Budgeting For Meals: 4 Steps to Save You Time and Money When Meal Planning

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If you’re not careful, your food budget can get out of control and FAST!

But there are a lot of factors working against you to keep your grocery budget low: the pre-packaged foods, added junk in the cheaper foods, name brand versus generic… the list goes on and on.

So how do you save money on your food budget? Budgeting for meals doesn’t have to be rocket science. In fact, it is completely possible for you to grocery shop on a budget AND eat well!

The steps below are exactly what my family does to keep our grocery budget as low as possible. And they’re not difficult. In fact, they make planning your meals and grocery budget as simple as possible.

Do you go over budget often when grocery shopping? I've got 4 easy steps for budgeting for meals, plus tips to save top dollar at the grocery store! budgeting for meals | grocery budget | food budget | save money at grocery store

Budgeting for meals

1. Create a master recipe list: Find 20 to 30 good recipes that are inexpensive and your family will love

In order to make weekly meal planning the most efficient, we like to have a master meal list.

On that list, we have at least 20 recipes that we like to have on rotation. All of those recipes are tried and true: we’ve made them before and know we like them!

The time-consuming portion is finding all of the meals to make up your master list. But I promise you this: it’ll make your week-by-week meal planning so much simpler.

If you’re looking for some great recipes that are on budget (and healthy!), here are a few websites to check out:

An extra step you can take to ensure you always stay on budget for your groceries is to add how much it costs to make each meal on your master list.

By doing this, you’ll know exactly how much you’ll have to spend on your meals. That’ll help you with creating your budget!

2. Create the menu for the next pay period: choose all of your meals for the next pay period from your master list

Once you have a great master recipe list that you know your family will love, it gets much easier budgeting for meals.

How?

It takes the guesswork out of creating your grocery list, plus you already know all of the meals on your master list are on budget. So all you have to do is choose what looks good for that week!

This is where the cost of each meal will come in handy. If you know how much each meal costs, you won’t have to change up any meals when/if you see that your planned meals come out to less than what you’ve allocated for groceries.

Image by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay

3. Check your inventory: take a look at your fridge, pantry, and freezer to see what you have

Now that you know your meals for your pay period, it’s time to create your grocery list!

There are a couple of ways to streamline creating your grocery list.

3a. Plug all of your recipes into an app to automatically create your grocery list

We used to use this method for all of our recipes. Some apps out there have an all-in-one interface, which means they have recipes for you to choose from, ingredients for each recipe available, and the option to add those ingredients to your shopping list.

Other apps allow you to load recipes from the web into their interface, but still allow you to add ingredients to your shopping list.

Here are a few apps to look at:

  • Mealime
  • Plan to Eat
  • My Recipe Box

3b. If doing delivery or curbside, add all ingredients to your online store account

Believe it or not, this is actually my preferred way to create my grocery list!

We use a big name grocery store in Texas, and you’re able to add lists in your online account. I added all of the ingredients to separate lists in my account. Once I figure out our meals for the week, I just add a check box next to the ingredients we need and it’s added to my cart to pick up at curbside!

I prefer this method because I do everything directly from my grocery store’s website. No fiddling between an app’s list and my grocery website.

4. Write down your menu: keep your meals visible so you can easily select meals and cross off what you’ve made

This is a big one, even though it seems like no big deal!

I’ve found that, at our house, ingredients tend to be wasted more often if we don’t have a list of the meals we bought the ingredients for.

Don’t ask me why; I have no clue! But we end up wasting a lot more ingredients when we don’t have our list of meals visible.

One way to always keep your meal plan visible is to use a dry erase board on your fridge! It’s always visible that way, PLUS it’s where you keep a good chunk of your ingredients for your meals.

Tips for reducing your grocery bill

1. Eliminate bottled water, sodas, and sugary drinks

Not only do they cost more, but sugary drinks like sodas and juices are not very healthy for you.

Save yourself some money and grab a portable cup that keeps your water at whatever temperature you need! Plus, you could add in some freshly-squeezed fruit juices (I LOVE using a lemon juicer for quick, easy flavor!)

2. Choose whole foods rather than packaged

You may think it’s more expensive to eat whole foods like fruits and vegetables. But it turns out, packaged foods are more expensive than their whole food counterparts!

