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Today’s guest post is from Emma over at The Food Brood! When it comes to food, Emma knows what she’s doing. She’s dedicated to helping regular home cooks like herself navigate their way around the kitchen. Her specialty is delicious, easy recipes with six ingredients or fewer. That’s something I can get behind! Take it away, Emma!
So, you’re a foodie. You love food. And you like to try to provide a varied and interesting diet for your nearest and dearest. But you’re on a budget. A strict one. And you don’t know how you can balance quality with value for money this month.
Well, have no fear, there’s an easy way you can keep control of both your diet and your purse strings: by Meal Planning on a Budget.
Let me break it down for you.
Meal planning is the process of choosing in advance which meals you are going to eat for the coming week/fortnight/month, instead of figuring it out every night.
It’s popular because it helps you plan ahead with your shopping and preparation, and gives you full control over what you cook (no microwave meals here)!
It also, in some way, holds you accountable to actually doing it. Because, once it’s all planned out and written down, you are much more likely and able to follow through.
The great thing about meal planning is that it can be as easy or difficult as you like and you can build in as many ingredients/variations/new recipes as you think you can handle. That means it can also be done as cheaply as you like.
How to Meal Plan on a Budget
If you’re going to eat on a budget, then you definitely need to plan ahead. Leaving food decisions until the last minute is a sure-fire guarantee that something will come up and you’ll end up reaching for the telephone to call a pizza.
And that isn’t cheap. Instead, you need to have a plan in place for what you’re going to do and when. It should involve all aspects from the shopping to the eating – and everything else in between.So here are 14 easy ideas that you can implement right away to make your food more frugal.
So here are 14 easy ideas that you can implement right away to make your food more frugal.
1. Cook from Scratch
Let’s be honest, when you buy a microwave meal or a premium par-cooked/prepared product, you’re basically paying for someone else to do the work for you. Sure, it saves you time, but if you’re on a budget then DIY is the way to go.
Take a look at your schedule and see where you could build in time to do some meal prep. Chop and wash produce, batch cook a few extra portions and make a note of what you should be defrosting or using up.
Then, when you come in late and exhausted, all the thinking part of the job is already done and, usually, half the actual cooking is too!
2. Shop in the Sales/Reduced Section
All our big grocery stores use stickers when they want to reduce food. Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what time of day they do their reductions, but there is usually a reduced section (a few shelves and/or a cold area) where they store the items they want to get rid of that day.
There is nothing wrong with these items, they usually are just approaching their sell-by dates. But, if you’re clever and pop things in the freezer as soon as you get home, then you can save big on food stuffs that you would perhaps buy anyway.
3. Try Couponing
Couponing can get a bit extreme (as the famous TV show taught us). To make the kinds of huge savings you hear about in the press you really need to invest a lot of time into tracking down the right deals at the right time. And then you need to think about how much that time is costing you.
But couponing can be great for everyone to use now and then, as a way of saving extra money on your shop. The next time you pay in store and the cashier gives you a voucher for money off your return visit, don’t just lose it in the bottom of your handbag. Pin it up somewhere where you’ll see it and remember to use it!
4. Consider ‘Basics’ Ingredients
There are some things you simply do not need to pay more for. Think cupboard staples like rice, spices, dried pasta etc.
If you’re going to cook from scratch anyway (see point #1) then you’ll be adding amazing flavor to your food and basic pasta will fare just as well. Store-owned brands or even ranges of ‘essentials’, ‘value’ and ‘basics’ are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you can gloat because your food will be tastier AND cheaper!
If you’re trying hard to curb your spending, then you should also take a looking at so-called ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables. Many European supermarkets now sell misshapen produce that once would have been tossed away. Sure, it won’t win any vegetable beauty contests, but if you’re going to chop it up anyway…
Sure, it won’t win any vegetable beauty contests, but if you’re going to chop it up anyway…
5. Get a Store Loyalty Card
I regularly shop both online and in my local store and so I have a loyalty card that I can use every time. Not only do I earn points on what I spend so I can redeem them back in store or on experiences, but I also get sent regular vouchers and offers in the post which regular shoppers don’t get access to.
The vouchers and offers are a great way to save money on items I buy every week. They also let me know about upcoming sales events too. If you regularly shop at the same store, then check to see if they have a loyalty program in operation.
6. Buy in Bulk
In the UK, Costco is our means to bulk-buying our food, whereas, in the US, Walmart offers the same service.
The idea is that you purchase your food on a much bigger scale (e.g. restaurant-sized quantities of store-cupboard staples). This helps you save money because you don’t pay for all that extra packaging/processing. In some stores, you can even take an empty container and fill it up yourself with pasta, rice, oats, spices etc., to save even further.
You usually need a membership card to shop there and sometimes there’s a small membership fee too, but you easily make that back on your shop. The downside of bulk buying, of course, is storage. More and more communities are clubbing together to bulk buy, and then sharing out in more manageable quantities, once home.
7. Cook Simple Recipes with Very Few Ingredients
This should be fairly obvious, but the simpler the recipe, the fewer ingredients you need and the lower the cost to buy those ingredients.
