How to Menu Plan on a Budget

While it can be challenging to menu plan on a budget, it can be done. If you have a tight grocery budget, you can’t afford not to menu plan. When you don’t know what’s for dinner, you will find yourself eating out or making multiple trips to the store and spending extra money.

If you’ve stumbled across this post it’s probably because you have a limited grocery budget, and need to learn how to cut back where you can.

I’ve shared my meal planning story many times, but years ago I found myself needing to cut back on spending and after taking a look at our family’s grocery budget I realized I could cut WAY back! I was shopping multiple times a week and never really had a plan.

How to menu plan on a budget

After I start to menu plan and shop the sales (and use a few coupons) I was able to cut our grocery budget in half!

How to menu plan on a budget

Print or look up your grocery store’s weekly ad. 

Every week, stores change their prices on hundreds of items and print flyers that usually arrive in your mailbox or the newspaper. You can find these store circulars online if you don’t want to go to the store each week just to grab the flier. (I highly recommend getting it online, why waste gas with an extra trip to the store.)

Usually these store circulars are found near the entrance or near check out. Even stores like Aldi and Walmart have them. Before you start menu planning for the week, pick up a copy of the ad for reference. Shopping sales is one of the best ways to save money on your menu plan, so you’ll want to have this handy.

For example, if your local grocery store has chicken breasts on sale that week, then add several chicken dishes to your menu plan. Since meat can be one of the biggest grocery budget busters, finding ways to save is a key component to menu plan on a budget.

Also, if you have a little extra money in the grocery budget, stock up on sale items that you know will last and you can use in a future menu plan.

Check for coupons.

Check online, in the newspaper, or ask friends and family for coupons. The best way to save on
your grocery shopping is by combining deals and coupons. Taking the extra time to check
around for coupons could save you hundreds of dollars per year! Once you have to store ad, be sure
to round up all your coupons so you can see if there are any great deal match-ups.

There are many blogs out there who do this for you, so save time and find a website that posts coupon match-ups every week.

Don’t forget that many stores now offer their own store coupons and coupons in their apps. These don’t even have to be cut, you just need to virtually clip them in the app and they are automatically deducted from your total.

Check to see what you already have in your freezer and pantry.

Smart shoppers shop their own kitchen before heading to the store.  Go through your fridge, freezer, and
pantry and write down everything you have. Using food you’ve already purchased will save you money (you aren’t throwing away rotten food) and time because you’ll have to buy less at the store.

Grab your free freezer and pantry inventory printables here.

Maybe you have a bag of rice in the pantry and some frozen beef in the freezer. Purchase some fresh or frozen vegetables and you have a full meal using up what you’ve already purchased.

Look at your store circular to see if you can combine what you have with something on sale to make a meal.

Write down your meals.

Once you know what you have, what’s on sale, and what coupons are available it’s time to meal plan. Start by looking at what match-ups. Are you able to make a meal from one of the match-ups of either what you have and what’s on sale, or what’s on sale and a coupon?

Need menu planning worksheets? Download our free resources here. 

You can even do all three!

Once you’ve exhausted the possibilities, search online. Can you find any recipes to make using the ingredients available to you through sales or what you have?

There are even websites that allow you to list ingredients and they search the web for recipes based on what you already have or what is on sale.

Often I had trouble coming up with meals my kids would actually eat. I ended up creating a list of “go-to” meals that I would pull from when I created my menu plan. I explain more about how I created a list of meals my family would eat here.

Keep your meals simple.

One of the best ways to keep your grocery budget low is to plan simple meals. Meatless meals are very inexpensive or consider mixing your meat with beans or rice to make it stretch.

Create meals that will yield leftovers that can be used for lunch for additional savings.

Can you use some of the leftover ingredients for breakfast? For example one might we might have tacos and the next morning we can use some of those ingredients for egg burritos.

Stay away from fancy meals with ingredients you will never use again. It’s easy to bust your budget by spending $5 on an spice or sauce that you will only use once. If you have children they probably prefer the simple meals anyway.

menu planning resources

When I learned to menu plan on a budget it dramatically changed our family’s finances. We were able to get out of debt and save hundreds of dollars every month (without using coupons!) just by creating a menu plan every week.

Not only did we save money, we ate healthier because we avoided those late minute trips through the drive-thru because I didn’t have a plan.

If you need to trim your family’s budget, start with menu planning. I promise you will save money and you will never wonder what’s for dinner again.

This post may contain a link to an affiliate. See my disclosure policy for more information.

How to Make Dinner in 30 Minutes or Less

Do you struggle to come up with weekly dinner ideas every week? Is getting dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes (or even at all) one of your biggest challenges? Do you find yourself overspending at the grocery store because you don’t have a dinner plan? Are you spending your entire afternoon in the kitchen?