It found that the average price per serving of the fruit or vegetable snacks was $0.34, while the unhealthy packaged snacks cost about twice as much, $0.67. Healthy vegetable side dishes cost $0.27 per serving, while less healthy packaged side dishes cost $0.31 per serving.

https://cspinet.org/new/201307251.html

Of course, you’ll have to think a little differently when you’re buying perishable items like fruits and vegetables. You’ll have to be sure to consume them before they go bad (or else you’re wasting money). You’ll also have to pay attention to what you should buy organic and what’s okay to eat non-organic.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

3. Choose curbside whenever available

Curbside has saved our family SO MUCH MONEY! It’s insane! I can’t believe it took a global pandemic for me to figure this out.

Before the pandemic hit, we never used curbside or delivery. My daughter and I had our weekly trip to the grocery store together, and it was a lot of fun each time.

But once the pandemic hit, we stopped going into the store altogether. Our grocery store started offering free curbside, so we tried it out.

We ended up saving HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS by using curbside instead of going inside the store! Talk about budget grocery shopping! We weren’t enticed by all of the goodies that weren’t on our shopping list by using curbside.

If curbside is available to you, I highly suggest going that route to save yourself money on groceries.

Related reading: Grocery Shopping on a Budget: How to Save Some Serious Cash

4. Try a meatless day each week

No, this doesn’t mean you have to make a hard switch from eating meat to nothing at all!

Say you cut out using chicken breast one day a week for a family of four. Four chicken breasts could come to about $10 each dinner, depending on the quality of meat. Just by choosing one meatless day a week, you could be saving yourself $20-60 a month, depending on your family size.

If you’re looking for some recipe ideas, here are a few lists to check out:

5. See if you can substitute ingredients with something already in your inventory

Did you know that deviating from the exact recipe can actually save you money?

Say, for example, your recipe calls for using 2 cups of broccoli florets but you only have zucchini in your freezer. What’s the harm in using up the rest of your zucchini instead of buying a new pack of frozen broccoli?

6. Buy generic

I know there are die-hard fans out particular name-brand goods out there that will balk at this suggestion. But buying generic goods at the grocery store can save you some serious cash!

Let’s pretend like we’re making pizza together.

If we’re buying name-brand ingredients (and not making anything like dough or marinara ourselves), it’d look like this:

  • Pizza dough – $4.82
  • Marinara – $2.04 (24oz)
  • Cheese – $2.86 (8oz)
  • Pepperoni – $3.59 (6oz)

And, if we’re buying the generic version of the same thing, it’d look something like this:

  • Pizza dough – $3.16 (for a two pack!); $1.58/pizza
  • Marinara – $1.86 (24oz)
  • Cheese – $5.14 (16oz) – $2.57 for 8oz
  • Pepperoni – $2.39 (6oz)

If we even out how much you’re getting for each product, it costs $16.17 to use name-brand products and $8.40 for the generic equivalent!

7. Go by the unit price

A quick and dirty way to ensure you’re getting the best price for your groceries is to go by the unit price instead of the tag price. It’s an easy way to compare apples to apples since you could very well be paying $5 for 15oz of a name brand and $7 for 25oz of the same product, but generic.

Typically, you will find the unit price in a smaller font under the tag price for each product.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

8. Use rebate apps for cash back

I’ve said this before, but not using rebate apps for cashback is like leaving money on the table!

It’s so simple to use rebate apps by scanning your receipt after you’ve made your purchase. And even simpler if you’re shopping online since several of the rebate and coupon apps have browser extensions. If you’re making an online purchase, just have your Rakuten or other rebate extensions active, and it automatically pops up to save you money or get you cashback.

I’ve been able to get well over $100 cashback from using Ibotta, simply by scanning my receipts after my purchases!

Related reading: 9 Best Cash-Back Apps, Coupon Apps, and Extensions

9. Do not buy convenience foods

Convenience foods are those packaged foods that make snacking or meal prepping super simple.

But that convenience comes at a price.

Take, for example, a container of cut cucumber versus purchasing a couple of cucumbers and cutting them yourself:

  • Pre-cut cucumber (18oz) – $2.93
  • 2 cucumbers that you prep (about 25oz) – $1.03

That’s almost a third of the price to cut up your own produce!

10. Know how to make staples that you typically buy pre-made

This is taking what we talked about in the generic versus name-brand products to the next level!

Instead of purchasing premade staples, do a quick Google search on how to make those staples yourself.

A few examples of what staples you could make yourself:

  • Spaghetti sauce
  • Dough – bread, pizza, biscuits, etc.
  • Broth
  • Yogurt
  • Bread
  • Beans

That’s all for budgeting for meals!

Have you been able to find cost savings for your grocery budget? How do you eat healthy on a budget?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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