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The Meal Prep Trick That Makes Life SO Much Easier

Meal planning can be difficult, especially if you're unfamiliar with it. Here's the one tip that will add variety to your meals without bending your budget.

Photo: Shutterstock / AndreyCherkasov

 

Creating a meal plan you’ll stick with can be daunting. When it comes to successful weekly meal prep, it’s easy to get confused. However, there’s one quick secret that varies your meals without breaking the bank: Keep the grocery list short. You can make lots of different dishes using a handful of the same ingredients.

A seven-item list like this one, for starters, will put some variety into your bagged lunch every day of the work week while keeping your spending in check.

First, compile your list. Here’s what I’d start with: chicken breast or thighs, fresh mozzarella, a jar of tomato sauce (look for a low-sodium option), fresh spinach, sliced almonds, fresh fruit and whole-wheat pasta.

The list consists of proteins, healthy carbohydrates, fruits and cheese—all the essentials for creating tasty meals. Planning your meals can be the toughest part if you’re not a culinary creative. Consider these meal ideas:

 

Healthy Chicken Parmigiana

Chicken Parm is a staple that’s good any day or time. To keep things healthy, make grilled chicken and stick with one serving of tomato sauce. Although it’s tempting to add more sauce, jarred sauces tend to have a lot of sodium.

 

Spinach Salad with Fresh Fruit

Top fresh spinach with strawberries and sliced almonds for a healthy salad with some added protein. If you’re not a strawberry fan, watermelon works, too, or even fresh peaches. Feel free to get creative, depending on your fruit preference.

 

Simple Pasta with Red Sauce

Grab the leftover tomato sauce and cook up some whole wheat pasta. Feel free to add some freshly grated mozzarella, and season the dish with oregano or basil flakes, if you have them. If you have fresh tomatoes, you can use those, too. Here’s how our Field Editors make a jar of sauce taste homemade.

 

Almond Crusted Chicken

Avoid the breading and coat your chicken in crushed almonds. Be sure to bake it, rather than fry it, and sauté some fresh spinach as a side. If you’re a fan of apricots, this apricot almond chicken is another great option.

 

Deli-Style Pasta Salad

Get creative with some whole-wheat pasta salad. Toss in any veggies you already have, like red onion, cucumber and peppers. Add oil and vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and mix it up to combine. Let it sit overnight to absorb the flavor; add more oil and vinegar if you like.

 

It’s easy to meal plan with a tight grocery budget. A short list does not mean sacrificing variety. It’s all about choosing meals with ingredients that work well together, and most of all, ones that you enjoy!

 

On board with meal planning? Here are more meals you can cook once and eat all week.

Start With: Slow Cooker Roast Chicken

“Roast chicken is easy to make in a slow cooker. We save the shredded chicken to use during busy weeks.” —Courtney Stultz, Columbus, Kansas

Prep Tip: A single whole chicken will make roughly 4 cups of chicken. Make a double (or triple) batch to get you through the week.

 

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Make: Chicken Amandine

Calls for: 3 cups cubed cooked chicken. 

“With colorful green beans and pimientos, this attractive casserole is terrific for the holidays. This is true comfort food at its finest.” —Kat Woolbright, Wichita Falls, Texas

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Make: Chicken-Stuffed Peppers

Calls for: 3 cups shredded cooked chicken.

“Here’s a different take on traditional stuffed peppers. I substituted chicken for the beef and used Cubanelle peppers in place of the green peppers.” —Ron Burlingame, Canton, Ohio

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Make: Thai Red Chicken Curry

Calls for: 3 cups cubed cooked chicken. 

“I re-created a favorite dish from a restaurant, and now I cook it almost weekly for my family. On a busy night, frozen stir-fry veggies really speed things up.” —Mary Shenk, DeKalb, Illinois” —Martha Balser, Cincinnati, Ohio

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Make: Chicken Salad Croissant Sandwiches

Calls for: 2 cups shredded cooked chicken. 

“Parmesan cheese and dill make this the most incredible chicken salad I’ve ever tasted. For the no-cook version, use canned chicken. “—Jaclyn Bell, Logan, Utah

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Start With: Slow-Cooked Ham

“Entertaining doesn’t get much easier than when you serve this tasty five-ingredient ham from the slow cooker. Plus, the leftovers are delicious in casseroles!” —Heather Spring, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas

Prep Tip: A single ham will make roughly 12 cups of chicken.

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Make: Split Pea Soup with Ham

Calls for: 2 cups cubed cooked ham. 

“For a different spin on split pea soup, try this recipe. The flavor is peppery rather than smoky.”—Barbara Link, Rancho Cucamonga, California

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Make: Ham Pasta Toss

Calls for: 2 cups shredded or cubed cooked ham. 

