How to Meal Prep on a Budget

Days of the week showing each meal that is planned each day on the established budget.

It seems like every aspect of our lives has gotten more complicated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even preparing meals for your household is no simple matter; you want to avoid extra trips to the store while keeping your food spending under budget.

With the world still struggling to contain outbreaks of coronavirus, more people are going to be staying home for longer than anyone expected. For however long our lockdowns, work-from-home arrangements and reduced outside activity lasts, it’s important for all of us to take some steps to improve our pandemic meal preparation:

Clean Out the Freezer and Pantry

You’ll be wanting to buy more canned and shelf-stable dry goods during this time, so your pantry will have to be organized and efficient so you have room to stock up. Inventory what you have, and plan to use up anything that has been on hand for a while.

Do the same for your freezer. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh ones, and you’ll be able to stock up by buying frozen. First, go through the freezer and get rid of anything with freezer burn and make a plan to prepare anything that has been in your freezer for too long. Get ready for a more efficient use of your available freezer space as you stock up for pandemic meal prep.

Keep a Consistent Meal Schedule

While everyone is stuck at home, there are a lot of complaints about weight gain among people who aren’t allowed to be as active as usual and who are at home with their food supply instead of going to a separate workplace. One answer to this problem is to keep your meal schedule consistent; try to eat lunches and dinner at the same time every day, and get out of the mindset of grazing and snacking all day. This will save you money and improve your health.

Keeping a regular schedule will also be good for your productivity from home, and if your kids are home schooling, it will be important for their studies to make their days more structured.

Involve Your Family in Meal Prep

While everyone is home together, give everyone a job in the kitchen. Have everyone learn a dish or two so you can share the cooking duties and give your kids a chance to learn some meal preparation skills.

Because we think it’s important to plan ahead for meal preparation, we think you should find a night everyone in the family an converge and figure out what the week will look like, meal-wise. While you’re deciding what to have for meals, you can talk about who is going to prepare which dishes or components for the meals.

Clean Up Right Away After Meals

Make it a habit to clean up the kitchen immediately after mealtime. You want the dining experience to be a focused, scheduled time that includes some cleanup at the end. This should discourage eating between meals, so be sure to enforce the clean-up rules for ANY eating done, not just regularly scheduled lunches and dinners.

By making cleanup a regular part of your dining experience at home, you’ll have a healthier kitchen and less stress while we’re all going through the difficulty of the pandemic together.

Limit Takeout Meals

It might be tempting to just order takeout when you’re tired and don’t feel like cooking. This is bad for your budget and your waistline. Resist the temptation to order delivery or carry-out for every meal.

That said, it is okay, and even important, to include some restaurant meals in your meal plan. COVID-19 has mobilized most restaurants to have more carry-out and delivery options, and if you want your favorite eateries to stay in business, it’ll be important to keep patronizing them, even during the lockdown. Just don’t do it too often; make sure any takeout meals are part of your weekly meal plan, not an impulse choice to avoid the hassle of cooking.

Plan Ahead

The key to meal prep during the pandemic is planning. The USDA has a good resource for this at It’s crucial to think about your week’s meals ahead of time:

Avoid Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue is a known psychological phenomenon, wherein a person becomes tired of making decisions, and their ability to make good, thoughtful choices becomes depleted. This is why junk food is at the checkout counter—after you’ve shopped the whole store, your ability to resist bad impulse purchases might be all worn out.

Decision fatigue can build up throughout the week. You will be deciding things throughout your workday, and every day in your household. By the middle of the week, many people become mentally exhausted and don’t want to think about what they’ll be eating for dinner. These people end up ordering takeout that is expensive and unhealthy, and get stuck in a cycle of spending and eating that can be hard to break.

Avoid this by doing a full week’s meal planning ahead of time. Then, if you’re facing decision fatigue later in the week, you don’t have to think about what you’re having for dinner, because you already made that decision and did all of the shopping ahead of time.

Keep under budget

It’s much easier to budget for meals if you plan well in advance. If you have one night that costs a bit more than usual, you can plan to have the next night be a more affordable meal. If you just play it by ear from one night to the next, it’ll be much harder to achieve this balance.

You’ll also be able to make better use of bulk item purchases. Families can get sick of having the same meals over and over again, so often bulk-purchased items can go to waste. But if you come up with a meal plan in advance that includes some bulk items, you can figure out different ways to use those ingredients throughout the week to keep every meal distinct, even if some of the ingredients are the same from meal to meal.

Planning ahead also lets you take advantage of coupons and special deals more easily. Once you get in the habit of planning your meals a week in advance, you’ll find you’re spending less on food.

Make fewer shopping trips

Right now, you want to limit how many times you leave your house, and only go out if it’s essential. Obviously, buying food for your family is an activity that justifies taking a trip to the store, but if you plan ahead and buy all of the week’s food in one trip, you’ll reduce your potential exposure to COVID-19 and relieve a lot of potential stress.

You can also have food delivered from the grocery store, but this might carry an extra delivery charge (and likely a tip for the shopper/delivery driver). Reduce these kinds of charges by having fewer deliveries—even if you’re not going out to the store, try to do all of your week’s food shopping once per week.

Don’t “panic buy”

Early in the pandemic, we saw a wave of panic buying of paper goods, including toilet paper and paper towels, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. There was no logical reason for people to buy up every roll of toilet paper, but it happened, and for a time these goods were hard to find.

By having a written plan and making regular weekly shopping trips or delivery orders, you’ll be able to avoid getting pulled into this kind of “panic buying”. If there are some goods that are in short supply, you’ll find out and have time to plan ahead and find new sources for those goods. What’s important is that you are pro-active in your shopping, not reactive.

Don’t forget non-food items from grocery and drug stores

Because you want to make as few trips to the store as possible, don’t forget non-food items you might buy from a grocery store or drugstore. You want to avoid having to make an emergency trip to the store for things like over-the-counter medications or cleaning supplies. Think about the kinds of medications you use regularly—allergy relievers, antacids, pain relievers—and make sure you have enough on hand to avoid having to rush out to buy more at a moment’s notice. Do the same for household cleaning and hygiene items like toothpaste, deodorant, soap, etc.  Prices vary depending on the retailer, to save money on everyday items be sure and do comparison shopping.

Keeping your food spending under control is crucial to surviving on a budget and having a healthy family. Learn more about budgeting for meals in our Power of Paycheck Planning and Essential Couponing workbooks, available from our downloads page. Also check out our free budgeting courses in our FIT Academy.

For personal help with a budget and a plan to eliminate debt on a fixed schedule, talk to a debt coach today.

Article written by
Melinda Opperman
Melinda Opperman is an exceptional educator who lives and breathes the creation and implementation of innovative ways to motivate and educate community members and students about financial literacy. Melinda joined in 2003 and has over two decades of experience in the industry.

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