I store it in any of the containers I’ve linked to above.
How I Prep This: I cook rice the same as I cook quinoa but minus the onion and garlic. I add the rice and water to the dutch oven, cover with a lid and cook on a low heat for about 15-20 minutes and then I fluff it. If I forget to use rice that I’ve put in my fridge I like to make it into Fried Rice.
How I Store This: If it’s going to get used right away or within a day or two, I store it in the fridge. Any longer than that and I will stick it in the freezer. I have a tutorial on Freezing Rice here.
How I Prep This: I’ve been cooking beans in my Instant Pot lately! I still soak them overnight but then I can cook them in about 9 minutes of pressure. I’ve also cooked beans in a slow cooker but cooking them in the Instant Pot is much for time and energy-efficient. I have tutorials on Cooking Dried Beans here.
How I Store This: On occasion, I will place beans in a storage container (like the ones linked above), but more often I like to keep it in a freezer bag (I get mine from Aldi). Beans are always hard to scrape out of a container and tend to stain the containers (especially black beans). I try and always make 2 full bags of cooked beans, one for the fridge and one for the freezer. Put the beans in the beans, let as much air out as you can, and freeze them flat so they don’t take up so much space.
How I Prep This: Lentils are another great legume to prep because they can easily be added to many meals. I cook them plain, without any spices so that can be added later. These cook best on the stovetop and much be watched carefully so they don’t overcook. I soak them for a few hours before cooking while I’m doing other meal prep.
How I Store This: I store lentils the same as I store beans.
Vegetables are a great item to prep for future meals! It seems like cutting can be time-consuming, but by prepping in advance, you can easily throw your meals together quickly.
How I Prep This: I either spiralize, julienne, or slice zucchini and summer squash depending on how I plan on using it that week.
How I Store This: I like storing Zucchini in the Twist and Loc containers. I will store them in the glass containers if I have some to use. If I spiralize a large amount, I will store it in a gallon-size zippered bag. All are kept in the fridge for up to 5 days. We do not like frozen zucchini.
How I Prep This: While technically a fruit, I’m including it under vegetables because that’s how we eat it. I almost always cook winter squash in my Instant Pot so I can mash it up when it’s done (or get the noodles from the spaghetti squash). On occasion, I dice it up, particularly if I’m using butternut squash to make soups or to roast. I have a tutorial on Cutting Up Butternut Squash here
How I Store This: I use any of the containers outlined above because I both freeze and refrigerate winter squash. Cooked winter squash lasts for up to a week in the fridge, uncooked (diced) squash will begin to harden after a couple of days.
How I Prep This: Carrots are one of my “most-prepped” vegetables! We eat carrots every week and they are fairly time-consuming to prepare. We love to roast them in the oven (plain with salt and olive oil or with my Ranch Seasoning) so I usually make them into sticks and store them in the fridge until I’m ready to roast them. I’ve also cut sticks and kept them in the fridge for snacks. Another way I prep these is to dice them to be added into soup.
How I Store This: It takes a large number of carrots to be able to roast them so I store them in a gallon-size zippered bag. I use these within a few days of cutting them up. If I’m storing them for snacks or soup, it’s best to place them in one of the glass containers along with a little bit of water so they don’t get dried out. If this is done, they will last at least a week (after being peeled and sliced) in the fridge.
How I Prep This: Celery is somethings eaten for a snack (so it just gets cleaned and cut into sticks) but mostly gets used in soups in our home. I prep it by dicing it up.
How I Store This: I store diced celery in any of the containers listed above. If I’m prepping for soup, I might store the diced carrots and celery together.
How I Prep This: We eat cucumbers fresh and raw so I always prep them the same way, by peeling and slicing (I don’t peel the little ones).
How I Store This: Cucumbers are stored in a bowl with a lid or in another container with a lid. At the bottom of the bowl, I place a wet paper towel to keep them from drying out. I only prep a few days worth of cucumbers at a time.
I love prepping fruits because we eat so many as snacks and they are SO easy to prepare since they are typically eaten raw. Below I will include a list of our favorite fruits to meal prep and how we store them since they are typically the same.
Fruits We Prep Often
- Orange Slices
To prep any fruit, I simply wash it with my produce spray and gently pat it dry. Orange slices are only from “cuties” type of oranges so they get peeled and some apples are sliced and sprinkled with lemon and kept in the fridge for easy snacks.
How I Store Prepped Fruit: All prepped fruit is stored in the fridge. Sometimes I store it in my containers and sometimes I just store it in my Corelle Bowls. It gets eaten so fast, sometimes the bowls are just easier to clean.
I won’t cover how to have a Baking Day in detail here since you can read more about it here or more extensively in my ebook, Meal Planning Made Simple. But basically, a Baking Day can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, depending on how many items you need to bake that week. Here are some of our most commonly made items on a Baking Day.
