Homemaking,  Money,  Organization

Meal Planning on a Budget

A large part of being a SAHM is the handling of food, whether it’s planning, preparing, or cleaning up. One task I find takes many moms a lot longer than it needs to be is making the meal plan and grocery list. As moms we always feel like we’re making the same thing over and over again, though our family doesn’t (usually) complain about it. We want to try something new but we don’t know where we’ll find the time or the ideas. For some of us there is the added constraint of having to stay within a budget. As if planning healthy meals everyone will somewhat like isn’t hard enough, we also have to plan cheap meals? I’ve often found myself shaking my head in disbelief as I had no idea how my budget and my grocery list would ever be reconciled. But, over time, I developed some tricks and tools that helped me stay within our family’s lean budget when I went grocery shopping, create tasteful and healthy meals, and not spend all day doing it. I got to where I spent an average of $32 a week on groceries for two people. Now I have a specific step-by-step process I go through each week to develop my meal plan and shopping list, and I’d like to share it with you!

Step 1: Determine how many meals you need to provide for the week.

Start your meal planning process off with your calendar. Take into account all social events or work that may provide food for anyone in your family, and cross those off your list. I start out with B, L, and D (Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner) listed on a sheet for each day of the week that I’m shopping for, and I literally cross off one of those letters if I know we’ll get free food for that meal. For instance, if your church is having a breakfast on Sunday morning, cross off “B” under Sunday. Now you have one less breakfast to shop for. The reverse is also true – if you’re going to a potluck or have to provide snacks for your son’s baseball team – add that to your list.

This may get a little tricky if you have several family members and only some of them might receive a free meal, but try to even it out as much as you can. Once you’ve deleted and/or added your various meals to your list, tally up the totals. Usually I end up with something like 7 Breakfasts, 5 Lunches, 6 Dinners and 1 meal for family with new baby (so essentially 7 dinners). Don’t assign a meal for each day of the week; just keep your numerical quota of meals to fulfill. This will give you flexibility to change your meal plan to adapt to your crazy schedule. Also, it will help to plan out all lunches and breakfasts if you’re on a budget – whether you’re actually cooking those meals or just preparing them.

Step 2: Add Needs/Replacements first to your grocery list.

The first items to add to your grocery list are your needed items – generally items that you keep on hand that you may have run out of in the last week, like spices, flour, shampoo, etc. Ice cream and bottled water don’t count! 😉 There may be some things that you would like to replace but don’t have to that week, like honey for example. Go ahead and put those on the list as well; you can always delete them (see Step #7) if you need to in order to stay within budget.

Step 3: Take a look at what’s on sale at your preferred store.

  • Sales flyer – I use Kroger and they have an online weekly ad. Look through the sales flyer and if anything is at a good price, put it on your list. Just because something is listed in the sales flyer doesn’t mean it’s automatically a good price, but you should be able to find a few things here. Also, I select one meat a week to cook with – usually chicken or ground beef – and I find out from the sales flyer which one is the cheapest for that week.
  • Digital Coupons – Kroger and most other grocery stores have these and I love them! You can store up coupons without having to have a little baggie or pouch for all your loose slips of paper. Kroger also has the Free Friday Download, where every Friday you can download a coupon to get a product absolutely free. Make sure to only download coupons for items you know that you need. Then, look through your digital coupons and add items that would be a good deal to your grocery list.
  • Manufacturer’s Coupons – occasionally you can get manufacturer’s coupons to create a good sale. Sometimes these coupons will be physically on a product that you purchase, or you can receive them by submitting your email address to different companies. If you have a manufacturer’s coupon that will give a nice discount on an item that you will use, put that item on your list.

Step 4: Meal plan according to what’s on your list so far.

Are eggs on sale? Have them for breakfast, or make a frittata for dinner one night. Have a digital coupon to save on lunch meat? Looks like sandwiches are on the menu. I usually start off with what meat I’m getting for the week, and then plan the dinners around that. For example, if chicken breasts are on sale and that’s the meat I’m getting for the week, then I might make my chicken fried rice which usually will make enough for us to have 1 dinner and 1 lunch (leftovers). So I mark off 1 dinner and 1 lunch off my meal list, and add the other ingredients (eggs, peas and carrots, rice, etc.) that I need to make that recipe to my grocery list. Basically you’re letting the sales influence your meal planning – imagine that! Usually by starting with what’s on sale that I’ve put on my list so far, I can fulfill about half of my meals for the week.

Step 5: Try one new recipe a week.

For those of you that like to shake things up, try one new recipe a week. Don’t do more than one, or you’ll wear yourself out. It doesn’t always have to be a dinner recipe – try making some muffins for breakfast or mini pizzas for lunch! There’s a whole host of recipes out there, so find one that works for you and your family. My general rule of thumb for finding cheap recipes is don’t try one with more than 7 ingredients, so pick one that maybe you already have some of the ingredients for and go for it! Last week blueberries were on sale so I tried a new blueberry muffin recipe that I didn’t have to buy any additional ingredients for and we ate those for a couple breakfasts.

Step 6: Fill in the gaps with other recipes/meal ideas.

At this point you’ll probably only have a couple more spots left in your meal plan. Here are a couple tricks to help you finish up that meal plan without surfing Pinterest for several hours:

  • Try to have a range of prep levels. Don’t attempt to cook breakfast every morning, so if you’ve already got bacon, eggs, and sausage on the list, get some cereal. Plan to have at least one crockpot meal every week, or more!
  • Ask your husband/other family members what they would like to have, or what recipe they haven’t had in a while.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t go for things require a lot of condiments/add-ons, or use the condiments you already have to give you ideas. For example, if I’ve got some extra ketchup from having hamburgers, maybe I’ll make meatloaf the following week to use it up.

Step 7: Tally the total.

Most stores have websites that will allow you to look up prices in your area. If you use something like Grocery Pickup or ClickList, they’ll calculate the total for you! If you find out that you met your budget, fantastic! If not, follow these guidelines:

  • If over budget:
    • Is it warranted? Do you really need cheese, salsa, sour cream and guacamole with your tacos? You may have to cut out all (or at least some) of the extras you’re used to if you’re meal planning on a budget.
    • Does it have to be purchased right now? Usually I have several things that need to be restocked, but I don’t necessarily have to purchase them that week because I’m not using them specifically for anything that week, but I will need them eventually. Save those for a later time when you have more wiggle room in your budget.
    • Are you buying something just because it’s on sale? Yes, they may be your favorite chips for $1 each, but if they’re chips, they don’t have to be bought. If you do buy extraneous items, make sure they’re on sale, but don’t buy extraneous items just because they’re on sale.
  • If under budget:
    • Keep in mind sales tax. If you’re calculating your total by hand, add 10% to that and you’ll come out with about what your total will be including tax. So if your budget is $50 per week, you can only really purchase $45 worth of groceries.
    • Add on more sale items or items to restock. Basically see the reverse of points two and three for “over budget” listed above.
    • Just leave your list as it is, and relish in the fact that you’ll have more money to spend next week!

I hope this step-by-step guide is helpful to you as you try to navigate meal planning on a budget. By following this plan of action I was able to provide healthy meals for 2 people for $32 a week, with only spending about an hour per week planning and one hour shopping. If you have any tricks that have helped you or any questions about how the process works, post a comment below!

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