How I Meal Plan on a Budget
Meal planning is every busy mom’s favorite part of raising a family, right? Do I have you laughing yet? If you’re like most moms, you dread planning out meals and just wish there were an easier and cheaper way. I often get asked questions about how to meal plan, how to shop healthy on a budget and how to cook quick, healthy meals. In this post, I will attempt to make meal planning for you and your family as simple, inexpensive and fun as possible.
Disclaimer: When reading my tips and tricks, keep in mind that my kids are all school age and I don’t work outside of the home more than 15-20 hours per week. My routine and budget may or may not work for your family depending on the ages of your kids and work schedules. I also have a daughter with severe allergies, which means we have to be picky about the meals we make and foods we purchase.
The entire meal planning process starts by a budget discussion with my husband. If we are on par with our budget, we already know what we plan to spend on food for the entire month. Since we grocery shop 2 times per month we then usually decide on a budget for our first trip. Most of the time, I spend a little more on the first trip and try to squeeze by with what I have left for the end of the month. Lately my two week budget has been about $325-$350. Why do I share this with you?
Because, I want you to know you don’t have to go broke feeding your family healthy foods.
Right now I feel blessed that we can squeeze by on this kind of food budget. (This is roughly $25-$30 per person per week). I am very well aware that as our family grows into having 4 teenagers at the same time that I may end up having to take out a 2nd mortgage on our house in order to feed my family……(I promise that was a joke as I can hear all the financial planners gasp for air)
As a family of 6 on a single income, I am very strict with our food dollars. Our monthly food budget is anywhere from $600-$800 per month depending on other expenses or financial goals we may have. We have succeeded many times on $600 per month so I know we can continue to do it if needed. There is no wrong or right when it comes to budgeting for food. But, I do know that this area of finances can easily grow out of proportion if it isn’t planned out in advance.
Did you know that on average, a family of 4 spends anywhere from $586 to over $1200 per month on groceries? Check out this cost of food chart to see how your budget compares to the national averages.
*Kristen’s Tips: One of the ways we keep our food budget low is to save up throughout the year and purchase a portion of a cow. Purchasing meat from the farmer costs roughly $3.50 per pound compared to over $6.00 per pound in the grocery store. And it’s a relief to know that our meat was pasture raised without hormones.
I spend about an hour planning our meals for a 2-week period. This is a tedious task but trust me when I tell you it pays off in the long run. Here are the steps I take in my planning process.
- FIND OUT WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE
My planning process starts with surveying the food we currently have in the house. I can’t tell you how many times I was so sure we were out of something just to come home and find out we already had it in the pantry. This short step can save your precious food dollars each month.
- PLAN BREAKFAST AND ADD ITEMS TO YOUR LIST
Next, I use my 2 Week Meal Plan and schedule in the breakfast that I plan to make for the next 2 weeks. The kids’ breakfasts consist of extremely simple meals that don’t take long to prepare. Once the breakfasts are added to the calendar, I write down the ingredients I will need on my grocery list Here are a few of my go-to breakfasts.
- Oatmeal – I always buy plain oats and I vary the flavors that I add. Sometimes I put out small dishes with toppings in them so the kids get to have their own oatmeal bar. We. Eat. Oatmeal. A lot, mostly because it’s cheap and pretty healthy.
- Eggs – I make these a thousand different ways and usually take requests from the kids.
- Smoothies – the kids love to pick out their ingredients for a smoothie
- Sugar monkeys – My kids named these. I cut up 1-2 bananas for each kid and put them on a plate. Drizzle honey and melted peanut butter over them and sprinkle with cinnamon, coconut flakes and a few chocolate chips.
- Pancakes –I either make homemade pancakes with oatmeal, bananas and eggs or, I use a premade gluten free mix using water instead of the milk.
- Sweet potato hash – I dice a few sweet potatoes and sauté them in coconut or olive oil. I might add a few cut up sausages or scramble in some eggs.
- Gluten free muffins from Bob’s Redmill. I buy the plain mix and let the kids pick what they want added in to their muffin. We choose from blueberries, chocolate chips or some brown sugar.