I usually like to have a Baking Day separate from my ingredient meal prep day unless I don’t have many ingredients to prep. For some reason, it’s just easier to separate the two days in my mind. Usually, I will prep ingredients on one day and do the Baking Day on the following day.
How I Store Baked Goods: I almost always keep fresh baked goods in the freezer and only pull them out on the morning we plan on using them or on the day before. I place the items in a zippered freezer bag and stick it in the freezer until we are ready to use it. If I keep all the baked goods out on the counter and don’t store any in the freezer, they tend to get eaten too quickly (especially the treats) and are hard to keep around for the entire week.
Meat is one of the most important items that I meal prep each week since our meat is usually stored in the freezer and isn’t as easy to just grab and make. I talk quite a bit about prepping meat items in my Large Batch Cooking post. If I’m not doing anything special to the meat for the week, I will at least get what I need or want to use out of the freezer at the beginning of the week and place it in the fridge to thaw for when it’s needed.
How I Prep This: I usually like to keep some kind of shredded chicken breast on hand for easy lunches or to put on salads. I cook chicken breast in the Instant Pot with a few spices/herbs and then shred it upon removal and store in the fridge in any of my containers. If I know I’m making Stir Fry that week (and using chicken), I like to dice up my chicken thighs to have them ready to go. If I have the time, I will even cook them in advance to just be tossed into the vegetables. If I happen to have time after I’ve bought chicken and BEFORE I put it in the freezer, I like to dice up the chicken for stir-fry (or trim excess fat for other meals) and place it in freezer bags for later.
How I Store This: I store cooked chicken in any of my containers listed above. As I mentioned, if I’m prepping fresh meat to be placed int the freezer for later, I store it in zippered freezer bags.
How I Prep This: We don’t happen to have a lot of beef on hand at this time since we lost what we had with our freezer failure, but I do still pull out the roasts that we need (and were gifted from my mom) for the week. I put these in the fridge to thaw and be ready for slicing into Stir Fry meat or for placing in the Instant Pot later in the week. If I plan on making Tacos or Spaghetti during the week, I may also prep my ground beef by browning it and adding the appropriate spices to flavor the meat.
How I Store This: The only item here that isn’t just placed in the fridge is the pre-cooked burger for tacos or spaghetti. These I place in any of my containers listed above and store until needed. I sometimes like to make a double batch of taco/spaghetti meat and put the second half of the meat in the freezer (in a freezer container or a zippered freezer bag, laying flat) for another meal later in the month.
How I Prep This: I love to have hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for an easy breakfast or lunch protein during the week. I make these in the Instant Pot or on the stovetop. For the Instant Pot, they only need 5 minutes of pressure and I use this little Steamer Basket to do a dozen at a time.
How I Store This: I store my hard-boiled eggs in an old egg carton that is marked “Hard-Boiled” and keep them in the fridge until they are ready to be eaten. I do not peel ours in advance but I’ve seen it done before if you want an even quicker to grab protein.
Ingredients I Don’t Prep
There are a few things that I’ve tried to prep in advance and they just don’t work out. Here are some of the foods that I don’t recommend preparing until you are ready to use them.
- Onions – I know that these CAN be prepped, but they make my entire fridge smell like onion once they are cut. I just wait with these until I’m ready to make the meal. Please note that I DO prep green onions. Just rinse and chop and store in the container in the fridge.
- Potatoes – These turn brown and harden when prepped and stored. I have stored these after they are cooked (especially Mashed Potatoes) but I usually wait with these until it’s time to make a meal.
- Sweet Potatoes – I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include this down here because I DO prepare and cook sweet potatoes in advance, but I don’t prep them (clean and dice) and store them until ready to use. Roasted sweet potatoes tend to get gummy if left in the fridge so the only way I will prep these is to cook and mash or to slice, broil, and freeze (for sweet potato toast).
- Pasta – Since pasta only takes a few minutes to make and tends to not be a very nice texture after stored in the fridge or freezer (especially gluten-free pasta), it’s not something that I prep in advance.
Being able to prep all of the items above still gives you the time-saving gift that you get when you buy pre-prepped foods, but without the high price tag. Depending on how much you need to prep each week, it will take you some time (my prep takes me a few hours per week), but I’ve found the pay-off to be worth it as it saves me time during the most hectic parts of the day…mealtimes.
Ingredient Meal Prep gives you the opportunity to purchase inexpensive meats, fruits, and vegetables, and to be able to make your meals from scratch…something we all know will almost always save you money! I know that this blog post has gotten a little long but I hope that this post will give you ideas on how to better put together your week so that you can have less stress around mealtimes, less expense on your grocery budget, and more time for the things that really matter to you.
Do you do ingredient meal prep? What are some foods that you prep each week?
Until next time,