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10 Family Meal Planning Tips & Ideas on a Budget

By Kristia Ludwick

meal planning woman cookIf your grocery spending has spiraled out of control, yet you often feel like you have “nothing” to eat, you can adapt meal planning to make every meal a success. With careful planning and organization, you know ahead of time what to serve for dinner and what to defrost ahead of time, and you have all of the ingredients that you need on hand to make every meal. More importantly, your grocery spending becomes more manageable when you plan your meals.

Meal planning involves creating a corresponding grocery list to successfully execute the meals in your plan. I started meal planning six years ago, and over that time I have reduced my family’s intake of processed foods, like frozen pizzas and Rice-a-Roni, and significantly cut our grocery bill. With about 30 minutes a week of time invested, I have saved myself money and time, and I’ve also saved my sanity.

Learn more about the benefits of meal planning and see some of the best tips and strategies below to help you get started.

Benefits of Meal Planning

You can benefit from using a meal plan in a number of ways. Using a meal plan saves you money and time, and you eat better, healthier foods when you plan your meals ahead of time. Here’s the full list of benefits:

  1. Saves Money. Armed with a plan and a list, you only need to make one trip to the store each week, thus eliminating the opportunities for impulse purchases. You also save money by taking advantage of weekly sales to tailor your menu, avoiding duplicate purchases, and reducing the urge to order take-out.
  2. Saves Time. You have to spend about 30 minutes to plan a week’s worth of meals. When you plan your meals, you can efficiently shop for groceries using your list, and you only have to shop once a week. You can spend dinner time preparing and enjoying your meal, instead of standing in front of the refrigerator waiting for a dinner idea to magically pop into your head.
  3. Helps You Eat Healthier. By planning three meals a day, seven days a week, you can avoid visiting the drive-thru in the morning, abstain from a lunch hour vending machine frenzy, and resist the temptation to order from a pricey take-out dinner menu. Before I planned our weekly menu, my husband and I ate a lot of frozen pizzas and packaged frozen skillet meals loaded with sodium, or we dined at restaurants. We now plan ahead and enjoy more home-cooked meals made with fresh foods.
  4. Helps Reduce Food Waste. Before I started planning my meals, I often opened a cupboard only to find three loaves of bread, two bottles of minced garlic, and an extra jar of mayonnaise. I didn’t check my pantry’s inventory before I went shopping, and I routinely picked up more bread, spices, and condiments at the store. Many times, the loaves of bread spoiled before I could put them in the freezer, and the spices and condiments passed their expiration dates before we could use them. Now I create my shopping list after looking at what I already have in the kitchen. A meal plan can also help you finish leftovers, because a refrigerator full of forgotten food wastes money.
  5. Helps Reduce Your Stress. No more worries about what to have for dinner; you now have a plan. You’ll know when to pull food out of the freezer, avoid the mad rush through the grocery store at six o’clock, and most importantly, reduce the amount of money you spend.

Now that you have a handle on why you should create a meal plan, let’s explore how you can successfully integrate meal planning into your life.

couple cooking kitchen

10 Tips & Strategies for Successful Meal Planning

1. Make a Master List of 10-20 Meals
Ask everyone in your family for a list of their favorite meals. Prioritize the list, highlighting foods that you can quickly prepare and meals that don’t require too many ingredients. Organize this list by category, including beef, chicken, crock-pot dishes, fish, vegetarian meals, side dishes, and soups.

Gather the recipes and keep everything in a handy notebook or store them on your computer for easy access. You will refer to this list often when you plan your meals.

2. Write Your Meal Plan on Paper
I have used a blank calendar in the past, but I now use a piece of notebook paper. I list the days of the week down the left side to log my meals, and I use the right side of the paper to make my grocery list. I can then easily bring my plan with me to the grocery store.

I plan one week at a time, but you could easily plan two to three weeks or even a month’s worth of meals. Post the plan on the refrigerator for everyone to see.

3. Plan for All Three Meals
When I don’t plan for breakfast and lunch along with dinner, I am more likely to skip meals or visit the drive-thru. You can make quick and easy breakfast foods and with some careful planning you can still head out the door on time in the morning. You can also use leftovers from the previous night’s dinner to prepare lunches. Make an extra serving or several extra servings at dinner time to pack for the next day’s brown bag lunch.

4. Review Your Family Calendar
Are you working late this week? Do you have plans to visit the in-laws for Saturday night dinner? Do your kids have a soccer game or a Girl Scout meeting during the week? Take all of these scheduling issues into consideration when planning your meals. Once you know your family’s schedule, you can plan accordingly. For example, eat leftovers for those late nights at the office, take the night off from cooking when you visit your in-laws, and prepare a crock-pot meal for soccer night.

5. Plan Your Menu Around What You Already Have on Hand
To get started, you need to organize your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Group the food in your pantry by category, including baking ingredients, canned goods, condiments, coffee and tea, pasta and rice, sauces, and snacks. Clean your freezer and refrigerator and throw out any expired food.

Once you’ve organized the food in your home, and thrown away anything that’s expired, take inventory of what you have on hand. Plan meals around the food you already have. In addition to reducing your grocery bill, this helps to eliminate duplicate purchases.

