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Before I realized I could use meal planning to save money, meal planning always felt overrated and unnecessarily hard to me. When life was extra hectic and I was emotionally exhausted as a parent to a child with special needs, I couldn’t even think about meal planning. But I was also stressed out about dinner every single night anyway.
Now, I’m still exhausted, but my daughter’s relatively stable health has reduced the mental load dramatically. That has freed up brain-space to focus on our finances, and part of that intentionality is meal planning.
Meal planning & intentional grocery shopping has helped reduce our grocery budget for a family of 4 from $1200 a month to $550, with a few caveats. The $1200 included dog food & diapers; the $550 figure does not. I reallocated those expenses to “pets” and “household items” to get a better idea of exactly how much we spend just on groceries. We did not spend $650 on dog food & diapers though, so most of the savings are from meal planning.
Let me repeat that:
Meal planning has been a big part of my family’s debt freedom journey. All that money we wasted on unnecessary groceries or eating out is now going toward extra debt payments.
Meal planning to save money, step-by-step
I wrote a more extensive guide on step-by-step meal planning for my Frugal Year Challenge. You can sign up for the course for FREE during 2021 & learn about one focused area of saving money each month.
The March focus is meal planning, so you will get my step-by-step guide AND six free printables to make the process easier. As an added bonus, Frugal Year Challenge subscribers get a discount on my Meal Planner Printable Bundle (which is available for purchase by anyone in my shop).
1. Meal planning reduces food waste
The USDA estimates that 30-40% of food in the U.S. is wasted. If you threw out (literally threw in the trash) 40% of your takehome pay, your sanity would be questioned.
That begs the question: why is it ok to throw out 40% of the food you purchase? It’s common, but this practice seems to stem from a lack of planning. Cooking or purchasing a meal every night and never eating the leftovers obviously results in wasted food.
You should intend to use up every food item that enters your house to be truly effective at reducing waste. A meal plan is the most comprehensive way to do just that. I personally only plan for dinners, because our breakfasts don’t vary much & lunch is either simple or leftovers. Unfortunately, that means I throw out some food, usually neglected produce.
If you’re really intentional and focused, it’s definitely possible to almost eliminate food waste. When my kids are older, I hope to move in that direction. Toddlers just don’t care about mom’s goals, so I do my best.
Plan for leftovers
Meal planning coincides with reducing food waste by planning to eat leftovers. To do that, you need to have a basic idea of how much your family will eat & how much each recipe on your meal plan will create. You should also have a couple of quick & easy options on hand as a backup meal, in case the food doesn’t stretch as far as anticipated.
I know some of these options are not the ideal of health, but let’s be real. When the day falls apart, my kids are hungry, and I’m ready for their bedtime, I need something quick, easy, and available.
Below is my family’s favorite usually-on-hand recipe.
- olive oil
- 3 c potatoes (sliced, hash browns, breakfast potatoes - anything works)
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 pound meat - ground breakfast sausage, diced kielbasa, sliced steak, or other leftover meat
- 1 garlic clove, diced or pressed
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 c shredded cheese of choice
- 8 oz mushrooms, sliced
- 1 bell pepper, diced (other peppers can be used)
- 1/2 pound asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off
- 15 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
- 15 oz can black beans, drained & rinsed
- other random leftovers
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add potatoes & allow to cook for a few minutes. The cut of potato determines the cooking time (sliced potatoes take longer to cook than prepackaged hash browns or breakfast potatoes).
- When potatoes are about 1/2 cooked, add the meat. Stir & cook for another few minutes.
- Add vegetables, stir & cook. Season everything with salt & pepper to taste (see notes for additional seasoning suggestions)
- Continue to cook until everything is fully cooked. Add additional olive oil as needed to keep from sticking to the pan, stir infrequently.
- Top with shredded cheese & cover with lid to melt.
