Has your meal planning routine gotten off track? Mine did. Here are three things we’ve done to fix our meal planning routine so we could stop overspending our grocery budget. They’re easy and free.
Earlier this year I shared 11 of the most effective things we’ve done to save money Missing from the list was the common, good-sense advice to meal plan. I didn’t include it because for much of last year, we were horrible about making and sticking to a meal plan.
And predictably, we went over on our food budget almost every month.
However, I do believe that if you want to significantly save money–on a continual, every-month basis–you should absolutely meal plan! The typical American food budget is so elastic that it can balloon into a huge money suck each month if we’re not careful. While budget categories like an internet bill or car insurance are predictable, there’s a lot of wiggle room when it comes to groceries.
Luckily, this can work to our advantage! Reign in your grocery budget, and you can make extra loan payments or save for a trip.
This year, Eric and I made it a New Year’s resolution to start meal planning again and stick to our grocery budget. To do so, we had to switch up our methods a bit. And so far? Success! It’s working out perfectly.
If you want to save your grocery budget by getting back into meal planning, you’ll be happy to know that the answer for us was NOT buying some fancy new app, meal planning service, or meal delivery box. Those things might be nice, but we didn’t want to pay extra for convenience. I’ll tell you the 3 simple things that are saving our meal planning right now that any homemaker can do, regardless of what budget you set or how many people are in your household.
3 Things That Are Saving My Meal Planning
1. Going grocery shopping every single week
Previously, we tried to stretch our grocery trips to twice per month. In theory, this would save us time and gas money. But in reality, we’d end up running back to the store multiple times throughout the month. In two weeks’ time, plans change or new activities come up. We’d find ourselves scrambling for a dish to bring to a gathering, or running out of a key ingredient before our next scheduled shopping trip.
Switching to a weekly shopping trip was a simple but hugely impactful shift. It’s much easier to ration out ingredients this way and have an accurate picture of what our week will look like.
2. Creating a meal database
It’s easy to come up with a meal plan each week if you have a database of favourite recipes that you can pull from. We keep a list of our recipes on a free website called Pepperplate. You can sort dishes by category, so if you meal plan based on different theme nights (like soup on Wednesdays), it’s easy to pull up that category and pick something out.
Now when I meal plan, I pull up Pepperplate on my laptop and scroll through my list of recipes to create a menu that’s balanced–both healthwise and budgetwise! Of course, I deviate from the database sometimes to try a new cookbook or Pinterest recipe, but it sure helps to have it at my fingertips.
If you don’t want to use a site like Pepperplate, you can easily create a meal database with a Google spreadsheet, or write a paper list of your favourite dishes and tuck it inside your recipe binder.
3. Using Out of Milk to track our shopping list
Out of Milk is a free app that lets you create shopping lists and pantry inventories. What makes it stellar for grocery budgeting is that you can record the prices of each item, and the app will calculate the total cost of your shopping list! In fact, when you set up your account you can even plug in the sales tax rate for your county, and Out of Milk will factor that in to your total! We love knowing how much our list is going to cost before we even hit the store, so we can make adjustments to make sure it’s within our budget.
We gathered prices on our typical grocery store purchases by looking at recent receipts. When we buy a new item that we don’t know the price for, we estimate it ahead of time and then update the list price in-store. I try to keep our list total a few dollars under budget, in case of the unexpected–like a price increase or needing to substitute an item if the store is out of what I need.
Personally, I love the one-handed ease of checking list items off my phone, rather than pausing my shopping cart to scramble with pen and paper. I am not a big app person, but this one I actually use! However, if you do not have a smartphone, you can make an old-school price book and still calculate your shopping list total ahead of time.
Other tips for successful meal planning:
Besides the three biggies mentioned above, here are some ways to keep your meal planning on track and in budget.
- Choose a balance of more and less expensive meals. I make a couple of pricier (i.e. meat-rich) meals each week, but then pad out the rest of the week with super frugal staples like beans and rice, cozy lentils, or soup.
- Plan seven suppers, but be flexible on days. This is meal planning for busy people. We map out seven suppers for the week and roughly match them to each day’s activities, but if we need to swap meals for different days, that’s completely okay!
- Stick to a “lunch uniform.” Leftovers make great lunches, but for the days when there aren’t any available, have a pre-set lunch uniform as a go-to. This could be sandwiches or a meal salad, for instance. With a go-to lunch option, you don’t need to meal plan lunches; just restock your uniform ingredients each time you go to the store. Note: This is one of the things I listed in my top 15 ways to simplify your life and home!
The results of our new meal planning routine
Here’s what’s interesting: even though strict meal planning has allowed us to spend less on food, we actually feel like we’re eating better than we were before! Having a plan in place is huge. You don’t just have a fridge full of ingredients, but a pre-made decision about how you’ll use them.
I find myself looking forward to dinner because I know what’s on the menu…and I know I won’t be scrambling at 5:00 to come up with something. I can prep food ahead of time during morning chores, and thus give myself the gift of more flexibility in the late afternoon.
In the end, proper meal planning is just another way of tidying up your life. Our schedule and budget are less cluttered, and our homelife hums along more smoothly because of it.
Cheers to that!