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Meal planning can seem overwhelming, but when you are on a tight budget, it’s what’s going to help you stretch your grocery dollars to last the month.
The good news is that once you get the hang of meal planning on a budget, it’s really not as difficult as it seems.
The biggest hurdle that a newbie meal planner face is always being mindful of what foods you buy and how you plan to use it so you can still eat healthy meals while reducing food waste.
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Meal Planning on a Budget
1. Decide on a Grocery Budget Amount
Whether you are learning how to meal plan because you are strapped for cash or you just want to reduce monthly expenses, the first step is deciding how much money you can spend each month on food.
According to the USDA, food cost for a female between the ages of 19 – 50 currently is between $165 a month on the thrifty plan and $328 a month on the liberal plan.
Personally, I think that you can eat delicious and healthy meals on the thrifty plan which would be around $650 a month for a family of four depending on the age of the children in your household.
Of course, there are many factors that come into play such as food allergies or restrictions as well as geographic location so you’ll have to take those things into consideration when deciding on a grocery budget.
2. Calculate Your Daily Food Budget
Once you decide on a grocery budget, divide the monthly total by 30 (days) to get a daily total so you can get an idea of how much money you have to work with daily.
So, let’s say you have a $650 a month grocery budget for a family of 4, that would mean your daily meal costs should be around $21.66 per day or less for the entire family.
Considering you there are plenty of delicious meal ideas that cost under $2 per serving, and there are plenty of breakfast options that cost less than $1, this should be plenty to get by.
3. Make a List Meal Ideas Your Family Loves
Now that you know how much money you have to work with, it’s time to come up with a list of cheap dinner ideas that fit within your daily budget.
Jot down all the family favorite meals that you are currently feeding your family that they love. Do you know how much each of those meals costs per serving?
If not, add up the cost of all the ingredients you need to make those meals, then divide that number by the number of servings it yields.
For example, you can make a casserole dish for $8.50 and it yields 6 servings, the cost of that meal per serving would be $1.42 per serving which is great when you are meal planning on a budget.
More Ways To Save Money On Groceries
4. Take Inventory of Food on Hand
Once you have a list of meal ideas, you’ll want to take inventory of the food you already have on hand.
What meals for the week can you make with your pantry stockpile or fridge and freezer contents? Maybe you have 3 boxes of pasta in your pantry.
If so then planning a few frugal casserole dishes that call for pasta would be ideal when meal planning on a budget.
Once you know what you have on hand you’ll be able to create a cheap grocery list based on the ingredients you need to buy to complete your meal plan.
5. Prioritize Spending
When trying to reduce food costs, you’ll want to prioritize your spending. Focus your attention on the main dish first.
Typically this would be meat or protein which is one of the most expensive parts of most meal plans. You can complete your meals with low-cost sides such as rice, veggies, and pasta to stay within your grocery budget.
6. Shop Sales
Shopping sales is a great way to help you stick to your grocery budget. When you’re creating your meal plan, pull out the store circulars and look at the items that are on sale.
Pay particular attention to what’s on the first page of the store flyer. These items are usually the best deal or loss leaders, meaning that they are items that are being sold at or below cost.
This is a marketing tactic that supermarkets use to get you in the door, knowing full well that the grocery store will still profit since most people will buy other items while they’re shopping.
However, you can use this to your advantage and plan your meal around these low-cost groceries when they are on sale.
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7. Create a Grocery Stockpile
Creating a grocery stockpile is another great way to save hundreds of dollars on groceries every month. The idea is to buy food when you can get it at the least possible prices.
This grocery saving tip goes hand in hand with the shopping sales idea we just talked about. Typically grocery stores run sales in cycles every 6 – 8 weeks.
This is important to know when you are trying to feed your family for less. The idea is to buy enough of the items you need that are on sale to last until the next time you can buy them at rock bottom prices.
Once you get the hang of stockpiling food, you’ll never have to pay full price for groceries again.
8. Buy in Bulk
Buying pantry staples in bulk is another great way to save money on groceries that you should think about doing. time.
It just makes so much more sense to buy in bulk because you are not paying for all that fancy packaging that just ends up in the trash anyway.
The key to buying in bulk is to buy grocery staples that you use regularly and know you will use it before the expiration date.
If you just go crazy and buy everything you can in bulk, you will end up wasting more money then you save.
For instance, buying flour in bulk makes a lot of sense if you bake all the time, but not so much if you only bake once every few months. Right?
