How I Prep for a Week of Budget-Friendly Family Meals
The line item on my household budget that I have the most control of from month to month is the grocery expenses. So, when the pull to tighten our financial belts arises, I always turn to meal planning. Prepping tried-and-true recipes that my family loves means there is less food waste, and because I’m sticking to a list, our budget won’t stretch to its bursting point. So, for this week’s Power Hour, I’ll show you how I use a short meal prep block over the weekend to pull together a week’s worth of budget-friendly family meals — prepping ahead will help you save money, and also cut down on last-minute scrambles during the week.
The most inexpensive way to feed a family is to use ingredients that you already have on hand. That’s why I start by taking inventory of what I’m storing in my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer (see our list of pantry essentials for ideas of what to keep on hand). From there, I know what spices, proteins, and veggies I have at my disposal and can allocate the remaining budget to fill in the gaps. Budget meal plans don’t mean filling up on buttered noodles and beans (although we’ll eat those too!). Instead, we’ll stretch the more expensive ingredients, make smart substitutions, and use our cooking know-how to prep ingredients ahead instead of relying on prepared foods. Here’s what I like to make for a week of budget-friendly meals for my family.
Meal Prep Goals
- Breakfast: Quick and filling breakfasts to start the day.
- Lunch: Hearty, veggie-packed lunch to sustain you through the afternoon.
- Dinner: Cozy, family-friendly dinners that won’t break the bank.
- Nutritional Goals: This week’s plan is all about leaning in to eating together as a family this winter. Budget-friendly ingredients, rather than specific nutritional standards, are the focus of this week’s plan.
Meal Prep Plan Snapshot
- Feeds: 4 for breakfast and dinner; 2 for lunch
- Prep Time: About 2 hours
- Meals Covered: About 70% of meals (no weekend meals)
- Weekday Cooking Required? Yes. Most ingredients are prepped and dinner is easy to finish and serve.
- DIY Instant Oatmeal Cups make 1 1/2 times the recipe
- Eggs and Toast
- Broccoli Feta Pasta Salad
This shopping list contains everything you will need for this meal plan (except staples like olive oil, salt, and pepper). Optional toppings and garnishes are listed separately as those extras might not fit in your budget. Before you set out for the store, check your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for items you may already have. Also consider easy, budget-friendly swaps, like substituting ground turkey for the ground beef, depending on the current price per pound. Don’t forget to compare prices as you shop — especially noting the unit price, which can give you a better grasp on the cost per ounce when comparing foods in different-sized containers. Finally, remember while you may save time with prepared ingredients like diced onion or pre-shredded cheese, you’ll pay for it out of your grocery budget.
- Bakery: 1 loaf sliced white bread
- Produce: 1 medium head broccoli, 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, 2 limes, 8 cloves garlic, 3 yellow onions, 1 pound butternut squash, 1/2 red onion, 4 bell peppers, 1 bunch fresh cilantro, fresh rosemary
- Dry goods: 7 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats, 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons chili powder, 1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 cup evaporated milk, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 2 teaspoons ground cumin, 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning, 3/4 cup light brown sugar, 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1 cup uncooked brown rice, 8 ounces dried elbow macaroni, 8 to 10 sheets (8 ounces) dried lasagna noodles, 1 pound dried rotini or other short pasta, 1 (24-ounce) jar marinara sauce, 3/4 cup pizza or marinara sauce, 1 (15-ounce) can kidney or pinto beans, 5 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, 1 (14-ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, 1 (15-ounce) can black beans
- Dairy: 6 eggs, 8 ounces feta cheese, 2 1/4 cups sharp shredded cheese, 1/2 cup ricotta cheese, 2 cups shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese, 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Meat: 1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef, 36 mini or 24 regular pepperoni slices, 8 ounces uncooked sweet or hot Italian sausage
- Frozen: 3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, 1 pound fresh, shelf-stable, or frozen potato gnocchi
- Optional ingredients for serving and garnishes: Sour cream, guacamole, grated Parmesan cheese, 1 Parmesan rind, scallions, coconut flakes, dried fruit, chopped nuts, fresh basil
Power Hour: How to Get the Prep Done
- Boil pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Once the water is boiling add 1 pound dried rotini or short pasta for the Broccoli Feta Pasta Salad and cook until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander and chill under cool running water. Drain well and set aside.
- Cook rice. Prepare 1 cup brown rice on the stovetop. Spread onto a sheet pan to cool quickly.
- Prep produce. Broccoli Feta Pasta Salad: Cut 1 head broccoli into 1/2-inch florets, coarsely chop 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives. Slow Cooker Lasagna Soup: Dice 1 onion, mince 2 garlic cloves. Place in a container with 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning and Parmesan rind (if using) and refrigerate. Sheet Pan Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Sausage, and Butternut Squash: Quarter 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cut 1/2 red onion into 1-inch pieces, chop 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, and cut 1 pound butternut squash into 1-inch pieces. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate. One-Pot Chili Mac: Dice 1 onion, mince 2 cloves garlic. Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers: Trim, halve, and seed 4 bell peppers, finely chop 1 onion, mince 4 garlic cloves, drain and rinse 1 can black beans, mince 2 tablespoons cilantro, squeeze 2 tablespoons lime juice.