Additional seasoning suggestions:
- Italian herbs
- chili powder
- ground mustard
- season salt
Use whatever flavors your family enjoys
2. Limit impulse buys by planning
I do most of my grocery shopping online these days. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where online grocery shopping (either pick up or delivery) is an option, DO IT. Not dragging kids through the grocery store is amazing, but it has also helped me save money.
As I create my bi-weekly meal plan, I also have the grocery app open. When I come across something that I need to buy, I just add it to my cart. I don’t even bother creating a shopping list; everything is added to the cart as I make my meal plan.
Online grocery shopping keeps you from walking down every aisle, looking for more things to buy. You’re not tempted by the displays at the checkout (and neither are your kids). You don’t have to try to sneak your kids past the ice cream or cookies.
Even if you are shopping in person, it’s so much easier, mentally, to say “no” to anything not on the list. “It’s not on the list” is also a good response to kids’ random requests.
3. Meal planning reduces dining out expense
Another way to take advantage of meal planning to save money is to eat out only when planned. That will give you a real view of how often you’re eating out, and an idea of how much you should budget. Looking at the frequency on paper might also inspire you to cut down on how often you dine out.
Having a plan for dinner and (hopefully) having the meat thawed will make it less likely that you will stop for fast food or order take-out on your way home. Every little reduction in temptation makes it easier to stick to your goals.
Even if you don’t completely follow your meal plan, having easy & quick options on hand also helps you resist the impulse to grab an easy meal. Cooking from scratch is the cheapest way to eat, but an easy frozen meal is a close second. Dining out is the most expensive meal option, so having those easy meals can save a lot of money.
BONUS: Meal planning reduces stress
Who doesn’t dread the late afternoon scramble to figure out dinner? In my house, I usually have a hangry toddler loudly following me around, a dog begging underfoot, and a kindergartener yelling in the background… So thinking isn’t easy.
Thinking of healthy-ish meals where I don’t need to run to the store is almost impossible at the end of the day in the chaos. That’s usually the point where I give up and order in from a restaurant.
For me, the hardest part of meal planning is thinking of what to make for dinner. Getting that task out of the way for a week or more, all at once, relieves a good portion of the mental load of feeding my family.
I also like to remind family members that if they don’t like what’s for dinner, they can definitely contribute to the meal planning process next time.
TIP: Use online grocery shopping for meal planning to save money
COVID times have changed how I shop. Since my daughter & I are both high-risk, I have only been inside a grocery store a handful of times in the last year. Instead, my husband does our Costco shopping and I buy smaller quantities using Walmart online pickup.
Online shopping is another way I use meal planning to save money. It’s annoying to just browse the website, so my meal plan lets me search for specific items & only buy those. I can also quickly see how much I’m already spending and reevaluate if needed, rather than being surprised at the checkout.
Online grocery shopping does make it more difficult to shop sales, but the savings of meal planning + online shopping have outweighed the value of coupons & sales for me. Meal planning to save money is also less of a headache than clipping coupons or watching sales flyers.
The nice thing about Walmart grocery pickup is that the price match substitution policy. If you order a cheaper store-brand item that is not available, they will substitute a name-brand equivalent for the cheaper price. You may also get a larger size or equivalent quantity of a smaller size, and you’ll always get the lower price automatically.
Some other grocery stores do not offer this policy for pickup orders, which means you have to pay close attention to the receipt. In one instance, I purchased 3 boxes of Lara bars on sales. The store didn’t have enough boxes, so I received an equivalent number of individual bars at full price. The price difference was nearly $15, so of course, I called back for a refund once I got home.
Don’t forget to sign up for the Frugal Year Challenge to access the March module with step-by-step details on how to meal plan to save money! Seriously, meal planning has made a huge difference in our finances and debt freedom efforts (plus I’m less crazed at dinnertime!).
The Frugal Year Challenge will also walk you through a new area of money-saving each month for the whole year. It’s free to enroll in 2021, but the price will go up in 2022.
Even if you don’t want in-depth guidance, check out my Meal Planner Printable Bundle to find the perfect layout for your meal planning life.