Excessive spending on food is usually directly related to eating out in a restaurant. However, most of us fail to notice how much money we’re throwing down the drain when we eat this way, because food ordered in a drive-thru or at a diner is considered a daily necessity. This goes for other similar purchases as well, like take-out, frequent visits to the vending machine for snacks, and can even apply to filling up the grocery cart without a plan.
You can reverse the effects of a wasteful food budget by creating a monthly and weekly meal plan and following through on them. The success of money-saving meal plans depends on preparation too, so to empower you to streamline your monthly meal planning, we will share tips on grocery shopping as well as efficient meal preparation methods.
Join us as we review the process which can help you plan meals on a budget.
What is meal planning?
Meal planning is practically a schedule with specific ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for everyone in the household. These plans typically cover a one-month period – primarily to coincide with the monthly budget (wages and expenses), but also because, apart from staples that have a long shelf life, fresh food is bought on an ongoing basis.
The process entails three steps:
- Choosing recipes;
- Shopping for ingredients;
- Preparing the meals.
It’s quite straightforward and the steps are obvious because we actually go through them even if no meal plan is involved. This process gets slightly more complex when a restrictive variable, like dietary goals or limited supplies, is introduced to the system.
What’s an efficient budget for a monthly meal plan?
In our case, the meal plan has to remain on budget, so that’s where most of the focus goes. A food budget of $100-120 per household member for a monthly meal plan is considered thrifty. If one of your goals is to cut down your spending on food, this is an attainable goal. Of course, if you (or someone else in the household) have special dietary requirements, food allergies, or prefer organic ingredients, the budget will vary.
Aside from that – you can develop an efficient food budget fairly quickly. Athletes adhere to monthly meal plans, as do people in remote locations (boats, islands, camping, or expeditions), so there is no reason why you couldn’t do it, too. You are in the comfort of your home and you have a lot of amazing tools at your disposal.
How to plan meals for a month on a budget?
Although the thought of planning a month’s worth of meals in advance can be overwhelming, the truth is that, if you keep things as simple as possible, monthly meal plans will become a routine for you. The most popular method out there is to start with a general monthly meal plan. This plan is to be revised and solidified each week.
If you approach meal preparation with forward-thinking, your food budget can become very efficient. This begins to apply from the moment you put together a grocery list to the moment you start making the most of the food in your pantry.
Let’s look at these methods in greater detail.
Monthly meal plan
You can use a blank monthly calendar and populate it with meal ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a very simple method, but it’s important to include as many meal ideas as possible so that you can plan your shopping (more on that below).
Some folks don’t include the breakfast and lunch categories to avoid being redundant, because, most of the time, breakfast comes down to a handful of meals (cereal, eggs, bacon, pancakes, toast, sandwich).
It’s fairly easy to find templates for a monthly meal planner online if you feel that a dedicated workbook will help make things easier. Some people organize their meal plans in a bookmarked binder, others keep a current meal plan stuck to the fridge, and then there are those who prefer using an app. You can do whatever works for you.
Once you have the monthly meal plan, you can create a grocery list (either within the meal plan or on a separate sheet).
Weekly meal plan
Grocery shopping and weekly meal plans go together because, in most households, the trips to the store are done weekly or biweekly. The general outline from the monthly meal plan is reviewed once a week (for example, each Sunday). This helps to streamline the meal preparation and avoid food waste.
The weekly meal plan is not set in stone. You can easily revise the plan and switch two of the meals if you (or your kids) suddenly have an appointment and you don’t have enough time to prepare a two or three-course meal. What is important, though, is to have a clear idea about the ingredients you’ll need for the next week. For example, your family can have two dinners based on chicken next week – but the actual days for the chicken enchilada and chicken caesar sandwich can vary.
How to grocery shop
Those of you who set a monthly grocery budget (through a budgeting app or the envelope system) have already put the money aside. But this doesn’t mean you should pick up the grocery list and blow the budget on your next trip to the supermarket.
Saving starts by prioritizing items on your list that are on sale. Apart from being on the lookout for discounts, buying generic brands and buying staples in bulk can additionally save you some money.
Items like meat, alcohol, and fresh produce are generally more expensive, so look for discounts and good deals on them. A pro tip on getting fresh fruits and veggies is to go for the seasonal (and locally grown, when possible) produce. They will not only be cheaper but also richer in flavor and higher in nutritional value.
Bulk buys are recommended for staples like rice, pasta, frozen veggies, flour, legumes (lentils, beans), root vegetables, nuts, seeds, and olive oil – of course, it’s best to get them while they are on sale. They are usually shelf-stable for long periods of time, so you can afford to purchase them in bulk and use them throughout the whole month (and even beyond that).
