You know you should eat better. Study after study after study emphasize the importance of good nutrition. Whether your goal is to build muscle or climb Mount Everest, advice articles always stress the need to eat well. Yet it never seems to be that easy. One article tells you to load up on carbs. Another article tells you to avoid them completely. This site says not to have dairy because it’s “unnatural.” But this other site acts like Greek yogurt is the elixir of life.

Purple bowl filled with greek yogurt.
Which is still less annoying than when they pretend it’s a suitable replacement for sour cream. You’re not fooling anybody.

Why does it seem like nobody can agree on something as basic as eating? When you were a kid, whole wheat and milk were supposed to be good for you. Now certain groups act like eating those is basically drinking battery acid. What happened?

Not to be cynical, but my guess is that it’s all about money. After all, it’s no surprise to anyone that good nutrition is important. Further, since literally every single one of us should eat well, the potential market is the entire world. As a result, we end up with the Zone diet, the Atkins diet, the South Bech diet…etc. Yet, while different companies and authors are coming up with some new “breakthrough” diet, the Department of Agriculture is trying to get us to eat better by showing us how simple it actually is.

Food pyramid

Nutrition Plate
Seriously. Even a pyramid was over-complicating it.

So, we’ve decided to help you take the first big step toward eating well: meal prepping. Since we believe that good nutrition should also be cheap, we’ll show you how to do it on a budget too.

Why You Should Meal Prep

You may be wondering why meal prepping is such a big deal. After all, can’t you just stop going out to eat as much, drink less, and eat more vegetables? Absolutely, you can.

But you probably won’t.

Don’t be insulted, though. It’s the way most of us are. After all, we wake up early and work all day. When it’s time to go home, we’re often too worn out to feel like cooking. Beyond that, we tend to already be hungry, making the idea of waiting for our food to cook less appealing. It’s so much easier to stop somewhere on the way home or heat up a frozen dinner. The morning isn’t any better. Considering the time it takes to dress, groom, and drive to work, making a healthy and substantial breakfast would mean getting up at the crack of dawn. So we end up with a bagel, tin of yogurt, cup of coffee or an Egg McMuffin.

And that’s why meal prepping is so helpful. Preparing your food ahead of time means having your breakfast waiting for you. It means that, when you heat up a frozen dinner, it’s a dinner you made. Best of all, it allows you to know exactly what you’re eating and tailor it to your needs.

The Problems With Most Meal Prepping Advice

You’ve probably heard of meal prepping before now. If you’ve read men’s magazines of looked up workout routines, you’ve probably seen it mentioned. While the advice that these outlets give can often be good, in our experience, there are usually three big problems.

1. They’re Unrealistic

Every once in a while, you’ll come across a well-intentioned but impractical article. Take a look at this 7% Body-Fat Diet from Men’s Fitness, for example. This calls for you to eat six times a day for 2,500-3,700 calories every day. We don’t mean to pick on Men’s Fitness–we actually quite like them–but the reality is that this diet won’t work for most of us. Quite simply, most of us don’t lift enough weight or do intense enough cardio to require 270 grams of protein.

And they’re not alone. Several articles out there provide the diets of MMA fighters, NFL players and actors training for demanding roles. These are great for informative purposes and put things into perspective. But they’re diets created for a specific type of goal for specific people.

Suppose, though, that you did have the same goals as these athletes. Maybe you’d like to start MMA training and want a good diet to follow. Then maybe a diet like that would work for you. Eventually. Even then, though, the odds of success are much better if you already follow a generally healthy diet. That being the case, it’s best to have a solid nutritional foundation that you can tweak. Otherwise, jumping from one extreme to the other only increases your chances of failure.

2. They’re Limiting

The great thing about a lot of the meal prepping articles out there is that many provide recipes for you. Of course, this takes out a lot of guess work and gives you simple instructions. What’s less great, though, is that these tend to be fairly rigid. Say, for example, that you have an allergy to a crucial ingredient. Or maybe you just hate chicken. It can even be as simple as your grocery store not carrying all the ingredients. In some cases, you can modify the recipe but, with others, it may be harder to do so.

Even if you don’t run into those issues, what happens if you just really don’t like the food? You could try choking it down, but that’s not a great idea. Not only are you less likely to stick to the diet, you’re also training yourself to associate healthy food with bad taste.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say you love the recipes. That’s awesome. But then, at best, you’re left with 4 or 5 recipes to eat over and over again. That will probably work in the short-term but, in time, that will easily become boring and unappealing.

3. They’re Expensive

Tell me if this sounds familiar (hypothetically. I can’t actually hear you). You read a nutrition article and write down a list of food to buy. You go to the grocery store only to realize that that jar of almond butter is $13. Hmmmm….ok. As long as it’s just the one thing. But it never is. You start to realize you’re buying the most expensive version of everything. Coconut oil is expensive. Shrimp is expensive. Walnuts are expensive. And let’s not get started on that free-range, grass fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef that comes from a cow that drank only Evian water and received daily Swedish massages. Of course, that last one probably isn’t a thing yet, but you get the point.

Cow getting a massage
At least a picture of it exists.

Eating healthy shouldn’t be expensive, especially when some of the healthiest foods are also some of the cheapest. Yet, with meal plans and recipes like these, you’d be forgiven for thinking that only rich people could afford to eat well.

A Better Way to Meal Prep

Okay then, Mr. Refining Gentleman man, what’s the alternative? Put simply, the core principle for effective and inexpensive meal prepping is: have an outline, not a plan.

