A few months ago at the dinner table, after eating grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, and broccoli for the third time that week, we were desperate for change. My boyfriend and I made it our mission to find a way to stick to our food budget, yet also eat delicious meals each night. The problem was that we have an eat-out-every-night-at-a-different-restaurant taste on a boxed-mac-and-cheese budget.
In the past, when we would try to eat a variety of interesting foods throughout the week, the recipes would call for an abundant amount of ingredients that were only used in small amounts. These largely unused ingredients were then found molded in our fridge two weeks later. And not only was this a waste of money and food, but a massive waste of time making a new recipe from scratch every night.
The meal prep strategy that actually worked
This is when I stumbled upon a magical concept of prepping once and eating all week. When I saw this tagline, I was skeptical, thanks to many other failed attempts at other “life-changing” meal prep strategies. Surely there had to be a catch, but we were desperate to find something that worked.
The premise is picking a protein, starch, and vegetable to prepare in bulk at the beginning of the week, and then turning them into varying meals in little time each night using the ingredients in your pantry. Now that boring meal of grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, and broccoli turns into a Mexican-style casserole, buffalo chicken stuffed sweet potatoes, and Italian chicken lasagna. There are many food bloggers who have uploaded their own versions of this meal prepping strategy, but we live and breathe by our budget and palette savior, Cassy Joy Garcia. Her transcendental book, Cook Once, Eat All Week, has lived up to its name and then some.
7 tips to cook once & eat all week
We have now made it through half of the cookbook and have learned some tips and tricks along the way. We keep our grocery bill to $70 a week, total. Whether you plan to follow her cookbook or piecemeal your own meal plan together, these 7 tips could save your wallet, time, and taste buds:
1. Slowly build your pantry.
The key to saving your budget, in the long run, is by building a pantry full of essentials for all cooking styles. This is the difference between boring ground turkey every night and never getting tired of a meal again. Eventually, when you get to the grocery list for your weekly recipes, you will only need to buy the protein and fresh produce. We budgeted for slowly building our pantry items by shopping at discount grocery stores for these items and following the Cook Once, Eat All Week premise that saved on the items needed in the first place.
2. Set aside an hour on Sunday to plan out the week and prep your main ingredients.
Every Sunday, rain or shine, my boyfriend and I have a family meeting to discuss our schedules for the week and plan out how much time we have for meal time each night. This helps us pick specific recipes for each night based on how much time we have to actively prepare or cook that night.
For instance, one night we might have a lot of work to get done around the house, so we would pick a recipe that only needs less than 5 minutes of active preparation, but 20 minutes in the oven. On the other hand, one night a week we play in a kickball league and only have 10 minutes to cook dinner after work, from start to finish. On those nights we will pick a recipe that needs 10 minutes of active preparation only. Planning out your meals realistically is the number-one way to be successful in any meal prep adventure and actually sticking to it.
3. Use an Instant Pot whenever possible.
Anybody who knows me knows that I swear by my Instant Pot, and if I was only given three items to bring with me on a desert island, two of the items would be my Instant Pot and a solar-powered outlet so I could take it anywhere (the third “item” being my dog). Using only the oven to prepare your ingredients can mean a lot of temperature changing, cleaning of pans, and most definitely time. I have found the easiest way to bulk cook my main ingredients is by cooking the meat in the oven, starch in the instant pot, and vegetable on the stovetop all at the same time.
4. Buy premade sauces.
Some of the recipes call for making your own sauces for recipes, which can be healthier, but also waste ingredients and take up too much precious time. The back of Garcia’s book has a list of packaged sauces you can buy instead of make. Many of these sauces/dressings can be reused week after week, and I always feel a silent victory when I see that the main part of the meal prep for the week includes making a sauce that I already have sitting in the fridge.
5. Use pre-minced garlic.
I am not sure if everyone else finds mincing garlic to be the most defeating step in a recipe like I do, but I absolutely despise doing this. The peel never seems to come off as easily as those cute cooking videos make it seem, and my fingers smell like I have been trying to fend off a vampire for the rest of the week. I just recently discovered that stores sell pre-minced garlic in a jar. How did I not know about this earlier?? Yes, this has saved me time and money from not wasting the rest of the garlic cloves, but mostly my sanity has been spared.
6. Skip the garnish.
I am all about creating a Pinterest-worthy recipe, but in reality, the chopped parsley and green onion that sprinkled on top of a finished dish only make a small impact on flavor. The Snapchat of your dinner is not worth throwing away the other 2/3 of the bag. I also find that having garnish on top of a recipe makes it not taste as good when reheated as leftovers later.
7. Pick one recipe to pack for lunch.
We started this meal plan idea for our weeknight dinners, but quickly found that each week had a recipe to be made in a casserole dish that had more servings included than the rest. We now use these casserole recipes as meal prep for lunches to bring to work each day. They are easy to dish out into containers and serve as a delicious hot meal in the middle of the workday.
Making the most out of mealtime
Mealtime is now something we look forward to. “Ugh, not again” is no longer uttered at the dinner table. Plus, my boyfriend doesn’t have to lather his food in BBQ sauce to make it palatable. We continue to challenge ourselves to push our savings goals, while also feeling like we live on a restaurant-every-night budget and ramen-cup timeline. Join us as we continue our journey in cooking once and eating all week while only spending $70/week on groceries.
Abbie works full-time as an Elementary School Reading Specialist in Overland Park, Kansas. When she is not teaching, she is working on building her real estate business.
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