9. Buy in Season
Produce is one of the most expensive food items right after meat so finding ways to lower the cost of vegetables helps reduce your overall grocery budget.
You’ll also notice that produce prices vary considerably throughout the year depending on the season.
When items are in season, they are so much cheaper to buy, so stocking up when prices are low saves a lot of money in the long run.
Of course, as long as you can use the items before they go bad, so only buy enough so it’s utilized so you don’t end up wasting money on food.
10. Shop Farmers Markets
Shopping at farmers markets is another way to save money on groceries while supporting your local farmers.
Typically prices for produce and other pantry staples are a lot less at a farmers market than what you can get them for in a grocery store.
One reason for this is because you are cutting out the middle man and buying directly from the source.
And the food you buy is much fresher, even harvested the same day or a day before you buy it, which means it’ll last a little longer too.
11. Preserve Food
Whether you are stocking up on produce when in season or stockpiling food when it’s on sale, you need to preserve that food to avoid food waste.
Produce can be canned giving it a longer shelf life. Pantry items that are in bags should be stored in airtight containers after opening to keep it fresh longer.
Meat needs to be frozen if you aren’t planning on using it within a day or two to avoid bacteria growth.
A food saver that removes the air and seals the packages shut is the best way to keep food fresher, making it last longer whether you are storing them in the fridge or freezer.
12. Make a Plan for Leftovers
Repurposing leftovers is a great way to save money on groceries while reducing food waste. But throwing it into the fridge typically results in it going into the trash a few days later.
Instead, make a plan to use those leftovers. Say for instance you made a roasted chicken with veggies for dinner.
You are bound to have leftover chicken at the very least and there are multiple meal ideas that can be made with it. If you have leftover veggies, you could put together a few workweek lunches using compartmented containers, which are super affordable.
You can use the leftover chicken to make chicken salad sandwiches, use it in casseroles, as a topping on a chicken bacon ranch pizza, or to make chicken tacos among many other meals.
13. Plan Around Cheap Pantry/Food Staples
As mentioned earlier, meat is typically the most expensive food item when meal planning. But just because the cut of meat isn’t cheap, doesn’t mean that the entire meal has to break the bank.
Instead, round out your meal ideas with cheap food staples to help bring the cost of dinner down. There are many food staples that are really inexpensive making them the perfect way to stick to your grocery budget.
Foods like rice, potatoes, frozen vegetables, and lentils are a great way to lower your grocery bill while still creating a healthy meal plan.
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14. Avoid Special Ingredients
Try to avoid recipes that require special ingredients that you might not have on hand to keep your food budget in check. Especially if the only time you would need the ingredient is to make just one dinner idea.
If it’s a meal that your family loves and you don’t want to cut it out of your monthly meal plan, there are still ways to save money.
First, try to get the smallest package size available. This goes against most grocery saving strategies since smaller packages usually have a higher cost per unit price. But it’s better than throwing food away because it went bad.
Can you use a cheaper substitute? How about omitting that ingredient altogether? Experiment with your meal ideas, you might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
15. Always Shop With A Grocery List
If you do nothing else on this list, you need to always shop with a grocery list. This will help you stick to your meal plan because you have everything you need to make those meals.
It also helps to keep you from buying groceries that you don’t necessarily need for the week…saving money.
Shopping with a list also saves time running to the grocery store just to pick up a few ingredients that you might forget about if you don’t have a list, which saves money.
Or you could end up giving in and grabbing expensive takeout because you just don’t have the time to run to the supermarket.
16. Use a Meal Planning Template
Using a meal planning template is a lifesaver when trying to save money on food. And contrary to what you might think it does save a ton of time in the long run.
There are many printable meal planning worksheets that you can get online that are free to download.
Here is a list of 17 different types of meal planning templates that I put together to make it easier for you.
There are weekly meal planners, monthly meal planning templates, shopping lists, pantry, and freezer inventory sheets among others that will help you stick to your grocery budget.
Meal Planning on a Budget Conclusion
Meal planning is a great way to save money on food every month. There are many strategies to help you do that in this article which might seem a little overwhelming when you are first starting out.
My best advice is to start small, pick one strategy from this list to start incorporating into your weekly shopping trips, then when it becomes a habit, add another and so on.
Before you know it, you’ll be saving hundreds of dollars every single month at the supermarket.
Don’t forget to grab your free meal planning templates below…