Have you ever noticed that when you go to a restaurant, it never seems to take as much time to
prepare your food as it would if you made meals at home? Restaurants have no choice but to plan, stay organized, and prep food ahead of time.

If they didn’t they wouldn’t stay in business.

How to get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes

I’ve rarely waited more than 20 minutes at any restaurant for my dinner. Restaurants are great at getting food on the table quickly and efficiently.

If you want quick dinners on the table, do what restaurants do! Here’s what we can learn from restaurants to help get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes and stay under budget.

Schedule time one day to prep your meals for the week.

My personal preference is doing meal prep on Sundays. It’s when I find myself catching up on other household chores, and Sundays are less hectic. In order to prepare my meals on Sunday, I need to menu plan and shop before I prep for the week.

5 simple ways to meal plan with kids

If you try to do everything on the same day, it will probably take all day and that’s overwhelming. Instead, focus on one day each week to meal plan, shop, and prep.

Meal prep can be as simple as cooking meat for the week, cutting up fruits and veggies, shredding cheese, or portioning out food for upcoming meals. It can be as involved as making some of the meals and freezing them for later in the week. ANYTHING you can do ahead of time will decrease the time it takes you to make dinner in the evening.

If you can’t set aside time one day a week to prep meals, try to prep meals first thing in the morning or during lunch if you have small children at home.

Your favorite restaurant has someone (or several people) who come in early every day to prep the food for the lunch or dinner crowd. When you order a dish at a restaurant everything that goes into that dish is usually ready to be cooked (or even cooked ahead of time). Prepping food before dinner is a huge time saver.

Clean out the fridge/ pantry.

Clean your fridge and pantry regularly to make sure you are throwing out expired items, food that is past it’s prime, and know what food you actually have to use in your weekly menu plan.

I’m sure many of us have started a recipe at 5pm only to realize that the main ingredient is expired. This can lead to a ruined recipe or a last minute trip to the store and money and time wasted.

I use a sharpie to label containers in the fridge that have been opened so we don’t accidentally eat something that has been in the fridge too long.

A restaurant with a dirty fridge or freezer that served expired food wouldn’t stay in business for long. 

Keep an inventory of your food.

If you are the type of person who never wastes food, congrats! For most of us, this is something that we need to keep a close eye on. A recent study showed that Americans throw away as much as half of their food every year! That’s like throwing money in the garbage.

Once your fridge, freezer, and pantry are clean and organized make an inventory of the food and ingredients you already have. This will not only help you get a better idea of what you already have in the house, but keep you from buying things you don’t need.

Keep a printout on your pantry and fridge of EVERYTHING you already have. Here’s a free pantry inventory sheet.

For my garage fridge/ freezer, I write directly on the outside of the freezer with a dry erase marker.

dry erase freezer inventory

Not only can you keep track of what is in your freezer, you can also keep track of any freezer meals you have available.

Keeping a pantry and freezer inventory will save you time when meal planning, because you already know what you have. It will save you time when you are making dinner because you know exactly where everything is and you know it hasn’t passed its expiration date. Remember as you use ingredients and eat freezer meals throughout the week, update the list.

One of the biggest budget busters is food that goes bad in the pantry or the fridge. If you know what you have available you are less likely to purchase items you don’t need and you’ll save money each month on your groceries.

Restaurants track food inventory closely so they aren’t throwing away large amounts of spoiled food. Restaurants already have to account for food waste when it comes to mistakes and leftovers, so they definitely don’t want to throw away food that sat on the shelf too long.

Stick with reliable recipes.

New and exciting dishes are fun, and I try to add at least one new recipe in our menu plan every month.
Sometimes the new recipes are a hit and sometimes my family politely asks me not to make that dish again.

If you are going through a busy or stressful season, stick with tried and true recipes you know your family likes to eat.

Make a meal plan cheat sheet of recipes you know your family loves and that you can rotate in when
you’re out of ideas. Don’t try to make something new every night! Instead, focus on old reliable
recipes for most nights, and maybe one new recipe in the mix.

When my kids were all very small I made a list of 20 of our favorite recipes that I knew the kids loved. When I made my menu plan each week, I picked from the list of 20 meals. With 20 meals on the list there were only a few repeats every month (when you account for leftovers and going out to dinner).

Most of our favorite recipes take less than 20 minutes to prepare. (No wonder they are my favorite!) Typically I don’t even need a recipe with our favorite meals which means I’m not going back and forth between a cookbook (or my phone screen) and actually making the food. Familiar recipes are almost always faster.

Even restaurants stick with their tried and true recipes they know the customer likes. While some restaurants offer nightly specials, most restaurants keep the same menu for several months at a time. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!

