Meal Planning: 5 Meals to Help You Eat Well, Spend Less

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Do you find yourself spinning your wheels as meal time approaches? Do you call hubby to stop at the store again on his way home, for something you forgot to pick up? Do you spend a little too much money on fast food purchases?

Effective meal planning can do wonders for your time, your budget, and your sanity.

Save time.

If you have a plan for the meals you will prepare this week, you won’t waste time wracking your brain for a dinner idea or running to the store at the last minute for ingredients you don’t have.

Save money.

Planning your meals can help you use what you already have in the pantry, help you avoid the rush-hour drive-thru dash, and help you maximize on grocery store sales that come your way. Carrie points out that you can spend no money if you figure out how to cook with what you already have.

Save your sanity.

When you have tried and true meal plans that you know your family enjoys and that don’t exceed your budget, you will rest easier knowing that you’re eating well and not overspending.

You also won’t have kids barking at your heels for something to eat. When’s dinner, anyway?

Plan meals that are easy and inexpensive.

As Alyssa pointed out last week, “Saving money in the kitchen requires more strategy that what you may see on TV.” Amen, sister. You have to be intentional if you are going to win the Battle against High Grocery Bills. And one of those strategies is planning meals that you know fit the budget.

A meal plan can make your life so much less expensive, as Tammy mentioned, “Instead of wandering in the kitchen wondering what to start for dinner, you will be making it. Instead of waiting until the last minute and either opening cans of something or going out to eat, you will have started dinner in the crock pot or have planned a freezer meal.”

I have a few go-to meals that my family enjoys but that don’t cost a lot of money. They are simple meals that are filling when times are tight, but they can also be dressed up deliciously when the budget is a little looser.

One of the tricks that I’ve found to make simple, inexpensive meals more palatable is to make sure that there’s a little “extra” involved to make the meal fun.

Beans and Rice

During leaner times, we had some variation of beans and rice at least twice a week. This dish is not only filling and inexpensive, but it’s one that my kids really like. And it’s not complicated.

I cook up about three pounds of dried pintos every 4 – 6 weeks. I freeze the Seasoned Pinto Beans in 2 or 4 cup containers to use as a side dish or as a base for a meal like this. I buy a 10 pound bag of beans which lasts quite a long time.

Feel scared to cook with dried beans? Don’t be. Katie will teach you everything you need to know.

I often cook a big batch of Mexican Rice. For the last year or so, I’ve been using brown rice. Many in my family would prefer that I use white rice because the texture is not the same. Brown rice tends to be a little stickier and not as fluffy. But, it’s better for us. If I give my pickier eater a choice, he chooses plain brown rice or rice pilaf instead of the tomato flavored.

I usually serve our beans and rice with a number of toppings, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, sliced black olives, homemade salsa or pico de gallo, sour cream, avocado, and chips. This is usually dependent on what is on sale and what we have on hand.

Extra: According to hubs, you have to have good salsa to make Beans and Rice fly with your family.

I can easily feed my family of 8 for under $5 with this meal. If you want to dress it up, go all out with the toppings and maybe add some seasoned taco meat or shredded chicken.

Pasta with Red Sauce

Pasta sales have been extremely plentiful lately, thereby making it a “twice a week” meal. I usually make a big pasta salad one night or lunch and then serve it hot with Crockpot Red Sauce another night. My family can eat somewhere between one and two pounds of pasta at a sitting, so finding the pasta at a low price — or free like I did lately — helps our budget immensely.

We always have at least one side dish of veggies with this meal, often broccoli or green beans. And I often serve a salad and garlic bread as well.

One obvious way to dress it up is to add a few meatballs or some Chicken Parmesan.

Extra: We use real, freshly grated Parmesan cheese. When I’ve priced out good Parmesan in comparison to the green can, it’s not that much more to buy a huge chunk of the real stuff from Costco. You have to have a little splurge to make this frugal business work!

Roast Chicken, Mashed Potatoes, Vegetables

One of my kids’ favorite dinners is Roast Chicken with all the fixin’s. It’s not KFC, it’s better!

My grocery stores often sell whole chickens for as low as $0.59 a pound. I buy as many as the limit allows and stash them in the freezer. This is an easy meal to pull together as I often just season the chicken and cook it in the crockpot. The meat is fall off the bone tender. Roasting in the oven is a delicious method, too, resulting in a nice, crispy skin. Either way, I make a quick gravy with the drippings.

When potatoes are on sale, I buy as many as I can manage and often cook and mash them for the freezer. This makes dinner not only cheap, but easy, too. We usually round it out with biscuits and a steamed vegetable.

Extra: My kids love cranberry sauce. They could — and do — eat it all year round. I stock up on cranberries and cranberry sauce at the holidays, so we have enough to last us the entire year.

Soup from Leftovers, Bread

Shaina mentioned last week a number of great strategies for meal planning, including one of my favorites, using up your leftovers in creative ways. As she said, “The best way to use up all the vegetable odds and ends and leftover scraps that weren’t accounted for is to plan a meal out of it.”

