An easy beginner's guide to meal planning on a budget.
Intentional Living,  Productivity

The Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning for Beginners on a Budget

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Meal planning used to intimidate me.

You know how it goes – sit down to plan your meals, get overwhelmed with recipes and ingredients, give up.

Go out to eat anyway.

I didn’t know how to start or stick to a meal plan.

Every time I tried, I ended up spending way too much money on complicated recipes that I never ended up cooking.

So we ate out.

A lot.

But sometimes life throws you circumstances that force you to learn and grow and stop eating out 4 times a week. 

I occupied my kids, grabbed a scrap of paper, and committed to only buying the absolute essentials for a month.

I wanted to keep the grocery budget as low as possible.

What I learned that month is that not only is meal planning so so easy, it’s saved us a ton of money and helped me get a cooked meal onto the table just about every single night.

What does it mean to “meal plan?”

Meal planning is simply the act of sitting down and figuring out what meals you intend to cook that week (or that month if you’re ambitious!).

  1. Look at your calendar
  2. Take into consideration your schedule
  3. Choose your meals
  4. Create a shopping list
  5. Stick to your menu

What are the benefits of meal planning?

  • Meal planning is a fantastic way to save some money each month
  • Eating out can add up quickly, so eating at home is the more frugal choice when it comes down to trying to find a little extra money in the budget
  • It takes the stress out of figuring out what to cook each evening
  • Impulsive shopping is decreased due to a more specific and intentional grocery list
  • It can be a way to exercise some creativity by using ingredients you have on hand before purchasing more
  • It saves time by streamlining the entire process of grocery shopping and meal prep
  • You have the opportunity to start implementing healthier meals into your diet by committing to them ahead of time and purchasing ingredients specifically for those meals

Here are some tips on creating goals to help you make changes in your life.

I’ve put together my best tips for meal planning for when you need to keep the budget as low as possible.

Meal Planning Tips

Have your favorite recipes available

Gone are the days when all of our recipes were stacked neatly on a shelf of recipe books.

That’s okay! Just know where to find your favorites.

I use a combination of Pinterest, Facebook, emails, recipe books, and my own recipes.

Consider the ingredients you have on hand

So often we buy food before eating what we actually have in the pantry.

Consider what you have, get creative, and see what you can make using the ingredients you already have on hand.

Simple snack for meal planning on a budget.

Keep meals and snacks simple

Decide on your “meal template,” and let that help you plan out your meals. For dinner, I tend to stick to meat + veggie + starch with fruit for dessert.

When trying to keep the grocery bill down, try having sandwiches for lunch instead of eating out.

Try snacking on fruits and nuts instead of buying several different bags and boxes of “convenience foods.”

Your meals do not have to be complicated, nor do they have to be brand new recipes full of tons of ingredients.

Keep it simple.

Plan your meals

Figure out what you want to cook and on which day.

Create a list of the exact ingredients you’ll need. Try to use ingredients that you already have on hand.

Take your calendar into consideration. Plan your easiest, quickest meals for your busiest days, and more involved meals on the days you know you’ll have the time.

I tend to cook bigger meals or try new recipes on Saturdays or Sundays when my husband is home to help with the kiddos.

Designate days to make meal planning easier

Create a list of designated days to spark ideas for you while meal planning.

Here’s a list of ideas:

  • Crockpot/Slow Cooker
  • Taco Tuesday
  • Meatless Monday
  • Asian
  • Sandwich Night
  • Picnic Night (Easy finger foods)
  • Sheet Pan Dinner
  • Hobo Dinner
  • Breakfast-for-Dinner
  • Hot Sandwiches
  • Mexican
  • Meat & Veggies
  • Italian
  • Homemade Soup
  • Casserole Night
  • Freezer Meal (For if you have a stock of freezer meals saved up.)
  • Paleo/Low Carb
  • Stir Fry Night
  • Salad Night
  • Soup or Stew
  • American
  • Seafood
  • New Recipe Night
  • Treat Yo’ Self (Family favorite meal)
  • International
  • Popcorn and Ice Cream (This is a favorite for Friday nights during the summer!)
  • Eat Out!

