Meal planning on a budget
You may have heard me say that a lack of financial control at home will put pressure on the finances of our agency. Now more than ever, with global inflation, how can we reduce the burden on our business and get better at managing our finances?
Prices at the supermarket seem to be ticking ever upwards, and with food being both an essential and significant monthly cost, I’d like to dedicate this post to managing our food budgets.
Here are 12 tips for meal planning on a budget.
1. Actually have a budget!
The biggest mistake folks make when trying to cut costs is to fail to budget. For example, I started by buying cheaper food and grabbing deals. This made me feel better, but at the end of the month I had still spent too much and had thrown out so much waste that we could not consume as a family.
When setting a budget, we looked at how much on average we’d been spending over the course of 3 months, then we took 30% off that number as our target monthly food spend. This meant we needed to buy carefully and strategically.
The only way we found to do that was to create a weekly meal plan…
2. Create a meal plan
For us meal planning was the game changer. Not only did we no longer wonder what was for dinner that evening, but we were able to save a significant amount of money and waste.
Without a plan, we used to debate what to have for dinner, then I’d head out to the store to get the ingredients we were missing. This became a near-daily occurrence and in the end inflated our food budget significantly.
Knowing what we will eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or breakfast, dinner and tea if you are a UK northerner like me), allows you to make one bulk purchase weekly/bi-weekly of everything you need to produce those meals.
Having made our meal plan, we realised that the budget we’d set could be lowered even further. You’ll learn why in the upcoming tips.
3. Make and stick to a grocery list
With a meal plan in place, you can easily create your grocery list. For us, that means our weekly shop pretty much looks the same. We know exactly what we will be purchasing in order to create all the meals we’ve planned for.
Then when we head to the store or shop online, we’re not tempted to throw in any of the tempting offers. We don’t need two pizzas for the price of one. Frankly, we can make pizza at home, in a pan and within the same time, it takes to cook a frozen store-bought pizza.
If you are shopping physically in the store, be sure to go at the right time! (Check out tip number 7).
4. Choose recipes wisely
Meal planning is fun but the same meals every week can become very monotonous. Try to get creative with your meal plan by allowing for ingredients that could easily make multiple dishes.
For example, we have a recipe for Quorn bolognese and we can then convert that into:
- Pasta bake
- Cottage pie
All three taste very different and require only minor adjustments. This keeps our food budget low, and still allows variety when we just don’t feel like what’s on the menu for today!
5. Grab those coupons
Coupons are a great way to save money on groceries. In the USA coupon books are a thing. Here in the UK we can find them either online, via local newspapers or in magazines.
Here’s where we source our coupons:
- Loyalty card system with our supermarket
- Local newspaper
- Spam mail that comes through our door (yes don’t throw it before checking it)
- Magazine inserts
- Flyers at the local stores
- Regular searches via Google for coupons on our online shopping
We are not professional “couponers”, we are aware it’s a thing, however getting into the habit of keeping coupons and looking for discounts when purchasing items from your meal plan certainly helps in keeping a control of those costs.
6. Buy in season
Most people don’t know that fruits and vegetables in season are usually cheaper than those not in season. Heck I didn’t know this until recently!
This is where we go back to point 4, choosing your recipes wisely. You can either choose recipes that allow you to exchange seasonal produce for the same dish, or you can create seasonal recipes which reflect what is available.
For example, here in the UK during the summer months, we have a lot of salad-based dishes. The cost of salads is low and we can create some wonderful summer meals. In the winter, salad is much harder to come by.
7. Shop at the right time
The best time for grocery shopping is either early in the morning or late at night. Simply because the stores are less crowded and you will be able to get your shopping done quickly. This minimises exposure to all those tempting offers 😂
By far the biggest benefit however is the special offers! In the early mornings or late evenings, items that are coming up to their sell/use by date will receive a significant discount. For our leek pie, I often grab leeks that normally sell at £1.20 for 20p. A lot of fruit and veg keep way beyond the date on the label and grabbing something so cheap is frankly awesome!
8. Cook in bulk
You’ve heard of “bulk buying”, the same can be applied to “bulk cooking”. Cook in bulk and freeze the extra food.
We found this makes meal planning even easier. We can dedicate a chunk of time to creating a range of delicious meals, and then the rest of the week we simply heat/prepare it on the day we want to consume.
It also saves food waste if we want to bulk cook the same dish to use over a month. I could make a large vat of vegetable soup, then break it out into four lots and freeze them. I’ve vegetable soup for the family for Monday every week of that month and I’ve saved any food wastage such as old slimy carrots in the freezer!
Just remember to preserve the cooked food correctly as bacteria can build up otherwise and cause serious illness.
9. Reduce/remove meat
Surprisingly easy to do once you put your mind to it. We’ve been able to remove 80% of our meat consumption by replacing with lentils, or Quorn.
For example, our cottage pie, spaghetti bolognese and chilli con Carne recipes are all now meat-free, much cheaper with the added bonus of reducing our carbon footprint!
Not only was meat more expensive, but we found it difficult to preserve effectively in order to cook with it. From freezer burn or slimy grey/green meat in the fridge, we realised we’d be better off with frozen or dried meat subtitutes.
If you are a full-on carnivore, I get this one will be hard. At the very least, you can connect with your local butcher and get advice on the cheapest cuts. For example, slow cooking some cuts normally considered “chewy” can produce a delicious tender meal.
10. Bulk buying grains
Grains include barley, quinoa, farro, oats, and rice. Perfect for bulk buying as they keep well and can be used for an abundance of tasty meals all year round.
For example we have rice and chilli the winter. In summer we add seasoning to our rice and include it with our salads!
Grains are also a great meat replacement for bulking up a meal such as a stew, soup or even my favourite, the bolognese.
11. Add more legumes
Legumes are a great source of protein and are very inexpensive. (I first thought it was a fancy word for vegetables).
Legumes include beans, lentils, and peas. Like grains, you can get these dried for long-term storage, fresh or canned. These often make an appearance in my chillis, soups and bolognese.
Super easy to cook with, go in loads of different meals, can me extremely cost effective.
12. Leftovers are your friend
And finally. Do not throw away leftovers! Instead, use them to create new and delicious meals.
I grew up in the North West of the United Kingdom. On the day after Christmas, we’d have sandwiches made from leftover chicken, stuffing and cranberry. A superb example of how versatile our leftovers can actually be!
Another example is “Bubble and Squeak”. My mum would use leftover cooked potatoes, add onions and cheese (sometimes corned beef), and fry it all together. Oh, my word I am hungry writing this!
The moral of this story is? Don’t waste your food. Cook enough or use what’s leftover and get creative.
How do you save money on your food bills? Do you meal plan? What tips would you recommend? Why not share them in the comments below to help others out.