How to Meal Plan on a Budget

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Meal planning is simply the process of choosing which meals to prepare in the coming days. Learn how to meal plan on a budget so that you can save money and waste less food while eating well!

large serving bowl of chicken caesar salad

Poorman’s Chicken Caesar Salad

Eating good food, both nutritious and tasty, doesn’t require an unlimited grocery budget. Some of the best meals in the world are made from affordable pantry staples.

However, sometimes in the meal planning frenzy of Pinterest and social media, you may find yourself overreaching, thinking that big, elaborate, and expensive is the only way to meal plan.

Thankfully, that’s not at all true. Good food and a balanced budget aren’t mutually exclusive. They do, however, take a little work and planning.

You can easily stay on budget and avoid food waste through savvy meal planning. It’s as simple as taking stock of what you have, planning meals around what’s there, and supplement with a minimal amount of additional purchases.

This is one surefire to meal plan on a budget. You will be eating well AND sitting pretty.

How 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. That will help you know what you have to work with.

2. Plan from your inventory.

Now plan some meals from what you already have. Chances are you bought those items with certain recipes in mind, but you never got around to making it. No problem. Resurrect those recipes this week and plan meals based on what you have.

Not sure what to make? Check out some of these recipes using common proteins:

stack of melons on sale at a Sprouts grocery store

3. Check the loss leaders this week.

Once you’ve checked your stock on hand and generated a list of ideas of meals to make from those ingredients, 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 on sale for $1.49/pound. It doesn’t really get lower than that. Buy some for this week but add a few extra packages to the cart so that you can freeze it for future weeks. You’ll be able to plan meals around cheap ingredients now and later.

4. Prioritize your spending.

When your grocery budget is fixed, 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 to your meal planning.

canned goods on shelf

5. Practice stockpiling.

If there is grocery money left after purchasing your “must haves”, think about groceries to stock up on, such as those loss leaders that you know you will use in the coming weeks. You’re much better off buying that chicken at $1.49/lb than paying the full pop of $5 or more.

Check the clearance section for items that are being discontinued or marked down to move quickly. You just might find some “would likes” at great prices.

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.

Once you learn how to meal plan on a budget, you’ll find that it’s second nature to you. Your gaze will shift so that you naturally prioritize where to spend your grocery budget. You’ll discover budget recipes you love as well as learn to make expensive take-out items yourself for less.

How do YOU meal plan on a budget?

cart of groceries, hand holding wallet and receipt

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. Molly says

    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.

    • I am reading a health book and just read about how much better dried beans are since you avoid the BPA. So, see the cheaper kind is better for you. 😉

  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. CeCee says

    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….

      • CeCee says

        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. Sally C says

    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.

    • Yes! Tracking your spending is essential. I use the GoodBudget app that lets me track different digital envelopes for our spending. I know with a click how much is left.

  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.

  6. Janet says

    Stockpile the holiday sales. Green beans, evaporated milk, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and baking supplies are ALWAYS on sale between the middle of November and the first of January. Knowing this, I try to save a little back in August, September and October so I can stock up when items are on sale. More often than not I have a coupon as well. Last year our neighborhood grocery had a flash sale last and I was able to purchase a dozen cans each of green beans, cranberry sauce and evaporated milk for 10 cents a can.

    • Yes! I think I get MORE excited about shopping AFTER Thanksgiving and Christmas than I do before!


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