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How to Meal Plan on a Budget

I think most people instinctively know how to plan meals, but we’ve got so many apps and systems available to us that we assume it can’t really be as easy as writing down what meals we want to eat for the week or month and then making sure we have the food to cook those meals available. Truly, that’s how simple meal planning is.

image of bean burritos with lettuce and tomatoes

Of course we all have our preferences when it comes to creating the meal plan. Some people like to do a once a week plan, some like to do a once a month plan, some plan based on what they want to eat, others plan based on what is on sale, some just keep a stocked pantry and decide that day what to eat. But when money is tight, meal planning is especially important and can often be frustrating.

Tips for Meal Planning on a Tight Budget

Here’s the deal, if money is really tight you need to figure out what works for you as far as meal planning goes.  I’ve found that what works for me is to keep it simple. I try to keep my pantry stocked with staples – and much to my youngest daughter’s disappointment chips are NOT a staple. 

If you keep staples like beans, flour, sugar, oats, rice, meat, and garden preserved food in your pantry, you can make anything. By the way, I consider my pantry all the food I have available for my family – not just the dry goods. 

I will also glance through the weekly sales ad of our grocery stores to see if there is anything that is a really good buy for me to stock up on, but I don’t have time to really study them and then compare prices all over town.

I keep a price book of things I commonly buy so I’ll know if something is a good deal or not. But sometimes, even if there’s a really good deal on something I still might not have enough money to stock up and I need to just let the deal pass by. It will come around again, so it’s not a big deal.

image of homemade muffins

Use a Repeatable Menu

Using a repeatable menu makes meal planning so much easier than starting from scratch each week. This doesn’t have to be ridged, you’re in charge of your meal planing and can make any changes any time you want to. But if you’ve never tried some type of repeatable menu I suggest you try it.

Here is how I use a repeatable menu. I usually create the framework at the beginning of the school year when I figure out everyone’s schedule, then tweak it as needed.

Breakfasts are usually pretty easy and don’t require much forethought. We have eggs, smoothies, or oatmeal most mornings. I keep a variety of muffins in the freezer for those who have to leave the house early to get to work or class. On the weekends, we’ll have pancakes, waffles, or fruit crisp since more of us are home and we have more time.

Lunches require a little more thought as my husband packs a lunch and some of my kids need to pack a lunch on some days. We usually have bean burritos two or three times a week, lentils and rice, pita sandwiches or, sometimes we actually have leftovers from the night before. 

image of spaghetti and meat sauce

Dinners will make or break a meal plan. If you don’t do anything else, you can simplify your life so much and save tons of money just by making a dinner meal plan. I keep it simple by having a similar thing each night week after week.

Monday –  Pasta with a green vegetable and salad – We don’t get home from 4-H until after 4:30 and several of my kids have work or scouts on Monday night, so this meal needs to be something that will be fine staying on the stove for a while until everyone gets home and gets to eat.

Tuesday – Canned stew or venison with potatoes and salad, or a crockpot meal – We have drama on Tuesday afternoons and most days we’re home by 3:30 but if we know drama is going to be long, I’ll make a crockpot meal.

Wednesday – Bean Burritos – We have AWANA and Youth Group on Wednesday evenings. We have small snack before we head to town and then have bean burritos when we get home. If the hens are laying a lot of eggs, we’ll have omelets for dinner instead.

Thursday – Chicken – We’re home Thursday afternoons and evening so this meal can be a little more flexible but it’s usually a roasted whole chicken with potatoes or chicken quarters and rice. 

image of homemade pizza

Friday – Pizza Night – We’ve had homemade pizza night on Friday night since my big kids were little. It’s probably the most anticipated meal each week and now that my kids are older, their friends will often stop by to join us. Everyone in my family can make the pizza dough so whoever is home at 5pm starts the dough.

Saturday – This day is a wild card, but not so wild that I don’t make a plan for it. If I’m going to try a new recipe, this is the day I’ll do it. This is also the day that we’ll grill out or make a long, slow cooked soup and homemade bread.

Sunday – Lunch is almost always baked potatoes and salad. We put potatoes in the roaster oven before we leave for church and we come home to baked potatoes. Dinner is usually left overs or buffet of random stuff that needs to be used up.

boring, I know, but it works for us and the meals are nutritious and frugal. There’s no need to follow the same recipes I use or even themes that I do. But figure out a meal planning framework so you don’t have to start from scratch each week.

image of broccoli soup in white bowl

Meal Planning Step by Step

1. Check the calendar. We need to know what we are going to be doing for the next week in order to know what kind of meals our family needs. If we have a busy evening with family members eating at different times, you need to cook something that can stay on the stove or in the oven on warm for several hours. If you’re going to be gone all afternoon (like I am on Monday and Tuesday) I need plan something that I can but together in under 30 minutes or use a crockpot.

2.Check the refrigerator, pantry and garden. Make a list of any perishable foods that need to be eaten. Those take priority. The average American family throws away 25% of the food they purchase, and that is a lot of money! Also, find that random can of condensed milk or box of quinoa and find a way to use it. Remember, money is tight.

