Food costs are one of your most flexible expenses. These meal planning tips can help you save money, eat healthfully, and enjoy great meals.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
What we spend on food is one of the most flexible line items in the average budget. There generally isn’t much month-to-month negotiation when it comes to mortgages and rents, but what we choose to put in the grocery cart is up to us. Careful meal planning can help you eat healthfully, enjoy great meals, and save money.
Consider these meal planning tips to help you keep to your grocery budget as well as put dinner on the table.
Eat at home.
Restaurants or even fast food joints can cost a pretty penny. Cooking at home, more times than not, saves us money.
Are you eating out too often? Get thee into the kitchen and save a few bucks. You don’t need to be a trained chef to make dinner, the guy at the golden arches certainly isn’t. Learn your way around the kitchen and make yourself a happy meal.
Pack food to go when you’re not at home.
Packing food for picnic dinners, work and school lunches, or even breakfasts on the road is a great way to save money. You’ll be able to eat when you’re hungry rather than stop for take-out and pay a pretty penny.
This works even on date night! Often during the summer, I will pack picnic salads and iced tea that we enjoy on the beach while watching the waves. We’ve also found a few craft breweries that encourage you to bring your own food.
Shop your kitchen.
When you shop your kitchen you’re using food you already paid for instead of going out to buy more, risking something going to waste.
The Pantry Challenge is one of the most popular features here on Good Cheap Eats, and for good reason. It’s kinda fun when you challenge yourself to make good use of what’s already in the pantry—and you can save money by not letting food go past its prime.
We throw too much food away as a culture; inventory your pantry and fridge to avoid waste.
Plan meals you love.
I think saving money on groceries has often been confused with deprivation and therefore eating cheap hot dogs and boxed mac and cheese. Unless you really love those foods, don’t go there.
You’ll be more likely to stick to your meal plan and save money if you plan meals that you know you and your family enjoy. It’s not a deal if it goes in the trash.
Ask the eaters to see what favorite foods you can work into the budget and the regular meal plan rotation.
Plan to use things up.
There are a few different ways that food goes to waste at home: overbuying, over prepping, and opening a large container of something to use in a recipe and then forgetting to use the rest of it.
When you shop your kitchen, you’re curbing that overbuying, but what about leftovers? Making too much food that you might not eat up as leftovers can lead to wasted food and money.
Preparing extra on purpose is a great way to save time, but not if you forget to use up your leftovers. Work leftovers into the next meal or reheat them for lunch the next day. Sometimes you can even freeze them for future easy meals.
So, we’ve got the leftover prepped foods tackled. What about leftover ingredients?
Plan meals that build on one another and share common ingredients. This will help you use up every last bit so that nothing goes to waste. If you can cook once and yet eat several meals from that cooking session, you’re well on your way to avoiding food waste.
You know what they say about never paying full price at Old Navy? There’s almost always gonna be a sale on the thing you’ve been wanting.
The same can be said for many groceries. Avoid buying food outside its sales cycle.
Instead, focus on the “loss leaders”, those items that are offered at a great discount to entice you into the store. Build your meal plans around those. (They’re usually on the front page of the sales ad.)
Stock up on seasonal items whenever your budget allows. Find a screaming deal on mustard in the summer? Buy a few extra bottles to last you through winter.
The same goes for when you see manager specials. These are items that are being discontinued, are overstocked, or are approaching their “best by” dates. The store wants to move them quickly, so they mark them down. If you find a good sale on ground beef, you can really stretch your dollar.
Building a frugal pantry and stocking up in advance is a great way to keep your grocery bill all year round. Buy your necessities each week and then use whatever’s left from the grocery budget to buy great sale items you can use later.
Focus on naturally frugal ingredients.
Once you’ve accounted for pantry items already on hand as well as sale items, focus your meal planning efforts on naturally frugal ingredients. You don’t have to relegate yourself to beans and rice, though those are natural wins.
Consider simply looking beyond processed foods. While those items are often on sale, their all-natural counterparts are more filling and better for you. And infinitely cheaper!
Load up on seasonal fruits and vegetables, dry beans, whole grains, and eggs. These can help round out your menus without increasing the cost too dramatically.
Plan homemade when practical.
You’ll notice that we price out recipes here on Good Cheap Eats. This is to help you count the cost and know if cooking a certain recipe makes sense for you.
Cooking at home is almost always cheaper, so do it whenever practical. Homemade foods that will typically save you money as opposed to their commercial counterparts include:
Plan to freeze extras for later.
Few of us want to cook all the time, so whenever possible, double dinner and stash the extra in the freezer.
When you do so, you’re buying yourself some time—and money!—in the future. You’ll be able to take a night off cooking while still eating affordable, home cooked food.
There are so many freezer-friendly recipes to choose from, You’ve got lots of options!
Helpful resources for meal planning
- A Month of Meals – 30 meal plans, grocery lists, and prep lists as well as meal planning tips
- Good Cheap Eats Dinner in 30 Minutes or Less – my budget- and time-friendly cookbook
- The Print & Go Planner – a streamlined household planner that includes weekly meal planning pages.
What are YOUR favorite meal planning tips? I’d love to hear what works for you as well as what doesn’t. Sharing our successes as well as our failures is how we learn from each other.
This post was originally published on July 12, 2016. It has been updated for content and clarity.