“This is my favorite meal to make when I’m short on time. You can also use different meats or vegetables depending on what you have on hand.” —Sharon Gerst, North Liberty, Iowa.

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Make: Ham & Swiss Potato Casserole

Calls for: 2 cups cubed cooked ham. 

“No one will be able to resist the classic trio of ham, Swiss and potatoes in this comforting bake. It was the result of creative experimentation when I wanted to use up ingredients I had on hand. I sometimes replace the ham with turkey ham.” —Sarah Wilham, Elkhart, Illinois

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Make: Skillet Ham & Rice

Calls for: 1 cup cubed ham. 

“Ham, rice and mushrooms make a tasty combination in this homey stovetop dish. It goes from start to finish in just 20 minutes.” —Susan Zivec, Regina, Saskatchewan

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Start With: Slow Cooker Loaded Mashed Potatoes

“Every year my Mom made cream cheese mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. I tailored the recipe to my family’s taste and carried on the tradition.” —Ann Nolte, Tampa, Florida

Prep Tip: This recipe will make roughly 7 cups of mashed potatoes.

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Make: Meat Shell Potato Pie

Calls for: 2 cups mashed potatoes.

“Guests always comment on the presentation and flavor of this delightfully different dish.” —Julie Sterchi, Flora, Illinois

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Make: Bacon-Cheddar Potato Croquettes

Calls for: 4 cups mashed potatoes. 

“Instead of throwing out leftover mashed potatoes, use them to make croquettes. The little baked balls are yummy with ranch dressing, barbecue sauce or Dijon mayonnaise for dipping.” —Pamela Shank, Parkersburg, West Virginia

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Make: Pork Shepherd's Pie

Calls for: 2 cups mashed potatoes. 

“Of all the shepherd’s pie recipes I’ve tried through the years, this version is my favorite. Although I live alone, I enjoy cooking and baking for friends and family.” —Mary Arthurs, Etobicoke, Ontario

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Make: Broccoli Potato Supreme

Calls for: 3 cups mashed potatoes. 

“My family insists that this two-in-one casserole makes an appearance at all of our special meals. Every bite is doubly delicious!” —Jane Birch, Edison, New Jersey

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Start With: Shredded Pork Loin

“Slow cooker pork with green chilies always makes my hungry clan happy. Getting creative with the leftovers is part of the fun.” —Mary Shivers, Ada, Oklahoma

Prep Tip: A loin will make roughly 4 pounds of pork.

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Make: Individual Pork & Cranberry Potpies

Calls for: 5 cups chopped ham.

“My neighbor gave me this recipe years ago, and I love how these pies are different from the usual chicken pot pie. The flavor combination in these pies just screams fall, but freezing them allows my family to enjoy them any time of year.” —Mary Shenk, Dekalb, Illinois

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Make: Barbecue Pork and Penne Skillet

Calls for: 1 pound shredded pork.

“I’m the proud mother of wonderful and active children. Simple, delicious and quick meals like this are perfect for us to enjoy together after errands, school activities and soccer practice are over.” —Judy Armstrong, Prairieville, Louisiana

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Make: Pork Taquitos

Calls for: 2 cups shredded pork. 

“Taquitos are a popular appetizer and these homemade ones are so much better than the frozen ones in the supermarket.” —Taste of Home Test Kitchen, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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Make: Big Kahuna Pizza

Calls for: 1 pound shredded pork. 

“A prebaked pizza crust and refrigerated barbecued pork make this tasty supper idea super-fast and super-easy. Cut into bite-sized pieces, and it can double as a great last-minute appetizer, too!” —Joni Hilton, Rocklin, California

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Start With: Easy Corned Beef and Cabbage

“I first tried this fuss-free way to cook traditional corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago. Now it’s a regular in my menu planning. This is terrific with Dijon mustard and crusty bread.” —Karen Waters, Laurel, Maryland

Prep tip: A single beef brisket will make roughly 3 pounds of corned beef.

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Make: Chicken Reuben Roll-Ups

Calls for: 2 slices of cooked corned beef. 

“My Nebraska-native husband loves Reuben sandwiches and anything with chicken, so I combined his two favorites in a fun roll-up.” —Ashli Kottwitz, Hermitage, Tennessee

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Make: Reuben-Style Pizza

Calls for: 1/2 pound of chopped corned beef. 

“I love a good Reuben sandwich and thought, “Why not make it into a pizza?” It’s got extra cheesy goodness in the sauce, and smells wonderful coming out of the oven.” —Tracy Miller, Wakeman, Ohio

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Make: Paddy's Reuben Dip

Calls for: 1/2 pound of chopped corned beef. 

“This slow-cooked spread tastes just like the popular Reuben sandwich. Even when I double the recipe, I end up with an empty dish.” —Mary Jane Kimmes, Hastings, Minnesota

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Make: Reuben Bread Pudding

Calls for: 2 cups of chopped or cubed corned beef. 