3. Look at the weekly sales ads online and match up what is on sale with what you already have on hand. When money is tight you need to plan meals from things that you already have on hand or that are on sale. This is not the time to decide you’re going to have XYZ this week, if you don’t have any of the ingredients for XYZ. Think about what you can make with what you already have on hand and what is on sale. You can even google a few ingredients with the word “recipe” in the search bar and you can find recipes that contain those ingredients.

4.Write out the meal plan, put it on the refrigerator and then STICK TO IT. This is really the hardest part of a meal plan. It’s also the most important part. Check it every morning and follow it.

image of salad with grilled chicken in white bowl

5. Have a “Plan B”. Sometimes life happens, and you just cannot cook dinner; maybe your doctor’s appointment took much longer than expected or the baby needs to be held every-single-moment! When this happens to us, we either have popcorn and smoothies, eggs or pancakes, or we’ll pick up a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad from the store for dinner. The last option is not as inexpensive as cooking at home but it is WAY cheaper and healthier than buying fast food.

So there you have it, a simple meal planning strategy. No spending hours looking through cookbooks or perusing Pinterest, just a short time checking out what you have and what is on sale and making a plan. oh, and then sticking to it.

What are some of your favorite meal planning tips? Leave them in the comments so we can all learn from each other.

image of vegetable soup in white bowl

Thanks for sharing with your friends!


Monday 7th of November 2022

These are great ideas! I think everyone is feeling the pinch of inflation. Our grocery budget is very tight, I plan out all of our meals and snacks. It's just my husband and I to cook for. I also like having some chicken already cooked in the freezer along with some homemade pizza sauce and toppings. We're not busy people, I'm just not great at meal planning and meal prep. 😁

Angi Schneider

Monday 7th of November 2022

Great idea! When we have leftover pizza dough on Friday night I par bake it in individual pizza sizes and then freeze them. We use them for a leftover meal later.


Saturday 12th of October 2019

We always write up menus a week ahead, look for sale items to stock up on , and plan our meals around the plans of the day. We only eat two meals a day. Planning a menu insures that you have the food and material in the house ahead of time and you know what you have to make. Sometimes you can make the items ahead of time and put it in the refrigerator or freezer. Some meals we cook will last two or three meals(soups, stews). It saves you money and the desire to just rush out for some fast food.


Saturday 12th of October 2019

It's funny, I never thought of my mom a a meal planner kind of person, but I do remember we had a 'usual' rotation of meals week to week, meatloaf one night, spagetti, sloppy joes, pizza, roast beef or roast chicken thrown in at times. I just thought it was what the budget allowed. (Mom was not a 'gourmet' cook, but we never went hungry) I was not a meal planner at all when my kids were growing up, but boy it would have made my life easier! Now that it's just the two of us, I am having to learn to not cook for an army like I did when the kids were here. And I am thinking that batch cooking and meal planning would be helpful. Thing is, DH doesn't 'do' leftovers. So that's an issue I need to work on.

Angi Schneider

Saturday 12th of October 2019

I love that meal planning can come in all shapes and sizes because families come in all shapes and sizes. I'm in the same boat with a shrinking family, it's harder than I thought it would be to cook for less than 8 people every One of my friends, cooks two things of meat a week and then builds her menus around that. So on Sunday she makes a large pot roast for that day and then turn the leftovers into pot roast sandwiches one night and then whatever is left she makes beef stew another night. She does the same thing with chicken. Roasted chicken the first night, chicken alfredo another night, and chicken salad a third night. She's a master of remaking leftovers into something new. Maybe that would help your husband feel like he's not eating the same thing over and over and save you some time in the kitchen.


Friday 11th of October 2019

I'm single, and I make a lot of freezer meals. Not packaged frozen meals, but freezing batches of food in individual portions. Having those for backups means that on days where I don't have time or energy to cook, or cannot stand the thought of eating what I've planned on for dinner due to a migraine, there will be something I can heat up and serve. Mostly just with bread, because I make a lot of soups and casseroles that cover meats and veggies, so I don't have to mess around much. At worst, I throw some frozen vegetables in to steam in the microwave while the meal heats on the stove. Right now I've got two kinds of soup, spaghetti sauce, and casserole portions in the freezer. Doing this means I'm a lot less likely to eat out or bring store food home, and it saves money.

Angi Schneider

Saturday 12th of October 2019

Lee, that's a fantastic way to plan your meals. I know it's really hard to cook for one and I love that you've found a way to that works for you. Good job!

Karen Goodman

Saturday 20th of September 2014

I'm terrible about meal planning but since it's just me that I need to feed, it's not as big of an issue. One of my favorite things to do is to let my pantry get really low and force myself to eat the things that I bought ages ago but never seem to feel like eating. Getting creative with my dishes based on what is in the house and seeing how long I can go without buying more becomes a challenge for me. Of course, that means I end up restocking when I need it and not based on what is on sale, so it wouldn't work for someone one a tight budget.

Angi Schneider

Sunday 21st of September 2014

I do that sometimes too. I'm doing that with my freezer right now in anticipation of hunting season. Thanks for the tip!