These simple tips (borrowed from restaurants) will help you get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes and save money on your groceries every week.

What’s your favorite tip for getting dinner on the table quickly?

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14 Days of Real Food Menu Ideas

real food menu ideas

It is hard to break old habits. One way I found success kicking the sugar habit was to replace it with healthy options in my home. If it wasn’t around I wasn’t tempted to make unhealthy choices throughout the day.

If you are just getting started with the sugar challenge I’ve compiled fourteen days of sugar free meals to help you plan your menu.

A few of these meals might need a small substitution to be truly sugar free (like replacing a white bun or white pasta) but for the most part here are 14 meals for breakfast lunch and dinner that are made from whole foods and natural ingredients to help you get started on your way to being Fit for Good!

Most of these meals are family favorites and you can repeat each dinner once to get a full month of meals for your family.

Real Food Breakfast Recipes

  1. Egg casserole in muffin cups 
  2. Eggs (no recipe needed) – mix in cheese, vegetables, or meat for variety. 
  3. French Toast (use homemade bread)
  4. Grain Free Apple Pancake Rings
  5. Apricot Breakfast Bars
  6. Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie
  7. Easy Vegetable Egg Souffle
  8. Baked Oatmeal Cups
  9. Breakfast Quesadilla
  10. Homemade Bagels
  11. Oven Baked Omelet
  12. Breakfast Pizza
  13. Sweet Potato Cakes
  14. Cheesy Ham and Potato Strata

Real Food Lunch & Snack Ideas

  1. Baked Kale Chips
  2. Baked Sweet Potato Chips
  3. Homemade Lara Bars
  4. Butternut Squash Soup
  5. Creamed Turkey on Toast
  6. Cuban Chicken Salad (omit chips)
  7. Chicken Lettuce Wraps
  8. Salmon Burgers
  9. Sweet Potato Tuna Burger
  10. 10-Minute Mediterranean Chickpea Salad
  11. Easy Chicken Tenders
  12. Strawberry Spinach Salad
  13. Homemade Hot Pockets
  14. Whole Wheat Mac & Cheese

Real Food Dinners

  1. Whole Chicken in a Crock Pot
  2. Spinach and Artichoke Veggie Pizza
  3. Meatloaf Cupcakes
  4. Lemon Garlic Tilapia
  5. Rice and Bean Stuffed Peppers
  6. Easy Jambalaya
  7. Healthy Hamburger Helper
  8. Sweet and Spicy Crock Pot Chicken
  9. Pork Carnitas (Slow Cooker)
  10. Mediterranean Chicken 
  11. Crock Pot Beef Stroganoff
  12. Crock Pot Italian Roast with Peppers
  13. Swedish Meatballs
  14. Chicken Parmesan Pasta
  15. Chicken Pot Pie

More Fit For Good

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5 Simple Ways to Menu Plan

Many people I meet think they are spending too much on groceries every month. Years ago I was in the same position, spending over $800 dollars a month to feed a family of six.

My biggest problem, lack of planning. I would go to the store each week with a small list of essentials- milk, diapers, bread and come home with hundreds of dollars worth of food we didn’t need. This food would then sit in my fridge and pantry for weeks because I didn’t have a plan to use it.

Many people think they are spending too much on groceries. Years ago I was in the same position, spending over $800 dollars a month to feed a family of six.  My biggest problem, lack of planning. I would go to the store each week with a small list of essentials- milk, diapers, bread and come home with hundreds of dollars worth of food we didn't need. This food would then sit in my fridge and pantry for weeks because I didn't have a plan to use it. Once I started menu planning I was able to cut my grocery bill in half!

Then one day, when we decided to get serious about our finances, I realized that even though I didn’t have an income, I could help reduce our spending. The first area I examined (after cutting cable) was the grocery budget. I didn’t have any idea how much I was spending each month, but I was sure I could spend less if I just had a plan.

It was then that I learned about menu planning. I started creating weekly meal plans for my family and shopping lists based on the meal plan. I am sure it is no surprise that my monthly grocery budget was drastically reduced, immediately.

Menu planning had another unintended consequence to our family’s budget. We ate out significantly less, thereby saving our family more money and improving our nutrition. Having a meal plan meant less “oh no, it’s 5 o’clock and I don’t know what to make for dinner” moments that resulted in take-out pizza or the drive-thru.

A menu plan meant I was saving money, my family was eating better, and there was less stress at meal times. I sometimes wonder how I went so long without planning. You know what they say,

Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

If you are struggling in this area, here are 5 Simple Ways to Menu Plan.

