Have you been wondering how to meal plan and if it will help you make the most of your monthly grocery budget? Almost everyone saves money with meal planning, and here is why!
- Having a plan helps keep you out of restaurants, which can be twice as expensive as eating at home.
- It reduces food waste, which saves money.
- You can be prepared to eat healthy when hunger strikes.
There are a million ways to meal plan. Everyone needs to find what works best for them.
Meal planning is a great tool, but it isn’t the magic bullet that will instantly cut your grocery bill in half. It helps, but if you’re trying to maximize your savings, you need to meal plan strategically.
Here are the steps I take to meal planning that have helped my family cut costs on the grocery bill. You may want to follow what I do exactly, or maybe you don’t think it will work for you. Either way, I hope it helps you get started on the right foot.
How To Meal Plan Like A Pro: Tips For Meal Planning
Before you get started, here are some general tips for those that have never tried this before.
- Plan to eat leftovers for lunch. That will save you time and energy on lunch prep, and help make sure you don’t waste any food.
- Keep breakfast staples on hand, such as oatmeal, healthy cereals, eggs, bread, & frozen sausage or bacon. I don’t plan out breakfasts–we eat from the staples I always keep on hand every day.
Be Careful With Snacks
I have learned the hard way that snacks are a huge budget buster. I have small children that want to snack, snack, snack all the time. I’m not saying don’t buy snacks, but just be intentional about them. Most kids shouldn’t need more than 3 snacks a day if they are eating their meals (a snack between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and dinner, and before bed).
Make sure that the snacks you buy are filling. We rely on fruits and veggies for most snacks, but I will also cut hunks off a block of cheese and serve with crackers, give them homemade yogurt, or they will get a granola bar. I tend to buy a large box of granola bars at Costco for the month, and when they’re gone, they’re gone! Some people have luck making granola bars, but I haven’t found a recipe that isn’t a sugar bomb or that doesn’t crumble to pieces yet.
You can also bake large batches of muffins and bread to freeze and pull out servings as needed.
Create A Master List Of Meals
When it comes time to meal plan, you need a place to choose your meals from. I keep a recipe binder that I use when I’m meal planning. For the most part, the recipes are tried and true family favorites.
I pick a mix of our old favorite recipes as well as new recipes. I get new recipes from places like Pinterest, social media, Google searches, and special meal planning applications like Mealime, EMeals, and 5 Dinners 1 Hour. The meal planning apps are a great time saver because they generate the shopping list for you for any meals you pick from that application.
Prepare A Calendar
I like to meal plan on a calendar, and I do it for a whole month at a time. Here’s why:
- It saves SO MUCH TIME. I don’t really like meal planning that much, so I like getting it out of the way all at once.
- It helps me to see if there are any items I could buy in bulk for the month to save time and money.
- I like to shop for all non-perishable and frozen items for the month at one time–this gives us options when we don’t feel like eating what is on the plan for that night, and it helps me make sure I have the house fully stocked with food. I end up shopping for about 2/3 of the items we need for the whole month at the beginning of the month. It helps keep me on track with the budget.
But you don’t have to meal plan or shop for a whole month if you are new to meal planning. I will admit, it’s a little more difficult than meal planning for just a few days or a week at a time. It is more time-consuming and requires more organization.
If you are new to meal planning, try planning one week at a time. OR you could plan the whole month out, but just worry about the shopping for the week ahead.
Take the calendar you have in front of you and make sure all social events and days you won’t need breakfast, lunch, or dinner are marked. If I know in advance we don’t need lunch a certain day, I will try to plan a meal that doesn’t have much for leftovers the day before.
You have the materials you need to plan now, but don’t pick any meals or recipes until you do the next few steps.
The best price for food you could get would be FREE! Do you know where you can get free food? Your pantry and freezer! Free in the sense that you have already paid for it, anyway.
Make a plan to utilize the things you have before you buy new things. When I did my first “Pantry & Freezer Challenge”, I cut my grocery bill almost in HALF from the previous month. I saved $300-$400 easily! That’s how much food I had accumulated over time. I have heard of people saving even more than that–it all depends on what you have stashed away that you can get creative with.
Some meals I created to use up what we had been….interesting. But they fed us and we saved money. Win!
Once you take inventory of everything you have, go through your master list of meals or perhaps some meals from a meal planning app. You can also try searching the net for ideas on how to use up what you have. Make it a priority to plan meals around the items you already have before coming up with new meal ideas.
Write your chosen meals on your planning calendar. If the meals are quick and easy, I put those on days it looks like we will have a busy evening. If they make a lot of leftovers. I plan it for a night when I know we will either be too busy to make dinner the next night or when we will need lots of lunches on the days ahead. Be strategic with your planning to cut down on waste.
Check The Circular Ads
Once you plan meals based on what you already have, check your circulars for sales. I love to use an app called Flipp–I can look up almost any circular on it, and it makes it easy for me to compare prices.
I start by looking at the meat sales because we eat meat on most days. I’ve tried cutting back on meat in the past, but my husband is a type 1 diabetic and we have learned that he does best managing his blood sugar with a lower carb way of eating. Low carb meals usually rely on meat as the source of protein.
I pick the meat sales that look the best and that I think we would enjoy eating, then I plan meals with those in mind. Then, I check the sale prices on the produce to see if I need to make any alterations to recipes to try to take advantage of what’s on sale.
While I may glance through the sales on pantry items and processed foods, most of the time I don’t plan meals around those items. I tend to pick up most canned or boxed goods we need at our Aldi grocery store.
Write down the meals you would like to make from the sale items on your calendar.
Finalize Your Plan & Shopping List
You’re almost done! If you still have any extra days open on your calendar waiting for meals, go through your recipe database and fill them up. Make sure you plan days for leftovers! It also helps to plan a “flex” day or two for things that pop up throughout the month.
If you’re not sure how many meals to plan, for reference I usually plan 12 different meals for the month. I always plan to make each meal twice. It makes creating the shopping list much easier.
That gives us 24 dinners in a month and leaves room for schedule changes and leftover nights.
Remember, you don’t have to eat a meal on a certain day just because you planned it for that day. I do shuffle meals around frequently. I try to plan strategically, but sometimes life happens!
The next step is creating your shopping list. It helps to list items by grocery store department.
I have a super helpful planning & shopping guide you can get for free by signing up for my mailing list. Click here to sign up and receive a free once-a-month shopping guide! (Check your spam folder if you don’t see the email come through).
Shop & Prep!
My shopping day is a huge endeavor. It involves at least 3 different stores, but sometimes even 4 or 5! I spent about half of our monthly grocery budget on this big trip. I often have my kids with me and, well, it’s always an interesting time.
But we make it through.
If you’re able, it can be a time-saver to prep things ahead of when you will need them. For example, I buy ground beef in bulk. I need to divide it up into appropriate portions for each meal before I freeze it.
I hope this helped you get started with meal planning! Do you have any questions or tips to add? Let me know in the comments!