- PLAN LUNCH AND ADD ITEMS TO YOUR LIST
Next it’s on to lunch items. Since I pack my kids lunch everyday, I need to make sure I have enough lunch items for 2 weeks. My boys and youngest daughter usually get a sandwich everyday with either turkey meat or peanut butter and jelly. My oldest daughter (with the allergies) will usually get some leftover dinner, a lettuce wrap or a rice wrap (the kind that spring rolls are made with). I always pack them 1 fruit or 1 veggie or sometimes both. The boys love to have nuts in their lunches, so I try to have almonds or walnuts in the house.
My lunch list usually looks something like this:
- Bread (gluten free or sprouted)
- Natural peanut butter
- Strawberry jam
- Mini peppers
- Cliff bars
- Popcorn kernels (we pop them on the stovetop)
- Turkey meat (nitrate free)
- Romaine lettuce wraps
- PLAN DINNER AND ADD ITEMS TO YOUR LIST
The most time consuming part of meal planning is figuring out what to have for dinner. Each night I invite a different child to be my Sous Chef. I want them to learn the importance of fresh, healthy ingredients and I teach them how different foods help our bodies function. This has also helped my kids to be excited about dinner because they are so proud that they made it themselves. At the same time, I also understand that we will never be perfect when it comes to “healthy eating”, and I do often plan for quick easy meals and fun treats.
Here are some of my staple meals that don’t require a recipe. I rotate these through our 2 week meal plan as needed.
- Bunless burgers with sweet potato fries and veggies
- Spaghetti with rice noodles and ground beef or turkey
- Sweet potato bar (pulled chicken or pork with various toppings that the kids get to choose from – broccoli, salsa, guacamole, onions etc.)
- Italian meatballs and veggies
- Mexican mix including quinoa or rice and black beans, salsa, zucchini and sometimes corn.
- Baked chicken, sautéed veggies and roasted red potatoes
- Frozen gluten free chicken nuggets*
- A few frozen pizzas*
- Frozen gluten free burritos*
- Frozen black bean burgers*
*These items are usually reserved for when we have babysitters over or just a big ol failure to plan on my part. It’s kind of like my food emergency fund.
I will pick 2-3 of my “easy meals” to make each week and add them to my meal planning calendar. I then rely on (affiliate link) Real Plans for the rest. I search for Paleo, allergy friendly or easy dinners. Sometimes I search for meals under 20 minutes. Once I find the meals I want to make, I copy and paste a link into my meal planning calendar and add the ingredients to my list. After every meal I ask the kids if it was a make again. If they say yes, then I add it to my meal rotation. Real Plans is great because I can rate and save the meals that my family likes and have easy access to use them again and again. I can also search for meals based on the ingredients that my daughter can’t eat. It makes meal planning so simple.
Real Plans is an inexpensive meal planning tool that programs recipes into your monthly meal planning calendar based on your favorite foods and family needs.
- MOM AND DAD’S TURN
Now it’s mom and dad’s turn. My husband usually asks for some Cliff bars for work, bananas and almond milk for his shakes and some fresh produce for his lunches. I will add some greens to the list for my salads and maybe some beef jerkey or another high protein snack and frozen fruit for smoothies. I add our requests to the list and feel relieved because I’m almost done.
- ADD THE HOUSEHOLD STAPLES
Lastly I add any household staples such as butter, chicken stock, spices, stevia, coffee, toothpaste, toilet paper etc.
- OPTIONAL BUDGET ENHANCING TIP
If the budget is super tight this month, I will go through my list and guesstimate what each item will cost. If I end up being way over what I plan to spend, I will reevaluate my meals and choose meals with less ingredients, meatless meals or try to plan for more leftovers instead of a new dish each night.
Eating healthy on a budget doesn’t have to feel impossible, but it will also take some planning and preparation on your part to make it happen. Once you have gone through this process a few times and get to know your grocery stores really well, it will start to get easier and go a lot quicker. Post you comments or questions below! Happy meal planning!