Ready to start meal planning on a budget? This post for beginners shows ideas for how to pick recipes for a family and avoid costs. Even includes free grocery list and meal planner printables!
(Scan down to the bottom for an amazing deal on a huge meal planning resource…available today only!)
In the past couple of years, I've acquired a little bit of experience in the meal planning department. I'm currently working on plans #15 and #16 in my freezer meal boot camp line-up (and that's not counting the ones that I've published before on the blog). I've loved kind of flexing my muscles on the last few plans I've made – they've ranged everywhere from low carb to vegan, and with the two budget plans I'm currently working on, I've done my best to get 10 meals in the freezer for around $100 total.
The budget plans been a growing experience – I've never really focused on ingredient cost with my other boot camps, so I've definitely learned a few sure-fire tips and tricks to optimizing my budget. At the same time, I don't want to just fill the recipes with junk – you have to find a balance between cost-effective, healthy, and tasty. I thought I'd share a few tricks I've learned with you guys today!
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1. Start by picking the right recipes.
Any good meal planner will tell you that, after assessing what ingredients you already have on hand, the most essential step in meal planning is picking your recipes. I don't need to tell you how many recipes are available out there – you imagine it, it's there. But, with budget meal planning, a huge factor is picking recipes that stretch your budget.
Look for recipes that line up with sales that might be happening at your local grocery stores every week. I use Walmart grocery pick-up and, especially with meats, I'll often find sales and discounts on more expensive cuts…just browse the site (by searching “meat”) before picking your recipes! The discounted ones will have a price crossed out with the sale price next to it in red. I also tend to shy away from more expensive (and often unnecessary) ingredients – spices (especially those that are used very sparingly in recipes) can often bump up your grocery bill, so if a recipe is loaded with them, stay away from it.
2. Watch meat and veggie costs.
Each time I plan out a boot camp, I type out my grocery list and quickly (using the Walmart grocery site) type out each ingredient's cost to make sure my overall bill is right around $100 for 10 meals. Usually, the main culprits for a bill that's too high are expensive cuts of meat and/or vegetables. Now, obviously, these are typically important parts of a meal – but there are ways to cut them that don't cut the freshness or nutrition of a meal.
Shy away from produce that is more expensive because it's out of season or obscure. Stick with the essentials – carrots, cabbage, celery, bell peppers, squash, potatoes, and lots of others I'm not thinking of right now are great ways to load your meals up with vegetables without breaking the bank. And, if you're cooking them, definitely don't be scared of frozen veggies. Frozen produce often holds most (if not all) of the nutrients of fresh and can really cut your grocery bill.
With meats, I generally try to stay below $3 a pound in a budget plan. Yes, that eliminates a lot of your better cuts of meat, but you can still find lean & nutritious options at the price point. Most chicken cuts (including boneless, skinless breasts), ground meats, pork chops, etc. can be found at this rate, especially if you shop sales. Bonus points if you can even plan a meal that is completely meatless – these are great for a budget!
3. Cut the fluff.
With each recipe, scan the ingredient list for fluff. If it doesn't add flavor or nutrition to the meal, cut it. Like I mentioned earlier, tiny amounts of expensive ingredients can often be a red flag in a recipe. If you can cut even one or two of them, do it – it will make a difference in your budget.
Also look for ways you can make expensive pre-made ingredients at home. I love making my own broths in the Instant Pot – it's a huge money saver for things like soups. Instead of using spice blends from the grocery store, you can always make things like taco seasoning and chili seasoning at home. These are easy to whip up and use for months right from your pantry.
4. Cook/freeze in bulk.
Now you guys know I'm a fan of this. 🙂 Not only is bulk freezer cooking a massive time-saver, but it's a great cost cutter as well. If you're anything like me, you throw away past-prime produce all the time when it's stored in the fridge for cooking. Ingredients have a much, much longer shelf life when frozen – I easily store meals for 6 months in the freezer.
In addition to saving you from wasted food, bulk freezer cooking allows for bulk ingredient buying as well. You'll get more bang for your buck by purchasing your ingredients in larger quantities.
If you're not a huge fan of freezer cooking, at least consider the “cook it once, eat it twice” rule. Cook a double portion of your meals and eat them for a couple of nights in a row. Yes, this is a little bit boring sometimes, but it allows you to buy ingredients in bulk for big grocery savings.
5. Keep it simple.
I've found in my research for current budget boot camps that, the smaller the ingredient list, the smaller the cost. This kind of goes with the cutting the fluff rule above – by narrowing your recipes (and, overall, your grocery list) down to a few simple and essential ingredients, you're reducing the waste of lots of sparingly-used ingredients in your pantry.
Now for those printables!
These two printables match a much more extensive meal and grocery planning set I have in my new set of planner printables, The Year of Intent. The grocery planning printable follows a similar approach to what I do to plan my budget meal plans. I write down ingredients in each grocery category (meat, produce, canned & packaged, dairy, frozen, and bakery), quickly research the cost of each unit that week, and use that number to figure my overall grocery budget. From there, you can cut and replace ingredients as needed to reduce your budget.
I also love planning my meal plans a week at time; this weekly meal planning printable allows you to schedule your meals and analyze overall meal cost (using your grocery planning sheet) and price per serving. This is wonderful to save for later to help with future budget meal planning as well – no need to do the work twice!
(And, if you love these printables, make sure to check out The Year of Intent – it's a collection of over 60 similar printables to organize every area of your life, including finances, schedule, goals, and more!)
Happy meal planning!