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How to Meal Plan on a Budget

By Priya

April 13, 2020

Meal planning is one of those things that I’m constantly trying to improve in my own life. There are two main reasons for creating a meal plan: for being organised or for being budget-friendly. Most of the meal planning advice on the internet is about getting organised. However, after housing, your food and groceries expense is usually the highest expense in your budget.

By meal planning on a budget, you can control your food costs and make room in your budget. As your food costs decrease, you’ll have more money to put towards your financial goals. That means more money towards becoming debt-free and increasing your savings.

I’m a huge comfort eater and that often means ice cream and chocolate. However, this habit has cost me a ton of money and way too many kilos. Budget meal planning will help keep my food spending in check and also help me stay away from comfort eating. Click the button below to download your free printable meal planning workbook. It’ll allow you to plan your meals while ensuring you stick to your budget.

Who is meal planning for?

If you search for meal planning methods on the internet, you’ll likely find advice for busy mums, written by busy mums. It’s more about meal planning for the sake of being organised than sticking to a budget. This is a huge problem. We’re just a family of two and we still need to eat. Chances are, you need to eat too. Therefore, as long as you need to eat, meal planning is for you. It doesn’t matter whether you have kids to feed or not.

Read more: 7 Benefits of Budgeting that Will Change Your Life

How often should you meal plan?

How often you build your meal plan will depend on your life and what’s easiest for you to stick to. So far, I’ve been doing weekly meal planning because I’m a fussy eater. It’s common for me to get bored and want to change the meal plan. To help me stay within my monthly food budget, I’ll need to divide my monthly food budget by the number of weeks in the month.

For example, we have a monthly food budget of $600 for our family of two. Given an average of 4 weeks per month, that means we should be spending $150 on food per week ($600 / 4 weeks = $150).

Monthly meal planning might mean you need to dedicate more time to set up your meal plan each month. However, it’s important to stick to the frequency that works best for your life. I recommend meal planning as often as you go grocery shopping. Mr Bear and I do our grocery shopping each week, so a weekly meal plan works great.

Mark out the days you’re too busy or eating out

First, mark out the days of the month that you know you’ll be eating out or be too busy to cook at home. When you’re busy, it’s more likely that you won’t have time or energy to cook and will resort to eating out instead. To make things easier on yourself, don’t plan to cook on these days.

However, it also doesn’t mean that you have to eat out. Heating up a frozen pizza is super convenient when you’re busy but is still a lot cheaper than ordering a pizza.

Eating out has been a huge problem for my food budget in recent months. Eating out costs can easily break your budget because it’s so much more expensive than cooking at home. But it doesn’t mean you can’t eat out at all if you’re on a budget – just include dedicated days for eating out in your meal plan.

Take an inventory of what you already have

One of the best ways to keep your food costs under control is to use what you already have in your pantry, fridge or freezer. Use the printable inventory worksheet to take stock of what already have.

Make note of the quantity of each item as well as the expiration date. Further, while you’re going through this process, throw out anything that’s expired. You can also make a donation box for non-perishable goods that you know you won’t be using.

Below is an example of what your inventory might look like. You’ll receive sheets for your pantry, fridge and freezer inventory in the free printable meal planning workbook accompanying this blog post. Print off as many sheets as you need.

inventory - meal planning on a budget

Taking inventory seems like a big task – and the first time you do it, it’ll take some time. However, as long as you update your inventory every time you shop, it’ll become easier and easier. It’ll also help you avoid buying something you already had at home or forgetting about something until it spoils. This will reduce both waste and food costs in the long run.

Make note of what’s on sale

Next, you’re going to look for what’s on sale or what you have coupons for. As most grocery stores have weekly sales, this is going to be a lot easier if you’re meal planning weekly instead of monthly. However, if you’re creating a monthly meal plan, you can still buy things on sale and freeze them until later in the month.

Leveraging what’s on sale will really help in keeping your food costs under control. You’ll need to eat whether it’s on sale or not, so why not buy it on sale if you can? Further, grocery stores rotate their sales offers on a regular basis. Building your meal plan around what’s on sale will bring a bit of variety into your meal plan.

Find budget-friendly meal ideas and recipes

And now we get to the fun part: finding your recipes! If you have your own recipes, then that’s a great place to start. However, if you don’t, then search online for recipes you and your family would enjoy. Here are some places I usually look for new recipes:

Read more: 7 Budgeting Myths You May be Falling For

How to find budget-friendly meal ideas

When it comes to looking for your recipes, you need to be smart about the meals you’re choosing. It’s all well and good to pick recipes you’d enjoy but there’s no point if those recipes are going to be super expensive to make.

Below are some tips to help you find suitable recipes that will fit within your budget meal plan:

  • Leverage meals that can be made in big batches so that you have leftovers. This will give you multiple meals so you have to cook less often and are often cheaper because you can use ingredients in bulk.
  • Plan for meatless meals or recipes where the meat can easily be substituted with a cheaper cut. Meat is often the most expensive part of most meals. Using cheaper cuts or removing meat altogether will drastically reduce costs.
  • Look for recipes that don’t have complicated or ‘fancy’ ingredients that you’ll only use once. You can often do without these ingredients.
  • Shop fresh produce (fruit and vegetables) when they’re in season. If they’re not in season, look for frozen alternatives instead.
  • Leverage staples like pasta and rice. These easily turn a regular meal into a super filling meal so that you eat less and you end up with leftovers.
  • Keep it simple. Until you’re a kitchen whiz, don’t plan for sides and appetisers. Opt for quick and easy meals instead. The quicker and easier it is, the less likely you are to give up and turn to eating out.

