A monthly meal planner can be an effective way to save money on your food budget. Although it will require some intentional thought upfront, budget meal planning can prevent last-minute food splurges that break your food budget.
If you want to cut your food costs, then let’s dive into the details of learning to meal prep on a budget.
What is budget meal planning?
When you hear the words “budget meal planning” you might envision days of eating peanut butter sandwiches and pasta. Although you could save a lot of money by living off of rice and beans, that is not an enjoyable way to live life.
With that, a budget meal plan is not meant to deprive you of the food that you love. Instead, it is meant to help you use your resources more effectively.
If you choose to stick to a carefully crafted meal plan, then you’ll be able to save money while enjoying the foods you love.
Why should you try meal planning?
If you are trying to be more intentional about your spending, then meal planning is a great place to start. When you map out a meal plan, you can decide how expensive your food bill will be for the month. Plus, you’ll be more likely to avoid impulse food buys that can stretch your budget.
In addition to the financial benefits, taking charge of your meal plan can lead to positive health consequences. Since you’ll be making the meal, you’ll be more in control of the food that goes into your body. As you work on your meal plan, you can make choices that prioritize your health goals.
How to start budget meal planning
Now that you are convinced that meal planning could be a good option for your life, it’s time to take the next step and start meal planning.
Here are the best ways to get started on your meal planning journey.
1. Take inventory of what you already have
Before you make your start planning our meals, take a look at what you already have in the pantry. If you are like most people, then you likely already have a pantry full of odds and ends.
After all, it is more affordable to stock up on some items when they are on sale. You might not always need everything in your grocery cart to feed your family for the week. But you know that it will get used at some point.
Take stock of your canned goods and dry goods to see what you have available. You may be able to make a few meals out of what you already have in the pantry. If not, you can use the food in the pantry in recipes in your meal plan.
2. Consider your food budget
If you want to use meal planning to control your food budget, then you should determine what your food budget is and how much you plan to spend at the grocery store. The answer doesn’t have to be exact, but you should have an estimate of how much you want to spend on food. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer. Consider the costs of feeding your household and your financial goals when creating a goal food budget.
One factor that will affect your cost is the type of food that you want to eat. If you plan to eat exclusively organic food or stick to a specific diet, then you might need to spend more on your food to maintain those goals.
No matter what budget you choose to set for your food needs, meal planning can help to keep your costs reasonable. Being realistic about your food spending can allow you to enjoy your meal planning and build your savings.
3. Browse grocery sales
Before you head to the store, take some time to browse the sales in your area. Most grocery stores either send out a weekly sales flyer or post one online.
Once you find the flyers from your preferred grocery stores, flip through the deals. You’ll often notice a tempting sale on several different items. Make a note of the best deals of the week and build your meal plan around that.
For example, if there is a great deal on chicken, then you might include chicken pasta in your meal plans. But if ground beef was on sale, then you might avoid meals that require chicken and stick to your favorite recipes that incorporate ground beef.
The goal is to take advantage of the sales available. You can choose to shop at multiple stores to maximize your savings through different sales. If that seems too extreme, then consider rotating the stores you choose to shop at on a weekly basis. This will allow you to score the best deals without adding an extra errand to your to-do list.
A final note about grocery store sales is that is tempting to take advantage of all the sales. However, buying everything that’s on sale only because it is on sale can be a dangerous game. In fact, that’s how I accumulated 10 boxes of pasta at one point! If you see a great deal, then take the opportunity to stock up. But try not to overdo it and create an overflowing pantry with items you rarely need.
4. Consider seasonal fruits and veggies
If you enjoy eating fresh fruits and vegetables, then keeping an eye on the seasons can be helpful. At different times of the year, different types of produce are more affordable due to the plentiful harvest.
Do some research for your local area to find out when the best seasons are for your favorite fruits and vegetables.
