The Best Grocery Hacks for Better Meal Planning

published Jan 26, 2018
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(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

You know that saying “You can have it good, fast, or cheap — pick two”? While it’s most often applied to creative projects, it is also completely relevant when it comes to grocery shopping for weekly meal plans and meal prep.

Think about it: If your grocery goal is to save money (cheap), you’re going to have to be very thorough (good) and do a lot of the work yourself (not fast). On the flip side, if you have a busy week (fast) and need your meal plan to still be relatively healthy (good), you’re going to spend a little more for prepared ingredients or shortcut meals (not cheap).

The beautiful thing about meal planning is that it can flex to meet whatever your need might be each week — good, fast, or cheap. This is especially true at the grocery store, where spending a little more money can translate to less time in the kitchen on hectic nights or smart shopping can save your budget during rent week. Here are our favorite ways to use the grocery store for better meal planning.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Start dinner at the deli and prepared foods counter.

Nope, I’m not talking about getting sliced meats and cheeses. I’m talking about the flavorful sauces, precooked meatballs, and salad bar shortcuts that you might miss near the deli. Need just a few slices of onion for a recipe? Get a cup of them at the salad bar. Rely on a scoop of hummus for a twist on macaroni and cheese, or get some yogurt dip for easy weeknight naanwichhes.

Our Favorite Deli Shortcuts

  • Small amounts of chopped, washed, and cooked produce at the salad bar.
  • Hummus, yogurt dips, and prepared salads, like coleslaw from the cold case.
  • Precooked chickens, chicken breast, and meatballs from the prepared foods section.
  • Fresh pizza dough (usually near the bakery) for pocket pies, flatbreads, and yes, pizza.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Let someone else do the chopping for you.

Short on meal prep time this week? Don’t ever feel guilty about reaching for the pre-chopped onions or squash in the produce section. Maybe you don’t buy these every week, but on those really packed weeks you’ll see better meals (and less waste) if you don’t have to wrestle a squash just to get dinner started.

Sometimes bagged salads get a bad rap, but a pre-shredded and chopped slaw can either work as a side, a start to stir-fry, or even a topping for tacos or sandwiches.

Our Favorite Produce Shortcuts

  • Chopped or spiralized squash, onions, or beets.
  • Bagged coleslaws for quick stir-fries or salads.
  • Fresh herbs for the small amounts listed in some recipes.

Use pre-cooked ingredients, better.

I don’t know about you, but I personally struggle with serving a plain rotisserie chicken for dinner. When I throw the same chicken into some enchilada sauce and wrap it in tortillas, however, my family gobbles it up. Your grocery store probably offers a lot more pre-cooked options than you realize. They can be both time- and budget-savers depending on how you use them.

That chicken can be a shortcut dinner one night and transformed into broth the next night. Buying pre-cooked lentils or rice totally saves cooking time and can save you money if these aren’t staples you use regularly or are prone to overcooking.

Our Favorite Precooked Ingredients

  • Canned beans
  • Frozen rice or quinoa (our preference over instant rice)
  • Cooked lentils
  • Rotisserie chicken, Trader Joe’s precooked fajita meat
(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

Lean on freezer staples.

“Everything from butternut squash to diced potatoes to leafy greens are in my freezer at all times,” says Kitchn’s Editor-in-Chief, Faith Durand. The thing about many frozen vegetables that we love is they are almost always chopped (and sometimes blanched!) so you can throw them right into your dinner dish with aplomb.

Anything that gets dinner done faster makes it taste better. In fact, you can make a pretty damn delicious soup from frozen hash browns in just a few minutes. One of my family’s favorite dinners is soup made from frozen potstickers and frozen edamame warmed up in boxed broth and finished with a handful of baby spinach. It requires zero chopping and barely a pot and wooden spoon.

Our Freezer Favorites

  • Hash browns (either shreds or cubes)
  • Frozen squash (great for soups or quick homemade baby food)
  • Shelled edamame, frozen peas, corn, and fruit
  • Potstickers or dumplings for quick dinners

Meal Plan Club with Kitchn

Meal Plan Club is our self-paced 4-week program full of educational posts, downloadable tools, and real-life sample meal plans where we’ll walk you through each step of meal planning — from choosing recipes to meal prep and actually executing each meal — to make you a more confident meal planner in just one month. You can follow along here!