But that doesn’t mean your food has to be boring — oh no! Pretty much all of my day-to-day cooking relies on easy food, and it’s anything but dull. If you choose your recipes carefully and utilize multi-purpose ingredients (e.g. tins of tomatoes with basil in — hey, presto! One ingredient, two flavors!), then your meals can be quick, easy, delicious AND cheap.
8. Beat the Grocery Store ‘Systems’
The stores aren’t dumb. They know that you need to buy essentials like bread every time you shop, so they deliberately place them at the rear of the store to make you walk through all their lovely displays of tempting goodies.
Before you know it, you’ve got three Easter eggs and a new skillet in your cart. And you only went in for milk!
They’re also really sneaky with their product placement on shelves.
Did you know that premium brands are always displayed at eye level, while budget brands are usually hidden away at the top or bottom? Result? You guessed it: people tend to reach for what they see first and end up paying over the odds.
But now you know how clever they can be, you can be even cleverer by not letting store selling tactics dictate your spending. Make a beeline for that milk and make sure you look high and low to check you’re getting the best deal on the shelf.
9. Embrace the Freezer: Batch Cook for Later
It’s becoming more and more common for folks to spend one big ‘chunk’ of time cooking meals in advance, in order to save time later. The most popular time to do it seems to be a Sunday, when the pace of life is generally slower and we’re already thinking about the week ahead.
Of course, that’s not to say you would need to batch cook every Sunday. That all depends on how many meals you require and how much other time you have to devote to it.
The benefit of batch cooking to the frugal chef is that you can take advantage of that family-sized bag of chicken breasts because you’re going to use them all at once. You also know you’re covered for any unexpected visitors/late nights/changes of plan, because you’ve got dinner there already.
Batch cooking is easiest if you choose meals that share commonalities. For example, common cooking methods or common cooking times. It’s all about making your life easier, not harder.
So, if you want to give it a go, think about how many meals you want to batch cook and then try to prepare a few at once (i.e. chop all the onions in one go). Cook your meals at the same time, if you can and don’t forget to divide up into portions before freezing.
10. Use Recipes That Share Common Ingredients and Make Sure They Can Be Used Again
This is a useful tip for when you’re actually writing your meal plan. Make sure you choose meals with common ingredients so that you a) don’t get left with half of something that you can’t use and b) cut down on the overall number of different things you need to buy.
If your recipe calls for something unusual, then ask yourself if it’s something you can justify buying by using it again. If the answer is ‘no’, then is it possible to swap it for something similar?
For example, hummus usually features Tahini paste but it’s not something I would get a lot of use out of. (I don’t make hummus that regularly.) So when I make hummus, I just leave it out and put in more garlic and lemon instead!
There are various ways you can approach choosing recipes with common ingredients, the simplest is by playing Supper Sudoku! Just like the popular game, you start with a piece of paper with a grid, say 4×4 squares. Fill in each row, column, and diagonal with a protein, vegetable, carb and sauce, making sure not to repeat yourself. You should end up with 10 different meals for very few ingredients!
11. Consider Leftovers/Repurposing/Using Up
I looooove leftovers. Just this week I made ratatouille and then used the left-over vegetables in quesadillas the next night. I only had to do the chopping once and I got two meals out of it! Brilliant!
Of course, this could be as simple as taking what’s left of the pasta bake to lunch the next day, rather than buying an expensive fresh sandwich. It could also mean buying a big packet of ground beef and using it for both meatloaf and chili in the same week. Think outside the box.
Think outside the box!
12. Don’t Try Something New Every Night
This should be a given, but if you’re trying to be frugal, then keep it simple and don’t use a whole new set of ingredients each night!
Similarly, the meals you do cook should not all be new to you. Unless you can guarantee a 100% success rate, there’s bound to be waste, mistakes and incorrect servings until you perfect it. If you want to save money on your food, then you definitely shouldn’t start by throwing good food away.
13. Inventory, Inventory, Inventory!
Ever been to the store and spotted that particular brand of coffee that you love. (It’s rather expensive, but you couldn’t just leave there.) Then you get home and find three other packets in the cupboard?
Ever bought a large pack of fresh pasta, cooked with half of it and then thrown the rest away a fortnight layer when you found it at the back of your fridge unused? Yup, me too. Oops.
Inventories are wonderful things and all good meal planners should start with one. When you get to the shopping-list stage, you should be referring to your inventory to see what you’ve already got that you could make use of. It will take you just a couple of hours to do your very first inventory ‘stock take’ of your cupboards, fridge, and freezer. After that, you just need to keep it up to date.
Planning like this can save you a great deal of money in duplicates and unwanted/ unused food so as a priority, learn to INVENTORIZE!
14. Shop with a list – and not when you’re hungry!
Finally, when you’ve followed all these suggestions and written a shopping list to be proud of (with ONLY what you need), then don’t shop hungry! If you do then you might as well tear up the list. You’ll be tempted by each and every little thing. Any and all your hard work will have been for nothing!
What’s your method for meal planning on a budget?
I’m a financial coach and author + owner of Goodbye to Broke. I love all things personal finance, money management, and healthy living. And I talk to my dog way too much, if we’re being honest.