As promised when I posted about my weekly meal planning routine, I’m back to chat a bit about how to go about meal planning on a budget. The method I use is really a 3 step system – but there are some other details (7 in total) to keep in mind when first getting started…
1. Know What’s In Your Grocery Budget
It’s difficult to meal plan and grocery shop on a budget if you don’t know what the budget is; and having a budgeted amount means you aren’t buying groceries on credit.
If you’re not sure where to even start with this, I’ll be circling back next week with some ideas of how to go about determining how much you should be spending <realistically> on groceries for your family.
Until then, I might encourage you to begin jotting down your income and expenses (both necessity and luxury) and do your best to try to determine what you are already spending monthly on groceries and eating out. You may also examine what sorts of things you are currently buying at the grocery store and thinking about which of those things are needs vs wants.
Living on a budget – including meal planning on a budget – sometimes means having to make tough decisions about which things you can do without….I lived without cable TV for a long while in order to have money for groceries and we almost never eat out now because it’s so darn expensive and we needed to beef up our grocery budget.
2. Know What You Have On Hand
Always start your meal planning by knowing what you already have on hand. This will save you from purchasing things you may already have in the freezer or pantry.
I remember the time I realized I had THREE containers of thyme in the cupboard…and I don’t even use thyme that often in my cooking…ughhh!
Utilizing what you already have not only saves you from duplicate purchases, but it can drastically reduce the length of your shopping list AND ensures that you are utilizing things you’ve already spent your hard earned money on before they go bad.
Raise your hand if you’ve had to toss meat from the freezer because it was buried and freezer burned by the time it re-surfaced. Grr!!!
3. Know What Is On Sale At The Store
After you know what you already have on hand, take a look at the grocery ad to see what is on sale for the week.
This is especially important for your big ticket items like meat, but can mean cost savings where smaller items start to add up as well.
4. Determine Your Menu
Equip with the knowledge of what you have on hand, and what is on sale at the store, begin brain storming meals for the week that fall in line with these two important details.
Having to purchase every ingredient for every meal of the week, and not shopping the sales will burn your budget SUPER quickly.
If you need recipe inspiration Pinterest is a popular resource, but there are also applications in the web that allow you to plug in ingredients and they will spit back a recipe utilizing what you’ve entered. Recipe Key is an example. (Note: I haven’t used this application myself, but I know folks who have with lots of success).
I also caution against convenience foods. Not only are they not as healthy as what you make yourself, but that convenience comes at a price. The freezer and deli sections of grocery stores are chalk full of convenience meals….or meals already put together that essentially just need heated at home.
And, not to further tempt you, but Costco makes some of the THE BEST convenience foods. I know only because others brought them to us after we brought the baby home. The meals were DELICIOUS but also at least double (and in most cases, triple) what it would have cost to make essentially the same thing at home.
I know that life is busy and by the end of the day it’s often difficult to muster up the energy to put together a dinner from scratch. So….how about we talk more about meal prepping prior to the busy week in a week or so? Tune back in for that ’cause I’ve got some ideas that might just be the ticket to making home-cookin’ feasible for you.
Oh! And don’t forget to factor in breakfast and lunch.
Unless we have company, I don’t generally do a lot of planning around breakfast and lunch. These are the only two areas where I sort of wing it, but we always have fresh fruit, yogurt, bread, cereal, sandwich fixin’s, and leftovers that generally make their way onto the breakfast or lunch menus. Or I may toss together a quick breakfast casserole or some burritos for quick re-warming during the week.
5. Strive To Use EVERYTHING!
As you go about putting together your menu keep in mind leftovers and strive to use everything so nothing goes to waste.
I get that leftovers aren’t always all that exciting, but neither is wadding up a $10 bill and throwing it in the trash either.
It might take a little bit to figure out which meals are going to stretch further than others, and that will help determine how many meals you need to set out to make each week.
A good rule of thumb while you work that out (and, honestly, I still use):
1. plan a few meals that use lots of fresh ingredients and a couple that use ingredients that aren’t as perishable (this can still mean fresh, for example, brussels sprouts tend to stay fresh in the fridge longer than bell peppers)
2. prepare the meals that use quick to perish fresh ingredients early in the week, saving those that will last a little longer for later in the week (or can roll to the beginning of the following week, if needed).
3. have ingredients for a meal or two that keep in the freezer/pantry in case your leftovers run out.
6. Make – AND STICK – To A Shopping List
This detail is SOOOOO important.
Not making a list almost ensures something will be forgotten, requiring a subsequent trip to the store.
Wandering aimlessly around the store almost ensures you will purchase stuff you don’t need.
Wandering aimlessly around the store on multiple occasions can mean a grocery budget blown in short order.
Sticking to the list and only purchasing what is needed for the week will help keep you on track with your budget. This sometimes <a lot of times> means forgoing snacks, chips, sodas and other items that just aren’t necessity.
When I first started meal planning on a budget, making and sticking to a list of necessities was super difficult. I promise that it gets easier and doesn’t mean always having to forego some of you favorite junk foods.
7. Stock Up!
As your budget allows, stock up on pantry friendly items when they are on sale. Good examples of things I like to buy extra of when on sale include: rice, pastas, meats, canned and frozen goods.
Now, word to the wise here….I am NOT encouraging you to spend a gross amount of your budget (particularly at the start of the month) on pantry and freezer friendly items simply because they are on sale. But, for example, if pasta is on sale for $1, pick up an extra box or two. Doing so will help you to slowly grow your pantry and freezer inventory, saving money down the road when those ingredients find their way in to your planned meals line-up.
At the end of the month if there is money left in your budget you can handle that in a few different ways:
1. continue purchasing items on sale to build your pantry and freezer stock
2. purchase some of those goodies you’ve foregone the rest of the month
3. roll that money over to the budget for the following month.
4. put the money aside for your next freezer meal cooking marathon (I love freezer cooking but it doesn’t always fit neatly into the monthly grocery budget).
If you’re coming in to the end of the month and your budget is super tight:
1. double check that ALL leftovers (meals and ingredients) have been eaten and/or utilized.
2. consider more expensive ingredients that can be reduced or omitted entirely from a recipe (examples: meat and cheese).
3. dig deeper into your on-hand inventory and get creative
4. consider meals that can be made on the cheap: sandwiches of all varieties, pasta with a simple sauce, soup, etc.
5. turn to your ‘on hand’ meals to get you by until the following month (but remember that you need to replenish those meals for evenings when leftovers don’t stretch as far as you’d hoped).
Once you get into the swing of meal planning on a budget, it becomes quite simple to do and stay on top of. But, like anything else, there is a learning curve.
Any thoughts or tid-bits about how you plan meals on a budget? I’d love to hear from ya! And stay tuned for some ideas in the coming weeks on setting your budget (if you don’t already have one or think your current budget may need revision) as well as food prep guidelines.