For example, I recently cleaned out our freezer and found some leftover cooked ham. After a quick look in my pantry and refrigerator, I realized that I had almost all of the ingredients to make ham risotto and a ham frittata. The few ingredients that I did not have went on my grocery list.

6. Plan Your Meals Around Your Grocery Store’s Sales Circular
Most grocery stores run their weekly sales circular on Sundays. My Sunday paper costs $2 and by planning my menus around the sales, the paper more than pays for itself.

Recently, my store’s circular promoted three-pound packs of boneless, skinless chicken breast at $1.79 a pound. I took advantage of the promotion and updated my meal plan to include grilled chicken salad, chicken stir-fry, and white chicken chili. I also purchased an additional package of chicken breasts for the freezer to use in upcoming meals.

The Sunday newspaper also includes coupons, which you can take advantage of. Learn the process of extreme couponing by combining coupons with grocery sales and thus maximizing savings.

grocery shopping list

7. Plan Your Meals Around Foods That Are Currently in Season
You can find the best prices on fresh produce during harvest season. My menu changes dramatically from summer to fall and winter.

For example, I have a list of meals that I generally only cook in the colder months because they might require the oven, which I try to avoid in the summer, or they are just heavier meals, such as soups or casseroles. In the colder months, many of our meals include cold weather vegetables, such as fall and winter squashes, sweet potatoes, and kale. In the warmer months, we grill several times a week and our side dishes usually include something freshly picked from the home garden or bought at a farmer’s stand, such as tossed salads, fresh fruit, and corn on the cob.

Whatever the season, take advantage of the seasonal produce from your garden, farm stands, or u-pick farms; you won’t find those prices at other times of the year.

8. Declare One Night “Clean Out the Fridge” Night
If your family regularly throws away leftover meals, institute a “Clean Out the Fridge” night, where you only eat leftovers. In addition, look in the pantry for canned goods nearing their expiration dates and add them to the menu. This reduces food waste, and gives you a night off from cooking.

9. Make a Double Batch of Your Favorite Meals: One for Dinner and One for the Freezer.
The more home-cooked, prepared food that you have stored in your freezer, the less stress you feel when planning your menu. For instance, if you plan to have grilled chicken one night, grill a few extra chicken breasts and shred them after they have cooled. The cooked chicken stores well in the freezer and you can use it for a chili recipe, quesadillas, salads, and soups.

I often make a double batch of enchiladas. One pan goes in the oven, and I cover the second pan with foil and stow it in the freezer. When I’m ready to serve enchiladas again, I thaw the pan overnight in the refrigerator and then bake the enchiladas for dinner. Foods that don’t freeze well, however, include cooked pasta, cooked potatoes, fried foods, milk sauces, and raw salads.

10. Refer to Your Meal Plan Daily
Don’t forget to check your meal plan daily to see what you need to defrost, and to make any adjustments based on last-minute schedule changes.

One afternoon, we realized that our town had a holiday parade going on that evening, and I had already planned to serve lasagna, a dish that easily takes an hour and a half to prep and bake. So I referred to my meal plan and moved the lasagna to another night, and we dined on leftovers on parade night. In the past, we might have resorted to ordering take-out, but now I just reorganize our meal plan.

Final Word

Grocery spending can easily take a big chunk out of your budget, but when you plan your meals, you can easily control this aspect of your budget.

By spending 30 minutes each week taking inventory of our food and creating meal plans, I have drastically reduced my family’s grocery spending. In addition, meal planning has improved the quality of our meals, eliminated unnecessary and frequent trips to the store, and reduced the stressful chaos that used to surround dinner hour.

Do you create a meal plan for your family? What are some of the best time and money saving strategies that work for you?

For a great online service that helps you plan cheap and healthy meals, check out our E-Mealz Review.

emealz makeover
(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Kristia Ludwick
Kristia writes about family finances, frugal living, and food at Family Balance Sheet. She spends her offline time raising her two daughters, helping her husband run a small business, and training for her first half-marathon.

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Comments

  • Geniekate

    Such good practical information! When I was still employed and often asking “what do I fix to eat?” my daughter suggested planning meals ahead. This is such a good, basic article!

    • http://www.familybalancesheet.org Kristia

      Geniekate ~ With meal planning, you’ll never find yourself asking ‘what do I fix to eat?’ again. Thanks for commenting.

  • http://www.smslaana.se Smslån

    Great reading…hate planning.. especially when it comes to meal. Might be worthwhile. Thanks for great article!

    • http://www.familybalancesheet.org Kristia

      Smslan ~ I know that planning can be a drag sometimes, but meal planning is very worthwhile especially if you are trying to manage your food budget. Thanks for commenting.

  • http://dojoblog.net Dojo

    Excellent advice. We’re currently losing a lot of money since I buy like someone who’s been starving for the past 20 years. Planning our meals would make the entire process easier (less wasted time) and it will surely reduce our grocery bills, which right now are not that ‘small’ either.

    • http://www.familybalancesheet.org Kristia

      Dojo ~ Give meal planning a try. I’m sure it will help you reduce your grocery bills.

  • Sticktoitplanner

    Great advice! Because meal planning is so critical to my ability to maintain my 150 pound weight loss, I co-created StickToIt! Magnetic Menu Planner. It goes right on your fridge and comes with blank magnets to customize your planner with your family’s favorite meals. I think your readers could benefit greatly from it! Great article!

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