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How to meal plan on a budget — 5 strategies that really work

by Megan

I hate meal planning.

There, I said it.

I hate to plan what I’m eating days in advance. I hate making lists of hundreds of ingredients that I will need for just one recipe. I hate spending hours planning something that will just disappear in a few days.

But, more than all this, I hate the 5 o’clock freak-out when everyone is hungry and there are only eggs and coconut and peanut butter in the house.

Has anyone else been there?

So, because I am a human that loves to eat – and also has four mouths to feed – I have figured out the perfect way to meal plan on a budget.

Meal Planning for the Modern Work at Home Mom

Ginny from Modern Work at Home Mom

Hey friends! My name is Ginny and I blog over at the Modern Work at Home Mom.

I am married, have two kids, and work 8–5 for an employer — while watching kids, cleaning my house, and making sure dinner is on the table. It’s a veritable juggling act.

I love to share my favorite tips for watching kids while you work, being productive while you work remotely, and making money on the side. Definitely follow along here if you are looking for a support system of work from home moms!

Make sure you also follow on Instagram because I share everyday tips about laundry, meal planning, kids play areas…and just general fun WAHM things.

If you are looking for a free and healthy meal plan for your family, check out my free “No Plan” Meal Plan! I will send you 2 free weeks of my mix-and-match meal plan. Each week includes 5 family-friendly dinner recipes, a complete grocery list of less than 20 ingredients, and time-saving tips on ONE PRINTABLE!

Get your “No Plan” Meal Plan here!

Planning Meals on a Budget

meal plan on a budget

If you want to know how to meal plan on a budget, here are the key steps:

  • Keep a list of your family’s favorite meals
  • Pick 5 dinners per week that revolve around a similar list of ingredients
  • Limit your ingredients to 20 per week
  • Each week, mix and match 5 dinner recipes to feed your family and stick to your budget!

If that sounds like a breeze, then you’re good to go. If you’d like a little more guidance, let’s dive in a little further!

1. List your Meal Plan Goals

What matters to you? Why do you want to meal plan? You have to know your meal-planning non-negotiables before you start.

For me, one of my goals is to avoid desperate restaurant runs. I always cook. If I don’t “feel like cooking,” eating out is still not an option. I would rather eat random ingredients piled on a tortilla and call it “Mexican Pizza” than get fast food.

But for you, cooking might look a little different.

You might love gourmet recipes that use whole ingredients. No mixes, no boxes.
You might need to prioritize your dietary restrictions over your budget.
You might need family-friendly recipes for your 5 kids.

You have to figure out what matters to you.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How many times a week do I want to eat at home?
  2. How many of these meals need to be easy?
  3. How many meals need to have meat?
  4. How many meals need to have special dietary restrictions?
  5. What is my budget per meal?
  6. Do I like to pay more for specialty ingredients?
  7. What is more important — shopping at one store for ease or multiple stores for variety?

2. Categorize your favorite meals

The only way to be successful at menu planning on a budget is to have a store of “ready-made” ideas available. These are different for everyone, and I recommend making a list broken down by category.

You can choose any categories you want: type of food (Italian, American, Mexican), level of cooking (easy, Crockpot, difficult, spur-of-the-moment) or health-level (high-cal, low-cal, low-carb). 

I like categorizing my favorites based on types of meat, because, for me, that is the wildcard. My meat options are limited, so I have to make dinner based on what meat is available. These are my categories:

  • Chicken (shredded, pre-cooked)
  • Chicken (boneless, skinless breasts)
  • Ground beef
  • Fish
  • Meatless
  • Eggs/Breakfast
  • Other meat (stew meat, ham, etc)

I like to keep this list on my phone. That way, when I see a recipe that looks amazing or eat a stunning meal in a restaurant, I add those ideas to my categorized list, and now that recipe idea is in rotation.

3. Find new recipes for your rotation

To find your basic recipes, ask yourself some questions:

  • What do I crave the most?
  • What do I order at restaurants?
  • What are my favorite types of food?
  • What ingredients do I always have on hand?
  • What do my spouse/children always request?
  • What seems easiest to make?

Also, use Google and Pinterest to your advantage. To find easy meals, be specific with your searches.