Another tip for including fruits and veggies in your diet on a budget is to consider planting a garden. Although it doesn’t have to be a large garden, you could save significantly if you plant a few of your favorite veggies. Personally, I use an Aerogarden to keep a fresh supply of herbs and cherry tomatoes on hand at all times without constantly buying them from the grocery store.
5. Seek out coupons
Coupons can be an easy way to save money without sacrificing quality. You can save money by finding coupons to cut down your grocery expenses.
Check out our full article about coupons to take advantage of this strategy.
6. Make a weekly menu
The most important part of meal planning is mapping out what you will eat for at least a week at a time. In some cases, you may even consider a monthly meal plan.
Before you go to the grocery store, take some time to find the recipes you will make for the upcoming week. Try to find recipes that take advantage of the current sales and any coupons that you can find. It is completely possible to create weekly meal plans on a budget with some intentionality.
Write down your menu in an easily accessible place so that you can refer to it throughout the week. With your menu, you’ll be able to keep track of the recipes you’ve chosen and the ingredients that you will need.
7. Try meatless meals
Meat is often one of the most expensive items in your grocery cart. In fact, the average cost of a pound of ground beef is $3.862 and chicken is sitting at $3.063 a pound. That can add up quickly if you prefer to eat meat at every single meal.
Luckily, there are other protein options that are more affordable. For example, you can buy eggs for between $1 and $2 per dozen.
Consider including meatless meals throughout the week to cut down on your food costs.
8. Prep and freeze ahead of time
Drafting a meal plan and shopping for the ingredients is often the easy part. The more difficult part is consistently sticking to your meal plan. Life can get busy sometimes and make it difficult to stick to your meal plan.
That’s natural! The best thing to do is prepare for the possibility that you will be unwilling or unable to prepare your meals according to your original plan.
Make some meals ahead of time and pop them in your freezer. When you have a difficult day, this can help you avoid the expense of picking up fast food without having to cook yourself dinner. Stay flexible and don’t worry if you need to rearrange your meal plan slightly.
9. Be aware of expensive ingredients
One of the fastest ways to inflate your food costs is to constantly buy new spices and unique ingredients. If you are trying to save money, then check out the ingredient list of new recipes to avoid any expensive ingredients.
Of course, it is still fun to try something new. If you want to try a new spice without spending $10 for an entire jar, then seek out a bulk food store. Many will allow you to buy a small amount of the spice based on the weight. With this, you’ll still be able to try out new flavors without going over budget.
10. Make large meals
It is often more affordable to cook in large batches. However, not everyone enjoys eating leftovers throughout the week. Instead of eating the same thing for many days in a row, consider freezing the leftovers for a quick meal later on.
11. Don't forget about snacks
It is easy to skip over snacks when you are planning out your meals. That can leave you hungry throughout the day which is not fun for anyone. Make sure to include snacks on your shopping list as you create your meal plan.
12. Download our weekly meal planning worksheet
A worksheet can be the perfect place to start your meal planning. Luckily, Clever Girl Finance offers a comprehensive worksheet to help you start meal planning consistently. Take a second to download our meal planning worksheet today.
My experience with meal planning
Meal planning can seem like a lot of work if you’ve never tried it before. At least that’s what I thought before I started meal planning. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the past, I was either scrambling to create a meal from the random food in my pantry or picking up fast food. That led to an overblown food budget and nightly stress about what to make for dinner.
Recently, I’ve started to meal plan for two weeks at a time. Not only has it helped me save money, but also time throughout the week. I no longer have to worry about what to make for dinner. Instead, the ingredients are ready to go at the house. It can be a relief to get home from work and know that we already have food that is ready to eat for the evening.
I would highly recommend meal planning to anyone that wants to save money and reduce stress in their life.
The bottom line
Monthly meal planning can save you time and money. Plus, it can allow you to build more control over your diet into your life. Take a minute to think about how meal planning could change your life for the better.
If you need some motivation to get started, then check out our 30-day meal planning challenge.