When you’re living on a budget, meal planning is one of the best habits you can adopt. Not only does it help you live within your means, but it can also help you stay more organized throughout the week, and therefore, reduce your daily overwhelm.
That said, if you’ve ever attempted it, you can probably attest that meal planning on a budget can be a challenge. Whether you have to plan around any food allergies in your family, cater to different taste preferences, or just find the energy to cook the meals you planned, the struggle can be very real. However, with a few good tips and a bit of intentionality, I have no doubt that you can conquer the entire process!
In fact, if you’re ready to kick some meal-planning butt, then stick with me! What follows are my 11 favorite tips for meal planning on a budget.
1. Try A Meal Planning App
These days, there’s an app for just about anything you can imagine — and meal planning is no exception. And if you want to reduce the time and mental energy it takes to select your meals and plan out your grocery list, then signing up for a meal-planning like Emeals might just change your life.
With Emeals, all you have to do is log into the app, select your meals and it will automatically create a grocery list with everything you need. Beyond that, with a click of a button, you can place your grocery order through stores like Walmart, Kroger, Amazon Fresh, and InstaCart.
Oh, and the best part is, they have pricing plans for as low as $4.99 per month, which, even for a hardcore budgeter like me, is a really attractive price.
I’m telling you, if you’re tired of struggling through the meal-planning process, this might just be the best move you ever make.
2. Develop A List Of Meals To Try
I don’t know about you, but for my wife and me, one of the hardest aspects of meal planning is coming up with meals to include in our menu. I’m not sure why, but when it comes time to sit down and actually plan out some meals, it’s like our minds go completely blank.
That’s why, before you ever even sit down to start planning meals, I recommend taking a couple of hours to search the internet and create a long list of meals that sound good to you. You could even create a Pinterest board specifically for budget-friendly meals.
That way, when the time comes to actually plan out a week’s worth of meals, you don’t have to rely on your memory. Instead, all you have to do is open your list and pick a few options.
3. Create A Realistic Weekly Menu
One of the lessons my wife and I have learned is that a meal plan is only effective if you are actually willing to make the meals. In other words, if your meal plan is filled with recipes that take 3 hours to make and require a massive clean-up effort after you cook them, then you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. Not only that, but there’s a good chance you’re going to end up throwing away a bunch of expired or rotten foods.
I mean, we’d love to eat a gourmet meal every single night, but after a busy day of work and taking care of the kids, that’s just unrealistic.
For those reasons, whenever you create your weekly menu, make sure to pick a few recipes that don’t take a ton of time (or energy) to cook. This minimalistic approach to meal planning will make it easier cook the meals, and thus, experience all the benefits that come with meal planning.
4. Plan For Leftovers
If you want to both simplify the process of meal planning and keep your costs low, then another great tip is to reduce the number of meals you cook, but make a larger quantity. That way, you’ll have enough leftovers to cover a few lunches, and maybe even a couple of dinners throughout the week.
In fact, when my wife and I really want to buckle down and save some money, we’ll cut our weekly meal plan down to 4 dinners that provide enough leftovers for the other 3 days. Honestly, you’d be amazed at the positive impact leftovers can have on your finances. And if you’re meal planning on a budget, I highly recommend giving this little tip a try.
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5. Create A ‘Favorite Recipes’ Binder
As sad as it is, I can’t tell you how many great recipes my wife and I have forgotten over the years. And you want to know why? Because we forgot to write them down.
That’s why another great way tip for meal planning on a budget is to create a binder full of your favorite meals.
Like creating a long list of recipes, this can be incredibly helpful when it comes time to plan your weekly menu. Only, instead of random meals that you’d like to try, you already know you love these recipes.
Oh, and if you really want to step up your meal planning game, we recommend organizing your binder into categories, adding a grocery list to every meal, and including the approximate cost for every recipe.
Creating a Favorite Recipes Binder will not only keep you organized but will also keep you from forgetting about any of the recipes you love (which is why my wife and I wish we would have started doing this sooner).
6. Shop For Groceries Online
If you’re like me, the grocery store is one of the biggest risks to your budget. And not just because food costs a lot of money, but because you have to avoid spending an entire paycheck on baked goods and Oreos. Come on, I’m only human.
But here’s the good news, you can eliminate nearly all the temptation to overspend on food by ordering your groceries online. Not to mention the fact that it’s much easier to track the running total of your groceries, which makes staying within your budget a much more likely outcome.
7. Prep And Freeze Your Meals Ahead Of Time
As I mentioned earlier, a meal plan is only effective if you actually make the meals you plan. So if you lead a busy life, and constantly find yourself too exhausted to cook at the end of each day, then one of the best things you can do is prepare and freeze your meals ahead of time.
Now, to be clear, this might not work for every meal. But even prepping and freezing a couple of meals each week can make your life a whole lot easier.
As an added tip, make sure to stick a note to each meal with cooking instructions when you put it in the freezer. That way, when it comes time to actually cook your meal, you won’t have to go searching for the cooking instructions.
8. Plan Your Meals Around Weekly Sales
If you want to be particularly budget-friendly, then try planning your meals around weekly sales at your local grocery store. For instance, if chicken is on sale, then try making a couple of meals that feature that as the main ingredient. If there’s a big sale on apples, then don’t be afraid to throw an Apple Pie into the mix (just make sure to invite me).
Additionally, if you really want to go all out on the budget-friendly meals, try taking advantage of sales at multiple stores. You’d be amazed how much less you’ll spend on food if you’re just willing to break your shopping list into a few different grocery stores.
9. Don’t Shop For Groceries On An Empty Stomach
There’s nothing like going to the store with a plan to spend $100 and walking out with $300 worth of junk food. So, I hope this goes without saying, but if you want to fit your weekly meal plan into a tight budget, then you should never go to the store on an empty stomach.
Seriously, I’ve gotten to the point where if we don’t have anything to eat at home, and I need to go get some groceries, I’ll swing by a fast food joint and eat a $5 burger before I even think about stepping into the store. In the short run, it might not seem like a great (or healthy) option. But in the long run, I know it’ll end up costing me much less than a grocery trip on an empty stomach.
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10. Use Cashback And Couponing Apps
If you want to make the most out of your meal plan, we are big advocates for cashback apps like Rakuten and Dosh whenever you possibly can. I mean, if you have the opportunity to earn 1% or 2% cash back on groceries you were already going to purchase, why wouldn’t you?
Additionally, being the frugal people we are, we also recommend using couponing apps like Honey whenever you shop for groceries online. You never know what kind of deals you can find online, and if there’s an opportunity for a discount, Honey is your best bet for finding it.
Side note: in many cases, you won’t be able to use Honey and Rakuten at the same time. So, in situations where they conflict with each other, just opt for the one that saves you the most money.
11. Only Bring Cash To The Grocery Store
If you struggle to stay within budget when you meal plan, then the best advice we can give you is to pay with cash whenever you go to the store. In fact, you should only bring as much cash as your budget allows. And don’t even think to bring another form of payment with you.
After all, if your weekly grocery budget is $150, and you only bring $150 to spend at the store, then your only option is to stay within budget. Problem solved.
While meal planning on a budget can be a challenge, it’s worth the effort. And with a few good tips and a little practice, I have no doubt that you can become a meal planning pro.
The question is, what meals are you going to plan this week?
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