Ask Your Family

If you want to have a successful plan, ask your family what they like to eat. If no one is eats what you prepare your menu planning will be in vain. Every few months I poll my family and ask them to list their favorite meals. I try to incorporate their favorites into my weekly plan. While I can’t accommodate every person every week, if they know I am considering their preferences in my planning they are better eaters throughout the week.

Make a Meal List

I have about forty meals on my list. One afternoon last year I sat down and made a list based on preferences, nutrition, cost, and convenience. Whenever I am having trouble thinking of a meals I go back to my list. Depending on the budget, or other meals I’ve planned, I choose a few off the list. On weeks that I’m really not motivated, I pick all the meals off the list. This list takes the thinking out of planning.

Make a Weekly Outline

I create a weekly meal outline instead of assigning meals to specific days of the week. This works well for our family due to my husband’s work schedule and the fact that with eight people in a house things are always changing. If a doctor’s appointment comes up, that might be a good night for the crock pot meal or if we are going to be home all day I might make the more involved meal on that evening.

Being flexible with my meal planning has allowed me to be successful with the implementation of these meals.

Create Themed Meal Nights

If you are really struggling with meal planning consider creating themed nights. For example:

  • Monday: Pasta
  • Tuesday: Ground Beef
  • Wednesday: Chicken
  • Thursday: Mexican
  • Friday: Leftovers
  • Saturday: Breakfast for dinner
  • Sunday: Meatless meal

This works well for families that have a set schedule as well as for families who need a strict routine. I have child who asks what we are having for dinner before he puts the first bite of breakfast in his mouth. Some children do better when they know what to expect and themed nights can really help with mealtime struggles.

Just Do It

The hardest part of menu planning…. getting started. Then make a plan. Here is a basic printable menu plan that you can use to get started.

Set aside 30 minutes a week (maybe 45 minutes if this is your first time) to create a menu plan and a shopping list. Sometimes you can create a menu plan just by shopping your freezer and pantry, other times you can create a plan based on your weekly sales flyers.

Menu planning is really quite simple and once you start you’ll wonder why you waited so long to begin.

Get Help

Okay, I realized I said five simple ways, but after years of teaching menu planning classes and talking to hundreds of home managers I realized that sometimes it is cheaper to pay for a low cost menu planning service than to not do it at all.

Here are a few meal planning services and resources I would recommend if you need help getting started.

eMeals

I like eMeals because they allow to pick your plan based on family size, grocery store, or dietary needs. The recipes are easy to make and the ingredients are easy to find in the store.

They offer a variety of plans including paleo, clean eating, low calorie, kid friendly, budget friendly, gluten free, vegetarian and more.

Every week you receive your meal plan in your inbox as well as a shopping list. It makes menu planning extremely easy.

They offer a 14 day free trial and monthly fees range from $5-$10 a month.

Sign up for a free 14 day trial here.

Plan to Eat
Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

Plan to Eat is an online menu planner that uses your recipes, scheduled for the days you want them.

It automatically makes your grocery list, organized the way you like to shop, using the recipes you’ve selected. Plan to Eat makes it easier to eat real food, prepared at home, with your family gathered around your own table.

This is a great program if you are on a very specific diet or have picky eaters because you are pulling from your own favorite recipes.

They have a 30 day free trial and the monthly fee is $4.95 a month of $39 for the entire year.

Sign up for your free trial here.

$5 Meal Plan

Try $5 Meal Plan Today!

The $5 Meal Plan is a meal planning service from $5 Dinners. Meal plans include five dinner entrees with sides.  Each week they include one freezer friendly, one slow cooker, and one 20-minute meal.

Also included is one lunch and one breakfast, plus a random goodie each week – sometimes it’ll be a dessert, sometimes a beverage, and sometimes it’ll be a snack (sometimes more than one!) – Treat yourself to something fun!

Meals in this meal plan cost less than $2 a person, so this is definitely a budget friendly option.

The $5 meal plan is (you guessed it) $5 a month.

They offer a free four week trial, sign up for your trial here.

The Scramble

The Scramble is a weekly meal planning subscription service that provides meals, side dishes, and a shopping list. You can customize your weekly meal plan by swapping out recipes with their recipes or your own.

Your shopping list is automatically updated when you swap out recipes.

The price ranges from $4-$10 a month depending on the length of your subscription.

The offer a 14 day free trial, you can sign up here.

Easy Breakfast Stations

DIY Breakfast station...making life easy for mom and healthy for the kids. 60+ days of self-serve br

If you need a little help in the morning check out this breakfast station idea. The basic idea is that your breakfasts are set up and ready to go so the kids can help themselves to a healthy breakfast. There is a free version, and a paid version that is $3.99.

Save Money. Better Nutrition. Less stress. What’s holding you back from menu planning?

See all of our Meal Planning Resources here!

This post may contain a link to an affiliate. See my disclosure policy for more information.