Ballin’ On a Budget: How To Meal Prep For Only $5 A Day

illustration by: daiana ruiz

“Ugh, I really wish I could meal prep, but…”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever finished this sentence. Don’t worry – you’re not alone.

For many of us – whether because of cost, time, or fear of eating the same three-bean salad every day – meal prepping always seems a little too difficult to start. Which is a shame, because whether you’re trying to lose weight, bulk up, or generally feel better, a consistently healthy diet is the most important step to getting there.

But what if I told you meal prepping doesn’t need to be hard – or expensive? That in fact, it could be done for as little as $5 a day, without sacrificing taste. Would you want to start, like, today?

If so, grab that Tupperware from the bottom drawer, scroll ahead, and get ready to go on a shopping spree of *minor* proportions, because we are about to outline how to low cost meal prep.

Step 1: Pick Your Base ($1/serving)

They key to any meal: start with your foundation.

And by that, we mean carbs. Yes, we know that there is currently a crusade against carbs, but what we are talking about are natural, complex carbs – like organic long-grain brown rice and whole grain quinoa. Complex carbs – unlike refined carbs like white bread or pasta – take a long time to break down in your body, providing you with enduring energy and additional benefits like lowering cholesterol.

Plus, not only do complex carbs deliver an energy-packed punch, but they also do so with minimal impact to your wallet (there’s a reason they’re the staple to every cuisine globally). For example, foods like Israeli whole wheat couscous are only $2.60 a pound, which equates to roughly 90 cents a serving. Or if you prefer a high protein option, lentils are a great option in the same price range.

As a general rule, the bases listed above (ours link out to recommended brands), should be obtainable for less than a dollar a serving. Specific brands vary – with imports and organics costing a premium – but if you’re willing to take a plunge to buy in bulk, even high-end brands still come out pretty cheap. For instance, Whole Food’s organic brown rice is still only 65 cents a serving.

And for those with allergies or celiac: quinoa, brown rice and lentils are gluten-free. Couscous is not.

Step 2: Pick Your Protein ($2-3/serving)

Now that we’ve got our grains, it’s time to get our gains.

And by gains, we’re talking about any number of healthy, high-protein vegetables and meats. Proteins tend to be the most expensive component of meals, so for $5 meal prep, we’re going to run through some of our favorite cost-effective options.

When it comes to meat, chicken is going to be your cheapest and leanest option, and for buying it, Trader Joe’s is a great intersection of price and quality, offering organic free range chicken breast and thighs for as little as $4.99/lb. The serving sizes provide 24g of protein for every 130 calories, making them a tremendously efficient food for adding lean muscle or burning fat. However, as the chicken is preservatives and hormone free, it has a short shelf life and is best to cook it within 3 days of purchasing it.

For you vegetarians out there, you’re probably already aware there’s nothing that quite matches the protein content of tofu, which has an average of 10-16g for the same 130 cal serving (depending on firmness). There are many varieties and brands of tofu, and we’ll be the first to say they make a big difference –  so be sure to shop around and find one that has the right consistency and flavor for you. If you need a place to start, Serious Eats has a great review of various store-bought tofu brands.

And if you’re ever looking for a quick and painless way to add some quick protein to a salad, quinoa bowl, or virtually anything – we recommend having a supply of eggs ($5.99/dozen) and tuna ($11.99/8-pack) on hand.

Step 3: Pick Your Side ($1/serving)

Just like getting fries with a meal, picking a side is the fun and easy part of meal prepping. You can easily vary a meal you’ve had before, balance out a flavor palette, or just add in a consistent favorite to your meals.

When it comes to ease of cooking, it doesn’t get much better than baked sweet potato (3lbs for $5) and roasted cauliflower (1lb for $2). Both can be cooked in batches and then stored in the fridge to readily throw into any meal. If you’re in a pinch, sticking a fork through a sweet potato a few times and microwaving it for 3 minutes on each side works surprisingly well. Both are less potent flavor-wise, making them easy to vary with spices or toppings like cheese and nuts.

There’s no set requirement for sides, so feel free to pick what you feel is missing. Some other cheap and healthy options include broccoli, celery, bell peppers, and black beans. Let your diet and your body dictate what you need more or less of in your meals.

Step 4: Put It All Together

If the first three parts were about finding ways to construct a nutritious meal cheaply, this part is about making sure you love it.

So that quinoa from before? It can now be quinoa stuffed bell peppers or served with black beans and corn. Your tofu and broccoli? It’s now Asian garlic tofu (substitute brown rice for white). You can even cook meals like Dominican rice with chicken, or keep it simple with lentil soup.

If you find yourself leaning towards a certain cuisine, you should be able to fit in the necessary herbs and spice you need while still staying close to your $5/day range. Onions, garlic, and ginger are great flavor additions that are both cheap and commonly found in many recipes. Similarly, a full spice rack will pay off heavily in the long run.

 

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that meal prepping is a personal experience, one designed to suit your tastes and needs. While you’ll want to expand beyond our immediate recommendations, the principle to remember is that a structured approach to breaking down your meal can make cooking and prepping feel less overwhelming, and gives you a set of core ingredients to build recipes around.

So, stop procrastinating and start meal prepping! Pick your bases and your proteins, go on an organized grocery run, and start realizing the benefits of meal prep.


About the Author28423119_10210723424341758_2168181986179019707_o

Raised in Cambridge MA, Kamran got a degree in economics at the University of Vermont before moving to San Francisco. There he wrote for Nerdwallet and The Hustle, while searching for the best burrito in the Bay.

These days Kamran lives in New York, pursuing whatever projects allow him to tell his story creatively. He enjoys adventures that take him off the beaten path, and likes being pushed out of his comfort zone.