How to Meal Plan on a Budget
Most of us know we “should” meal plan to help our budget- it’s not hard to figure out that food is one of the biggest expenses for a family! But the “how” in how to meal plan on a budget can feel overwhelming, or even downright frustrating. If that’s how you’re feeling- read on- this is for you!
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Meal planning on a budget? I can’t do that!
When you think about meal planning on a budget, do you get visions of extreme couponers and hoards of canned items? Or maybe you picture hours of meticulously detailed planning to execute the perfect plan….and you know that’s way more time than you actually have.
Or maybe it’s not the budget part, but the actual planning part of meal planning that makes your chest start to tighten up (I see you, my Type B friends!).
Or maybe you think that it’s impossible to plan meals on a budget with your particular eating style or restrictions- your diet or allergies or the combination of those in your family.
Or perhaps you are already a meal planning budget ninja, but you are trying to find more ways to tighten up- out of necessity or just because you like the challenge (and hey, who doesn’t want some extra money freed up!).
All of these are very real challenges that come with meal planning for a family on a budget- but these challenges don’t have to stop you from easily planning your meals and saving a ton of money on food each week!
Let’s take a step by step look at how to easily meal plan on a budget in a way that is realistic and do-able (even for crazy busy half-asleep mamas)!
How I meal plan on a budget for my family
Before I dive into showing you how to meal plan on a budget, I wanted to give you a few examples of what meals on a budget look like at my house- just to show you I’m not making this up, and we’re not just eating rice and beans!
In fact, in our house we’ve got one who is gluten-free/egg-free, two who eat keto, and two littles whose eating habits vary on the daily. We eat lots of meats, veggies, fruits, and dairy with very little processed/packaged and limited high carb items (and those are for the kids since hubby and I eat keto). Oh, and I like to buy organic for at least the Clean 15/Dirty Dozen and get grass fed/free range meats when I can!
And I do all of that on an average of $125 a week for our family of 4 (if you like numbers, that’s about $1.12 per person per meal or less than $18 per day). I spent about an hour a week planning, give or take (depending on if I’m looking for some new recipe ideas, etc.), and I go to one or sometimes two stores a week (Sprouts has the specialty items we need plus I love their produce and meat BUT I just can’t beat Aldi’s prices on dairy and condiments!).
Here’s a picture of what I bought from Sprouts a few weeks ago. The total for this haul was $95, and covered us for the week (though as you’ll see as you read through this post, I’m always building on what I already have and snagging things for future weeks as well).
As you can see, we’re not eating junk and our meal planning really is allowing us to both eat well and stay on budget!
So here’s how to do it- step by step!
Meal Planning on a Budget: Step 1
The first step to planning healthy meals on a budget is to start where you’re at. One of the biggest mistakes people make (myself included) when trying to start a new habit (which is what meal planning is) is to try and jump from point A to point Z without walking through any of the points in between.
In the case of meal planning on a budget, it’s easy to go all-in and save tons of money and do a fantastic delicious meal plan for a week…or maybe two…and then end up feeling deprived (because of spending less) and burnt out (because of the time required for the meals and planning). And then you quit.
To avoid this pitfall, start where you’re at!
If you’re used to eating out multiple times a week and a home cooked meal is chicken nuggets and pizza, you’re going to struggle if you try and meal prep all the food for your week all of a sudden- unless you have to make big and sudden changes out of financial or dietary necessity, it’s okay to make one or two changes, practice those for a couple of weeks, then make the next change.
Recognize where you’re starting from, and celebrate any and all progress that helps your budget and meal planning skills!
Figure out a realistic budget for your family
First, figure out what you’ve BEEN spending on food. It’s hard to figure out where to start if you don’t know where you are, so pull out those credit card statements and add up all the money you’ve spent on food. If possible, I’d suggest doing this for at least 2-3 months of statements so you can get an average.
Or, if you’re already a budgeter (shout out for YNAB, my favorite budgeting app!) and you already know how much you usually spend on food, start with that number.
Need some ways to save? Here’s 30 of them!
