Budget Meal Prep: Without the Monotony
The idea of preparing a week’s worth of meals can be an intimidating thing. Especially when you show up at the store and think “Alright, I’ll hammer down to the cooler, pick up a load of boneless skinless chicken breasts, then I’ll…well there’s, um…uhhh…?”
In this post we want to provide you with a few tips and tricks to keep your prep meals low cost without the fare becoming so boring and repetitive that you finally—in a fit of wild rage—sling a thirty-pound grocery bag filled with frozen poultry and spinach out the window of your speeding car at an undeserving, spandex-clad cyclist who subsequently flips violently, two times over, into a drainage ditch, rupturing three organs. In your rearview you see him turn over once more, falling limp as you whip a sharp left into the drive-thru lane of a rundown McDonald’s with the intention of eating the entire dollar menu six times over…
Or you can try this…
Primary Protein Sources
While most of our taste buds would be perfectly happy to indulge in succulent portions of lean steak several times a day the proposition isn’t cost effective nor is it necessary. And, while chicken breast is the trusty old standby, we all know it can get boring very fast.
Loads of bodybuilders and top athletes are all too familiar with gobbling down chicken and rice at each and every meal. They, having dedicated their entire lives to performance-geared nutrition, have grown accustomed to it with both their palette and digestive system. Most of us, however, have not…nor should we.
Nothing will send the average—or even the most brutally determined—dieter off the meal prep wagon faster than extreme redundancy. An attempt to switch from your usual ‘whatever’ diet to a Dwayne Johnson type meal plan overnight is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. So, assuming you do in fact eat poultry, meat, and fish let’s talk alternatives to the standards that are still reasonable in their fat content.
*But not fat free! Remember: animal fat is your friend.
Now, there are roughly a zillion different ways to prepare a chicken breast. You can definitely do a lot with it. We’re not ruling it out as a good protein source whatsoever. We’re just saying it might not be the greatest idea to simply throw a little salt and pepper on thirty pounds of chicken, grill it, and say “Alright! Set for the week!”. If you do this you will, more than likely, find yourself on Wednesday afternoon staring into a three-quarters full container of cold pepper-speckled chicken, thinking about how much the dog would like it and trying to remember the number to the local pizza place.
A tasty and underutilized alternative to chicken breast is ground chicken, which can be flavored in any number of ways and, frankly, is just easier to chew.
Another interesting way to take on chicken is by slow cooking the equally underused boneless skinless thigh and putting their delectable meat into something like a vegetable-heavy chili. The aforementioned is also nice because a proper made chili is a balanced meal in and of itself, which saves you of the trouble of figuring out sides.
In regard to red meat, another underrated protein for meal prep is the pork loin and pork tenderloin. Both cuts are fairly cheap and take well to brines and marinades of all kinds.
Seeing as how this is a post about affordable meal prep, it’s not exactly advisable to even bring up beef but if it’s a must, where cost is concerned, we’re probably going to be looking at lean ground. Not to say that this particular variety can’t get expensive itself because it definitely can (bovine law in this country is not governed by reason). But if you go for the finer ground beef you see in bulk tubes you might be able to save a few coins. At least it’s the best deal you’re likely to get apart from stealing a cow from a nearby pasture (This may or may not be a viable solution. You be the judge as you duck down with your hand on the accelerator, a cow strapped to the roof of your Saturn while shotgun pellets spark off the road inches away from your gas tank).
All that aside, if you can work it into the bankbook balance, beef is also great for the chilis as well as those glorious homemade taco bowls complete with veggies of your choosing.
Moving onto fish, a few of the most common (and reasonably priced) cuts found nationwide would be cod, salmon, and pollock. All of these fish take well to brines and can be paired with a number of toppings from chutneys to salsas to keep things fresh. Don’t overlook the canned stuff either. The nutritional benefits are undeniable and there are some seriously great recipes out there for canned salmon and tuna patties alike.
Sides and starches
Let’s talk fiber…
Now vegetables, even really good ones, most likely won’t put a serious hurting on your bank account, but it is all too easy to run out of ideas in regard to their preparation.
Instead of steaming that unseasoned broccoli try tossing in a little salt, pepper and olive oil. Or maybe give a go at roasting or sweating some veg before puréeing it into a delicious and nutritious soup great for snacks between meals (especially useful if your lunch pail is a bit light on veggies that day).
These same principles can be applied to just about anything from fresh asparagus in the spring to butternut squash in the fall.
Tip: With vegetables in particular, lack of salt is a total flavor killer and will ensure that you get tired of that zip lock full of cauliflower sooner rather than later.
Starches are also unlikely be the root cause of any check bouncing, so budgetary concerns aren’t a serious issue here, but this is another aspect of meal prep in which we find ourselves running rapidly out of fresh ideas.
It’s important to remember there’s more out there than just white rice. Personally, I love white rice and could eat it with every meal, but I know a lot of people who, understandably, get sick of it very fast. If you still want rice but could go for some variety try some wild-long grain mix, or jasmine, or a dozen other varieties, some of which come with delicious seasoning packets taking taste-work completely out of it.
Of course, when talking starches, who could forget our ever-loyal friend: The Potato. Whether starchy (bakers) or waxy (red or gold) who doesn’t love a solid potato side?
While not always the go-to, waxy reds are great for a lower calorie mash due to their high water content.
Tip: Don’t be stingy with the rosemary and garlic; and don’t be afraid to leave some skin on that gangster for texture!
Tip2: Looking to cut down on prep time? Just like with the veggies, some salt, pepper, and olive oil in combination with a hot oven will give you a solid result every time.
Other carbohydrate sources that shouldn’t be overlooked are legumes (beans, peas, lentils) and alternative grains (corn, barely, and farro) any number of which usually gives you less calories per bite than traditional sources like bread, pasta, and rice.
As it is, I understand that not everyone has eight hours free to spend on elaborate meal preparations each week. But, as with everything else, it’s essential that we find balance, preparing enough variety to keep our appetites interested, while also not blowing our childrens’ entire college funds on exotic or premium ingredients; or spending so much time in the kitchen on Sunday that we don’t have at least six hours free to lie on the couch and binge-watch Netflix.*For maximum benefits, all meals should be planned, prepped, and consumed to the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel and/or Joe Cocker.