It’s no secret that meal planning is a huge money saver. When you know whats for dinner, you are less likely to eat out or run to the grocery store and spend more money on food you probably don’t need. I love meal planning, and it has made a world of difference in our budget and in our diet!
Today I’m going to write about some of the ways we meal plan that keep our grocery bill as low as possible. We were married while we were undergrad college students. We had two kids while my husband was in law school! My husband has not had regular employment since he graduated, so we are pretty good at eating cheap. Here’s how!
1. Use what you have
The first thing I do before sitting down and writing up my meal plan is to do a quick inventory of the kitchen. I just peek in the fridge, open the drawers, and shuffle things around in the pantry so I get a good idea of what is sitting there. I start my meal plan by filling in meals that we already have ingredients for. I can usually come up with three to five meals. They aren’t always fancy (quesadillas, anyone?) but we’d rather put our food to use on simple meals than leave it in the fridge to rot!
There are so many benefits to meal planning this way, here’s just a few –
More free space
When you aren’t keeping tons of old food or things you don’t eat, suddenly the fridge is much less crowded! Our main food storage is in a different area of the house, so our pantry stays much tidier as well.
If your pantry is overloaded, you may end up buying a new package of cream of chicken soup, only to discover you had six cans sitting behind the chips on that shelf over there. That is the worst! I hate wasting both money and food. If you know what you have, you won’t end up throwing money away on food that goes bad before you use it. This is especially true of produce! If I find that we have tons of veggies that we didn’t use, I put stir-fry on the menu. A few apples that are getting soft? I cut them up and throw them on the table with breakfast. Running a quick inventory every week when you meal plan will save you hundreds in spoiled food!
Knowing what is in your pantry will prevent you running to the store for every little thing. Baking goods such as flour, yeast, and sugar are basics for any pantry. Having them on-hand and in my food storage are one of the staples to my frugal meals! I can supplement any meal with biscuits, rolls, or homemade bread. Flour and sugar are cheap, and having them on hand keeps me from running to the store to spent $3 on bakery rolls that aren’t very good anyway.
2. Fill in the rest and make a list
Once I have written out some of the meals we can make with what I have on hand, I fill in the rest. I try to keep all my meals budget friendly, and I’ll throw one or two “luxury” meals in there if we have money to spend on fancy groceries. As I put each meal on our calendar, I write down what ingredients I don’t have on my shopping list. When money is really tight, I will go through the weekly ads and plan our meals around what is on sale that week.
I have a list of budget-friendly basic meals that get rotated every couple of weeks. These are meals that I can make for around $5. Having a list of go-to meals makes meal planning a little less painful! Cheap meals typically consist of larger portions of vegetables or carbs (rice, pasta) and smaller portions of meat. Meat is expensive! It’s almost always the most expensive thing on my grocery list. To keep our meet consumption down, I try to serve salads with any meal where meat is the main dish. Any meat that is left over gets reused the next night in a casserole-type dish. You can see tons of ideas for healthy, cheap family meals on my pinterest board!
Luxury meals are things like seafood or steak. These are foods we buy rarely, so they are a treat! We try to do one of these a week. Every other week or so, our luxury meal is eating out or getting pizza.
3. Review your list
Once the meal planning is done, I take a minute to add everything else I need to my list. Anything that’s running low around the house, staples that are running out, and milk. We always need milk!
If you didn’t already, go through local ads and look online for coupons. Swagbucks gives you rewards for printing and redeeming coupons from them, so I always check there first. Note that you are only looking for coupons for items already on your list! I don’t care how cheap those goldfish are, if they aren’t on your list, don’t buy them! The list is king!
Related: How I use Swagbucks
4. Go shopping
I meal plan is for two weeks at a time. I find that quality produce can usually keep for about ten days, so by the end we are running on pantry goods. This is fine with me, since we try to keep the balance of fresh food up most of the time. I meal plan that way because I hate grocery shopping! I only like to go every two weeks.
Once you are in the store, buy everything your list, but absolutely nothing else. This takes a ton of discipline. It’s gotten easier for me over the years, but I find myself wanting to slip up now that my kids have started requesting items! I just show them the list and say, “Sorry, it’s not on the list! Maybe next time.” I do make a note of items I see that we may need and aren’t on the list this week, so that I don’t miss them next week.
Don’t forget to price compare
For the first few months after we moved to Texas, I took a price book with me everywhere. The cost of living here is different from what I was used to in Utah, so I kept a price book to help me figure out which stores actually had the lowest prices on the items I bought most. For example, Aldi always seemed to have lower prices on meat, but when I went to the store, I realized it was 25% fat. Ew! I’m all about cheap, but my husband had a job at the time and it was more important for me that we eat healthy. I figured out that Costco had the highest quality, but it was priced for quality! I settled for Sams Club, where I could get 85% lean meat for only a dollar more than the Aldi price.
After using the price book for about three months, I was familiar enough with the prices in the area to know a good price when I saw it. Knowing prices matters! It doesn’t make sense to drive to three different stores to get the lowest prices on three different items, but it does make sense to know which store has the most of your regular items at the lowest price. Be price-aware and don’t overpay for your food!
Related: How I Budget
5. Make ahead
Another reason I only shop every two weeks is that I like to do freezer meals and prep ahead of time to save myself work on dinner prep each day. At different stages of life, this has been a higher priority than others. Right now I shop on Monday and do light meal prep Monday afternoons. When I had little babies, I shopped on Friday, then my husband would help me do a ton of meal prep on Saturdays.
Make ahead matters because it helps you stick to your meal plan. It’s hard to make stew if you have to brown the meat and dice the vegetables! Wouldn’t it be easier to order pizza? But if your meat is browned and your veggies cut, it’s so easy to throw it all in the pot! Help yourself out. Having meals that are easy to throw together makes your meal plan easier to stick to!
Having a dedicated time for meal prepping makes all the difference. I have it on my planner for Monday afternoons, so I know not to plan anything that might interfere.
How do you meal plan?
Let me know in the comments what meal planning tricks you use to save money! If you liked this post, take a second to pin it. Thanks!