Budget Meal Planning- Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning on a Budget

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Are food expenses killing your budget? If so, budget meal planning and budget meal prep will be your new best friend! Learn how to meal plan on a budget with these easy to use tools, and start saving hundreds of dollars every year on your grocery bill.

When we first started cutting our budget, the biggest place I knew we could trim was our food budget. For years we have managed to slim down our food budget, and I’m proud to share that we now feed our family of 4 for under $350 each month!

Saving money on our grocery bill has allowed us to pay off thousands of dollars in debt and save a substantial amount towards our emergency fund. How do we do it? By mindfully meal planning on a budget!

Meal planning doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming. In fact, planning out your meals in advance can not only save you money, but a lot of the headache that’s associated with figuring out what your family is going to eat every day. Budget meal prep is a fantastic way to save some extra cash, whether you’re a family of four, college students, someone on a limited income or you’re just trying to cut expenses.

woman cooking with child

How to Get Started With Budget Meal Planning

I recommend creating both a monthly meal plan and a weekly meal plan. By creating a “big picture” monthly meal plan with our grocery budget in mind, it helps you craft a simple and easy weekly meal plan at the same time. This helps you stay on track on even the craziest of weeks!

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’ve worked all day, the kids are completely out of control and you’re exhausted. The last thing you want to do is have to figure out what to make for dinner, so you pick up your phone and order delivery. It’s just easier, right? But those takeout orders add up, and can take a big dent out of your income quickly, especially if you’re ordering in multiple nights a week.

Saving money on your food budget is one of the BIGGEST places that families can cut expenses. Just eating more meals at home, and planning out those meals around sales, is a huge way to save money. Creating a meal plan on a budget can set you up for success for the entire month. Remember: budget meal prepping becomes easier the more you do it.

Note: Some links may be affiliate links. That means I may make a commission if you use my links to purchase, at no extra added cost to you! I only recommend products that I personally love and believe in. Full disclosure here.

people cooking in kitchen

5 Steps for Meal Planning on a Budget

Budget meal planning doesn’t have to be hard! Read on for my best tips when it comes to slimming down your monthly food budget by using monthly and weekly meal plans.

Step #1: Create a Monthly Dinner Meal Plan

Using a blank monthly calendar, write down dinner ideas for the entire month. Why just dinner? Because most people eat the same things each day for breakfast and lunch, and typically use food that’s already in the house (like eggs or cereal for breakfast, and leftovers or sandwiches for lunch). Focusing just on dinner helps to keep your meal planning process simple and faster.

Each week be sure to include at least one leftover night to help reduce waste and save a little extra money, too. I recommend writing your weekly meal plan with a meal at the beginning that can be easily used for leftovers and repurposed meals. For example, cooking a whole chicken that you can then shred and reuse for chicken quesadillas on another night.

Be realistic with your meals and what you’re willing to cook! I have two toddlers, so I know that while a super involved meal sounds delicious, the odds are that I only have a short window to cook and prep our dinner most nights!

Here’s a sample monthly meal plan for our family:

monthly meal planning calendar

This is a great example of how your monthly meal plan should look. You can write your monthly meal plan on your family calendar or in your planner, but I personally love separate planner sheets that I can hang on the fridge! Want a blank printable calendar to create your own? Just enter your details and I’ll send this your way!

I am big on creating a monthly meal plan that is budget friendly. I like to plan 2-3 super cheap dinners each month (under $5 for a family of 4). Think simple spaghetti, frozen pizza, sandwiches. By adding in a few of these dirt cheap meals, I’m able to snag a few other things at the grocery store. I also am a huge fan of using slow cooker to create easy, healthy meals that go extra far. Many times cooking one large piece of meat allows me to repurpose it into delicious meals for an entire week!

Our family also tries to be mindful of how often we eat out, choosing to only do so a few times a week. That $8 meal at Chickfila adds up quickly when you have to order 4 of them! By cutting down the number of times we go out to eat, we are able to eat at restaurants we really love without feeling like we’re overspending.

Step #2: Each Week, Finalize Your Weekly Meal Plan

Each time you go grocery shopping (either weekly or bi-weekly), finalize your menu for the week ahead.

Take a look at your monthly meal plan and make sure you’re still feeling all of those options. Be sure to also take a look at what’s on sale at your local grocery store before you head out! Maybe you had planned on cooking chicken this week, but you notice that you can snag a pork roast on super sale. Making a switch is quick and easy!

I typically pick a meal a few times a week that we put on the weekly meal planner. The other nights we use leftovers or items in the pantry to create something different using easy recipes! If you prefer more of a structured week, you can also choose to write down the exact meal you are planning on making each night. It’s up to you!

