Tips for Meal Planning on a Budget

Image Credit: meehanf

In budgeting I've learned that meal planning is super important. It's truly the make or break portion of our budget. Our spending on food fluctuates between over $1,000 in any given month to a mere $600! I know some people can get away with spending less and using coupons, but in our household, we are pretty big on consuming foods without preservatives and extra ingredients we can't even pronounce the name of. We make homemade breads and salad dressings, and most of our meals are served with a variety of different fresh fruits and vegetables.

One of the biggest and most important aspects of budgeting for us is meal planning. If we don't plan, we find that we tend to be in the higher range of spending. As it turns out, deciding what you want to eat on the day you are going to eat it results in more shopping trips and more money spent. Yes, you have fresher food, but, in my opinion, even the freshest of foods, fruits and vegetables, don't go bad fast enough to warrant 2, 3 or even 5 trips a week to the grocery store. Plus, think about all of the gas you are using (assuming public transportation is unavailable) and time you are wasting.

The next most important aspect is having a goal/budget. At $600 a month, our goal is to not go above spending $150/week. We include EVERYTHING in this budget that is related to food or cleaning. In other words, eating out counts. It's really hard to stay on budget when everything counts, so we find it is often best to buy some things in bulk during alternating months that way we aren't going over budget every month on food. We also use a flexible budget in which money not spent one week can roll over into the next week's budget … and vice versa. It's okay to spend $170 one week if you only spend $130 the next week.

When we talk about buying in bulk, we don't mean buying fresh fruits and vegetables in bulk UNLESS you are planning on consuming them quickly. If you are having a party, go ahead and buy the strawberries in bulk. It's a healthy snack to share with your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Plus, if it is consumed within a few days, you may have saved yourself some money on other snacks. Another option for buying in bulk is to turn that item into something else that will last longer than the original, fresh item would have. For example buying tomatoes in bulk and making spaghetti sauce is a great option. You can use the leftover sauce for a variety of meals or freeze it for a later date. Top these bulk-buying options with a coupon or discount code and you could save yourself a lot of money over time!

Continuing on with that train of thought, save yourself some money and don't buy fresh fruits and vegetables unless you intend on eating them quickly or preserving them in some way. Even if you aren't buying in bulk, fresh produce adds up quickly. If you buy bananas, raspberries, and strawberries but don't consume them, you are essentially throwing away nearly $10 in fruit! I'm not telling you to gain weight by eating things you aren't hungry for or don't necessarily want to eat in your diet, but I am saying that if you aren't planning on immediately going home and eating or cooking with this produce, you could be wasting a lot of money over time.

Look in your pantry before you shop and use what you have to save money. Better yet – look in your fridge! How many meals do you have leftovers for from the past week in there? A great option for saving money is to have a leftover dinner night wherein everyone picks out leftovers they want and reheats them. It keeps food from going bad and it helps to clear out the fridge! Another idea is to reuse the leftovers to make an entirely new meal. If you have a bunch of leftover sides for example, you could easily cook some meat and have a whole new meal.

Obviously using coupons and apps like Ibotta can save you money. In our household, we don't consume a lot of cereal, canned products, frozen meals, or snack cakes/cookies, so coupons always seem less useful than other money saving methods. However, since we do think of cleaning products within the same realm of budgeting as food, coupons can be extremely useful for saving money in our budget and provide us more freedom and money for foods in our budget.

One of the most overlooked methods of saving money is to cook in bulk and take your lunch to work. If you have foods frozen in the freezer, you can always pull them out on a whim and reheat them in the microwave for days you are in a hurry or uninterested in cooking. We won't talk about how much money you can save packing your lunch from leftovers. It can add up to be a lot quite quickly especially if you aren't eating fast food.

Finally, when going out to eat, you have options that can help you save money. For example, drinking water instead of soda, beer, or alcohol will bring down the price by at least $1-$2 depending on how many people in your party usually get drinks out. Using coupons is obviously a great option. Then there is sharing meals. Specifically in the US, food portions tend to be rather large. Sharing a meal between two people can save you upwards of $10-$15. This means you can eat out twice as much!

How do you save money on food? Do you have any other suggestions for me?

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•• If you are interested in budgeting, be sure to check out my post on making money doing what you love! :)


  1. I have learned to buy my dry goods in bulk and sometimes shop the club stores with a friend who has a membership. We split certain items so they don't spoil but we get the benefit of the savings.

    1. Those are really great ideas. I've definitely done all of those, but I didn't think to include them in this post. Thanks for sharing! :)


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