Then figure out how much you can/want to spend. Depending on your financial flexibility, this might be anything from “the absolute minimum possible” to “below X dollars a week”. Figure out what budget you need to have (and can realistically achieve) and get all the relevant family members on board with this number!
P.S. If you need more help getting started with budgeting, my Personal Finance 101 course will walk you through it- I created it for teens, but it’s totally applicable for learning as an adult, too!
Make a list of your favorite family meals
Next, it’s time to make a list. It doesn’t have to be a super long or complicated list- and if you’re a super free spirit you can even skip this step…but I don’t recommend it because it will save you a lot of time in the long run, not to mention make your meal planning SO MUCH easier.
This list should include all of your family’s favorite go-to meals (and it’s fine to include any you’re looking to try or add as well!). Don’t worry about making it an exhaustive list- you can always add to it later- but having a basic list will make the next steps much easier.
Paprika is an amazing recipe app- I’m not an affiliate for them, I just really love their app! I use Paprika to download and store and organize my recipes.
Trello is a free productivity app that I use for….well, organizing basically everything (including keeping track of my family chores and my to-do list and homeschool planning). For my list of family meals, I make a list for each of the main meats (chicken, pork, beef, etc.) plus a list for sides, eggs, and “other”. Then I add in my meal ideas as cards under each of those lists- it makes it super easy to get ideas for what to put in my meal plan as long as I know what my main food is. For chicken ideas I just look at the chicken list, etc.!
Want a jump start in setting up your own meal list on Trello? Throw your email in the box below and I’ll send you an already-set-up template of 100+ easy healthy fast meal ideas that is fully editable for your family meal planning! You can also go to this post on getting organized using Trello for more meal-related free templates!
One more note as you make your family meals list: don’t be afraid to keep it simple! Most of the time, meat + veggies = meal in our house. It doesn’t have to be complicated!
Take an inventory of what food you have in your house already
Now that you know your budget and you’ve made a list of your family’s favorite meals, it’s time to inventory your fridge, freezer, and pantry.
One of the MOST IMPORTANT pieces of meal planning on a budget is creating meals based on what you already have in the house. Which means you’ve got to know what you already have. This isn’t a step you can skip!
This is also probably the most labor-intensive step since it involves having to pull out everything and figure out what all you’ve got…but thankfully it doesn’t need to be done very often!
As you take an inventory, you’ll need to write it down somewhere that you can keep track of what comes in and goes out.
I’ve tried doing this on a spreadsheet and by hand (and I’ve also done it by writing in dry erase markers on the side of my fridge), but by far the most success I’ve had in keeping up with my inventory has been (surprise) with Trello.
I have a meal planning board, and in that board I have a list of the main things in my fridge, pantry, and freezer. Because I also have my grocery list and meal list for the week in there (more on those later), I just add in anything I buy to the inventory list when I buy it and delete it once I use it in my current week’s meal plan.
How to Meal Plan on a Budget: Step 2
Great job! You’ve done a huge piece of what you’ll need to meal plan on a budget. Let’s look at the next step: picking your store.
Pick your store
Depending on where you live, this may be a very simple step! You may only have one option nearby and that’s your store- though if your options are limited, you may want to investigate whether you should do some of your shopping online through options like Amazon Fresh, Prime Now, Thrive Market, and Hungry Harvest).
I live in a big city, so there’s an abundance of grocery store choices in my area, so I did do a bit of homework to decide which store/s to shop at for my family’s meal planning needs.
Personally, I ended up with a combination of Sprouts and Aldi. I recommend picking no more than 2 stores to do your main shopping at- ideally you only have to go to one store, but in my case Sprouts and Aldi are both close to me and to each other, and I’m able to save a significant amount doing a combination….so I do. But truly don’t stress yourself out trying to go to different stores- your time and effort are valuable, so take that into consideration when you choose where to go!
Check out the weekly ads for that store
Once you’ve chosen your store/s, look on their website or app for their weekly ad. Browse and note what items would match with meals on your family meal list, and particularly those items that are on a great sale (you’ll learn what a great price is as you practice!).
