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How to Actually Meal Plan on a Budget

Created December 4, 2019
Calendar, pen, cup of coffee, calculator, grocery shopping list, plant, pennies, quarter
You did it. You decided you’re going to start meal planning. You’ve got a pen, paper and positive attitude—but what now?
Meal planning is a fantastic way to save money on groceries every week. And while planning out a whole week’s worth of meals at a time might seem like a daunting and laborious task, once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised at how easy your weekly shopping will be. While there’s really no right or wrong way to meal plan on a budget, there are a few methods that you should adopt that are sure to help you start saving those pennies.

What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is exactly what it sounds like—it’s planning before you go grocery shopping what meals you will be eating for the week ahead. Whether you plan just dinners or three square meals a day, deciding ahead of time what you’ll be cooking and preparing all week long ensures you don’t let ingredients go to waste. This not only saves you money, but it produces less waste, too. Depending on the size of your household and the level of commitment you have to preparing meals, you can decide just how deep you want to go with your planning. Newbie to the practice? Start with just a week’s worth of dinners. Looking to up your game? Try planning two weeks out, or include a week’s worth of work lunches, too.

How to Meal Plan on a Budget

The practice of meal planning alone will save you money—less takeout and less waste! Plus, if you’re mindful of the meals you decide to cook and the way you pick them, you can save even more. Cha-ching!

Use What You Have

Sheet-Pan Paella with Shrimp and Chorizo

One of the biggest money-wasters is wasted food. Before you start to think about what you’re going to eat next week, do a sweep of your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what ingredients you have on hand. Incorporate those ingredients into the meals you’re planning for. Did you find a forgotten package of mushrooms in your crisper drawer? Consider adding an easy stroganoff skillet dinner to the lineup. Is there an untouched bag of frozen shrimp taking up room in your freezer? That means it’s time to put sheet-pan paella on the menu. Not only does taking stock of your current inventory ensure you use up what you already have on hand, but it also means you’re not starting from nothing when you’re planning your meals. Your ingredients can dictate what you eat for dinner.

Cook Once, Eat Twice

We won’t like—coming up with seven unique dinners to make every week is exhausting. That’s why we’re strong advocates for meals you can cook once and eat twice. Try to plan one or two meals that will give you enough leftovers to eat on a different day, or pack for lunch the next day.

Cook with Multi-Purpose Ingredients

Sheet-Pan Gnocchi mushroom and Spinach Dinner

If you plan meals that don’t relate to each other at all, what you’re going to end up shopping for are a lot of random ingredients. If you pick themed meals (i.e. planning a Mexican week or picking entrées that taste good with the same side salad), you can buy less ingredients and use up more of them. A pound of ground beef can be used to make both taco calzones and mini shepherd’s pies plus you’ll need to crescent dough for both recipes, too. An extra-large package of baby spinach will make both sheet-pan gnocchi and sheet-pan Italian chicken, and they both require you to pick up some Parmesan cheese. A package of jasmine rice makes a jerk chicken dinner and you can make easy Chinese fried rice  the next day, plus chicken is used in both as well. It will take some mental training, but with time, planning recipes that relate to each other will become second nature.

Remember the 5-Star Meals

In addition to planning ideas that’ll feed you more than once or double up, it’s also a good idea to write down your favorites. Start a list of meals you liked making and eating that we’re break-the-budget expensive, and as you add new favorites each week, you’ll have an arsenal of ideas to draw from. Keep the list on the side of your fridge, with your meal-planning materials or planner. Make note of where you have the recipe saved, too, so you don’t have to do any digging to find it later. Having a handful of tried-and-true recipes not only makes meal planning easier, but it also means you can stock up on the common ingredients those meals require.

Bigger is Better (If It’ll Keep)

Buying in larger quantities is usually cheaper (hello, Costo!), but it’s not cheaper if you end up throwing away half the food because it goes bad. Be careful when you’re buying in bulk but buy bigger when you can. Before you take advantage of purchasing in bulk, ask yourself a few questions first. Do you have room to store it? Do you frequently cook with this ingredient, or is it foreign to you? How long will it last? Will you get sick of it? Dried and canned goods are great for storing long-term, but fresher ingredients should be purchased in excess with caution.

Your Freezer is Your Friend

Tex-Mex Beef and Rice Skillet

That being said, if you can freeze it, go for it! Your freezer is a money-saving resource for keeping foods fresher far longer than they might’ve if kept in the fridge. Casseroles, leftover soup, fresh fruit, bread, veggies from the farmer’s market—foods that otherwise would spoil in a few days to a week can have their lifespan extended to a month if they’re frozen in air-tight containers. So go ahead and stock up on that 2-for-1 summer corn. It’ll taste great in a Tex-Mex skillet down the road.

Meatless Mondays

Whether you love to eat meat or not, it’s decidedly less expensive to cut out the meat from a meal. You can get just as many complex proteins from a combination of rice and beans as you can from a portion of chicken—and it doesn’t get much cheaper than beans and rice! Plan one meal a week that is meat-free if you’re serious about saving money (and of course, we have plenty of meatless ideas to share!).