The Cost of Fruit and Vegetable-Heavy Meal Prep
And how it changed the way I shop.
Last year, my husband began working the second shift from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. and our meal planning had to radically adjust. I work from home and do most of the cooking, but cooking by myself was no fun and our food expenses ballooned as he began eating out more and I began buying more convenience foods from the grocery store. We were unhappy with our budget and our diet, and ended up throwing out a lot of food because it was hard to anticipate what to do with our leftovers. Something had to change.
We needed a new meal plan that would be healthy, convenient, and include foods we both enjoyed eating. We also had to overcome a few initial challenges, because a lot of great work lunches weren’t great for my husband’s work.
Specifically, he needed meals that were:
- Palatable without being heated up (no soups and casseroles).
- Easy to gobble down quickly in between work crises (no leafy salads).
- Varied so he wouldn’t be eating the same boring thing (no sad sandwiches).
- Filling for his physically demanding job (again, no leafy salads).
- Tasty. Working outside of 9–5 can be socially isolating and having a nice dinner goes a long way in making you feel “normal.”
- Healthy. If he doesn’t bring a meal to work, his options are limited to fried chicken and pizza.
After trial and error I figured out a meal that fit the extensive criteria above: some variation of a grain bowl with raw veggies and dip. Then we decided we would spend part of every Sunday afternoon meal prepping these grain bowls, so we wouldn’t have to worry about cooking for the rest of the week. The result was so addicting that we quickly expanded our meal prep ritual to breakfasts as well.
Each week I choose a cuisine and base most of my grocery list on the meal. The rest of my grocery list goes to fruit for a giant fruit bowl, raw vegetables for the veggie cups and a couple things for meals on weekends.
This week’s meal was Latin inspired. The photo below shows examples of the various foods I’ve used for different bowls.
A couple weeks ago it was Greek.
Making these meals takes about an hour and a half. I typically use the rice cooker, stove top and oven to get everything cooking at the same time. There are a lot of dirty dishes, but fewer dishes to wash over the rest of the week.
The next step in meal prep is making veggie cups. I buy at least 5 pounds of vegetables a week for veggie cups. I go for cheap vegetables like carrots and celery, and then add whatever else is on sale. I wash, chop, and stuff the veggies in Ziploc twist n’ lock containers. Then I add dip (hummus, tzatziki, guacamole etc) to 4 oz GladWare containers.
Then I place the dip container inside the Ziploc container. Each container has 2–3 servings of vegetables. By using uniform GladWare and Ziploc containers, everything stays pretty compact in the fridge and is easier to clean in the dishwasher.
The last step in meal prep is preparing a giant bowl of fruit salad to enjoy with yogurt and granola breakfasts. My favorite fruits are annoying to prepare, so by preparing fruit salad all at once and keeping it in the fridge I get to enjoy fruit all week long without generating rotting fruit or fruit flies.
For this giant bowl of fruit I buy about 5–7 pounds of whatever is on sale and won’t turn brown and mushy in the fridge (no apples, pears, bananas, or watermelons; peaches and nectarines are risky but worth it). If there is a really good sale on unripe fruit (like cantaloupe or honeydew), I’ll buy a few extra pounds in advance because it will be ripe for next week’s fruit salad.
Prepping veggie cups and fruit salad takes about 45 minutes and creates a big bag for the compost pile. Since I began prepping fruit and vegetables this way, I’m hitting the daily recommended servings of fruit and vegetables nearly every day and I throw out very little produce.
So what’s the cost?
After months of doing this I’ve begun to look at my grocery budget differently. Instead of looking at my big list of things to buy and how much money I have to spend, I look at how much money I should be spending on different food groups based on the weight of food I need to buy. “How can I get 7 pounds of vegetables for under $10?” “What’s the cheapest way to get 3 pounds of quality meat?”
I shop at discount grocery stores, and here’s a typical breakdown:
- 5–7 lbs vegetables: $8–10
- 5–7 lbs fruit: $8–12
- 3 lbs meat: $4–12
- 2.5 lbs yogurt, cheese, cream: $12
- Dip: $4
- Fat grains, beans, snacks, club soda, and weekend meals: $30
Since beginning this meal prep I’ve spent between $65 and $80 every week on food for two adults. We’re eating healthier and happier, with less waste, and my husband never has to go to work with a sad sandwich.
Meg Renninger is an entrepreneur in Texas.
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