Meal planning and food prep often feel overly complicated, but that doesn’t have to be the case, especially if your goal is simply to cut down on your weekly grocery bill.
With the rising cost of food (which has gone up nearly 10% in the past 12 months), now is a great time to reconsider how you’re spending on groceries.
The concept behind meal planning is simple: You plan out meals for a week or so, then prepare some or all the food you’re going to eat during that time. If spending your Sunday night chopping veggies isn’t your thing, not to worry. You can still use this guide to help you cut your grocery spending without becoming a super-dee-duper meal prepper.
But you don’t have to plan and prep every meal of the week, but if you at least have a game plan, you’ll avoid the temptation of takeout and drive-thru. Spend 30 minutes twice a week planning meals. Sundays and Wednesdays are good because those are often the days new coupons are released and grocery stores start their weekly sales. And that’s another way to incorporate some savings into your food budget.
10 Meal Planning Tips That Will Save Your Food Budget
- Watch sales
- Shop seasonally
- Shop for specific recipes
- Purchase versatile ingredients
- Consider store brands
- Get your spices from bulk stores
- Eat the same thing for breakfast everyday
- Prepare entrees that do double duty
- Limit your snacks
- Skip the special containers
The key to budget-friendly meal prep is making it work with what you already do. What do you and your family enjoy eating? Can you make a double batch of a favorite recipe and save the rest for lunches? What are some ingredients you can buy in bulk (even if that means mooching off of a friend’s grocery club membership)?
Answering those questions will help you get your meal prep off on the money-saving foot, but following a few other guidelines will help keep your weekly meal prep easy and cheap.
1. Watch Sales
This might sound obvious, but shopping sales is one of the best ways to ensure you’re making the most out of your grocery budget each week. Look out for ads in your local papers, and be sure to take advantage of holiday deals — like when canned beans go on sale for Cinco de Mayo or BBQ sauces during Fourth of July.
Buy what you reasonably can store in your pantry or freezer (hotdog buns for example can be frozen) and plan on using them at a later date. Just be sure you’ll use whatever you buy, since shopping sales only to accumulate junk food or things you won’t eat won’t ultimately be a savings.
2. Shop Seasonally
Much like taking advantage of sales, shopping seasonally is another great way to save money while stocking up on some deliciously fresh foods for your meal prep. Get to know what vendors are at your local farmers markets and the locations of local farm stands and u-pick fields. This way you’ll get the best deals on fresh produce which can then be eaten fresh, frozen or even canned for a later date.
Consider joining a farm share program where you can buy a larger portion of fresh produce from local farmers each week. If your produce needs aren’t quite that extravagant, you can also go in with a friend or neighbor and split the cost for even more savings.
3. Shop for Specific Recipes
One of the best ways to cut down on food waste is to shop with recipes in mind. Pick out a few meals you’d like to make before heading to the store, then you’ll be able to work from a list of ingredients rather than spontaneously buying foods you may or may not end up eating.
Try to plan your meals around some things you already have, for example, any produce that’s about to expire or what you have in the pantry. By combining what you already have with a few new ingredients, you’ll be able to cut down on your spending and also eliminate the need to throw out any fresh foods that don’t get eaten in time.
4. Purchase Versatile Ingredients
Using one ingredient for multiple meals can go a long way toward keeping your grocery list from getting out of control. For example, peanut butter can be used in smoothies, sandwiches, as a snack with apples and even as a cooking ingredient.
If you’re lucky enough to find a good deal on a whole chicken, roast it for dinner one night and use the leftovers for chicken salad. Use the carcass to make broth and any leftover meat for soup.
Figuring out ways to make your ingredients pull double or even triple duty is an easy way to save money on food prep.
