How to Monthly Meal Plan on a Budget

This article originally appeared on Arrest Your Debt and has been republished with permission. 

For many households, meal preparation on a budget can be stressful because of budget constraints and the hassle of finding various food options. The stress could also come from shopping with an endless grocery shopping list or finding the time to cook during a hectic week.

Let’s get right into how to create a monthly meal plan on a budget!

For families worried about budget and time constraints, a monthly meal plan is an excellent option to save money on groceries while having meals prepared hassle-free on a budget.

What Is a Monthly Meal Plan?

A monthly meal plan is simply a way of organizing all the meals you would like to prepare in a month based on budget, ease of preparation, and preference. A meal plan is an excellent option for you if you find yourself consistently overspending on groceries, and yet you have a limited budget.

It’s also a good option if you find yourself lacking the energy to cook after a long day at work or an evening of activities with your family.

Planning Your Meals Ahead of Time

Most pre-planned meal plans are organized around each day of the month and include breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. Since meal plans vary for each family, you can create yours based on your household’s monthly budget, needs, and preferences.

For example, you could design your meal plan around a stringent budget, allowing only one day a month to dine out. Your meal plan could also include one day a week dining out with the family as a treat, with specific meals planned for the remaining six days. You could also only meal plan dinners since breakfast and lunches are much more on the go than dinner time.

How to Plan a Month of Meals on a Budget- Simple Steps

Depending on what you want to accomplish, a budget-friendly monthly meal plan will give you a way to know in advance how much you’re going to spend on food for an entire month. Rather than looking back over the month and again wondering how many spontaneous Starbucks purchases and hungry grocery trips you went on, a plan will set you up to spend exactly what you want.

Budgeting for a Meal Plan

It’s crucial to make a budget for the month before starting your meal plan. When making a budget, it’s best to start by listing all your expenses, starting with fixed and variable costs. Fixed expenses are those that you expect each month, and these usually remain consistent throughout the year. They might include rent, utility bills, auto and home insurance premiums, and internet or cable bills.

On the other hand, variable expenses are those that change each month and are sometimes avoidable. These might include entertainment, gas, or even groceries. They could also include upcoming events such as birthdays, holidays, and travel.

How Much Should You Spend on Meals?

Once you have allocated a portion of your budget for fixed expenses, you should set aside an amount for variable expenses. It’s vital to allocate portions that correspond to your needs and consumption realistically.

For example, if your household consumes $500 worth of food a month on average, you should not set a grocery budget for $400, as you will likely be over the budget when you go grocery shopping. Likewise, if you set a budget for $600, you might find you’re spending on a lot of unnecessary items, and yet you could have saved that money.’

Here are a few budgeting methods you can use to plan for meals effectively.

Cash Envelopes

One of the most efficient ways to avoid food budget problems is to use the cash envelope method. This method relies on setting aside cash in envelopes for specific expenses. This method works best with variable costs because it motivates you not to spend all the money in each envelope.

It also prevents you from overspending when you go shopping because you use only cash available, not a credit or debit card. For example, if your food cash envelope contains $500 for the month and you find yourself with $520 worth of items at the store checkout, you’re forced to return some things to remain within budget.

Using the cash envelope system also allows you to save more each month because any leftover cash can be transferred to another envelope for savings or reallocated to a different envelope. If you spend more on certain expenses and run out of money in those envelopes, you can always transfer cash from an envelope containing surplus.

Cash envelopes are also a great way to visualize where you’re spending your money. This can help you to rethink your spending habits and adjust your budget accordingly.

Use a Website to Create Recipes around Ingredients You Already Have

Several great websites on the internet let you enter your existing ingredients, and will suggest recipes to make based on what you already have. These sites and mobile apps are an excellent way to plug in your existing ingredients and save you lots of money and significantly reduce your grocery spending.

Super Cook

Super Cook has been featured in Time, The Washington Post, and Life Hacker as a great way to reduce monthly food costs.

With the Super Cook website and mobile app, you simply put in the ingredients you already have and the app will spit out great recipes you can make with your ingredients!

Allrecipes Dinner Spinner

Similar to Super Cook, the Allrecipes corporation created a similar app to help people plan meals with ingredients they already have on hand.