What do I mean by that fortune-cookie like answer? Basically, I’m saying to shop to your budget and not a pre-made list of ingredients or recipes. As I outlined earlier, if you go in blind with a list of items, you end up stuck when your store doesn’t carry some of those items, and you risk spending a lot more than you meant to. Instead, you should plan your meals as you’re shopping. It sounds like more of a hassle with a greater margin of error but, if you follow some easy steps, you can make it quick and painless.

1. Check Your Proteins First

Before you look at any other items, head straight for the proteins. Usually, this will mean meats but, if you’re a vegetarian, that could mean beans, eggs, tofu…etc. You want to start with the protein for two main reasons: first, it will help determine your sides or toppings. What goes well with chicken won’t always work with beef. Second, these tend to be the most expensive items in your meal. So, start with the protein. Typically, at least one or two of them will be on sale. This is especially true if your store’s butcher section has portions they need to get rid of quickly. Since you’ll immediately be cooking yours, don’t worry if the sell by date is only a day or two away. Once you have a few proteins picked out, you can now consider what would work well with them.

2. Buy Frozen Vegetables and Pre-made Salad Mixes

Quick word of clarification: by “pre-made salad mixes,” I don’t mean the kind that comes with dressing and slices of ham, olives…etc. In the produce section, you can usually find bags of salad that are various greens thrown together. This is what you want. They’re pre-washed and a lot more convenient than you washing and shredding your own head of lettuce. As a bonus, they also go on sale more often than the loose leaf variety.

As for vegetables, you almost always want to go with the frozen type. The exception here is if you want vegetables to snack on that you won’t be cooking (baby carrots, celery…etc). Personally, I can’t comfortably call veggies a “snack,” so I’m never one to do that. But for the vegetables you’re going to cook, like spinach, brussel sprouts, bell pepper, onion…etc, frozen is the way to go. Frozen vegetables last a lot longer, so you’ll actually get your money’s worth and are just as nutritious as fresh veggies. Even better, many stores have frozen packages of vegetable mixes, such as one for stir fry, that give you variety.

3. Beans and Rice Are Your Friends

A plate of beans and rice as a meal sounds a lot like what you’d eat if you lived in a dorm. Or once you realized that the bank just now deducted your credit card bill from your account. But as sides, beans and rice are nearly unbeatable. Not only are they good for you, they’re also really cheap and last forever. Next time you go shopping, pick up a box of brown rice and a few cans of reduced sodium beans. The rice will work as a side with pretty much any meat and beans are great in chili, tacos, and eggs.

4. Take Advantage of Bold Flavors

Have you ever seen a diet plan and thought “that all seems so bland?” After all, a diet of chicken breast, oats and egg whites feels like a crime against eating. In my opinion, it happens too often that fat burning or muscle building diets are too extreme. Reducing calories, sugar, salt…etc is a great idea, but that doesn’t have to mean getting rid of everything that tastes good. Instead, use the bold flavors of these things to your advantage. Take BBQ sauce, for example. Sure, lathering your chicken in BBQ sauce is going to make your lunch a lot less healthy. But you don’t need to lather it. BBQ sauce is strong and stands out in small amounts. So, if you need some flavor or variety with your meals, even half a teaspoon of BBQ sauce spread out on a chicken breast will make a big difference. The same is true for mayo, mustard, or hot sauce. If you like your food to have a kick, cut up a jalapeno and add that; they’re incredibly cheap and give you a dose of Vitamin C. Having a healthy diet doesn’t mean completely cutting out flavors you enjoy. It just means having reasonably amounts of those things.

5. Always Add Spices

Seriously, my life changed when I realized the magic of spices. They’re full of antioxidants, have a ton of flavor, last forever, and are really cheap. They’re an easy and low-calorie way to give you added flavor and variety to pretty much anything. Personally, I add paprika to chicken, turmeric to ground beef, tarragon to eggs and garlic powder to everything. Pick up one or two spices that you’ve had before and try them out. In time, you’ll find what works for you.

The Process in Action

It’s one thing for me to lay out some guidelines, but I want to show you what they look like in action. So, to put my money where my mouth is, here’s a recent example. A few days ago, I took a trip to the grocery store and here’s what I ended up buying:

bundle of food

Since it’s hard to see some details, those meats are ground turkey, ground beef and chicken breast. For veggies, I have a pre-made salad mix, a frozen stir fry mix and frozen bell peppers. My plan is to make buffalo chicken salad (with hot sauce and garlic powder I already have), beef stir fry, and use the peppers and turkey with my scrambled eggs for breakfast. That gives me breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 3-4 days. Now, let’s take a look at what that cost me:

$19.93. That total includes the two bottles of water in the picture and a small carton of heavy cream I use in my coffee. So, you can deduct the heavy cream from the grand total. Unfortunately, where I live, the tap water tastes like someone else already drank it. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with good tap water, though, you can deduct those from the total as well. But if we keep the total of $19.93–and just say that the $3 I used on heavy cream is $3 you can use on eggs–three meals a day for three days comes to a cost of $2.21 per meal. You can’t do much better than that.

Your Assignment

Next time you’re at the grocery store, put these tips into practice. Head straight for the proteins and see what the best prices are. Make sure to see if there are any meats that they are trying to push out at a discount. Pick up a box of rice, some cans of beans, spices, and some frozen veggies that would go well with your protein. Take note of what combos you really like and keep them in mind for future trips.