Budget-Friendly Meal Planning Ideas
Whether you’re getting started with budgeting for the first time or trying to cut back to help save up for a goal, you’ll quickly realize that the most costly and variable spending category is food. Whether it’s dining out, ordering delivery, fancy lattes from the coffee shop, or groceries, almost everyone we know wishes they could reign their spending in just a little in this essential category. And depending on where you live, who you cook for, and how confident of a home chef you are, your food costs can vary wildly. Luckily, there’s lots of sound advice out there on how you can get started on trimming your food bill,, including the tried and true basics of shopping what’s on sale, focusing on in season produce, and never shopping without a grocery list. If you’re already familiar with these concepts and are looking to make your food budget stretch even further, here are five tips you may not have considered.
Tip #1: Shop your pantry.
Before you start even thinking about heading to the store, make a pit stop in your kitchen. If you already keep tabs on what’s in the fridge, freezer, and pantry (we’ve got some great printables here to help you stay organized!) then this step will be easy. Have some frozen peas threatening to get freezer burn, or was there a BOGO on canned beans? Building your weekly meal plan around the ingredients you already have on hand will not only save you money, but prevent unnecessary food waste as well.
Tip #2: Plan to stay flexible.
Now that you know what ingredients you have to work with, keep them in mind as you browse recipes you’d like to make the following week. Is there a recipe featuring asparagus that caught your eye? Consider swapping in those aforementioned frozen peas. If a specific spice blend is called for that you don’t already have, search the internet for substitution suggestions, or DIY your own. Another easy way to build flexibility into your meal plan is by templatizing each night of the week with a theme. Whether it’s tacos, chicken, or pasta night, this basic framework makes it easier to build your menu around ingredients you have or ones that are on sale, instead of being beholden to specific recipes.
Tip #3: Let one meal inform the next.
Does the taco recipe you have planned for Tuesday call for cilantro? Pick a recipe that has Asian or Latin American flavors to make sure you get a chance to use up the rest. Buy a big bag of carrots? Cut half into carrot sticks for an easy to grab snack, or plan to make a quick carrot soup later in the week.
Tip #4: Level up your leftovers.
We’ve all heard the old adage cook once eat twice – and nothing could be truer when it comes to meal planning. If you’re thinking of making your favorite stir-fry on Monday over rice, make a double batch and use the rest in a fridge clear out fried rice later on in the week. Cooking up a pot of soup or chili? Scale up and portion half the leftovers in the fridge for lunch the next day, and freeze the rest in individual servings to pull out next time the craving strikes.
Tip #5: Put veggies at the center of your plate.
Meatless Monday is already an established routine for many of us, but you don’t have to skip the meat completely in order to save money at the store (and get in more veggies). Choose recipes that feature meat as a garnish, or re-engineer family favorites, like this butternut squash turkey chili, which includes diced butternut squash along with the usual ground meat to add a hearty sweetness. Soups, burrito bowls, and stir-fries are just a few easy dishes to amp up the veggies and scale back on the meat – you’d be surprised how little it takes to add that umami flavor you crave and still make for a satisfying dish.