“Our Aunt Renee always brought this casserole to family picnics, and it became so popular that she started making two or three to bring.” —Johnna Johnson, Scottsdale, Arizona

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Start With: Slow-Cooked Herbed Turkey

“When herbs are plentiful in my garden, I prepare this turkey recipe. The turkey stays moist in the slow cooker and is bursting with herb flavors. When I served this to our Bible study potluck group, everyone wanted the recipe!” —Sue Jurack, Mequon, Wisconsin

Prep tip: This recipe will make roughly 6 pounds of turkey. 

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Make: Lemony Turkey Rice Soup

Calls for: 2 cups diced cooked turkey. 

“While growing up in Texas, I spent a lot of time helping my grandma cook. Lemon and cilantro add a deliciously different twist to turkey soup.” —Margarita Cuellar, East Chicago, Indiana

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Make: Four-Cheese Turkey Pasta Bake

Calls for: 2 cups cubed cooked turkey.

“Leftover turkey combines with penne and cheeses to make a classic comfort food. The pasta bake works with chicken, shrimp or beef, too.” —Mary Cokenour, Monticello, Utah

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Make: Turkey Curry

Calls for: 2 cups diced cooked turkey. 

“I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to use leftover turkey—especially around the holidays. Make this skillet meal as spicy as you like by varying the amount of curry powder.” —Martha Balser, Cincinnati, Ohio

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Make: Turkey & Stuffing Eggs Benedict

Calls for: 3/4 pound sliced cooked turkey.

“This is a fun way to enjoy holiday leftovers as if presenting them for the first time. Serve for brunch, with champagne and cranberry juice.” — Brittany Allyn, Nashville, Tennessee

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Start With: Simple Poached Salmon

“I love this recipe because it’s healthy and almost effortless. And the salmon always cooks to perfection!” —Erin Chilcoat, Central Islip, New York

Prep tip: This recipe will make roughly 1-1/2 pounds of salmon. Make a double (or triple) batch to get you through the week.

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Make: Salmon Quesadillas

Calls for: 3 ounces cooked salmon.

“These extra-special quesadillas take just minutes to make, but you’ll want to savor them for as long as possible. Sprinkle the cheesy wedges with chopped fresh cilantro.” —Daniel Shemtob, Irvine, California

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Make: Salmon Burgers with Tangy Slaw

Calls for: 1 pound chopped cooked salmon. 

“I thought I’d made salmon every way you can make it, until now. The tangy slaw, made with fennel and avocado, adds another layer of flavor that goes surprisingly well with salmon and other seafood.” —Amber Massey, Argyle, Texas 

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Make: Creamy Salmon Linguine

Calls for: 1 pound cooked salmon. 

”Extra Pesto Grilled Salmon gives this creamy pasta toss a luxurious taste and texture. We love it as is, but you could easily sub in any veggies you have on hand for the broccoli.” —Jacob Kitzman, Seattle, Washington

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Make: Simple Salmon Dip

Calls for: 3 ounces cooked salmon. 

“This is my go-to dip recipe for summer barbecues. The secret is the green chilies—they add just enough heat.” —Susan Jordan, Denver, Colorado

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Start With: Sweet & Tangy Beef Roast

“While cleaning out the fridge I found barbecue sauce, red pepper jelly and hoisin sauce—the perfect trio for creating this this slightly tangy and sweet, utterly delicious roast.” —Rachel Van Orden, Annville, Pennsylvania 

Prep tip: This recipe will make roughly 4 pounds of beef. 

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Make: Provolone Beef Pastry Pockets

Calls for: 1 pound chopped cooked beef. 

“My children always make sure they’re home when they find out we’re having these pockets for dinner. They’re a smart way to use leftover pot roast.” —Karen Burkett, Reseda, California

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Make: Weekday Beef Stew

Calls for: 1 pound chopped cooked beef. 

“Beef stew capped with flaky puff pastry adds comfort and joy to the weeknight menu. Make a salad and call your crowd to the table.” —Daniel Anderson, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin

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Make: Tex-Mex Cheesesteak Sandwiches

Calls for: 1 pound chopped or sliced cooked beef. 

“We adore cheesesteak sandwiches and anything with Southwestern flavor, so I combined the two. If you crave even more firepower, add chopped jalapenos.” —Joan Hallford, Fort Worth, Texas

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Make: Easy Beef Pies

Calls for: 1 pound shredded cooked beef. 

“We make a lot of French dips and always have leftover roast beef. Here’s how I put it to good use. For these pies, use any vegetables you like. They’re extra awesome drenched in cheese sauce.” —Jennie Weber, Palmer, Alaska

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