Lately, we’ve all been enjoying more nights dining out with friends and family as we celebrate being vaccinated and returning to “normal.” But although the shift to being more social may be a welcome change for us psychologically, it can cause serious damage to our budgets if we spend too much, too soon. The majority of Americans — 62% — said they miss eating out restaurants more than any other lifestyle change according to a recent Nielsen/Wizer Impact study. And as much as we might want to flock to restaurants as soon as we’re comfortable dining out, we shouldn’t lose sight of just how much money we’ve been saving by cooking at home during the pandemic.
Looking for a budget (and waistline) savior? Enter meal prep. If you never got serious about it before (or thought it was only for Insta-perfect professional athletes — it’s not) now is the time. Because contrary to popular opinion, meal prepping doesn’t mean you have to devote your entire week to planning out exactly what you’re going to eat every single day, and then spend your entire Sunday bent over a hot stove cooking everything you’ll consume for seven days straight. You can start simple. So simple, we knew we had to share the formula. Here’s HerMoney’s rundown on how to post-pandemic meal prep like a pro — and still afford to eat out when you want!
Meal Prep Prep
For newbies, simple really is the name of the game. Start by just spending a little bit of time thinking about your grocery list before you head out to the store. No, this doesn’t mean you’ve got to go full-on Julia Child, with a list of every possible spice proportioned exactly to the letter. A protein, a vegetable, and a starch are all you need to have in mind, says Matt Kearns, author of Meal Prep on a Budget.
Jessica Fisher, Founder of GoodCheapEats, suggests prepping a certain dish ahead of time to put with future meals that you have throughout the week. For example, you can grill chicken, cook salmon or sauteé onions and peppers, and then pair those basics with salad, rice, couscous, pasta, or any other dish you desire as the week progresses.
Another tip for keeping your spending down while eating at home is to never shop hungry. Not only will you spend more money (and possibly buy more junk food if that’s where your brain goes… can you say double stuffed Oreos??) you’ll be less likely to buy random items that don’t go together, and more likely to buy ingredients that can make awesome meals that will last you for several days. Having a solid grocery list that can keep you on track while you’re walking the aisles is one of the best things you can do for yourself — and it takes all of 10 minutes to complete.
Keep It Simple
Starting a new habit takes time, and practice makes perfect. Be patient with yourself when you’re first getting started, and try to keep your list + food prep techniques simple. Fisher suggests choosing one meal a week to prepare in advance, and then setting aside another day to make a “no-recipe recipe” like a simple fold-ver quesadilla or basic pasta + red sauce that will take you less than 20 minutes. Does it matter which days you do what? Not even a little bit. And it’s likely your technique will quickly evolve — for example, the day that you spend cooking a meal in advance, you may find that you’re able to get three or four different types of meals out of one cooking session. That’s the goal. (And it’s one you can easily attain! Check out mix & match meal prep, and how to add variety to your meal prep — everything can be cooked in one session!)
The most important thing here is consistency with the plan you choose, Kearns stresses. For example, with that pot roast you love, double the batch next time you make it, then freeze what you don’t eat (either as one big batch, or as smaller individual servings) for a day when you don’t have the time or energy to devote to cooking.
Stretch Your Dollar Further
Speaking of making a double batch — whenever you have the option to buy in bulk, especially if you’re shopping at a warehouse store like Costco — you’ll save money. Just make sure you’ve got the freezer space on hand + enough tupperware to make it work.
And with the money you save meal prepping, you’ll be able to happily enjoy nights out at your favorite restaurants. We know our local restaurants need our support now more than ever. Fisher suggests keeping an eye out for restaurant specials, like a potential “Taco Tuesday” night where items are BOGO, or discounted in some way. Follow your favorite spots on social media to get notified about promotions.
Dining out gives us convenience, socialization, atmosphere, and delicious food — but no one wants to have to tell a friend “I can’t afford that right now,” when we receive an invitation. That’s why meal prepping for most nights of our week can be the best way to budget without even trying… This way, when you do have the chance to join friends for a fun night out, you can truly enjoy it.
More from HerMoney:
- The 10 Healthiest And Most Affordable Food Delivery Companies
- Planning Meals on a Tight Budget? Here Are 5 Ways to Keep it Healthy and Cheap
- Podcast: The Lazy Woman’s Guide to Cooking With Melissa Clark
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