Google Recipe Search:

  • Google ideas for recipes, not titles: “easy chicken dinner with rice”, “pizza crust with no yeast”, “easy lasagna with no ricotta”
  • Learn Google boolean operators:
    • AND for including all keywords
    • OR for searching optional keywords
    • “ ” for searching whole phrase
    • – for excluding a keyword
    • + for including a keyword

Here is a search for a chicken casserole without a cream soup and with the ingredients for a white sauce:

“chicken casserole” –cream soup +flour AND milk

Pinterest Recipe Search:

  • Pinterest pins are searchable based on their description, not their image, so search based on possible descriptions: “favorite meal for kids”, “best dinner ever”
  • A lot of pins include the actual recipes in the descriptions, so search for ingredients: “rice and beans”, “chocolate chips”
  • Create Pinterest boards for your categories — you could have boards for chicken, ground beef, meatless, breakfast, etc.
  • Be clever with your Pinterest board names: “Crockpot”, “spur-of-the-moment”, “non-chocolate desserts”

Follow me on Pinterest here for easy family-friendly recipes!

Save your recipes!

  • Bookmark recipes on your internet browser toolbar.
  • Pin recipes from the web onto your Pinterest boards.
  • Print your most-used recipes and store (and organize!) in an accessible binder.

Do some research! Wondering how to cook five meals from one chicken? Always wanted to make a homemade lasagna? Interested in couponing and shopping sales? Research leads to knowledge which leads to confidence in the kitchen, so start researching! Seriously, it can be kind of addicting.

4. Mix-and-match 5 recipes a week

To make the perfect meal plan on a budget, choose 5 recipes to mix-and-match each week. Don’t assign them to days. Don’t stress about it.

But pick recipes based on your categories.

Does your grocery store have a sale on chicken? Pick 3 chicken recipes!

Do you have 3 soccer games this week? Pick 3 meals that are Crockpot-ready!

I shop sales and like to plan one week at a time. Because my budget is limited, I cook what’s on sale. I never find recipes and shape my shopping around them, I shop sales and shape my recipes around them

If ground beef, frozen vegetables, and rice are on sale, guess what we are eating this week? We will be eating meatloaf, red beans and rice, and Mexican casserole — all with veggies on the side. I might vary it up, but my options are limited because I didn’t buy the more expensive fillets over the ground beef.

Create a category-based meal plan

Instead of making a meal plan that looks like this:

  • Monday – Lasagna, salad, bread
  • Tuesday – Salmon and couscous
  • Wednesday – Pork Loin and rice and veggies
  • Thursday – Grilled chicken and roasted veggies
  • Friday – Hamburgers
  • Saturday – Leftovers
  • Sunday – Eat out

(This menu plan has 5-6 different meats going on. I can’t afford that! We’re doing well if we have 1-2 different meats per week.)

I make a menu plan that looks like this:

  • Monday – Huevos rancheros (meatless option #1)
  • Tuesday – Chicken fajitas (chicken meal #1)
  • Wednesday – Jambalaya with chicken & veggies (chicken meal #2)
  • Thursday – Leftovers
  • Friday – Barbeque chicken over rice & veggies (chicken meal #3)
  • Saturday – Homemade pizza (meatless option #2)
  • Sunday – Soup (possibly meatless, possibly with leftover chicken, possibly canned)

Did you see what I did there? I made a whole week of meals on one bag of frozen chicken breasts. That might seem crazy to you…or boring. But hey, I like chicken…and saving money!

5. Shop for the basics

Make sure you shop for basic ingredients! Here are a few things that influence my grocery shopping:

Know your numbers: I know that I can make a week’s worth of meals with about 2-3 meats and 4-5 vegetables. This helps me stay prepared for the whole week, come what may.

Shop the sales and stock up: If ground beef is on sale, buy enough for the week and focus on ground beef recipes all week. And you can always buy more to freeze.

Go without: This sounds minimalistic, but I go without a lot of ingredients. A lot of recipes include ingredients that are really very optional. Vanilla? Often optional. Onions or garlic? Sometimes optional. Nuts in cookies? Optional. I can still make a good meal without them if I need to.

Make your own: I make my own baked goods and don’t buy mixes. I often buy one whole chicken instead of several packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I make white sauces instead of cream soups. This helps me need fewer ingredients.

Stock back-up meals: I always keep certain ingredients on hand for back-up meals. Here are a few:

  1. Salsa, tortillas, cheese, refried beans (for Mexican)
  2. Cheese and pepperoni (for pizza)
  3. Jambalaya rice mix
  4. Pasta and tomato sauce (for Italian)
  5. Potatoes and root vegetables to roast
  6. Rice and beans
  7. Canned soup

Check out my “No Plan” Meal Plan!

the no plan meal plan

If you are looking for an example — or if you just want someone to hand you a free pre-made meal plan, check out my “No Plan” Meal Plan!

I will send you 5 mix-and-match recipes per week in one simple printable! Check it out here!

And lastly…have fun! Food is amazing. Being creative is amazing. Enjoy the awesome privilege it is to plan your food. Enjoy!

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