5. Consider Store Brands
Speaking of pasta, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between store-brand pasta and the more expensive brands. The same often goes for many of your staple pantry goods, dairy products, or even fresh legumes. When working your way through a grocery list, consider which items you truly need a certain brand of (non-dairy milks for example, tend to vary in taste quite a bit based on brand) and which items you can save a little money on by choosing the store’s brand. Remember, store brands often come from the same manufacturer as more expensive brands and in some cases it’s literally the same product for a completely different price.
Sometimes it’s the little things (like getting store-brand beans instead of the ones that cost $2 more) that can add up to big savings.
6. Get Your Spices From Bulk Stores
Meal planning usually means making bigger batches of a few staple meals, packing the extras and then eating them throughout the week.
But making bigger batches of your staple meals means you’re probably going to need more of your go-to spices. Buying your spices in bulk can keep you from adding pricy jars of the same spices to your grocery list every couple of months.
Buying in bulk is also convenient for those spices you rarely use. Why spend $7 on a packet of star anise pods if you’re not sure you’re going to use them more than once every few months?
Grocery clubs are great places to buy bulk, but if you don’t have a membership, Amazon and some popular grocery chains also have options, too.
7. Eat the Same Thing for Breakfast Everyday
Variety may be the spice of life, but variety can also be the enemy of your budget.
Eating a different thing for breakfast every week means buying more ingredients. But if you eat the same thing — say Greek yogurt with granola and peanut butter — every morning you can take advantage of sales and save money. Here’s the cost breakdown, using prices from an Aldi marker:
- 2 32-ounce containers of generic plain Greek yogurt: $3.85 each
- 2 boxes of generic honey-almond granola: $2.45 each
- 1 40-ounce container of peanut butter: $2 (every 3 to 4 weeks)
That comes down to about $14 for two weeks of breakfast, or a little less than $1 a day for a healthy, nutritious, tasty breakfast.
If you have kids, convincing them to eat the same thing week after week or even day after day may not be an option, so you can alternate between a meal-prep recipe like breakfast egg cups, and a favorite cereal. That way you can still limit how much grocery shopping you do while still giving your kids some variety in their breakfasts.
8. Prepare Entrees That Do Double Duty
Pick two or three dishes a week that do double duty. Chickpea Potato Curry can be eaten on Sunday and again for lunch or dinner or until midweek.
Check out Taste of Home’s 150 freezer casserole recipes and you’re sure to find something that the family can eat twice in a week — once for dinner and another time for lunch at work (or work from home) and school. They call them freezer meals but they can also be eaten the day they are made while planning on freezing the rest.
9. Limit Your Snacks
We all love snack food, but buying a variety of snacks to suit every craving can also be really expensive. Pick one or two snacks you know you love and stick to them.
If you’re looking for some protein-filled snacks you can make on the cheap, try hummus. Just double or triple the ingredients and you’ll have enough for a week of snacking. You can also try making pinwheels, which are super easy and very tasty, too.
10. Skip the Special Containers
Last but certainly not least, don’t get crazy by splurging on all the fanciest tupperware for leftovers, lunches or meal planning endeavors. Trust us when we say, you really don’t have to drop $20 to $50 on meal prep containers at the store. Whatever you have in your pantry — whether that’s hand-me-down Tupperware or washed and reused yogurt tubs — will do just fine.
The Bottom Line: Keep It Simple
Be realistic about what you can and will actually do. If you want to get takeout one night a week do it, but budget for the pad Thai for four. Don’t get takeout just because you didn’t plan anything.
If you think you can only make one big meal a week that will pull double duty, do that. Don’t promise to do three and then give up totally. Baby steps, not no steps at all.
Factor in your family’s lifestyle. Are there multiple kids at sports, music or dance practice around the dinner hour? Plan ahead for slow cooker food on those night and get them home as quickly as possible after practice. Walking into a home filled with the aroma of dinner will stave off the hangries — and the temptation of the drive-thru.
Contributor Larissa Runkle frequently writes on finance, real estate, and lifestyle topics for The Penny Hoarder. Writer Anna Brugmann also contributed to this article.