One of the easiest ways to eat real food on a budget is by meal planning. This can seem really tedious, annoying, and pointless especially for those who really don’t enjoy cooking and have a hard time cooking instinctively. But, if you really want to save money and eat well you need to have a plan. Would you start building a house without a blue print? How can you build the foundation of heath and good eating without a guide? There are a million resources on the internet about meal planning, most magazines have some type of meal guide in them, and there are even food services that prepare and deliver meal plans for you. No matter what your budget or interest is – there’s a plan for you.
No matter how daunting it seems at first – it does get easier. Believe it or not one of my favorite activities for the week is planning and shopping for that week. Maybe I’m strange but I really love it!
I plan one week at a time but some people plan several weeks or even a month out. That’s too limiting for me. Here are a few guidelines to get you started.
1) Don’t feel locked in to what you plan. This is a guide. So you forgot to thaw something for Wednesday’s meal? Swap it with another night. Life got hectic and you ended up with cereal one day – don’t worry!
2) Plan all your meals, every day and include snacks. I know some menu planning resources say to start just planning dinners but I think the sooner you get in the habit of planning all of the food for the week, the further your budget will stretch.
3) Utilize sales, seasonal produce, and specials to make your money stretch. If I know that broccoli is in season and $.99 a head, guess what we’ll be eating a few days that week – broccoli.
4) Hold over some of your budget for “surprises”. It seems that no matter how much I plan before I shop there’s always a special that I miss. I tend to only buy these specials if they are things I can freeze easily like meat, butter, cheese, frozen vegetables etc.
So let’s walk through how I do this.
Step One: Review the weekly calendar.
This is my weekly calendar. I use Google Calendar and a paper calendar to keep track of things. This might seem redundant but it works for me. My hard copy of the calendar is mostly to carry in my purse and keep straight appointments. My digital calendar is also for that but also deadlines I have, activities for the kids, etc. I like the color coding options online so I can see at a glance what’s going on.
It’s important to look at your weekly calendar so you know which days/nights are busy. For example, my kids have swimming on Thursday night – that means we need to have dinner earlier and do something that’s quicker and easier. Likewise if there were a day that I was going to be gone and unable to prep I would want to know so I could plan a crockpot meal or something of that sort. Normally I also add in the days my kids are having cold lunch or we’re having guests.
Step Two: Take a Look at What’s on Sale
Most grocery stores have their ads online – I love that. My favorite local store puts out their new ad on Sunday. This also happens to be the day I do my planning and often times my shopping. So what I learn from looking ahead, there’ s a 10% off stuff and save sale this week, cantaloupe is a good price and shredded cheese is not too bad either. So who cares right? Me!
Chances are when I start looking for meals I’ll have made a list of the items that I think were a good price and will choose recipes that include some of these sales. Cantaloupe is not something I would think about buying in March but may reconsider now.
Step Three: Plan Your Menu
This is the fun part for me but the stressful part for many. If you really have a hard time coming up with ideas here are some of the resources I really like.
Momables – Do you choose to or have to pack a lunch for your kids? Momables offers a weekly meal plan. There is a traditional plan and a nut free/gluten free plan. I find the cost really affordable especially if you’re constantly drawing a blank.
eMeals - I’ve recently started using this service for new ideas. One of the things I like the most about eMeals is the variety. There are clean eating, paleo, gluten free, low fat, low carb, vegetarian and more meal plans available. You also can add on a lunch or breakfast (or both) meal plan if you subscribe to the dinner plan. The recipes that I’ve gotten are unique and the few I’ve tried have been good. They even coordinate with your local grocery store to list sales with the weekly emailed meal plan. Did I mention it includes a shopping list each week too?
The Fresh 20 – My friend Kelly first shared this website with me and I’m so glad she did. I love the concept here. The menus revolve around 20 fresh, seasonal ingredients each week plus 20 pantry items that should be on hand (you won’t use all each week). The plans utilize everything on the list so that as little as possible goes to waste. There is a traditional, vegetarian, and gluten-free plan available. Each week you get the recipes, shopping list and directions. The coolest part. The directions include daily notes to prep for upcoming days. So if Day 1 recipe includes an item that will be used on days 3 and 4, they tell you what to prepare and set aside. Awesome isn’t it?
If you’re more the DIY type (like me) some of the places I go for inspiration include;
- Pinterest – if there was any doubt!
- My favorite food blogs
- My mind! I try to keep a few days that are experiment days.
- Leftover Day – One day a week is just for leftovers from the other day. A lot of people use leftovers for lunch but I’ve found it’s more likely to be eaten on a leftover “buffet” or re-purposed than at lunch.
Step Four: Write it Down
I write as I go, filling in a simple sheet of paper with my ideas for each day. I divide the paper in half and on the left column write the day and the meal and in the right column write the ingredients I need for that meal. When I’m done I check my freezer, fridge and pantry crossing off any of the ingredients I have on hand. I have a big chalkboard in the kitchen that I write out the meals on so everyone can see. Then it’s off to the store with paper in hand. I like to bring not only the list of items I need but the meals I’m making too. That way if I leave off something or wonder “what do I need that for again?” I have the list in front of me.
That’s it! I get home, put everything away and take a nap!
Your Homework: Create a meal plan that reflects your grocery budget and try it out. If you’re a blogger and decide to share feel free to link up in the comments. If you’re not I hope you’ll share your experience meal planning and staying on budget.
This post is the second post in a ten part series on eating real food on a budget. Read part one: setting a budget to get caught up. Next week I’ll be tackling cooking and baking.