Budget Meal Planning (The Ultimate Guide)

Budget Meal Planning


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Are grocery expenses wrecking your budget? If you’re trying to save money on food, budget meal planning is the perfect solution.

While it can seem like a lot of upfront work, it will pay off enormously in the long run. Not only can it save you a couple thousand dollars a year, it will save you a lot of time, energy, and so much!

The more experience you have planning your meals each month, the easier it will become.

In this guide, I will provide you with an easy step-by-step strategy to help you plan your meals on a budget and start saving money!

8 Steps to Budget Meal Planning:

Note: For the most success, I will recommend you create a monthly plan as well as a weekly plan for your meals. While this may seem unnecessary, making a meal plan at the start of each week will be very beneficial for days you’re stressed out and super busy. As a result of also making a weekly meal plan, you will be far less likely to pick up fast food on a given night, which is a preventable budget meal planning wrecker.

Step 1. Create a Menu

What meals do you know how to make or are interested in learning how to make? Which ones does your family like? Create a long list of all the recipes (I recommend 60+) that you’re interested in making throughout each month.

Include which ingredients you will need to make each meal and even how long it will take to make each one.

If you’re having trouble coming up with this many recipes, you can check out TastofHome’s list of 75 Budget-Friendly Dinners.

If you want to make a meal plan for lunches and even breakfast as well, you can include recipes for those meals in your menu also.

This list will be used at the beginning of each month to plan your meals. This way, you won’t have to come up with 30+ recipes at the start of each month. Instead, you will already have a long list of all the meals you’re interested in making that you can choose from!

Step 2. Make a Monthly Plan For All Your Meals

At the start of each month, use your menu to plan which meals you will eat everyday for that month. Simply write them down on a monthly calendar. You can include meals for breakfast and lunches as well.

However, I usually just eat the same 6 or 7 meals (or leftovers) for breakfast and lunch every week, so I personally don’t like including them in my monthly meal plan.

Monthly Budget Meal Plan Example:

Get this free 101Planners monthly calendar here.

This example of my monthly budget meal plan should help you get a good idea of what your meal plan should look like as well.

However, you can use Google Calendar, a physical calendar from the store, a printable Calendar, or whatever else you prefer to use to write down your monthly meal plan.

As you can see from the example above, I like to eat leftovers at least four times a month. This saves me time, energy, and money!

I also like to plan a few super cheap meals for each month as well. This may include anything like store bought pizza, fancy ramen, sandwiches, hotdogs, or any other meal that only costs a few dollars.

Step 3. Refer to Your Monthly Plan Once per Week

As previously mentioned, I recommend you also make a weekly meal plan to set in stone your monthly plan. Simply refer to your monthly meal plan and confirm you will still make the meals for that week that you previously planned at the beginning of the month.

Just use a pen and paper and write down the 7 meals. While you can be fancy and use a laminated weekly meal plan template, I like to keep it simply and just write them down on a piece of paper with pen or pencil as seen below.

Weekly Meal Plan Example:

Depending on your preference, you can assign each meal to the original night or keep it flexible and allow yourself to rearrange them depending on which meal you’re in the mood for each night.

  • Monday: Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo
  • Tuesday: Tacos
  • Wednesday: Chili
  • Thursday: Leftovers
  • Friday: Lasagna
  • Saturday: Spaghetti
  • Sunday: Lentil Stew

Step 4. Put Your Meal Plan on Your Fridge

Once you have written down your weekly meal plan, put it on your refrigerator or anywhere else in your kitchen that you and your family can see it to set yourself up for success.

Putting it on your fridge will help you stay on track and stick to your plan. You also won’t have to remember what you planned to cook each night. Make it easy for yourself and just use magnets to put it on your fridge!

Step 5. Shop Your Refrigerator/Freezer/Pantry

Before you go shopping, use a piece of paper and pen to take inventory of your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry so you don’t buy anything you already have.

Is there meat hidden in the back of your freezer? Are there vegetables that need to be used but are hiding in the back of your fridge?

You should also write down expiration dates of the ingredients you do have, so that you know which ones you need to use first before they spoil. Make sure you have included meals on your monthly plan that require these ingredients.

If you would like to take it a step further, you can keep an updated list of everything you have on hand at all times. This way, you will be far less likely to lose track of what items you do or don’t have.