That’s why I plan soup for the same week that I plan a large meal with meat, like a roast chicken. The leftover gravy, vegetables, meat, and even mashed potatoes can be combined with chicken broth and additional seasonings to make an amazingly flavorful, not like the can, soup. Leftover rice and beans make a great soup. And Red Sauce is the start of a fantastic minestrone. Soup from leftovers is easy, delicious, and frugal.

Or if you want to redesign your leftovers, combine them in different ways. I’ve turned roast chicken, vegetables, chips and salsa into a delicious Tortilla Soup that doesn’t look like it could be “leftovers.”

Extra: Good bread makes any soup meal taste better. I’m delving into Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, and will be checking out these breads that Katie shared last week.

Grilled Chicken Salad

I love Mandi’s idea of planning for more fresh produce in the budget. I am a salad junkie, intent on making sure my kids, boys and girls alike, enjoy eating salads. And since I can buy fresh produce at fairly low prices at Costco and our local health foods store, I’m able to make it work with our budget.

One way that we beef up salads is to add grilled chicken. We live in a fairly temperate climate that allows us to “cook out” all year long. And one meal that my family devours is salad with grilled chicken.

Extra: Good dressing will either make or break your salad. Check out this huge list of homemade dressings that Aimee compiled or test some of my family’s favorites: Cilantro-Lime, Yogurt-Dill, ChiChi’s Italian, and Homemade Ranch.

Now, that you’ve seen my five go to “frugal” meals, check out what my camrades in arms in the Battle Against High Grocery Bills are cooking up to help them eat well and spend less.

What’s YOUR favorite frugal meal?

Don’t forget to visit Menu Plan Monday for even more ideas about meal planning.

About Jessica Fisher

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

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  1. What fantastic strategies for less expensive meals. I find that my kids enjoy beans and (brown) rice if I serve it with salty tortilla chips. (They’ll eat anything if I let them have a few chips on the side!) With all the fiber and nutrition in the beans and rice, I don’t mind serving a bit of ‘junk’ alongside it.

  2. I love reading your menus. We’ve had to do some adjusting to our menus because my hubby is on a low-carb hi-protein diet (as much as I love beans and rice, he can’t eat it right now) but I’m inspired nonetheless!

  3. Excellent round-up, Jessica! Thanks for the shout-out.

  4. Jessica,
    To get the texture of brown rice closer to what you expect with beans and rice, especially Mexican, try sauteeing it in butter or oil first, before adding other ingredients (think of the directions on the packages of rice-a-roni that maybe you used to buy). Makes a HUGE difference! 😉 Katie

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship, yeah, that’s part of my Mexican Rice recipe, but it still is a little stickier and moister than white rice. They prefer plain brown steamed to any brown rice in a pilaf.

  5. Hey, I cannot get the Mexican rice link to work, it is taking me to the pinto beans link. 🙂 I would like to try it! Thanks so much, we are really trying to stick to a tighter grocery budget and it is so hard!! I need all the help I can get!

  6. Mmm. I love the tips for making beans- we just started doing this and it has been hard to figure out a way to make them delicious by themselves. We’ve resorted to throwing them in various “chilis” or on top of pizzas, but I’m excited to try the ideas you have for “Seasoned Pinto Beans.” I just picked up the “Less Is More” cookbook at the library and have been leafing through it-have you ever read it? It has inspired me to embrace this season of simplicity in our meals and not just look at it as a time of lack. I appreciate this post!

  7. Wow you are fast!! Thanks so much, Jessica!!

  8. My favorite money saving meal is Taco Night:

  9. Kate says

    This is so FULL of awesome info! Info that I NEED! I’m new at this kind of thing – I grew up in a home that didn’t do a whole lot of cooking – much less freezing.

    So good! I’m gonna check out the links, too!

    Thank you so much!

    Katie 🙂

  10. Found you from The Org Junkie website. This is a VERY helpful post. I have been menu planning for a while now and it has been the key strategy in my 30+ pound weight loss. Now I am try to use it to get my grocery budget under control. I spend close to $800 a month on groceries and would love to cut that in half while still eating healthy wholesome foods. Thanks so much!

  11. auntjone says

    I love creating meals from leftovers and odds and ends. I try to do at least one week night meal from leftovers, either repurposing them to make something new (usually some kind of casserole or pasta dish) or creating a “buffet” from previous meals. Leftovers are also my go-to for weekend lunches. I get kinda cranky if I have to make a full blown lunch with my limited free time! I work full time and find that meal planning helps me keep my sanity. Now to get that grocery bill down…we’re pretty well stocked on meat for now, just need to replenish perishables and it seems like those prices have skyrocketed lately. Can’t wait for the farmers markets to open up again!

  12. Taco salad is, hands-down, the favorite around here for quick, (relatively) cheap, and easy. We bought a whole grass-fed cow, so that drives down the price of meat. We’ll make a lb. or so of meat, refried beans, sometimes rice, chips, lettuce, cheese, home-canned salsa, and whatever else we have around. The kids love it because they can have just what they like (lettuce, chips, meat, and cheese, with salsa for my son).

    Roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy goes over pretty well, too. I do make soups, although my daughter isn’t a fan, so not as often as I otherwise might. We don’t do white pasta so that’s not generally a very cheap meal for us.

    We try to limit grains in general, actually. And we’re STILL going to get away with around $300 to feed 4 of us this month. That’s on totally “real food,” including pastured meats and eggs, few grains, lots of fruits and veggies. Yes, it CAN be done!! (I really have an extra $200 budgeted, so I’m putting that away for bulk meat and produce purchases for preservation. I’m also growing a pretty decent garden this year — planted some yesterday! — so all of this will save us a TON next year.)

    Lest you think we’re deprived, we eat ice cream almost everyday (homemade), chocolate (grain-free) cookies, steak, and other awesome things on a regular basis.

    I’ll be blogging about this soon, if anyone’s curious.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama, seriously? How did you swing the cow into that price? And where do you live?! 😉 I don’t think I could do that here, but would love to know how you pulled it off. Email me the links when you got them (or let me know if you want to write a guest post on all that).

  13. Holly says

    I have to say that Breakfast for Dinner is my favorite go-to frugal meal. Eggs, pancakes, french toast, oatmeal, speedy quiche all go a long way financially and quick to make. Not to mention that my picky eaters will usually eat them!

  14. Lori F. says

    What a wonderful post! I was shaking my head all the way.
    Yes! on the roast chicken. My kids used to be “chicken shapes” kids until I started roasting a chicken every couple of weeks. They fight over the crispy skin and we all leave the table smiling everytime I make it.
    Yes, Yes! on the parmesan cheese comment. I haven’t bought the stuff in the green can/jar in over 20 years. If I’m going to save money by cooking from scratch, I want to use REAL ingredients that require refridgeration to stay fresh. Plus, it makes so many things taste better and the family doesn’t feel deprived by eating my cooking vs. eating out.

  15. My very easy chicken pot pie recipe is frugal (buy chicken on sale or use up leftover chicken from another meal). AND the pie filling can be made up ahead of time. It’s a family favorite for all ages, one dish, has veggies and doesn’t break the bank.

  16. Melinda P says

    The tip about salad dressing making or breaking the salad is SPOT ON! I’ve found I can only do homemade salad dressings, store bought tastes gross to me. And trust me, I eat ALOT of salad, so I make ALOT of salad dressing. I wish I could find some tips on saving money while doing the Atkins diet, LOL! We do get a CSA box of veggies every week, so that helps, but I wish I could buy a whole cow it like Kate above did for a good price! Cuz, oh my goodness, we would definitely be able to eat it all within a year….

  17. Niki says

    Love your recipes, however, I live in the South and if it’s Pintos there had better be some cornbread;) Our favorite frugal meal is chicken & dumplings. I buy the chicken on sale @ .59/pound. I make the dumplings from scratch(flour,Crisco, milk). Less than $5!!

  18. LOVE this post, Jessica, and your photos are making my mouth water! I really must try the real Parmesan cheese from Costco some time! 🙂


    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Tammy L, sometimes I get Asiago or Romano and use them interchangeably. Can’t go without it!

  19. Sarah says

    I also buy a huge wedge of parm from Costco and run it through my food processor. I store it in the fridge in a mason jar, and the extras freeze beautifully for months at a time. I get the grating done all at once, and get to enjoy the cheese for a long time!

    My tips:

  20. I love these ideas, Jessica! Your soup ideas are fabulous.

  21. FYI: my store’s 10# bag of pintos is $10.99, but Costco’s 25# is $12.99. I think you you should just go to Costco and as soon as you hand over your card decline any all offers in advance. You need them to save the most! 🙂

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Heather B, yes, I know. You’re right. Maybe I should ask if I can interview the guy for my blog…. I’ll take my video camera. Ha! Wouldn’t that be a hoot?!

  22. Ashley says

    Hello, I am a newlywed, working full-time to put my husband through college. My mom never really cooked a whole lot and we were raised as “fast-food” kids. I am struggling, I save money when using some coupons, but usually its just the processed junk that is discounted. I have started buying in bulk from some of the members only stores, but I always feel like I didn’t plan well enough or I am missing key ingredients. I make my own yogurt, and granola, I freeze alot, but I can’t get the whole menu planning thing down, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to only have to shop once a month or even every two months. Any tips? Any help will be appreciated!

  23. Jenise Leaser says

    With the holiday meals costing a lot, frugal meals are important in the weeks surrounding it. Our go-to inexpensive meals are pasta, breakfast for dinner, fajitas and homemade pizza. I get pizza dough from Trader Joe’s for $1 and throw on sauce, cheese and leftovers as toppings or just leave it plain. Feeding my family for under $5. Fajitas is a favorite way of using up leftover chicken. My family cannot get enough fajitas. I wish they liked beans more. Also, we just made a bunch of frugal meals with leftovers from the holidays. Tonight was split pea soup with the leftover ham bone. Yum!

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