It’s no secret that meal planning has been one of the driving factors behind our family’s financial turnaround.
Discovering our spending habits with food opened our eyes to just how mindless our choices had been.
It prompted us to become more deliberate in our spending and saved us hundreds of dollars every month.
If you’re ready to take control of your food budget, here’s how you can start meal planning on a budget.
Why You Should Plan Your Meals
Have you ever sat down after a busy day, just for a minute to catch your breath, only to notice it’s 5pm and you have no idea what’s for dinner?
Or maybe you have a packed schedule and won’t even be home until after 7 o’clock and you definitely don’t feel like cooking so you just hit the drive thru…again.
I’ve been there.
But trying to avoid the stress of cooking unknowingly led to stress about our finances as we struggled to reel in our food spending.
Then I discovered meal planning and everything turned around.
With just a little effort (we’re talking 10-20 minutes a day, once a week) I’ve gone from a constant state of dreading dinnertime to taking it in stride.
The stress of mealtime has evaporated, replaced with calm reassurance.
And not only has my outlook improved, but our finances and health have benefited as well.
Simply by planning your meals you can:
- save money
- eat healthier
- reduce food waste
- …and stress less!
Follow the steps below for effective meal planning on a budget.
How to Meal Plan on a Budget
Meal planning isn’t hard, but if you’ve been flying by the seat of your pants up until now, it can take some getting used to.
Follow this 5-step approach to meal planning to ease yourself in.
Step 1: Take an inventory
Before you can plan your meals to optimize your budget, it helps to know what you already have.
It’s a tedious task, but an important one. And one that’s much easier to maintain after you’ve done it the first time.
Check your fridge, your freezer, and your pantry and list out everything you have.
Include expiration dates and go ahead and throw out anything expired or that you’ll never use.
Step 2: Find and organize your recipes
Most of us have a few go-to recipes we make over and over again. Even if you know them by heart, write them down.
Keep a recipe box or use an app to keep track of your favorite recipes and any you’d like to try.
Most recipe boxes are organized by meal (breakfast, dinner, dessert), but it’s a good idea to break it down further and organize things based around ingredients as well.
Most digital recipe apps will let you sort by ingredients, but if you prefer using actual recipe cards, organizing them according to their main ingredients (beef, chicken, etc.) will make it easier to meal plan later on.
Step 3: Check your store flyers
If you’re trying to meal plan on a budget, you want to make sure you’re getting the best deal on your groceries.
By looking at the advertised sales you can choose recipes that take advantage of store discounts to bring your grocery costs down.
Stock up on essentials and frequently used ingredients when they’re on sale. Especially if they have a longer shelf-life or can be frozen.
Step 4: Choose recipes strategically
As prone as you may be to choosing recipes based on ease or flavor, if you want to keep costs down it’s worth it to think a bit more strategically.
Look for recipes you already have the ingredients for or ones that have ingredients on sale.
If you’re super familiar with your recipes this may not be too tedious, but if you’re like me, it’s a lot easier to have an app do it for you.
I use Plan to Eat to manage my recipes and plan my meals. I just type a few ingredients into the search and have a selection of recipes to choose from.
Looking to try something new tonight? Supercook.com is a great resource to help you find new recipes using the ingredients you have on hand.
Try to plan for meals that have common ingredients. If soy sauce is on sale, see if you can fill your menu with recipes that will take advantage of that ingredient.
Step 5: Plan your meals around your schedule
One of the biggest barriers to meal planning for me has always been time.
I either felt like I didn’t have the time to cook or we weren’t home in time for me to cook.
But by sitting down with our family calendar I was able to plan around those excuses.
Afternoon doctor’s appointment? Make a crockpot meal so it’s done when I get home.
Home late because of Cub Scouts? Plan for leftovers that night.
I tend to focus on meal planning dinners, but this idea of planning meals around your schedule is also effective if you tend to be home for lunch but find yourself swinging through the drive-thru whenever you’re out running errands.
Tips to Save Even More Money
Ok, it doesn’t have to be Mondays, but pick at least one day each week to have a vegetarian dinner.
Meat prices are high on a good day and outrageous the rest of the time. Eating less meat is an easy and effective way to lower your grocery bill.
Look for recipes with grains and beans to help fill you up.
Avoid special ingredients
Have you ever found yourself drooling at some amazing looking meal on Instagram or Pinterest only to discover you’ve never heard of half the ingredients?
Save your wallet by skipping recipes that use special, one-off ingredients.
Specialty ingredients not only tend to be expensive, but if you don’t have enough recipes to use them in, you’ll end up throwing money away.
If you’ve found a recipe you absolutely have to try and it’s got some random ingredient in it, do a quick Google search to see if you can find some other recipes that use that same ingredient before you go out and buy it.
Use seasonal ingredients
Just because you can buy any ingredient at any time of year, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Produce in particular can be more expensive when you’re buying it out of season. It may also go bad faster.
Look for recipes that use in-season ingredients to keep the costs of the meal down.
Want to save even more money on groceries? Try growing your own veggies and herbs!
Plan for leftovers
One of the quickest ways to reduce stress around dinnertime is to plan for leftovers.
Try portioning out your meals so you can have some for dinner tomorrow too.
Or double the recipe and freeze half that you can use for a future meal.
Check your inventory list
Inventory lists aren’t just helpful when it comes to finding recipes you have ingredients on hand for, they’re also a great way to make sure you’re using up what you have before it spoils.
Food waste is a major problem and probably costs you more than you realize. (Approximately $161 billion in the US!)
When you’re planning your meals for the week, start by finding recipes that can use up ingredients that are close to expiring.
Resources to Help You Meal Plan
Meal planning can be as
These are my favorite resources to help you meal plan on a budget.
Tools to help with meal planning and prep
I use this meal planning/grocery list magnet to keep our plan front and center. I especially like that the shopping list is perforated so you can tear it off when you head to the store.
My favorite kitchen tool of all time is my Instant Pot. My slow-cooker used to reign supreme, but since the Instant Pot gives me that, plus so much more, it’s the new king of my kitchen gadgets.
I love Ziploc slider bags for most of my freezer meals, but I prefer these containers for leftovers and weekly batch cooking.
My recipe organizer of choice is Plant To Eat because it’s so much easier for planning purposes.
But for cooking purposes I like to keep an old-fashioned recipe box with actual recipe cards to reference when I cook.
We’re trying to make cooking a family activity and I don’t want my messy 10 year old splashing spaghetti sauce on my phone.
Where to find recipes
Pinterest is usually my first stop for finding new recipes, but it’s super easy to get distracted and I often find myself spending way more time than I need to. Lately, I’ve preferred to check out blogs that specialize in creating low budget recipes. Here are a few of my favorites:
Done for you (pre-made meal plans)
Meal planning is a great way to save time and money, but there is a bit of prep-work involved.
If you need a little help, these services are a great way to meal plan without much effort.
Yes, they are paid services, but your grocery savings alone should more than make up the cost.
If you’re tired of an out of control grocery bill, unhealthy drive-thru meals, and dinner being a source of stress and anxiety, meal planning is your answer.
Save money, eat healthier, and reduce stress, just by planning out your meals a few days in advance.