How to avoid going over budget
This is a pivotal point on saving during grocery shopping – because if you go over budget often, then your savings will suffer. You can try different approaches to mitigate over-spending.
Some people curb this issue by shopping online, provided, of course, they don’t deviate from the original grocery list in the process. There’s a lot less temptation when you’re looking at a screen (as opposed to sifting through the isles).
Then, you can analyze the spending in the past – is there any brand that burdens your budget? If possible, you can replace it with a generic brand, which will cost you less (don’t pay for fancy logos and marketing). Also, spices and exotic ingredients tend to be expensive. If this is an issue for you, then you buy those items at a deli or a shop that specializes in spices – they’d be willing to sell you the goods in smaller quantities. Or, you can drop them and experiment with meal preparation.
Before we turn to that, though, let’s take a look at the supplies stored back home.
Create a food inventory
Ok, you don’t need a detailed inventory to maximize saving on food. You can simply do a check of your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer once a month, and organize them based on the expiry date of the products. This particularly applies to bulk purchases you’ve done in the past – don’t let your food go bad.
Such inventory will not only help reduce the massive problem of food waste, but it can also allow you to replace items on your grocery list with products that are to be used in your weekly meal plan. Hence, you add some cash to your food budget because you can exclude (or postpone) some of the grocery shopping costs.
Of course, meal preparation is more than integrating products that are about to expire into your weekly meal plan.
The general advice on efficient meal preparation revolves around maximizing cooking (when you do have the time) and using leftovers.
Cooking in batches is always a good idea. If we use the example with chicken (from earlier), you can cook the whole chicken on Monday, and separate a portion to have chicken caesar salad the same day. Then, on Tuesday, you can prepare chicken wings, and on Wednesday you can use the bones for a stew or a soup. And when you do make a soup, make as much of it as possible, as it can be easily refrigerated, reheated, and served on short notice.
This solves the issue of not having enough time to prepare a meal from scratch every day, which is quite natural for families with small kids, but for others as well.
In some households, one day (in the weekly meal plan) is specifically assigned for leftovers. Others include leftovers on the go, and, time permitting, you can get creative with this. There are a lot of recipes in which leftovers can be used, and the leftover omelet is the most typical example of this.
Doubling recipes helps save time on cooking, reduce food waste, and, of course, save you money.
Other meal preparation tips
Introducing an “emergency meal” to your meal planning – one that doesn’t require a lot of energy to make it, but is tasty and nutritional – is very handy. No one feels like cooking every single day, and pasta dishes are an example of meals that can be prepared in an instant, yet provide nutrition.
Speaking of, you can also reduce the weekly intake of meat, and start eating more grains. This will be a cheaper alternative, and, if done properly, it can satisfy your needs for protein.
There are many other ways to further customize the meal plan. For instance, sometimes the climate dictates your monthly meal planning because you simply have to eat fresh food first if you are in an environment that is hot and humid. These are just some general tips, and those of you with specific dietary requirements will have to tweak these guidelines to suit particular needs.
The benefits of meal planning
A lot of people find meal planning intimidating, time-consuming, and impractical – and for some, it certainly is. However, if you consider starting monthly meal planning to save some money, and this financial goal is important to you, the system will work.
You don’t have to sacrifice eating out or having dinner parties (and social events) at home to save money on food. You just need to keep these types of expenses in check.
The case for meal planning
Remember, despite the schedule and the lists, your meal planning can include experimentation, customization, and revisions. Having meals already planned for the next week allows you to save time on both shopping and preparing food. Your monthly meal plan will make it easier to avoid eating unhealthy food, and you can even design it in a way that covers other goals in your life (like weight loss through better portion control, or bulking and shredding workout plans). A good meal plan prevents food waste and, in most cases, it increases variety.
It will definitely save you money, too. Let’s put this into perspective.
Estimate your long-term losses on food
If your household wastes 400$ a month due to poor meal planning, that is $4,800 in a year. And if you project these numbers into the future, say 5 years, the sum total is $24,000. This might equal the amount of debt you carry, so you get the implications of meal planning on your financial goals. In plain terms, saving on food can help you repay your debts.
There are a lot of resources to help you start planning your meals, including numerous alternatives, too. One popular example are meal subscription companies that deliver portioned ingredients to your door. However, you still need to cook the meals, so your input and time are required to make it work. Plus, a lot of them package every single ingredient in a separate plastic container, so it’s not the most eco-friendly solution.
At the end of the day, monthly meal planning and efficient grocery shopping are the best options for saving money on food and wasting as little of it as possible. The only alternative that beats this is the one where you eliminate visits to the store because you grow your own food.