- Prep Chili Mac. Sauté the onion with kosher salt until tender and golden in a cast iron or stainless steel skillet. Add 8 ounces lean ground beef and cook until almost no pink remains. Add minced garlic and seasonings (chili powder, cumin, oregano, black pepper, and kosher salt), and cook for another minute. Remove from the heat, cool, then transfer to a container and refrigerate.
- Assemble Stuffed Peppers. Arrange bell pepper halves in a greased 9×13-inch baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Sauté the prepared onion until translucent, then add garlic, cumin, paprika, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Cook for 1 minute. Add the can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes and simmer for 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice (refrigerate remaining rice for serving at lunch or freeze), corn, and beans. Cook for 5 minutes, then add cilantro and lime juice. Divide the mixture among the bell peppers. Cover and refrigerate.
- Make Pasta Salad. Make the red wine vinaigrette in a large bowl and add the cooled pasta. Sauté broccoli until tender, then add to the pasta and dressing. Add crumbled feta cheese and Kalamata olives, then toss to combine. Divide into individual lunch containers and refrigerate.
- Assemble oatmeal cups. Blend 1 1/2 cups oats in a food processor until the texture of cornmeal. Transfer that to a large bowl, then add the remaining 6 cups oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Stir to combine, then divide the mixture into 12 jars (about 1/2 cup per jar). If desired, add additional toppings like coconut flakes, dried fruit, or chopped nuts. Twist on the lid and store at room temperature.
- Monday, Wednesday, Friday, DIY Instant Oatmeal Cups. Add 1/2 cup boiling water to each jar and stir to combine. Set aside for 5 minutes before serving.
- Tuesday, Thursday, Eggs and Toast. Prepare eggs according to desired method and serve with buttered toast.
- Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Broccoli Feta Pasta Salad. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Season with salt and pepper, if needed.
- Tuesday, Thursday, Leftovers. One way to stay on budget is to let no leftovers go to waste. Build in space to enjoy leftovers during the week to make this task seem manageable.
- Monday, Slow Cooker Lasagna Soup: In the morning, add 1 pound ground beef, kosher salt, and black pepper to a 6-quart or larger slow cooker. Break the meat up with a wooden spoon. Add 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth, 1 (24-ounce) jar marinara sauce, and the container of prepared onion, garlic, and seasonings. Cover and cook on LOW 7 to 8 hours. Break 8 to 10 lasagna noodles into pieces, then add to the soup and continue to cook on LOW until the noodles are tender, 25 to 35 minutes. Remove Parmesan rind. Serve with mozzarella, ricotta, and basil, if using. Reserve any leftovers for lunches this week.
- Tuesday, Sheet Pan Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Sausage, and Butternut Squash: Divide oven into thirds and heat the oven to 450°F. Spread the prepared vegetables onto a rimmed baking sheet. Add 1 pound gnocchi, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Toss to combine, then spread into an even layer. Remove casing from the sausage and drop bite-sized pieces of the sausage over the top of the gnocchi and vegetables. Roast on the lower rack, stirring halfway through, about 25 minutes total. Move the sheet pan to the upper rack and broil until gnocchi are browned and crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Garnish with Parmesan cheese, if desired. Reserve any leftovers for lunches this week.
- Wednesday, One-Pot Chili Mac: Place the prepared ground beef mixture in a Dutch oven and add crushed tomatoes, broth, macaroni, and drained and rinsed kidney or pinto beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer uncovered until the pasta is tender. Stir in evaporated milk and shredded cheddar cheese. Top each serving with more cheese and sliced scallions, if desired. Reserve any leftovers for lunches this week.
- Thursday, Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers: Pour 1/2 cup of water into the baking dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake at 375°F until peppers are tender and heated through, about 45 minutes. Increase heat to 400°F, remove foil, and sprinkle tops of the peppers with shredded cheddar cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted.
- Friday, Pressed Pizza Sandwiches: Butter 8 slices of bread, then season with dried oregano and garlic powder. Turn bread over and spread with pizza sauce. Add shredded mozzarella cheese and then the pepperoni slices to half of the slices of bread. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes, if desired. Close the sandwiches, sauce-side down. Add 1 or 2 sandwiches (depending on the size of your skillet) to a skillet over medium heat. Weigh down with a cast iron skillet, and cook until golden-brown. Uncover, flip, press, and continue to cook until the second side is brown. Repeat with remaining sandwiches.
Power Hour Meal Prep is the series where we help you put it all together. We show you how to eat well during the week with an hour or two of Power Hour prep over the weekend. Every plan is different; mix and match to find your own personal sweet spot.
This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: Power Hour: How I Prep a Week of Budget-Friendly Family Meals for Winter