Tip: Consider moving meals that require ingredients soon to expire towards the front of your meal plan.

Step 6. Make a Grocery List

Now that you know which meals you’re going to cook and the ingredients you already have, its time to make your grocery list.

Simply use a pen and paper to write down all of the items and ingredients you will need to make each meal. Don’t forget items for breakfast and lunch as well.

Although creating a grocery list may seem overwhelming, it’s no where near as time-sensitive or tedious as it may sound, especially once you get the hang of it.

Step 7. Go Shopping

Once you know which meals you’re going to make, the ingredients and items you need, and have your grocery list in hand, it’s time to go shopping.

Be sure to stick to your grocery list and don’t buy anything you haven’t previously planned to use while creating your meal plan.

Tip: Group the items and ingredients you need together by departments in the grocery store and put them in an order on your list that makes sense. For example, you should probably leave the freezer section for the end of your shopping trip. On the other hand, if you need meat sliced, you should probably swing by the meat department first. This can cut down the time you spend grocery shopping!

Step 8. Don’t Forget Your Why

To improve the chances you will stick to your budget meal plan, you need to always remember your why. If you ever feel like quitting, take a moment and think about why meal planning is so important to you.

Not only can your reason be to save money, time, and energy, it can also include things like weight loss, improved gastrointestinal health, better skin, and an overall healthier lifestyle.

Whatever your reasons for meal planning are, never lose sight of them. They are foundational to your success!

Budget Meal Planning Tips

Now that you know the 8 steps for budget meal planning, here are tips to save even more money:

1. Choose Meals That Include Ingredients on Sale

Before you plan your meals, check online coupon sites, Sunday newspaper inserts, receipts, grocery store flyers, and anywhere else you can find deals on food. You can also consider joining store loyalty programs or using a free coupon app.

However, make sure you’re not buying something just because you can get a deal. Only buy foods that are included in your meal plan for that month/week.

2. Make Seasonal Meals

Fruit, vegetables, and other produce are typically cheaper during the season they’re grown. When these seasons roll around, try to incorporate them into as many of your meals as possible to save money.

3. Try to Avoid Meals That Require Special Ingredients

A special ingredient may be required for a recipe that you don’t use for any other recipes. Can you buy only as much as you need? Will you make the recipe again before the special ingredient expires? How much does it cost?

Depending on your answers, you may want to forgo any recipes that require a special ingredient. Or, you could still make them and leave the ingredient out. It might be fun to see how the meals taste without it.

4. Incorporate More Grains

Many grains like barley, rice, pasta, and more are relatively inexpensive and are wonderful for many different meals. You can include them in chili, stew, salad, soup, and much more.

5. Make a Few Meatless Meals Each Month

Many wonderful tasting proteins such as eggs, canned fish, legumes – edamame, black beans, lentils, green peas, etc. – tofu, and peanut butter are sold at a relatively great price.

Making a few meatless meals each month will also be great for your physical health and the environment.

6. Make Extras if Needed

Rather than letting a lot of potatoes go to waste, consider making a larger pot of stew instead. Serve half for dinner and freeze the other half for leftovers on a different day.

7. Plan Your Leftovers

How will you use your leftovers? For example, if you’re having chicken, rice, and veggies for dinner on Wednesday night, consider having chicken sandwiches for lunch the next day.

On Thursday, you can use any leftover chicken, rice, and veggies to make chicken soup.

Final Thoughts on Budget Meal Planning

Not only will you save a lot of money, budget meal planning will make shopping, cooking, and everything else involved with making meals so much easier! It will also save you a lot of time and energy.

Again, the 8 steps to budget meal planning are:

  1. Create a menu of every meal you know how to make
  2. Make a plan for all your meals at the start of the month
  3. Refer to your monthly meal plan at the start of each week
  4. Put your weekly meal plan on your refrigerator
  5. Take inventory of your fridge, freezer, and pantry
  6. Make a grocery list before you go shopping
  7. Go shopping and only buy what you need
  8. Don’t forget your why

Planning meals month-by-month doesn’t have to be stressful. You just need to have a system in place and and stick with it.

I hope this step-by-step guide has made you more confident about meal planning on a budget. Make sure to never forget your why!

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