I also recommend checking a site like Southern Savers that puts together the sales ad with any relevant coupons and adds in unadvertised sales and/or monthly sale items, etc. It helps to see the big picture, and it makes it easier to see what’s on sale in each category (meat, produce, etc.).
While you’re on the store’s website or app, be sure and also check for any ecoupons they may have and “clip” them for your next trip! There’s no penalty for clipping ones you don’t use, so I usually just go through and clip anything I think I might buy at some point.
A note about coupons
I have done the “extreme couponing” thing- before I had kids and actually had time to do things like print coupons- ha! Let me just assure you that while you certainly can look for and use coupons (go you!), you don’t need to be a couponing crazy person to stay on budget with your meal planning.
If you do want to use coupons, keep reading- I’ve got some tips toward the end on how to save extra money at the grocery store, including coupons.
How to Meal Plan on a Budget: Step 3
Choose your weekly meal plan based on your inventory + store sales
Here’s where the rubber meets the road with your budget meal planning- it’s time to pick your meals!
Take a look at your inventory list and decide what meals you want to have this week. Remember, your aim is to save money by meal planning, so one of your first priorities is to use the food you already have and build your meals around those items.
Take out a piece of paper (or download my Meal Planning with Trello Board) and write down what you want to have this week for:
Breakfasts: keep it simple! Pick some basics and make every breakfast for the week from those. For example, last week we had pancakes (I made a big batch for dinner on Sunday and we ate on it through the week), sausage, and hardboiled eggs. This week we’ve got egg muffins and chia pudding. We do breakfast for dinner one weekend night and use the leftovers for breakfasts for the week.
Lunches: I highly recommend making bigger batches of dinners so you can just eat leftovers for lunch. Maybe throw in some deli meat or salad as an option and then you’re done!
Dinners: this is the biggest part of meal planning for us. Personally, I cook three to four big dinners a week, we have leftovers or smoothies two days a week, and then we do breakfast for dinner on a weekend night.
Snacks: I don’t know if your kids are like mine, but they seem to always want a snack. So to help cut down on those snacks, try to plan pairing a protein + carb. The protein will help keep them more full so they’re not hungry again as soon! You can also see my list of easy, healthy snacks for kids for more ideas.
Treats: it’s okay to have something that’s your “thing”! Mine is Lily’s Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt. For me there’s just something about a piece of chocolate that feels like self-care in the middle of a crazy day with kids. So while having a bunch of treats may quickly eat away (haha see what I did there?) your budget, plan to include a few- and don’t forget to do the same for the others in your house as well.
Drinks: So here’s the easiest way to save on drinks- drink water! Get a good water bottle (I love my Contigo Autoseals) and drink mostly water. It’s good for your body and your budget! But if you do want other things to drink during the week, be sure to include them in your meal plan so you can stay on budget.
Basics you keep on hand: you may also know or notice as you go along that there are a few staples you want to keep on hand, even if you’re not specifically using them in a meal this week. For example, I usually try and keep a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly around…because if no other meals are available or I’m just too tired to make whatever is planned…that’ll work.
Pro Tip as you Plan: Consider making double or triple batches of your meals so you can have leftovers, and plan to freeze some of the leftovers. That gives you an automatic easy meal for a future week!
Take your calendar into consideration when planning your weekly meals for your family
As you create your meal plan on a budget, be sure to look at your calendar! A bunch of new recipes may sound nice, but you’ll only be saving money if you actually make them all, so keep it reasonable with whatever else you have going on!
An important step in meal planning is the actual meal prep– you’re not helping yourself otherwise- so make sure you’ve got time to make what you’re planning and that you can mentally handle the meal you’re planning for that day.
While you don’t HAVE to do this step, I highly recommend figuring out what days you want to have each meal and put it on your calendar/to do list for those days (very easy to do if you’ve organized your to do list with Trello and/or learning to manage your time with these strategies!). That way you can plan for a crockpot meal if you’re busy in the afternoon, or a more intensive meal on the day you’re home a lot, etc.
