Meal planning can help save you time and money, but if done improperly, it can actually end up costing you more. Between searching for coupons, buying special ingredients, making countless trips to the grocery store, and compiling recipes, meal planning on a budget is enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed.
Fortunately, with just a little bit of work, you can easily create—and stick to—a budget-friendly meal plan. Here’s how to get started.
Take stock of what you already have.
Aimlessly walking through the grocery store and grabbing whatever looks appetizing isn’t a good way to shop. Even worse, grocery shopping before meals can lower your impulse control, causing you to spend more. In fact, a simple grocery trip can easily exceed a $200 grocery budget.
To save money, start by taking stock of what you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. If you’re just starting to meal plan, now is the perfect time to get rid of your expired applesauce and old cans of soup from five years ago.
While creating a list of the items you already have at home, you might find out that you have more ingredients than you originally thought. By looking through the food you already have, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re not throwing away money on duplicates.
Choosing weekly recipes that incorporate the ingredients you already have can help keep your grocery list much smaller. Plus, you won’t accidentally leave anything behind.
Decide what to buy in bulk.
Weekly or bi-weekly grocery shopping is an essential component of the meal planning process. It’s more cost-effective to buy some items in bulk, especially if you’re a member of a warehouse store like Costco.
For example, if you’re planning to make sandwiches for lunch this week, consider buying a bulk loaf of bread. Other pantry staples, such as rice, dried beans, and cereal, can typically be found in bulk at lower prices.
When meal planning on a budget, sticking to a routine is key. Eating the same things regularly can not only help you save time planning your meals each week, but it can also help you cut costs. If you’re really trying to save money, you might have to sacrifice variety for a while and stick with cheap, easy meals. Your kids won’t mind eating rice and veggies twice a week—and it’ll ultimately make life easier.
Don’t overspend on drinks.
When eating out, the cost of beverages can add up quickly—even nonalcoholic drinks can make a significant difference. If you’re trying to eat at home and embrace meal planning, one of the easiest ways to shop on a budget is to drink as simply as possible. While carbonated drinks may be tasty, try to train your tastebuds to enjoy water or iced tea.
If you find yourself overspending on drinks, try planning a grocery trip without your children or spouse. Alternatively, only bring enough cash to cover the food and leave your credit card at home. If you set a realistic food budget and only bring cash to the store, there’s no way you can overspend on drinks.
Plan your meals around what’s on sale.
After planning a few meals based on what you already have, start planning your meals around weekly sales. Store flyers, newspaper inserts, coupon sites, and cashback apps can help you save money during grocery trips—you might even be surprised by what’s available.
Start by scanning sales ads for proteins and start brainstorming recipes. After you have some recipe ideas, narrow your choices by matching your main dishes with side dish ingredients that are on sale.
In the beginning, you might not know which location’s sales ads are the most cost-effective. But practice makes perfect, and trial and error can help you make the most of your budget.
Double your recipes.
There’s a lot of prep work involved in some recipes, and you can optimize your time by doubling up. Making twice as much can not only help you save time in the kitchen, but you’ll also end up wasting fewer ingredients. Serve smaller portions, refrigerate the rest of the batch, and then freeze what’s left in meal-sized portions for later.
You can also save time by prepping ingredients that can be used in multiple meals. Try making multiple batches of roasted vegetables to use in a side dish or a soup for later on this week. Chopping up extra vegetables at the beginning of the week can reduce prep time, motivate you to use up ingredients, and encourage healthy snack options.
Whether you’re trying to throw away less food, set a more realistic budget, or take advantage of weekly sales, meal planning a few days ahead can help you save time and money. Ultimately, the more you practice meal planning on a budget, the easier it becomes.
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