Frugal Meal Prep: How I Eat in Chicago for $6.22 a Day

I like to follow a relatively 80/20 meal plan — 80% is planned, nutrient-dense meals and 20% is deliciously spontaneous. I weekly plan and meal prep most of my meals, but I also like to enjoy life and eat out with friends, occasionally indulging in a fantastic dessert. It works for me because it’s easy for an on-the-go lifestyle, it fuels me to be a strong badass, and it’s cheap as fuck. I spend roughly $6.22 a day on groceries!

I prefer to shop at Aldi, but I also shop occasionally at Trader Joe’s, Mariano’s, or Whole Foods, depending on location, convenience, and what I need. I get most groceries weekly, but some staples only monthly. Living with three roommates and cooking for one is hard, so I keep it minimal and prefer to avoid processed foods without expiration dates. I’m lactose sensitive, so I avoid dairy, but I do eat Greek yogurt sometimes (Aldi for $0.65 — half the price of leading brands elsewhere and a fourth of the price of your Icelandic BS #sorrynotsorry).

VEGGIES

  • $0.69 Baby carrots
  • $1.49 Greens (spinach, spring mix, kale)
  • $1.49 Green beans
  • $1.49 Peppers
  • $0.59 Cucumber

— $5.75 Weekly

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Any of these can be bought frozen, which I used to do all the time, but we don’t have room in our freezer so I try to keep it fresh. It’s also cheaper to get one container of greens a month, then each week replace it with a bag. It keeps it fresher and you get more bang for your buck. I try to eat one serving of each a day — with eggs, with rice/quinoa and turkey/chicken, in a smoothie, or in a salad.

FRUIT

  • $0.95 Bananas (5)
  • $2.28 Grapes
  • $3.29 Kiwi (10)
  • $1.99 Apples (8)
  • $1.29 Avocado

— $9.80 Weekly

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Some health trends suggest that fruit has a lot of sugar, but I choose to block those people out considering candy used to be my main food group as a child. I eat a banana and an apple every day, but other fruit is whatever I’m feeling, whatever’s in season, and whatever’s on sale. I also like to buy some frozen fruit like blueberries to add to my smoothie in case I forgot to freeze a banana. I don’t eat avocados often, but I’m trying to add them into my smoothies more.

PROTEIN

  • $0.89 Eggs (12)
  • $3.29 Ground Turkey
  • $4.22 Chicken
  • $1.49 Deli Ham
  • $3.99 Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage
  • $4.99 Unsalted Almonds
  • $0.99 Lentils

— $8.40 Weekly

— $11.46 Monthly

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I have a lot of vegetarian friends, so I apologize that most of my protein comes from meat. I do use Vital Proteins regularly, but I try to eat meat 2-3x a day. Ham and sausage usually last me a couple weeks, but everything else I need weekly. Prices fluctuate too, but Aldi always has the cheapest — even organic options are cheaper than most other groceries.

GRAINS

  • $2.29 Steel Cut Oats
  • $2.69 Cereal/Granola
  • $2.99 Quinoa
  • $2.99 Brown Rice
  • $2.29 Multigrain Flatbread (8)
  • $0.89 Whole Wheat Sandwich Thins (8)
  • $1.49 Whole Wheat Bread
  • $1.58 Sweet Potatoes (2)

— $5.16 Weekly

— $12.05 Monthly

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I workout 6-7x a week, so I need hella carbs. Remember when I went paleo for ~6 months? That started an eating disorder. Eat your carbs, enjoy them, and choose the best ones. Most of these, I only need to buy monthly. I store my breads in the freezer or refrigerator so they don’t mold.

SNACKS

  • $1.69 Popcorn
  • $2.99 Snack Bars (4)
  • $5.99 Clif Bars (6)

— $10.67 Monthly

Honestly, I keep a giant bin of snacks. CLIF Bars, Luna Bars, LARABARS, Aldi snack bars, Quest Bars, RXBARs, KIND Bars…. I stock up on whatever I’m feeling, then I never get bored. I eat one per day usually. Popcorn is also an awesome snack to satisfy my salty cravings. I sometimes buy rice cakes too. Snacks fluctuate, especially since I’ve accumulated so many, and I frequently get many more free ones from fitness events. We also have a giant cabinet of snacks in our office, so I can snag a KIND bar if I need one. I try to eat only fulfilling snacks, but I won’t lie, I sometimes grab a handful (or three) of Peanut M&M’s, a mini package of cookies, or a mini candy bar. Since I’m not home often, snacks need to be prepackaged so I can easily grab them on-the-go before teaching a 6AM class or a run.

CONDIMENTS, SEASONINGS, + MORE

  • $1.49 Brown Sugar
  • $1.99 TJ’s Everyday Seasoning (IF ANYTHING YOU NEED THIS IN YOUR LIFE)
  • $2.99 Olive Oil Spray
  • $3.99 Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
  • $1.99 Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk
  • $2.49 TJ’s Spiced Chai Tea
  • $1.99 Marinara
  • $2.99 TJ’s Soyaki Sauce
  • $1.99 Vinaigrette
  • $0.99 Ranch Dressing
  • $1.89 Salsa
  • $4.29 Olive Oil “Butter”
  • $1.49 Semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • $1.49 Peanut Butter
  • $1.99 Fruit Preserves

— $34.05 Monthly

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These extras fluctuate, and I’ve probably missed a few staples I don’t even consider. Some I restock monthly, others might last even longer, especially if I forget about them… If you worry that meal prepping might get boring, know that this is where you get to have fun! I love trying new Trader Joe’s sauces and spices.

TREAT

$0.49 Sparkling Frost

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We all know better than to go to the grocery store on an empty stomach, but walking to the grocery store and walking around can spark your appetite again. I always grab a Sparkling Frost on the way out so that by the time I’m home from 15 minutes of farmers’ walking (ALWAYS bring two bags, even if you can fit it in one), I can chug a drink that’s refreshing, yet filling with bubbles that will make me forget I was hungry.

WEEKLY SHOPPING TRIP

$29.60

MONTHLY SHOPPING TRIP

$68.23

TOTAL MONTHLY GROCERY COST ON AVERAGE

($29.60*4) + 68.23 = $186.63

Of course, I allot to eat 1-4 meals out each week, and some days I’ll see a really scrumptious looking dish from Trader Joe’s that I’ll save for a night when I have time to cook dinner. On average, I eat about half of my meals at work, so I prep them in tupperware to keep in the fridge. I just add condiments in the morning before work so they don’t get soggy. The other meals I like having prepared so when I come home ravenous, I can eat without worrying.

AVERAGE COST OF GROCERIES PER DAY

$6.22

MEALS EATEN OUT

$45.00 Weekly (rounding up, for safety)

$180.00 Monthly

AVERAGE COST OF FOOD PER DAY

$12.22 — about the same price of one meal eaten out!

I don’t want to think about what meal prepping would cost at other groceries, and I don’t know how people my age eat out for every meal. I can seldom buy one meal out for $6.22! I stopped tracking macros, but I know I’m stronger than ever, so I try not to worry much. I’m feeding my body with lots of nutrients, planning them in advance so I’m able to spend more time kicking ass at work, and saving lots of money to pay for important things like bills, student loans, travel and more Nikes. Remember, cooking your own food is not “domesticated” — it’s self-sufficient, responsible, and smart!

Next, I’ll write about my typical weekly meal prep. What do you struggle with meal prepping? Any questions you’d like me to answer? LMK! ❤

++ Mary K

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