Imagine coming home after a long day at work and having a meal ready to go. All you have to do is throw it in a skillet and heat it through, and your hungry family is fed. Your time is freed up to spend time with them.

People in the United States eat out about four or five times a week. That translates into thousands of dollars every year spent on dining out.

Imagine if you could save most of that money by having a meal ready to go, or prepping your lunches and taking them with you to work.

What would you do with a couple of thousand dollars extra each year?

There are many advantages to prepping your meals ahead of time. Here are five tips to help you get the most from the process.

1. Create a Menu

Before you start your meal-prepping adventure, take the time to create a menu of foods for the week or even for two weeks at a time.

You can save a lot of money by shopping loss leaders — items stores advertise at a deep discount each week — and buying fresh fruits and vegetables as they are in season.

As you create the menu, look for opportunities to purchase food in bulk. For example, if you plan to cook grilled chicken one day, put chicken quesadillas on the menu for the next day.

If you plan to cook a pot roast, think about the leftovers and what dishes you can make, such as beef barbecue and beef stew.

2. Cook Like Foods Together

On the day you begin your meal prep, group like foods together. Need 2 pounds of ground beef for tacos and another pound of ground beef for lasagna? Cook all 3 pounds at one time. Will you need diced onions for three separate dishes? Dice them all at once and then separate them into containers.

Once you’ve cooked or prepped the foods, you’ll also want to separate them and group them into meal packages, or at least stack them together.

The idea behind meal prep is being able to grab the items and throw them together into a super quick meal.

3. Set Aside a Block of Time

Meal prep day can be a bit exhausting. If the thought of cooking every day of the week is daunting, think about imagine cooking multiple meals at one time.

While it will save you time and money in the long run, you will also be on your feet for some hours. Plan regular breaks, and perhaps even team up with a friend or family and work together to prep meals.

Make sure everything is highly organized, and you have a plan in place before starting, so you can be as productive as possible. During the time you’ve set aside to prep your meals, don’t get distracted by the internet, a phone call or stop to do laundry. Stay focused on the task at hand.

4. Have the Right Storage on Hand

Having the proper containers on hand makes your job easier and ensures the items are stored so they are available to you when you need them.

Some things you’ll want to look for in storage containers include BPA-free materials and the ability to separate foods. You don’t want a single mass of food to deal with.

It’s best for your containers to be clear, so you can easily see what’s inside. They should also be the same size so you can easily stack them on top of one another. To save the most money, also look for containers that are reusable.

5. Resist the Urge to Eat Out

You’ve spent a few hours prepping meals and getting ready for lunch and dinner for the week. Then, you’re tempted. It’s so easy to head to the nearest fast food drive-through on your way home from that parent-teacher conference.

This is where you have to remind yourself of the work you’ve put in and the payoff in the end.

If your goal is to save money by not eating out so you can take a nice vacation at the end of the year, save some photos of your dream destination on your cellphone. Look at them when you’re tempted to skip out on your prepped meals.

Make Your Life Easier

Meal-prepping saves time and money and makes the decision to eat at home and be healthy an easier one. However, you have to approach it with a plan in mind, or you’ll wind up spending more time and money than you intended.

With a little foresight and a bit of organization, however, you’ll wind up with a handful of meals that are mouth-wateringly good.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is the owner and editor of Productivity Theory, a blog about lifehacking and self-fulfillment. To read more posts by Kayla, you can subscribe to her blog or follow her on Twitter.