How to Meal Plan on a Budget

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How to Meal Plan on a Budget - Meal planning can help you save money and stretch your dollar a little further.

Eating good food, both nutritious and tasty, shouldn’t preclude staying under budget. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do take a little work and planning.

Our recent pantry challenge was so successful, in part, thanks to meal planning. I took a survey of what we had, planned meals around our supply, and supplemented with what were the priorities. This is one surefire to meal plan on a budget.

Check out these tips so that you, too, can eat well, act your wage, and enjoy life, just a little bit more.

1. Inventory what you have.

All too often, we think we need to go shopping, when really all we need to do is shop our own kitchens. Using what you already have saves you the money you’d spend if you went shopping.

Take a real close look at what you have in the cupboards, fridge, and freezer. I bet you’ll be surprised that there’s more there than you think. That’s usually the case. Most of us tend to overbuy.

Save some money this week by planning meals around what you already have. If you don’t have a great way to keep track of your supplies, download this inventory sheet to make it easy.

Know what you have to work with.

2. Plan from your inventory.

Now plan some meals from what you already have. There are websites like and Yummly that can help you search ingredients that you have and give you recipes to use them with.

Or you can search the Good Cheap Eats recipe archives as well.

Plan meals based on what you have.

How to Meal Plan on a Budget - Meal planning can help you save money and stretch your dollar a little further.

3. Check the loss leaders this week.

Once you’ve checked what you already have, it’s time to shop for what you need to fill in the blanks. That means, checking what loss leaders are available at your local grocers.

A loss leader is an item that the store offers at a rock bottom price, one that they will probably take a loss on, but it’s worth it to them to have you come through the door.

A great example of this is the boneless, skinless chicken breast I bought at Sprouts this weekend for $1.69/pound. It doesn’t really get lower than that. I bought enough to eat this week as well as extra to freeze for future dates.

Plan meals around cheap ingredients.

4. Prioritize your spending.

When your grocery budget is fixed, then you need to prioritize. You might not be able to buy everything you want this week. Keep a running list of “must haves” and “would likes”. The “must haves” will be your priorities. Buy the “would likes” only as you have funds available.

You’d be surprised what you can do without. Once I started making recipes without every ingredient called for, I realized that we didn’t really miss those black olives or chopped green chiles.

Buy the things that pack the biggest punch.

5. Practice stockpiling.

If there are available after purchasing your “must haves”, think about those loss leaders that you know you will use in the coming weeks. You’re much better off buying that chicken at $1.69/lb than paying the full pop of $5 or more.

Buy as much as you can store and afford of the things you know you will use. This will help you stretch your funds just a little farther.

How do you make budget meal planning work for you?

How to Meal Plan on a Budget - Meal planning can help you save money and stretch your dollar a little further.This is part of the Meal Planning 101 series. Check the archives for more tips on how to make meal planning work for you.

About Jessica Fisher

I believe great meals don't have to be complicated or expensive. There's a better way, and it won't take all afternoon.

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  1. I needed this today. My husband and I are planning a move soon that will help his career path immensely, but means I will leave my very well-paying job to become a stay at home wife. I especially like the concept of prioritizing must haves and would likes. Must have fruits, veggies, baking basics, and beans. Would like to have canned beans instead of dried for convenience, granola bars, and yummy things that catch my eye.

  2. Stephanie M. says:

    I’m learning to be a better budget meal planner by having participated in the most recent pantry and freezer challenge. Now instead of running out to the store and making an impulse purchase based on what I have decided I feel like eating on any given day, the night before I check my freezer to see what I have and then go to my pantry to see what will go with it and if I have what I need to make that particular meal. If I can get away with making that meal with what I have, I do it; if I don’t I might just prepare the meat from the freezer a different way or just omit something from the recipe if possible. As far as loss leaders, every morning, my local grocery store has a few shopping carts set up with bread and rolls that are a day past their sell date. I frequently go through it at find something I can use. Yesterday, I purchased a 2-pack of Italian bread for 99 cents. I froze it for later next week to make garlic bread with it. The bread always tastes fine; when you buy it fresh and at top price, it sits in your house for a few days anyway. When I buy from that cart, and it is often, I usually freeze it in portions and use what I need when I want it. I also look out for “manager’s specials” on meat. If it’s something I’m not planning on cooking that day, I freeze that until I need it.

    • I’m so thrilled that the pantry challenge was a good experience for you!

      I, too, love the day old bread cart and the manager’s specials. It’s like Christmas. Only not.

      • Stephanie M. says:

        Jessica, you have no idea how much you’ve motivated me and to see so many other ladies participating was also motivating. This was a GREAT experience for me and I can’t wait to do it again in July. Today I went into my freezer and took an inventory; I’m guessing that I have about enough in there to make another 25 meals or so and that doesn’t necessarily mean 25 days because some of those meals will provide leftovers. But I am extremely committed to following this through till the end. I am truly having a great time with this and saving some cash too!

  3. I think that a price book is the most important part of budget foods. I have a certain dollar amount that I will spend on any given product max and a dollar amount that is rock bottom stock up price. Example; bone in skin on chicken. The most I will spend is 1.99 lb the stickup price is 1.39lb or less. This helps me keep the freezer full for a smaller amount of money.

    • How do you track your price book? Mine’s in my head….

      • Mine has evolved over time. My mom always had one in her head so that’s how I did mine. Until I moved to Reno from Louisiana. Then I had to learn things all over. Shrimp can get down to 1.99lb in La in Reno 7.99lb is a deal. Produce is soooo much cheaper here than there. So I had an actual “book”. Now I have a 4×6 index card with items that I buy semi-frequently, but might forget the price of. I break things like peanut butter down to the per ounce price

  4. I love this! I wrote the steps down and put them in my kitchen.

    May I add one sub-step to the inventory? In addition to making an inventory of available food, make an inventory of available funds as well. Sometimes right before payday, I can see that I have extra grocery funds and will elect to buy more meat or stock up items. If I’m skidding in to payday with just $6.00 remaining, I’ll pick up basic produce and dairy to get me through the next few days. I need to do food inventory about every 10 days.

    There is such power in knowing what you have! Yesterday I determined the only available meat I had was ham so it was going to have to be potato soup for dinner. Tonight is ham and cheese gyoza. I was motivated to do a search for ham recipes only after I made up my mind not to give in on my pantry challenge until my end date.

  5. I believe in stockpiling ingredients that can be used in a wide range of ways. I also cruise the aisles if I’m on my own and don’t have to worry about a three-year-old having a temper tantrum for clearance items (of items that I use frequently), marked down meat, and produce (Our local Brookshire’s marks down lettuce bags to 99 cents a container–all usable). I wish we still had the bread thrift store, but when Hostess went belly-up, so went the Hostess bread store. I try to keep two-three weeks of food on hand at any time, just in case. That way, only things like milk and fresh produce have to be replenished. Over Thanksgiving weekend when the flu hit, there was no grocery shopping for that week. We ate from the stockpile.


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