How I plan simple, healthy meals on a budget
Food. We need to eat it (duh) and sometimes making that happen every day can be overwhelming. Especially when you have a family to feed and a budget to stick to. As a mom, business owner and someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself to feed my family well, meal planning is a must. When I slip up and don’t plan, we end up eating out or eating junk. And spending a lot of money. When I do meal plan we eat delicious, wholesome meals that I’m proud to feed my family and it doesn’t take much more time than a frozen meal or processed boxed food.
In this post I’ll go over exactly how I meal plan. Don’t just skim through this post! If you just skim and see little snippets like “Make a grocery list” you’re going to miss the point. It’s not the actual steps, but the way I do them that will help you. I’ve been planning this way, with a few tweaks, for over 4 years. Want some embarrassing proof? Here’s a youtube video I did back in 2013. Awkward, I know. Over the last few years I’ve made some small changes, but the core of my meal planning strategy is the same: use what you have first, then what’s on sale and fill in the rest as needed. This method has worked when it was just my husband and I and it still works now that we have a child and when we have family staying with us. It keeps my budget in check pretty easily.
I talk about weekly planning throughout the post, but that’s just because it’s the way I do it. You can certainly do every other week or every month, but I recommend not going to the store more than once per week. Plus, who has time for that anyway?
Before you start
Set a budget
If you don’t already have a budget, just do it. Even if you have plenty of money to shop with, it’s nice to have a goal. Pick something realistic that you can stick to and try it out for a few weeks. My budget at the moment for two adults and a two year old is about $75 per week (approx $300/month). This covers all food, including some specialty foods and organic produce. If I didn’t buy anything “fancy” and really tried to just eat cheap, while still somewhat watching what we eat I could probably get it to around $50/week (approx $200/month).
At the moment my budget is pretty easy stick to with the way I shop and feed my family. But remember the budget you set has to work for you. There are families who spend $300 a week for two people and others who spend $50 a week for a family of 4. Figure out your goal, try it out and you can always adjust. Sometimes the key is just picking a number and trying it out rather than going back and forth and never deciding.
How many meals do you need to plan?
This varies based on you and your family. I usually try to plan 4-5 dinners with leftovers for other nights and for lunches. I also try to plan 2-3 options for breakfast and lunch that we can repeat a few times to make things easy. For breakfast I don’t usually go with actual recipes, just basics like oatmeal, cereal, fruit, etc. Lunches are mostly leftovers and maybe 1 fun lunch recipe. Dinner is where I really try to make a “real” meal.
Other things to consider
Take a look at the calendar, do you have any events where you’ll be out for a meal? Events where you’ll need to prepare a meal? Do you want to double a recipe and freeze it so you have something on one of those days where you just need to just get something on the table?
Now that you’re a bit prepared for meal planning, let’s get going.
1. Take Inventory
The first thing you want to do is to take inventory of what you already have in the house. Most of us are lucky enough to have a little bit of food (or a lot!) stocked up from buying a few extras, shopping without meal planning or from meals that were never cooked. Write down everything you have in your freezer, fridge, pantry, etc. so that you can use as much of what you have on hand and plan around that. You already spent the money, make sure you use it!
If you have so much food you couldn’t possible write it down on one sheet, write down as much as you can. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed and give up. Just write down as much as you reasonably can. You can use what you can this week and continue for the next couple of weeks.
Once I have everything written down I can usually pick out a few things that will work together as meals. Don’t worry, we’ll do the real planning in a bit. For now, if you just browse your list of inventory, see what you might be able to turn into meals and jot them down on your sheet to reference and keep in the back of your head for the next step.
2. Check Weekly Ads
Now that you know what you have on hand take a peek at the weekly ads you get from the grocery stores around you. In my area they show up in the mailbox on Tuesday because most grocery stores start sales on Wednesday. If you don’t get them, try looking up a digital version on your stores website.
Take note of food your family eats regularly that’s on sale for a pretty good price and anything you might need from the meals you just brainstormed from your inventory. If I have the paper ad I’ll usually go through and circle anything that looks good. Then I’ll go back once I’ve looked at everything and write down the best/most useful deals. You don’t necessarily have to buy everything you write down, you’re just jotting it down so you can easily find the best deals for planning.
I used to shop at a few different stores every week, but now I usually stick to one store each week to save myself time. You can pick the store you generally like the best, the store that has the best deals or even shop at a couple different stores. It’s totally up to you.
Pick the Meals
Alright t’s time to actually plan out your meals. Hopefully you got a head start after taking down your inventory so you can start with the list of meals you made earlier. If not take a look at your inventory along with what’s on sale and start brainstorming meals you can make. My priority is to pick meals that work with what I have first and then if I need more, I’ll go to what’s on sale. Once you get used to it you should be able to glance at your list and instantly know what meals you can create. If you’re having trouble just give me a minute and in a bit I’ll show you how to have a list of meals ready to plan.