Simple meals and snacks for meal planning on a budget.

Create your grocery list throughout the week

In addition to the necessary ingredients that you’ll need for recipes, keep a running list of odds and ends items that you need. This can include toiletries, home maintenance items, beauty items, or kitchen staples such as olive oil or flour.

Be deliberate about what you add to the list. Buy only those items that you’ll need for the next week or two.

Buy in bulk

Consider buying items that you use often in bulk, such as paper plates, paper towels, frozen chicken breast, rice, etc.

You’ll tend to save a bit of money when you buy in bulk and you won’t have to purchase it every week or so.

Use a grocery pick up  or delivery service

This keeps impulse shopping to a minimum, as well as saving you some time and effort! Win-win! It’s definitely a must if you have kids!

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Cook meals that give you leftovers

Leftovers can be used for lunches, or are great for dinners on nights that you know you won’t have time to cook.

Or you can freeze the leftovers for a quick and easy meal for another night!

Keep a “back up meal” on hand

A “back up meal” is something you can keep in the pantry for a few months without it going bad, and is great for the days that you forget to thaw the meat or accidentally burn dinner.

Your “back up meal” will help keep you from eating out or ordering pizza if something doesn’t go according to plan.

We love keeping ingredients for taco bowls, waffles, and noodles with marinara on hand for our back ups!

Simple ingredients for meal planning on a budget.

Keep your menu visible

Your menu should be kept in a place that’s easy to see when you step into your kitchen.

Check in with it daily to make sure you allow yourself enough time to get dinner on the table by dinner time.

Your menu doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I use a plain notepad that I keep on my countertop.

Keep your on-going grocery list accessible

If you have to jump through hoops to make a list, you won’t make it.

Keep your list somewhere easy to access. This may be on your phone or on a notepad, but either way, it’ll make your shopping so much easier to have one on hand.

Establish a routine and stick to your menu

Pick a day that you’ll plan your meals and get your grocery list together, and the day that you’ll do your grocery pick up.

Try to stick to your menu as much as possible.

If something keeps you from sticking to your menu, use a back up meal instead of eating out.

Remember to just keep it simple…

Do we stick to this every week? Nope. But it gives me a guideline when I’m feeling stumped about what to serve my family for dinner, saves us money, and takes the stress out of prepping dinner.

What are some of your favorite meal planning tips and tricks? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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  • Alina

    So I have a complication of favorite recipes, but it seems like every time I look at there’s some reason why none of them seem to work. I’ve thought about how much variety we have in our diets as Americans, and honestly if we rotated 14 different meals (2 weeks worth), we’d be just fine. I’m wanting to try that here soon to super simplify and then see what family favorites get left out. After the experiment, I can add those recipes in and maybe end up with a no-fail, everyone likes every meal, 3 week rough rotation. With our 3rd baby arriving in about a month, a super simple rotation would be a lifesaver! The kids won’t care, and hubby and I would honestly not mind either.

    I love your list of categories. One meal for each category gives you quite a spread.

    • simplequietmama

      Awesome idea, Alina! We tend to have 2-3 meals we do weekly (breakfast for dinner, chicken and veggie night, Mexican food night) and then fill the other nights in with a rotation of our favorite meals. Good luck with figuring out your rotation! Let me know how it goes!

  • Cynthia Hanna

    I love the back up idea! Working and dealing with chronic illnesses/chronic pain/exhaustion and disabilities means that I simply have days when I’m unable to spend time prepping or standing at the stove.
    Wanting to avoid processed foods, I’ve started planning and prepping healthy crockpot meals ahead of time and freezing in reuseable bags. Now I’ll also work on coming up with a list of easy back up foods. My 3 year old grandson and his dad live with me currently, so I’ll also be adding healthy snack options – and teaching my son to cook more foods, lol.

    Definitely looking forward to a bit more quality of life!

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