As I’ve traversed along my health journey, I often hear how expensive it is to eat well. And this obviously isn’t a misconception, particularly if you’re new to meal planning. If you have $5 to spend on your family, are you going to buy 2 avocados or 5 meals from the dollar menu at McDonald’s? This is somewhat of a dramatic example and perhaps not the most fair things to pit against each other, but you get the point. It’s more difficult and takes far more planning.
Not only is it more financially expensive, but it is most certainly more labor intensive. It requires a lot of time to sit down, plan meals, write them down, collect coupons, sift through the cabinet to see what you already have / don’t have, go to the grocery store, weigh out items, keep a mental total of how much you’ve spent, and check out.
I have been incredulously privileged and fortunate to always know I have the means to put food on my table (gratitude gratitude gratitude). And not having to expend the cognitive resources thinking about these things to a paralyzing degree. So I’ve chosen to take that extra cognitive space and apply it in a (hopefully) meaningful way.
I’m challenging myself to make meal plans that allot to a single person’s SNAP benefits per month, which is $192 in Massachusetts (disclaimer: it depends on income, but this seemed to be a more common number, and would allot me $45-50/week for meal planning). This comes out to be $48 per week, actually. Each meal plan will be gluten and dairy free, though will include meat and grains. My goal was $45 per week to allot for taxes / things I just would miscalculate while measuring and weighing produce.
A few disclosures:
- I don’t live in a food desert, which in and of itself is extreme privilege. I have access to fresh produce, which I know isn’t the case for many.
- I planned the meals assuming I already had the basics, i.e. olive oil, spices, maple syrup, and honey.
- The meal plans I provided will likely only get through 5 days of the week. And won’t account for eating any meals out. I suppose you could stretch it out to 7 days if you spent the weekends eating mostly leftover grains / canned items (ex. oats, brown rice, quinoa, canned corn/beans).
General tips I’ve learned along the way:
- Shop seasonal at the farmers market
- Buy from the bulk section if you only need a few cups of things to prevent food waste. You can control how much you need!
- Look to see what’s on sale. Especially with fresh, frozen, canned items. Sometimes the frozen and canned is cheaper and can be great to use in chilis / smoothies
- If there’s something canned that’s super affordable but contains a lot of sodium, simply wash it off with water before using
- Some things to always keep on hand: head over to this post.
- If you have a can of something and you don’t finish it: i.e. pumpkin, refried beans etc – freeze it in ice cube trays to be used the following week.
- Prepare a few, easy bulk items for snacking during the week: hard/soft boiled eggs, roasted veggies to be paired with hummus or mashed avocado
- If you make a huge batch of soup or chili, freeze the rest to have for upcoming weeks
- Ask for coupons at the front of the store a day or two before you plan to do your shopping. This way you can include discounted items in your meal plan for the week.
- Buy fewer produce that goes bad quickly, and more produce that stays well for awhile. I used a lot of the spinach and greens at the beginning of the week and then would transition to the carrots, onions, squashes by the end of the week because they tend to take longer to spoil. I would also use fresh spinach in recipes while meal prepping and then freeze the rest of it to add into smoothies throughout the week.
- Get the card of the grocery store you shop most at. Many often additional discounts simply by having the store discount.
- Make things at home where you can: almond milks, oat flour, oat milk, hummus, etc.
- Stick to the clean fifteen and dirty dozen in terms of buying organic.
- clean fifteen (things I don’t mind buying non-organic because they have a low pesticide spray amount): avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, sweet peas frozen, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, honeydew melons
- dirty dozen (things I try to buy organic due to high levels of pesticides on this produce): strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, hot peppers
- It takes FAR MORE time and energy in the grocery store when you have to weigh out every object, hoping you’ll fit under / around the amount you allotted for yourself. My first week, I think I spent over an hour in the grocery store, whereas my average time in the store prior to this experience was around 15 minutes. I was weighing items and doing math in the store, then trying to keep a tab of the price I had going so far on my phone’s calculator. It was frustrating!!
- Having to go to multiple different grocery stores to find the best deals. Especially with items that are viewed as “natural,” there typically aren’t many options. Almond butter, for example, there was a really cheap option that had both sugar and added oils in it, or a version that was organic and $16.99 a jar. I was looking for that in between sweet spot, which often meant going to another store to purchase it.
