How to Make a Money Saving Meal Plan

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It’s always been a good idea to try to save money on food. It’s rarely been as important as right now.

Grocery prices have skyrocketed in the past two years. In the 12 months since August 2021, eggs have gone up 39.8%, butter and margarine up 29.3%, flour up 23.3%, cereals and bakery items up 16.4% and dairy and related products up 16.2%.

Overall, grocery prices raised 13.5% in that time frame. This is the kind of problem that hits everyone. Let’s face it: You’ve got to eat. But how do you do it without busting our budget?

It takes planning. Without meal planning, you will buy food you don’t really need, pay too much and waste food unnecessarily. You’ll make unnecessary extra trips to buy the one ingredient you don’t have. You’ll buy fast food meals because you didn’t plan for busy days.

If you plan well and stick to it, you’ll save money. You actually might even eat better.

What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is deciding in advance what you and your family will eat for every meal – snacks included – for the coming week.

If you live alone, that’s 21 main meals plus the number of snacks you will eat. If you’re a family of four, multiply that number by four, even if you’re all eating the same meals, because you have to account for how much you’re going to buy.

How to Make a Meal Plan

The first time you plan meals for a week, it will seem like a lot of work. But after a few weeks, when you’re accustomed to the routine, it won’t feel like much work.

Look at your schedule to see which days you might have extra mouths, such as guests, to feed, and when you might be so busy that the meal preparation will have to be quick. If your family doesn’t mind leftovers, factor those into the schedule, as well.

Go through your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry so you are clear on what ingredients you have – you won’t need to buy those. Build your recipes and meals around what you have. If some of your items are close to their expiration date, plan to use them before they go bad.

It’s not enough to know what ingredients you have, but how many meals you can make from them. That can be simple – at two slices per, it’s easy to determine how many sandwiches you can make from a loaf of bread. As you plan meals, make a point to learn how far you can stretch a pound of ground beef, a head of lettuce, cans of beans and the like.

Once you’ve decided on meals, make a written list of what you need to buy. Look for grocery coupons and sales so you can get the best deals. When you’re shopping, be disciplined: Only buy what’s on your list.

How Does Meal Planning Help Avoid Wasting Food?

American households throw out almost 32% of the food they buy. That’s a lot of food. That’s a lot of money: roughly $240 billion. Here are some other ways to plan so you eat what you’ve bought.

  • Use your freezer. Freeze your leftovers so they won’t go bad so quickly and incorporate them into your next meal plan. Keep emergency freezer meals so you always have something ready to eat if you get too busy to cook what you planned for dinner.
  • Keep a snack food like canned nuts around so you, if you get hungry, you don’t eat something you’d planned for later in the week.
  • Pack lunches the night before. Mornings can be hectic, and if you run out of time, you end up eating out, which is more expensive.
  • Commit to eating foods before they spoil.

Tips for Meal Planning on a Budget

The meal preparation is easier if you can use an assembly line system. Cook the ground meat at one time for several dishes you’ll eat that week, then portion them out: so much for Tuesday’s tacos, so much for Thursday’s spaghetti, so much for Saturday’s lasagna. Store the meat for later in the week in tupperware, zip-lock bags or other appropriate receptacles and store them in the refrigerator until needed.

Make more than you need and freeze the rest for future weeks.

Keep your recipes simple. The more ingredients in your meals, the more complicated the planning and preparation.

In addition, there are meal-planning apps and calendars that can help you. Some worth considering are:

  • Mealime – suggests meals that are easy to make and customize to your liking. The app costs $2.99.
  • $5 Meal Plan – emails weekly meal plans to you every Friday morning that includes six dinners, breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dessert. It costs $5 a month after a 14-day trial.
  • Plan To Eat – offers recipes and auto-generates a grocery list. It costs $4.95 a month or $39 a year after a 14-day trial.

Other Ways to Save Money on Meals

There are a lot of old-school ways to make grocery dollars go further.

  • Save money on groceries by comparing the unit price to determine whether a large, packed food is more economical than a smaller size. That’s usually the case, but not always.
  • Only use coupons if you will actually eat or use the food.
  • Check those expiration dates. Make sure you have enough time to use the item before it goes bad.
  • Bring a calculator to the grocery store and keep track of what you’re spending as you shop.
  • Never shop when you’re hungry. You’ll be tempted to buy more and choose unhealthy items.
  • Grocery stores or supermarkets typically offer lower prices than specialty shops and convenience stores.
  • Pay attention to food prices so you’ll know what’s a good deal.
  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season when they’re less expensive.
  • Buy fruit at varying stages of ripeness to avoid waste, using the riper fruit for more immediate eating, and the rest later.
  • Store brands are usually less expensive than nationally advertised brands.
  • Store your food properly. Apples last longer in a refrigerator than at room temperature. Mushrooms last longer in a paper bag rather than plastic. Keep potatoes in a cool, dark place.
  • Get the most out of what you buy. A whole chicken isn’t just breast meat, legs, and wings. Render down the fat to use again, just as you’d use bacon fat. Take the carcass and boil it to create chicken stock, which you can freeze for later use.
  • You don’t have to be a vegan to occasionally go meatless. Meat is expensive, so creating vegetarian meals is a nice, healthy change of pace that can save money, too. Even if you don’t want to cut out meat entirely, you can use less meat and substitute vegetables or grains to make the meal more filling.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper than fresh ones. Green beans⁠, corn⁠, broccoli florets⁠, peas⁠, mixed vegetables, strawberries, and pineapple are among the items typically available in the frozen food section.
  • Buy in bulk and freeze or store what you don’t use immediately, so it doesn’t go bad.

There is no way to predict exactly how much you will save by planning meals every week, but experts estimate the low end should be around $1,500 a year. If you were a frequent visitor to restaurants or fast-food stops, the savings easily will add up to more than $2,000.

And that doesn’t include the health benefits. Studies show that home-cooked meals have fewer calories and are more nutritious.

Saving money on food while eating healthier are two great goals for any family.

About The Author

George Morris

In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.


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