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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

Make: Chicken Amandine

Make: Chicken-Stuffed Peppers

Make: Thai Red Chicken Curry

Make: Chicken Salad Croissant Sandwiches

Start With: Slow-Cooked Ham

Make: Split Pea Soup with Ham

Make: Ham Pasta Toss

Make: Ham & Swiss Potato Casserole

Make: Skillet Ham & Rice

Start With: Slow Cooker Loaded Mashed Potatoes

Make: Meat Shell Potato Pie

Make: Bacon-Cheddar Potato Croquettes

Make: Pork Shepherd's Pie

Make: Broccoli Potato Supreme

Start With: Shredded Pork Loin

Make: Individual Pork & Cranberry Potpies

Make: Barbecue Pork and Penne Skillet

Make: Pork Taquitos

Make: Big Kahuna Pizza

Start With: Easy Corned Beef and Cabbage

Make: Chicken Reuben Roll-Ups

Make: Reuben-Style Pizza

Make: Paddy's Reuben Dip

Make: Reuben Bread Pudding

Start With: Slow-Cooked Herbed Turkey

Make: Lemony Turkey Rice Soup

Make: Four-Cheese Turkey Pasta Bake

Make: Turkey Curry

Make: Turkey & Stuffing Eggs Benedict

Start With: Simple Poached Salmon

Make: Salmon Quesadillas

Make: Salmon Burgers with Tangy Slaw

Make: Creamy Salmon Linguine

Make: Simple Salmon Dip

Start With: Sweet & Tangy Beef Roast

Make: Provolone Beef Pastry Pockets

Make: Weekday Beef Stew

Make: Tex-Mex Cheesesteak Sandwiches

Make: Easy Beef Pies

Julia Mullaney is a writer, blogger and self-proclaimed macaroni and cheese connoisseur based in New Jersey. She is currently a health & fitness writer for Cheat Sheet and previously worked as the editorial manager of Edible Jersey Magazine. Her work has been published in Rachael Ray Every Day, Art Quench, RMagazine and Edible Jersey. She is the author of Man, you can Cook!, a cookbook full of simple recipes for men who consider the kitchen to be uncharted land. In her spare time, she also runs a food blog full of original, easy recipes. Chow down at or on Instagram at @simplydeliciousblogger.