How to Meal Plan on a Budget: Step 4
Whoot whoot! You’re doing so great! Now you’ve taken inventory of what you’ve got, you know what your budget is, and you’ve planned out your meals for the week (or longer if you so choose). You’re almost done!
Write down your grocery list
I do this on my Meal Planning with Trello Board but you can do it on a piece of paper, in a designated notebook, on a note in your phone…whatever works for you!
Keep this list somewhere accessible so you can write down things as you run out of them- we have a physical list on the wall in the kitchen that I copy down when it’s time to meal plan for the week.
Write down all the ingredients you’ll need from each category above! Remember, you’re planning off of what you already have in your inventory, so the goal is that you don’t have a huge list of things to buy to make the meals you want!
Estimate your costs to make sure you’re under your meal planning budget!
Take your list of meals and make a list of everything you’ll need from the store, estimating the costs of each item and writing it next to that item.
I do this in my Meal Planning with Trello board and it looks something like this:
IMPORTANT: Once you’ve listed all your items, check to see if you can get everything on your list within your budget. If not, go back to the drawing board for a cheaper meal idea or sub out ingredients or extras or treats until you’re under budget. This is KEY for creating a meal plan on a budget. If you skip this step, you’re just meal planning and hoping. 😉
When deciding on your list, I recommend trying to build in some margin– just in case your estimated costs were low or you find a really good surprise deal (see below on more ways to save for what some of those might look like!).
Create a “Parking Lot” list
You can call the list whatever you want- I call it my “parking lot” list. This is my list of items that we need eventually (but could do without this week) or that if I have some extra I’d really love to get this week.
Then if you find yourself under budget, feel free to add some of these things in your cart!
How to Meal Plan on a Budget: Step 5
You did it! You should be immensely proud of yourself at this point. You’ve created a meal plan on a budget! Now to the store!
When you’re at the store: stick to your budget
You’ve done most of the work at this point- congratulations! Now it’s time to shop. Remember that list of prices cost estimates we made in the last step? Bring it with you!
You can do this in an app or on a piece of paper- I prefer to do this part on a piece of paper (I just keep a notebook in my car and copy down my Trello list when I get to the store before I go in) because I can scratch out quick figures as I add or subtract items.
Wait- adding or subtracting at the store??? Not just following the exact plan?? Well, yes. Because…
-they might be out of something
-they might have one of your staples (or something you know you’ll eat, like meat) at a rock bottom price
-something might be more expensive (or less) than you estimated, and it changes your numbers a bit
-they don’t have a key ingredient and you have to change plans on the fly
So as you can see, you will need to do a bit of math as you go along. I write down the actual prices next to my price estimates on my piece of paper so I can see the math how the math is playing out as I go along.
I know that sounds like a lot of keep track of in the store, but it’s pretty easy once you’ve done it a few times! You’ve got your one list, and you write down the actual price of the item beside it as you put it in your cart- and if you need to make adjustments, you do…that’s #momlife anyway, right?
Then you add it up before checking out to make sure you’re good to go. And BAM you have stayed within your meal plan budget!
How to Meal Plan on a Budget: Step 6
Once you’ve finished at the store, there are still a few key things to do if you want this meal planning method to work.
First, you need to record what you bought into your inventory.
Now, I’ll be honest. I don’t always keep an inventory of things like condiments, spices, etc…I generally know enough of where we’re at with those, or I check before I shop. But I definitely track what main meal components we have- things like meat, produce, sauces, etc.
So once I’m done grocery shopping, I add to my inventory in my Meal Planning Board on Trello. I usually do this as I’m unloading the groceries, but you could do it at any point using the receipt…just make sure you do it!
Second, delete what you’ve used from your inventory.
The reverse is also true- at some point during the week, you’ll need to DELETE any items from your inventory that you’ve used up. This could be during your weekly meal planning time, or at the actual time when you use the item. Figure out when works for you, then be sure and keep up with it- the only way this meal planning method works on a budget is if you primarily build off of what you already have, which you can only do when you know what you already have!