Are your recipes really budget-friendly?

And now for the part that most other meal planning systems totally ignore. Is your meal actually budget-friendly? In order to determine whether your meals are really budget-friendly, you need to know how much it costs for each serve of the recipe. That is, the cost per serve. There’s no point planning for meals that will end up being really expensive. Just because you planned the meals, doesn’t mean you’re within budget.

This is where most meal planning systems fail. They get you to plan your meals without considering the cost of the meals. If you ignore the actual cost of the meals on your meal plan, you’re going to blow your budget. Download your printable recipe and meal planning worksheets to follow along with the example below.

budget meal ideas

To determine the cost per meal, you need to know the cost of each ingredient in the recipe. You can figure this out by going over old receipts or checking your grocery store online. You’ll also need to know how many meals the recipe will yield. In the example above, the recipe will yield 4 separate servings. For a family of two, this means two meals (4 servings divided by 2 people = 2 meals).

Next, add up the cost of all ingredients and divide the total cost by the number of meals you’ll get from the recipe. This gives you the cost per meal.

The point of this entire exercise is to make sure your meal plan will include recipes that are actually in line with your budget. The good news is that this is something you only really need to do once for every new recipe you find. Once you’ve calculated the cost per meal for all your recipes, you can throw out any recipes that are too expensive for you.

Cost of items already in your inventory

A word of caution here. There are many people online that claim to feed their family for a ridiculously low amount. Let’s say it’s under $5 per meal for a family of 4. Some of those claims are real but many aren’t. When you read through, it says that the meal was prepared using chicken and other ingredients they already had on hand. They just bought some extra stuff which was $5 per meal.

Read More: 6 Massive Budgeting Mistakes You Need to Avoid

This is so incredibly misleading. Unless your chicken fell out of the sky, you paid for it at some point. It wasn’t free. Just because you already have something sitting in your pantry, doesn’t mean it didn’t have a cost when you bought it. Don’t make the mistake of assuming something you have sitting in your inventory is free.

Fill your meal plan with your budget-friendly meal ideas

To complete your budget meal plan, start writing in the meals you’ll be cooking each day. I recommend doing this in pencil in case you need to move things around or swap one meal for another.

meal planning on a budget - cut food & grocery costs

Just be mindful to use up all serve of each recipe. For example, if a certain recipe gives you 4 serves, include all 4 serves in your meal plan. You can see this in the example below, where the stir fry we’ve been working with is covering dinner on Monday and Tuesday.

Determine whether your meal plan will fit in your budget

Once all meals are added to your meal plan, add up the cost per meal for every meal throughout the week. In the example below, I’m keeping it simple by assuming that we’re eating the same thing every single day. I then add up the total cost for each meal throughout the week.

meal planning on a budget

This will give you the total cost for all the recipes you’ve planned throughout the week. Does it come under your food budget?

In the example above, all the meals we’ve planned for the week will cost $256.90. However, our food budget for the week is only $250. This is a great example to show you that just because you create a meal plan, it doesn’t automatically mean your food costs are within budget. It might keep you organised, but you need to go that little extra mile to keep costs within your budget.

If your meal plan is within budget, then you can move on to creating your shopping list. But if you’ve exceeded your budget, then don’t worry. You’ll just need to rethink some of the meals you’ve planned.

Try using rice or pasta to stretch some of your meals out and create leftovers. Leveraging leftovers will not only reduce the amount of cooking you have to do, but it’s also better for your budget. By purchasing ingredients in bulk and using them all at once, you’re reducing waste and lowering your cost per meal.

Alternatively, you can swap out some high cost per meal recipes for others that have a lower cost per meal. Also, make a note of recipes that you and your family really enjoy. There’s nothing better than delicious and budget-friendly meal ideas to keep close at hand.

Create your shopping list

The last step is to create your shopping list based on the meals you’ve planned and the ingredients you’re missing. I highly recommend sticking to your list when you go shopping in order to keep your costs under control. And, take it from me – don’t go shopping when you’re bored, stressed or hungry! You’ll just end up adding all sorts of things you don’t need to your cart.


Meal planning is a great way to keep food costs in check and control how much you spend on eating out. After housing, food is often the largest expense in your budget. However, creating a meal plan is only half the job. To really determine whether your meal plan aligns with your budget, calculate a cost per serve. All you need to do is add up the cost of all the ingredients for each recipe. By opting for meals with a lower cost per serve, you’ll maximise your food budget.

Priya

About the author

Hi, I’m Priya! I’m a Chartered Accountant and the creator of Paper Money Co. Life is too short to be constantly worried about money. I want my life to be more than just going to work to pay the bills. Join me as I strive to live a life I love on a budget I can afford (and without going broke)! Are you ready?

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