I physically make the list on paper because I’m visual and it helps me. I usually just start by numbering down the side for how many meals I need and write meals down by a number, including meals I won’t be making myself. Example:
1. Veggie Lasagna
2. Sloppy Joes
3. Pizza night! (no need to cook!)
4. Chipotle Black Bean Tacos
As I add a meal to the list, I go back to my inventory sheet and scan for ingredients I’ll use. Then I’ll cross them out and add a number next to them to show which meal I’ll be using it for. For example, if I have lasagna noodles and zucchini on the list, I’ll cross those out and add a 1 with a circle around it because I know I can use those for lasagna. This helps me see what I’m planning to use so I don’t accidentally use that ingredient twice when there’s only enough for one meal. It’s nice to see how much you’ll be using from your own pantry, too. I love when I can get half my list crossed out before even venturing into what’s on sale.
Have all your lists ready, but still not sure what meals to make?
Let’s talk about PlanToEat.com, my meal planning BFF. The entire process before this seems long, but it really takes me maybe 10 minutes up to this point. Then I jump on the computer (or even my phone) and login to my Plan To Eat account which is where I finish everything off and what I use to go shopping.
I’ve been using Plan to Eat for over a year and it’s seriously saved me so much time because it stores all my recipes and automatically populates my grocery list. Plus, you can pull it up on your phone and check things off when you forget your physical list at home every time like I do. It’s magic, guys. Make sure you sign up for the free trial and see how you like it.
When you log in to Plan To Eat the first time it will take a little while to add recipes and get it all set up. I used to browse Pinterest for ideas, but now what I do is I add recipes I want to try to my Plan to Eat account because then I can literally just drag and drop them to plan them and all the ingredients automatically go into my grocery list. I also added some meals I make regularly so that when I plan for those it can add the ingredients to my grocery list.
What I like to do is have the mini planner pop up (bottom left of the screen) and I can see all my recipes along with the week I want to plan for (see above). Then I just drag and drop the recipes into my planner. I’ll also add notes on days I know we’ll be ordering food or out of the house for a meal.
If you do want to plan for more than a week at a time and want to see it all at one you just click the “Plan” tab at the top and you’ll get a full view of your calendar for dragging and dropping.
Make Your Grocery List
Once you’re done planning the meals, it’s time to get the grocery list going. Except Plan to Eat pretty much did that for you already! It’s magic, I told you. I used to do this all by hand and still sometimes do, but it’s so much easier now. If you do prefer pen and paper, you can do it that way too, you’d just jot down any ingredients you don’t have for your meals and take that to the store. But if you’re like me and you just need to get it done or you forget your list at home a lot, just do yourself a favor and try out Plan to Eat. I wouldn’t be using it if it wasn’t amazing, promise.
All you need to do now is click the “Shop” tab at the top in plan to eat. You will see that the ingredients from each recipe was automatically added. This is the only slightly annoying part because if two recipes call for onions, for example, it will be listed twice. I usually have to delete several entries for olive oil, salt, etc. So I’ll just go through the list and combine ingredients as well as delete anything I already have in the house. My shopping list is usually cuts in half once I’m done. So don’t be overwhelmed the first time you look at the list because it’s breaking it down by ingredient per recipe.
Once you’re done consolidating your list (literally takes 2 minutes or less), add anything you need that isn’t part of a recipe. Maybe you’re like me and don’t really plan breakfasts and just need to pick up stuff like cereal, bagels, cream cheese and eggs. Or ingredients for smoothies. I also usually add fruit and random little snacks that don’t necessarily use a recipe for.
Bam! Your grocery list is DONE. I used to actually print out my list, but Plan To Eat is mobile friendly so I just pull up the website on my phone. You can check things off on your phone and they’ll disappear so you can focus on what you still need to grab. Like I said, magic. Seriously go sign up for a free trial and give it a try for a few weeks, I think there’s a good chance that you’ll fall in love too.
Now for a few extra tips:
– Add recipes you make regularly to Plan To Eat. Meals you know you and your family like that you can make a couple times a month. I’m lazy and just add the ingredients to the recipe so that the grocery list can populate for me since I know all the steps by heart.
– I usually just plan one, maybe two, new recipes each week and then fill in the rest with easy stuff I know we like. Don’t try to stuff to many new recipes into your meal plan if you’re short on time like I am. Keep it simple.
– Stockpiling is so temping. Pasta for .79 might seem like a reason to stockpile, but most of us don’t need to fill our cabinets full of food. I find that if my pantry is too crowded it overwhelms me, things expire and it just gets frustrating. My rule is that I usually don’t stockpile enough for more than 2-3 meals and that’s only if it’s a crazy good price. Pasta that’s .79 this week when it often is on sale for .99 isn’t a good enough price for me to buy extra. If you do need to stockpile, just do it wisely.
– See if you can find a store with bulk bins near you and you can buy just as much of you need for things like nuts, pasta, beans, etc. I swear by WinCo, this is where I do most of my shopping.
– If you’re trying to stick to a budget, skip expensive snacks and fancy prepackaged food. For example toddler snacks, it’s just more money for less food.
I hope this post helped you! Planning this way has been crucial to feeding my family well on less time and money. I seriously swear by it. My shopping trips are so much quicker and smoother and my days are so much easier when I have everything planned.
Do you meal plan? What methods do you use?