Third, (optional, but helpful) record the prices.
When I’m done grocery shopping, I take that piece of paper where I wrote down the actual prices (or the receipt- either works!) and I record the prices on a list in my Meal Planning Board on Trello. The more I do it the less I actually need to add (because I’ve added the item on previous trips), but the result is a list of the prices I’ve found on each of the main items we buy, so I can easily check and see if an item truly is on sale for a good price.
It also makes sticking to my meal planning budget easier because I can just reference that list when I create my estimated costs list for my meal plan each week.
Meal Planning on a Budget: Extra Ways to Save Money on Food
There are a lot of extra ways to keep your meal planning budget-friendly also- things like understanding coupons, sales cycles, loss leaders, apps, rewards programs, and much, much more. I won’t cover much of those in this article, but here are a few key tips for saving more money at the grocery store:
1. Check the store’s app/website for ecoupons that you can “clip”. You can also print out manufacturer’s coupons from places like Coupons.com and SmartSource. You can usually use both store and manufacturer’s coupons on the same item.
2. Check your store’s coupon policy! They might take competitor’s coupons or double coupons on certain days. In my area, some stores will mail out “$5 off X” coupons, but other stores will accept them, too!
3. Sign up for the email list of the stores you shop at- you never know when they’ll send out a giveaway or today-only type of deal!
4. If the store has a rewards program, be sure and sign up.
5. Look for Manager’s Specials, especially on meat! Many stores will mark foods as “manager’s special” at a steep discount when they need the food to sell quickly. I’ve gotten meat at 60-70% off this way! Then I freeze it and I’ve got meat to build my next week’s meals off of!
Want to know even more? I teach you all the skills you’ll need in my Master Your Menu– which also includes more in-depth practice for how to meal plan on a budget using Trello!
Family Meal Planning on a Budget: Making it Realistic
There’s an extra dimension to how you meal plan on a budget when you’re taking care of a family because there’s never enough time…and when you do have the time you may still have a toddler clinging to you or a baby that starts crying in the middle of it, etc.
The reality is that meal planning on a budget takes time. It takes time to budget, to do the actual meal plan, and to meal prep- and usually something has to give or it becomes impossible to sustain.
There are lots of ways to make things more efficient when it comes to meal planning and prep, but one of my personal favorites is to make my meals suuuuuuuper easy (but still healthy!).
(You can see a few of the ways I do that in this article about Simplifying Your Mom Life!)
You can also put your email in the box at the bottom of the page and I’ll send you the Meal Planning on a Budget Printable AND the Meal Ideas Trello Board for free!
I’ve taken a lot of time and put a ton of easy AND healthy AND quick meal ideas on my Meal Ideas Board for you- over 100 EASY HEALTHY QUICK meal ideas (most of which are also budget-friendly!) for you, ready to go with links and all! I included lots of meals that are gluten-free, keto, paleo, allergy-friendly, and vegan (which is also a great way to save some money- by not buying meat for some meals!), so there should be options for most everyone!
Quick tip: Download the Meal Ideas Board, then copy/move the recipes you will make for the week into the Meal Planning Trello Board for smooth, easy meal planning!
Have you tried this system (or another meal planning method?) Brag on yourself- comment below with how good you did! And let me know if you have any tips and tricks for how to meal plan on a budget!
Finally- if you think this method may be for you and you want to really get into it, check out my Master Your Menu Course and let’s do this together!
If you enjoyed learning how to meal plan on a budget, we think you’d also enjoy:
- Master Your Menu: a 7 Step Meal Planning Blueprint
- How to Organize Your Family Chores with Trello (makes it much easier to plan your meals for the week!)
- 15 Genius Ways to Organize Your Life with Trello
- Our 30 Day Money Saving Challenge!
- The Time Management Strategies for Moms course
- The 30 Day Spring Clean Challenge for Moms!
- The Take Back Your Time Collection
- The Living on Less Collection