Trying to figure out how to meal plan on a budget? When my husband and I started out paying off 6 figures of debt and learning how to budget, we quickly realized that one of the easiest ways to blow money was on food. We’ve spent the last few years refining the way we meal plan on a budget. Here’s exactly what we do!
[Related: How to Make a Grocery Budget for 3]
(1) TAKE INVENTORY OF WHAT YOU HAVE.
The first thing you should do to meal plan on a budget is to take inventory of what you have. To do this, you’ll want to go through your foods that will go bad first– your produce! Take a look at what vegetables and fruits you have sitting on your counter and in your fridge and write it down. I personally write it in my Notes on my iPhone, but feel free to use a piece of paper or whatever is the equivalent of note taking on an android. If you have any meat sitting in your fridge, write that down now too. If I am not using my meat right away, I tend to just stick it in the freezer to make sure I don’t waste it but feel free to leave it in the fridge if you know you are going to use it soon.
After you’ve jotted down what produce and refrigerated meat you have, check for other things that might go bad (but not as fast as produce) such as cheese, sauces, condiments, etc. Take note of those.
Then, open up your freezer and write down any frozen meats, fruits/vegetables, or already made meals that you need or want to use this week.
From there, head to your pantry and see what other things you already have on deck, such as noodles, rice, beans, etc. Keep track of how many of each you have.
Once you are done taking inventory of what you already have, you’ll pull out your local grocer’s ads.
(2) PERUSE LOCAL GROCERY ADS.
After you’ve quickly gone through and done inventory to see what you already have on hand, you should look through your local grocer’s ads and take note of what things your family likes that are on sale. Jot those down in your notes. I choose only one or two stores to look at (because I have newborn twinnies and am working from home– I simply don’t have the time I used to to look through every ad and blog) but feel free to glance through as many stores as you’d like. Scouring through these ads is key to making a meal plan on a budget– it will save you money.
When I’m done with that, I take a quick glance through my Ibotta app for cash back offers and I add them to my app. I try to find deals that pair with the grocery store’s on sale items so that I can maximize my savings. And then that’s it. I try to go through this step as quickly as I can because it’s really easy to get sucked in and spend too much time here looking at every deal out there. Just glance through, add anything that catches your eye, and move along.
P.S. Have you used Ibotta before? You download the app and unlock rebates at stores you shop at. Simply scan your receipt after you purchase the product you have a rebate for and money is almost instantly deposited into your account. All of the major groceries stores (like Target, Walmart) have rebates available for use. Earn a free $5 just for signing up with this link.
(3) PLAN GO TO MEAL(S).
After you’ve taken inventory and then scanned ads for things you might want/need, quickly pump out a couple of meal ideas using things that you already have at home or that are on sale. For example, this week, we had left over hamburger meat sitting in our freezer, an open bag of tortilla chips, cheese, and some black beans sitting in the pantry, and ranch, so one of the meals I chose was taco salad. Taco salad is a go-to meal in our house and it’s one that doesn’t really need a recipe, I just throw things together that I think would be good in the salad. I only had to buy lettuce and a tomato. So think of some go-to meals that you could throw together fairly easily using what you already have (or what things are on sale at the store).
(4) FIND RECIPES.
Once you have at least one go to meal planned, go search for recipes using your at home/on sale items. This is super easy to do– simply google “recipe using [whatever ingredients you have]” and the internet will help you plan your meals. You don’t need to spend a ton of time doing this. Just choose the first few meals that look good and go for it. Remember to save recipes that you and your family actually enjoyed.
(5) GO SHOPPING!
Now that you know what meals you’ll be making, it’s time to go shopping! Before you head out the door, make sure you have downloaded the app here & use the code YUUG7 to earn 2000 points when you sign up!). When you are done shopping, you’ll simply scan your receipt into the app to earn points to get cash back– super easy, free, it’s a no brainer. It works kind of like Ibotta except that you don’t need to unlock rebates or anything before you scan your receipt. Another thing I really like about Fetch is that it will automatically apply points when you online shop (ex: Walmart’s grocery pick up).
Next, go do your shopping. Stick to your list! When you are done. upload that receipt to both Ibotta and Fetch to earn cash back.
(6) MAKE STUFF.
After you are done shopping, you’ll hop in the kitchen and make your meals. You can make all of your meals at the start of the week if that works better for your schedule. Pop them in the fridge or freezer. Otherwise, simply make your recipes on the day you intend to eat them. Just be sure that you make enough for either left overs or a second meal that you can stick in the freezer. Since you are already cooking, you might as well go ahead and make enough that you’ll be able to eat again off of that meal. That will save you time in the kitchen!
(7) MAKE EXTRA STAPLES.
One thing I like to do rather than preparing all of my meals in advance and sticking them in the freezer, is to prepare a lot of staples that I’ll have on hand that make cooking up my recipes much easier. Usually this means chopping up vegetables in advance and putting them in the fridge or freezer and cooking up meat so that it’s ready to simply be put into meals. This helps me meal plan on a budget as it ensures I’m not wasting staple foods that I use in lots of recipes. It also saves me time in the kitchen!
Here are some Bonus Meal Planning Tips:
Plan a lazy night– one or two nights a week can be planned around going out to eat, eating left overs, or having something simple like sandwiches. Meals don’t have to be complicated every night! You’ll save money when you do your best to keep things simple.
Don’t forget to use cash back earning apps like Ibotta and Fetch when you grocery shop.
If something is on sale and it’s a really good deal, buy enough of it to last 6 weeks. Stores tend to cycle through sales every 6 weeks.
Post your weekly menu somewhere conspicuous (like on your fridge) that way you can be thinking ahead about meals and you’ll be more likely to stick to your plan than run through a drive thru window!
Use frozen ingredients. When produce starts going bad in your fridge, chop it up and stick it in your freezer. Later, when a recipe calls for that ingredient, you’ll have it on hand and ready to go.
Avoid meat sometimes. Try to plan a few meals here and there that don’t call for big portions of meat. Meat is typically the most expensive part of your meal, so when you cut back, you’ll be saving money.
If you need more help with your budget be sure to check out these posts:
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