If you're trying to save money, the first thing experts will tell you to do is stop eating out.
As a strong proponent of brown-bagging it, I'd have to agree. Packing my lunch instead of buying it saves me hundreds per month.
But as my colleague Kathleen Elkins points out, taking the time to prepare lunch every day costs you something else: your time.
If you're wary of cooking your own meals because of the time investment, don't be. It can take hours to craft a diverse array of homemade meals for the week ... or it can take you 45 minutes.
I'm no master chef, but I do bring my lunch to work every day, and I typically spend less than an hour each week preparing it. Here are five meal prep tricks that help me make it happen.
I have go-to meals
Trying out new recipes and new cooking techniques is fun! It's how you learn and become more confident in the kitchen. But it's not always conducive to saving time.
Having a few tried-and-true recipes — ones I know I can whip up blindfolded — streamlines the meal prep process. As I develop my grocery list for the week, I make sure to always include a few easy meals that I know I'll look forward to eating.
My favorite standby is a kale salad topped with olive oil, chickpeas, and feta. It's simple but filling and delicious.
I keep back-up ingredients on hand
When it's 10 p.m. on Tuesday night and I realize that I don't have anything prepared for lunch the next day, the absolute last thing I want to do is look up a recipe, chop a bunch of veggies or deal with more than five ingredients.
My solution? I try to keep a few meals' worth of ingredients on hand so that I can throw together a quick dish even when I'm short on time. Think pasta, rice and beans, and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It might not be the most elaborate, healthy or impressive meal of the week, but it saves me the $10 that would have otherwise gone towards takeout.
I simplify everything
Good food doesn't have to be complicated. Greens topped with chicken and almonds, Caprese sandwiches and pasta with roasted veggies all require minimal ingredients and still taste delicious.
Whenever I see a recipe on a blog or Pinterest that I'm interested in copying, I always brainstorm how I can make it simpler, whether that means swapping out a labor-intensive sauce for a store-bought one or leaving out a few inessential ingredients.
I invest in spices
Spices and herbs are the easiest way I add a punch of flavor to simple dishes. By mixing up my seasonings (and by seasonings, I mean my extensive collection of flavored salt) throughout the week, I also add much-needed variety to repetitive dishes.
Another one of my favorite tricks: Using taco seasoning to instantly transform rice and beans into a "burrito bowl."
I'm not afraid to cut corners
It's cheaper to forgo the pre-chopped vegetables at the store in favor dicing them yourself — if you actually do it. But even those packaged mushrooms and peppers are a whole lot cheaper than hitting up Sweetgreen every day, which is what happens when I skimp on packing a lunch.
Cutting corners on things like bottled salad dressing, pre-chopped stir-fry veggies and frozen veggie burgers prove worthwhile because it saves me enough time that I'm able and willing to bring my lunch every day. Sometimes "cooking" means adding my own tofu to a package of frozen Trader Joe's fried rice, and I'm okay with that.