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Whether you are looking for ways to cut your grocery spending or you are on a tight budget, these 9 smart strategies to meal plan on a budget are just what you need.
The price of groceries has skyrocketed over the past year. If you are like me, you feel the pinch every time you leave the grocery store. Creating a meal plan on a budget can help relieve your wallet from the checkout line shock!
We had times when our income dropped as low as $1,800 a month for a family of five. I’ve become a pro at meal planning on a budget.
These 9 tactics to save you money when meal prepping will have you able to meal plan on a budget too.
This post is all about smart strategies to meal plan on a budget.
MEAL PLAN ON A BUDGET
#1. Check Your Inventory
Knowing what you already have on hand is a great place to start with meal planning. Using groceries you have purchased previously saves you money this week at the grocery store. Stocked up on pasta? Add a pasta dish to your menu. Fresh ingredients going bad? You guessed it, throw them into a dish to add to your menu as well.
Taking inventory of what is already in your cupboards, refrigerator and freezer also helps to cut down on waste, which is basically throwing money away. Another bonus is that you avoid the lost items living in the back that may expire. Or worse, overly full refrigerators and freezers that you can’t save your leftovers in for a future meal.
#2. Have a Meal Plan Budget
Knowing how much money you have to spend on groceries is important. Most experts agree that no more than 50% of your take-home pay (after taxes and employee withholdings) should be allocated to groceries, housing and other essentials. Your personal meal plan budget will differ from someone else’s.
I personally have a monthly grocery budget which I break down by week. If you live somewhere where groceries are expensive like I do, then plan to save part of that meal plan budget for a stock up trip once a month to a cheaper store. The money saved on groceries can often offset the one-time gas expense of traveling further.
#3. Plan a Weekly Menu
Now that you know how much money you have to spend on food, plan a weekly menu. A weekly menu is a must if you are on a budget. You can use a simple piece of paper or buy a menu planner. Start with dinners, then work your way back to lunch and breakfast.
Plan meals that reuse ingredients you have purchased. If you are making beef tacos, then buy the ground beef in bulk, cook it up once and use the leftover meat in a taco casserole or for taco salad another night. Eat leftovers for lunches when you can to also save money.
This part is important: go to the store once a week. No more. You will save money by not running back into the store to grab something or indulge a craving. Not only will this cut back on impulse buys not budgeted, it will make you eat what you have already purchased, preventing wasteful spending.
To go a step further, you can outline a monthly menu. I did this when money was extra tight and our budget was thin. Estimate the cost of all the grocery items and then buy what you can if it goes on sale, but only if you know you will be using it soon.
#4. Know Your Prices
I can’t stress enough how important it is to know your prices when meal planning on a budget. You can make a great weekly meal plan only to get to the store and discover ingredients that are necessary to your recipe are way out of budget. Knowing your local pricing on meats and veggies can help you create an affordable weekly menu. In addition, planning meals with produce that is in season will save you a ton of money as well.
If your grocery budget is particularly tight, I suggest estimating the cost of each meal, along with all of the other items on your list. If you are over budget, look for what you can go without. Does your homemade pizza really need olives? Will you save money by shredding cheese yourself (yes!)?
**Just a reminder, store brands are always cheaper.**
#5. Shop Sales to Meal Plan on a Budget
One of the best ways to meal plan on a budget is to check the weekly sales ad for your market, then plan your menu around it. If chicken thighs are on sale, plan a dinner that uses that meat. Same goes for produce, beans, lentils, pastas, breads, etc. Look for sale items that can replace ingredients in your recipes. The broccoli on sale can likely replace the asparagus as a side.
#6. What Can You Grow?
Growing your own food can save you big bucks. Before we moved to the mountains, we had five different fruit trees, tomatoes for days, squash, peppers, artichokes and lettuce. Can’t grow produce? Try herbs like rosemary, thyme and mint. They are super hardy and last through our freezing winters. You can also have an indoor herb garden right in your kitchen. Fresh herbs add so much flavor to recipes and can add up quickly on your grocery bill.
If you are blessed with a high producing garden, share with your family, friends and neighbors. Growing up, my family always did this. I thought it was what everyone did. Now that we don’t live on the oh-so-fertile land anymore, I so appreciate the friends and family that share their gardens with me!
#7. Put Your Grocery List In Order
This is a no-brainer, right? But I’m surprised how many people don’t do it. Not only is it efficient, but having your grocery list in the order of the store layout can actually save you money. You are more focused on picking up what you need from each section of the store as opposed to wandering back and forth. The more aisles you go up and down, the more likely you are to grab items not on your list. Also, having your items in order means you are less likely to forget something and run back to the store.
#8. Shop at the Cheapest Market
Why pay more for the same thing? I don’t always love grocery shopping at Walmart, but I do like saving money. Most towns have multiple grocery stores to choose from. Go one town over if you need to for better grocery prices. Plan a monthly trip to an Aldi or Winco. Find out if your area has discount grocery stores like Grocery Outlet. These stores will not have everything on your list, but if I’m near one of these discount markets, I often check there first as the savings are usually very steep.
#9. Only Buy What You Need
It can be tempting to buy the fresh breads or pastries you smell when walking past the bakery department. Or to load up when something is on sale. But when you are meal planning on a budget, every dollar counts. Think about how quickly non-list items add up. You can easily drop an extra $15 each week by throwing in a few items that aren’t on your menu or that you didn’t plan on buying. That weekly $15 adds up to almost $800 a year!
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Personally, I always end up overbuying fresh produce when I grocery shop off the mountain. The prices are sooo much better. How can I resist? Inevitably, some of that produce will go to waste. If you can’t eat it up within the next week, save your money and don’t buy it.
BONUS TIPS: Meal Planning on a Budget
Stock up on pantry items you use often when you are at a cheap market or discount store. I can buy a small can of tomato paste for less than $.50 at Walmart verses the $1.10 at my local market.
Avoid buying prepackaged foods. Paying for convenience is a budget buster. This is especially true for baked goods and breakfast items. You can cheaply make a large batch of muffins or a large pan of baked oatmeal that will last days.
Try meatless recipes. And no, I don’t mean replacing meat with meat alternatives like Impossible foods. I mean skip it all together. Try a vegetarian pasta dish, make grilled cheese sandwiches, use eggs or beans as your protein. My son was a vegetarian for five years when the rest of us were not. With the right recipes, you won’t miss the meat, and it can save you quite a bit of money.
Meal planning on a budget doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, it can feel darn right good to know you are within your means. With a little planning, you can feed your family without the sticker shock at the check out line.
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