- Also having to go to multiple different stores in order to keep the cost down and buy things in bulk. Ironically buying things in bulk for the purpose of buying less of an item – i.e. buying only 2 cups of lentils rather than a whole bag. Or chia seeds because the bag itself was also very expensive.
Week 1 – $45 Meal Plan Week 1 (actually spent $43.53. Remaining total $148.47).
Week 2 – $45 Grocery Guide Week 2 (actually spent $49.56. Remaining total $98.91).
Week 3 –$50 Meal Plan Week 3 (ended up spending around $52. I clearly spent a bit more this week, likely from the yogurt and a few other novelty items like chia seeds and buckwheat noodles. The grocery store I went to didn’t have the ability to buy in bulk which likely would have cut the cost down a bit more. Remaining total $46.91)
Week 4 –$45 Meal Plan Week 4 (actually spent $45. I also had A LOT of leftover ingredients from prior weeks, which really helped! Had about $2 left to spare in total!!)
other meal prep tips⠀⠀
- make a few recipes that can easily be used with different purposes, i.e. a whole roasted chicken that you can use on its own with roasted vegetables, in sandwiches or on tacos – you name it! Plus you can boil the bones to make your own bone broth.
- make at least one, one-pan meal to decrease cleaning time in the kitchen.
- have a good variety of produce that goes off quickly (berries, greens) and those that keep a bit longer (onions, squash, sweet potatoes, mushrooms). eat the spoiled stuff in the beginning of the week / freeze where you can, and save the sturdy stuff for the end of the week.
- keep a pantry stocked with things that don’t go bad but can be used quickly when you start to grow tired of your meal prep. Like a bean-based pasta with pasta sauce combined with a few frozen greens. Takes 10 minutes and adds some nice variety in the middle of the week!
- swap with a friend! Make a big meal prep and give half of one recipe to a friend in exchange for theirs. More variety without any work and clean-up!
- Break meal prep up into two days. Roast veggies / toss a crock pot in one night, and finish with the rest the next morning.
- Clean as you go! Don’t leave a whole sink of dirty dishes for the end. You will go insane and consequently leave things to “soak” for the next two weeks.
- Bring soap to class to clean out Tupperware there. That way you can avoid the inevitable Tupperware tantrum that greets you after a long day away from home, and all you have to do is put new food in for the next day.
- Get a big insulated carry bag. Trader Joe’s sells nice ones that are affordable. This one is similar to one I have.
- Do what works for you. Sometimes the best plan is just not being so rigid with a plan. I had entirely converted to glass Tupperware before this program, but if I want to get even an ounce of movement in before class, that means I’m walking. And if you’ve ever walked a few miles carrying a lunch bag that weighs ~30 pounds, you will be kyphotic before breakfast. I switched back to plastic Tupperware on mornings I’m doing a lot of walking, otherwise my spine is crying for the remainder of the day.
- If you’re using plastic Tupperware, make sure to wrap an elastic band around the top of it. There is nothing worse than a crockpot beef dish or a salmon salad spilling into your bag. You walk around carrying that scent with you, and everyone finds you both suspicious and ~fishy.
- Speaking of not being so rigid with a plan, this meal plan is simply a rough guide of what I have in a day. Sometimes I add in a few extra snacks – it’s a trial and error process and each week is different, but experiment until you find something that works for you! I also love packing some lemon or tea bags to bring to class to sip on in the afternoon.
- I also pack an enormous water bottle with me and try to drink at least 3 of them throughout the day. Plus if I have to pee more, I’m at least walking a bit (to the bathroom) during an arduous 8 hour day of classes.
- Always keep extra snacks in your bag – pistachios, fruits, jerky are some of my favorite things to have in case of snack-mergency.
- Enjoy and actually chew your meals! Yes it sucks that they’re not always perfectly cooked right out of the oven, but one of the best pieces of advice my therapist gave me was to use meal time as form of pseudo-meditation. Even if just for 10 minutes, really try to be aware and present of what you’re tasting, rather than simply scarfing it down out of classroom boredom. This translates to more awareness throughout the day, and a feeling of greater satisfaction at the end of a meal. Slow is the way to go.