Here is a sample weekly meal plan so you have a better idea:

Sunday: Pork Roast

Monday: Pulled Pork Sandwiches (made with leftover pork roast)

Tuesday: Spaghetti

Wednesday: Pork Enchiladas (made with leftover pork roast)

Thursday: Breakfast for Dinner

Friday: Frozen Pizza

Saturday: Pantry Meal (make dinner based on what we already have)

Related Posts: Beautiful Free Budget Printables and Templates

couple cooking in kitchen

Step #3: Make Your Grocery List & Go Shopping

Using your weekly meal plan, make a grocery list of all of the items you need to make the dinners on your weekly meal plan list that you’ve mapped out. I know this sounds simple, but it’s incredible how many people wing it at the grocery store and end up spending way too much money! Be sure to also add the things you need for breakfast, lunch and snacks as well.

Before you finalize your grocery list, double check the weekly sales mailer for your grocery store and make substitutions or additions based on what’s on sale to help you stay on budget. Spot that your kid’s favorite snack is on super sale? Now is the time to grab a few extra boxes, so that you don’t have to grab it at full price next week when they run out! It’s a good idea to take a look at what fresh fruits and veggies are on sale as well, so you can snag the ones that are less expensive. Fresh produce can add up fast!

I recommend setting a budget before you head to the store, and try your best to only buy the items on your list. To save even more, I like to check the Ibotta app too before heading to snag groceries! Ibotta lets you earn cash back when you shop in-store and online at hundreds of retailers and is so easy to use! With offers on individual products or instant cash back for your entire purchase, you can save even more on your weekly grocery run. Click here to try it for free, and get a $20 bonus just for signing up!

A few tips to stay on budget:

  • Only buy the items you really need. While it might be tempting to grab a few extra containers of ice cream, it’s not really worth it unless it’s on sale.
  • Speaking of being on sale, be on the lookout not just for sale items, but also for the difference in price with grabbing a store brand option instead! Many store brand options are nearly identical, but you can save big.
  • Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach! Soon everything starts looking delicious, and before you know it you’ve completely blown your food budget. Be sure to work to stick to that shopping list!

Step #4: Keep Your Meal Plan In Easy Sight

I recommend printing out your meal plan and hanging it on the fridge to make it easy to see and stick to. You can also laminate it and use a dry erase marker if you don’t want to print a new one out each week!

The last thing you want at the end of the day is to have to be searching for your weekly or monthly meal plan. Make it easy on you by hanging it on your refrigerator or pantry door.

Step #5: Take Inventory of Your Pantry and Freezer Each Month

I highly recommend checking and cleaning out your pantry, freezer and deep freezer each month to help you succeed at meal planning on a budget. Go through each of these areas at the end of each month and write down everything that is expiring soon, or that has been frozen for more than a few weeks.

Use this list to build out your monthly meal plan, and plan dinners that will use these items so that you can use them up and prevent food waste. This also helps you lower your grocery bill because you’ll be using items you already have!

Some great pantry staples to keep on hand include peanut butter, rice, olive oil and dry pasta.

Want Extra Help?

For all the tools you need to be successful at budget meal planning, check out my Ultimate Budget Meal Planner! This isn’t your mama’s meal planner! You’re going to love the options and flexibility included in this 20-page PDF printable planner, which includes:

  • 2 different monthly meal plan printable pages
  • 2 open ended weekly meal plan printables
  • A pantry staples checklist to help you make sure you have the items on hand to create budget meals easily, plus a pantry clean out sheet to make sure you use up any food before it expires
  • 2 different grocery lists for staying on budget
  • PLUS, 10 of my most popular recipes for feeding a family for under $10! These cheap meal prep ideas are a great way to jump start your mind as you think through new budget-friendly recipes.
meal planner monthly and weekly

Over the past few years, our grocery spending has been one of the most consistent ways we have been able to cut our expenses. We feed our family of four for under $350 a month, and one of the biggest ways we stay on track is by using this very meal planner that I’m sharing with you! I originally created this to help my own family, and I’m excited that it can help yours, too.

Plus for a limited time I’m offering this planner at a deep discount! Ready to grab yours? Just click here!

couple cooking together

Budget Meal Planning Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

Just follow the 5 easy steps I laid out above to stick to your monthly and weekly meal plans with confidence! Meal planning on a budget can be a fantastic way to save money, and is something you absolutely can have control over.

What could you do with the extra money you save?? You could put it towards paying down debt, saving for a dream vacation or building up your emergency fund. Meal planning on a budget can help your family achieve financial freedom faster!

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