Meal planning is absolutely essential if you have a tiny budget. If you do not have a meal plan ready to go—with all of the ingredients on hand—you are going to be tempted to eat out, which gets expensive quickly.
However, not all meal plans are created equal. Before my husband and I cut our grocery budget, our meal plans were extravagant (we are both foodies), and we would spend well over $100 on every grocery trip, getting ingredients for all the fanciest recipes. I had to learn the hard way not only how to meal plan, but how to do it on a very tight budget. Now we have a system that helps us put food on the table for only $50 a week—some weeks even less than that!
First things first—collect the weekly flier from your local grocery store.
Every store prints these up, even Aldi. They can usually be found close to the registers, but if you can’t find them, ask someone (a lot of stores put them up online as well). Pick up the current sales flier if you plan to shop within the week advertised, AND grab next week’s flier just so you have it.
Check online for coupons. I really like Coupon Mom for this, because you can look up printable coupons for the specific store where you shop. You get the best deals when you have a manufacturer’s coupon and a store sale on the same item, so it is always worth a double check to see if you can get a coupon. But try not to stress about coupons—this isn’t extreme couponing. Just take five minutes to check and see if there are any that you can easily print and use.
Okay, now the hard part—coming up with meals.
Brainstorm meals that use the ingredients that are on sale this week. Sometimes I will look up recipes, or I will hop over to Pinterest to find something that works. Be careful, though—a lot of recipes that you find online are delicious, but they can be pricey and require a laundry list of ingredients!
Keep it simple to save money. Most of the time, my family eats one type of meal—meat plus veggies plus starch. This formula is healthy and cheap, and should be the foundation of your meal planning. To mix things up, combine the ingredients by making a stir fry or a casserole.
Your meal planning should be centered around dinner when the budget is tight. Find something and stick with it when it comes to breakfast and lunch. Store brand cereal, oatmeal, and eggs are all great inexpensive options for breakfast. For lunch, eat leftovers or a sandwich. Cooking up fancy recipes for multiple meals a day will end up costing you, so keep it simple for breakfast and lunch.
Write your meal plan down.
Put all the meals you have planned into a calendar so that you remember what you have planned for each day. We have a dry erase board on our refrigerator that we use to write down the meals for the week, but simple pencil and paper works too. If you really want to get fancy with it, apps like MealBoard can be a big help.
Make a note of which nights are busy, and plan accordingly. For example, on nights when my husband gets home late, it is easier to have a simple pasta dinner than it is to pull out the grill for hamburgers. Be honest with yourself about your schedule so that you do not skip the meal you planned for the easiest (and most expensive) option of all—eating out.
Shop only once a week.
Pick a day that is easy for everyone, and go to the grocery store as a family. That way, everyone is on the same page about what the meal plan looks like for the week—and you have an extra set of hands in case of a tantrum. Go only once a week! Picking up a pint of ice cream or a bottle of wine on your way home from work is tempting, but don’t do it. These little extras aren’t part of your meal plan, and they can add up quickly. Try to get in the habit of ONLY shopping once a week if you want to stick to a tight budget for your meal plan.
It really is possible to meal plan on a small budget. Collect store ads, do a quick check for coupons, and then plan your meals accordingly. You will be surprised by how much money you can save by basing your meal planning on what is on sale. It takes some creative thinking when you have limited options for what you can make, but if you keep it simple it won’t be too difficult. Write your plan down in a calendar and then hit the store only once a week. If my husband and I can cut our grocery budget in half by meal planning this way, you can too!