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Meal planning on a budget is an important part of any financial journey. Food is the second largest expense in our budget. As a family of four, I am constantly thinking of ways to minimize food costs, but not compromise the quality of the food my family eats. These are my favorite tips, and product recommendations, for keeping your food budget in line with your financial goals!
Step One: Create a Budget
The first step of any financial journey is to create a budget. Analyzing the last 3 to 6 months of food related expenses will allow you to start asking yourself questions about how you spend money on meals.
- How much have I been spending on food related expenses?
- How much do I want to start spending?
- How much can I spend?
- What is a realistic food budget for my family?
There is a balance between what you have been spending on food and what you want to spend. For me, I want to spend much less than is realistic. I value giving my family the highest quality foods while keeping them full and happy. This can get quite expensive if you go for an all organic diet or buy processed treats. Make a list of what you have been spending, what you want to spend, and make some goals related to your values that are realistic.
Meal Planning by the Numbers
Once you have decided how much you can spend, take that amount and divide it by the number of meals you will need to make for the week. For example, you budget $100/week for your food budget. You want to make 3 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners per day for 4 people. This is 3*7= 21 meals or, 21*4, 84 servings.
You then take the amount you are allowed to spend for your groceries that week and divide it by the number of meals. For our example, this equals $1.20/serving per person, or about $5 per meal, or $15 per day. This is a great early step in meal planning, because it really helps you to understand how much cash you have to spend on each meal. Once you have this figure, there are things you can do to make sure you come in at or under budget.
Planning your grocery budget based on a number you want to reach, is a great way to use zero based budgeting methods to maximize the amount of cash you can spend on your food budget!
How to Keep Your Meal Planning on Budget
To keep your meal plan on budget, follow the steps below so that you can eliminate food waste and cash waste when meal planning!
Check Your Pantry Before you Shop
Before I go grocery shopping I do a pantry cleanout and take an inventory. First, I inventory by expiration date and by food item type. Lastly, I plan the meals based first on what is expiring so that we eliminate food waste. I also see if my pantry staples need to be replenished. Common food staples for us are baking products, spices, and the items needed to make pasta sauces from scratch and meal stretching ingredients such as beans.
By shopping our pantry, I am better able to keep our grocery expenses on budget.
Review the Weekly Saver Before you Meal Plan
Each week I will review the weekly saver to see what is on sale before I meal plan. This is a great way to get the most food for your family. You can review the weekly savers for the grocery stores in your area to see which one has the best deals and shop at that store. I like to shop at one store per week, so this is the method that I use. I did a cost breakdown and realized that by shopping at the grocery store with the best deals, I could save up to 30% on my grocery cost for the month! This takes very little time if you are subscribed to the email lists for your favorite stores.
Find Recipes that Work With Your Budget
Another big part of keeping our meal plan on budget, is to find recipes that work with our budget. I will use websites such as Budget Bytes to build my meal plan. This is a great website, because each recipe gives you the cost per serving and meal. This allows you to easily find recipes that work with your budget.
For example, if a family of four wants to spend $60/week for groceries, then they would have $8.57 per day to spend on meals. Breakfast is typically cheaper than lunch and dinner, so I can allocate $1.57/meal for breakfast and $2/lunch and $5/dinner. An example meal plan could be oatmeal for breakfast, $0.20/serving or $0.80 per meal plus a banana for each family member, $0.25/banana, or $1 per meal and that is $1.80 for breakfast. Lunch would be French bread pizza which costs $2.45/meal. Now you are left with $4.32 for dinner. Serve lentil chili for $3.09. Also add 2 oranges at a cost of $1.20, and your total dinner cost is $4.29. The daily total cost spent would be $8.54. Doing this exercise will help you to stay laser focused on how you spend money on food.
Create a Grocery List That Encourages No Waste
Use recipes for the week that use a combination of all the groceries you plan on buying. For example, you can use bananas as a snack food or you can use them as an egg substitute in muffin recipes. Extra bananas can be frozen to make smoothies at a later date. Making a meal plan that uses all the food you purchase will create more meals and waste less money.
Keep a List of Your Budget Meals
Once you have selected recipes around their cost per meal, keep a list of these so that you can meal plan based on the total amount you can spend per day. Save these meal plans and rotate them so that you are always on budget. I have been doing this for years and it takes little effort to meal plan for my family.
Coupon for the Items on your Meal Plan Grocery List
I coupon after I have created my meal plan. Why? If I am shopping for seasonal items, and for items on sale each week through my weekly savers, then finding coupons based on these items adds to my savings. Doing this allows me to save the most money I can for the items that I plan on buying. Buying items based solely on a coupon doesn’t always equal savings if it isn’t something you want or need.
My favorite place to find coupons is by going to the manufacturer’s websites directly. This is a great tip for baking items such as flour, baking soda, vanilla extract, sugar, etc. Also, grocery stores have coupons on their websites or through their apps. I am signed up to receive the weekly ad for Whole Foods, HEB, and Sprouts. Sprouts has great deals on meat and produce. They also attach digital coupons to their emails. I buy more vegetables and whole foods, so I gravitate towards grocery stores that have these items.
Create Your Meal Plan
Now it is time to create your meal plan! You have used your meal planning workbook to determined how much you can spend for your grocery budget, have broken it down to cost per meal, and have used this information to gather recipes to build your meal plan.
Planning my meals per week is the easiest way for me to stay on budget. I use the printables below to stay on track each week with my meal plan. You can find these editable printables in my Etsy shop!
Meal plan on a schedule that works for you. Plan for all of the meals you will want during the time period that fits your needs. Just starting will open your eyes to how much you can save by putting a strategy behind your spending.
Having a print out of your meal plan and pantry cleanout will help you to stay on track throughout your week!
The Best Frugal Meal Planning Tools
My absolute favorite meal planning food storage containers are these Pyrex glass dishes. You can heat directly in them, freeze meals for later use in them, and they last for years! The dishes I currently own have been in my possession for ten years. Buying the combo pack gives you multiple types of dishes for everyday uses. You can’t beat their durability and the years of value they will provide you.
Another great tool that is multipurpose is my Nutribullet. I make flax eggs in it for baking, hemp milk, blend smoothies, and break down foods for baking recipes. It lasts for years and is a jack of all trades in the kitchen!
The Instant pot has been another amazing find. I use it to batch cook quinoa, rice, oatmeal, meat, yogurt, potatoes, and homemade broth. I will then save these items for future use to save me time. It is a great hands off tool.
For the broth I make, I use these silicone molds. Once the broth is frozen I then throw the ice cubes into a reusable silicone bag for future use! Think of ways that you can batch cook the foods that your family loves.
Start Your Meal Plan Today
Meal planning is something that I recommend to anyone trying to curb waste and spending. Planning my meals has saved me money over the years. It has also changed my money mindset when it comes to food purchases and waste. Being aware of food costs will put money into your pocket to pay down debt and save for your long term goals!
Are you ready to start a meal plan? Get a copy of my free meal planning workbook to help you get started today!
Ready to start a budget? Get the answers to your zero based budgeting questions here to learn the best budgeting method for financial freedom!