Organizing a Meal Plan

Once you have finished making a budget for your meal plan, you can start writing down ideas for meals. For a monthly meal plan, it’s best to mark down meals for each day of the month. While this can seem stressful, it’s a fun process that should inspire creative ideas for recipes, food combinations, and even themes for individual meals.

Here are some creative ways to organize your meal plan.

Using Printables and Meal Planning Templates

Rather than writing out days and corresponding meals on a blank piece of paper, you could use a printable calendar. You can mark down meals for each day of the month on your printable, along with relevant recipes by ingredient.

To make this process faster and more fun, you can break down each week’s days by type or meal preparation level. For example, you could cook dinner on four days out of the week, leaving two days for leftovers and one day for a themed family dinner.

A printable makes the organization of the meal plan easier and helps with the grouping of meals. If you barely have time to cook using long recipes during the week, you could even set up easy dinners that repeat every other day or every two days.

With a printable, you can also plan long-term and act short-term. By planning for the whole month, it allows you to think about possible ideas for each week and gives wiggle room if you change your mind as the month goes by. You can also experiment with a sample week to see how the process works before fully adjusting to a schedule.

If you prefer flexibility, you could even shop every week, changing options as you go while maintaining your budget. For example, you could change protein options each week from meals with meat to those without.

It’s also essential to leave the printable open to adjustment such that you don’t feel stifled by the meal options available.

A printable can also help with reminding your family of the meals for each day of the month. This is also helpful in reminding your children of easy recipes they could make by themselves or which packed lunches to pick from the refrigerator, such as hot dogs for lunch.

Grocery Shopping Using a Meal Plan

Once you have your meal plan set, it’s time to go grocery shopping. As you plan to go grocery shopping, you should have a list of items to shop for, based on your budget, meal plan, and inventory check. Making this list will also help determine whether the groceries you intend to buy fit your food budget.

Buy Items in Bulk

Bulk buying groceries can also save you money each month on items your household tends to consume faster. In most stores, items sold in bulk are cheaper than those sold in smaller quantities. For example, it might be cheaper to purchase food items such as dry beans or flour in bulk for the month than buying smaller amounts each week.

If it fits within your budget, a membership at a wholesale club such as Costco or Sams’ Club can save you hundreds of dollars over time. These stores are especially beneficial to large households since they sell most of their bulk items, unlike traditional grocery stores.

You could easily find items such as salmon or chicken breasts sold in bulk at these places at budget prices. When you buy food items in bulk, you also have the option of cooking a large meal that can be eaten over several days, saving you time and money.

Buy Items in Season and on Sale

It’s also a significant investment to buy fruits and fresh vegetables when they’re in season. You will probably get larger quantities at much lower prices than if you buy them in the off-season.

Local farms and orchids are great places to buy fruits during the season. If you’re open to experimenting, you can preserve fruits for a few months by either freezing, canning, or drying them. Chances are fruits and vegetables sold during the season are also much fresher than those sold in the offseason.

Buying items on sale is also a great way to save money, especially when they’re seasonal. You can observe trends for things that usually go on sale around specific times and use this to your advantage while meal planning. If you planned and budgeted for sale items, it could save you a lot of money if the items went on sale around the time you anticipated.

Buy Items to Make Your Own Beverages

Most people spend a lot of money on beverages such as tea, coffee, or juice, yet they could make these themselves. It’s far cheaper to buy coffee beans, grind them, and brew coffee in the comfort of your home than buying coffee from Starbucks every morning. You could also purchase tea leaves and brew tea yourself rather than purchasing tea from a coffee shop.

Best of all, these activities could be a fun addition to your morning routine.

Similarly, you could buy fruits in bulk to make your fruit juices or smoothies, rather than purchasing these from a coffee shop or store. You have the option of making your homemade fruit juices and smoothies healthier since you can substitute ingredients containing artificial sugar with natural sugar.

You also end up making larger quantities of homemade juices when you buy fruits in bulk, compared to the smaller prepackaged quantities of juice sold in stores.

Eliminate Unnecessary Items

If you’re looking to save even more on your budget, you can eliminate those food options that you think are not healthy or those you consider treats. For example, rather than buying juices, you could stick to only drinking water. You end up consuming less sugar and hydrating more as you drink more water.

You could also switch from buying unhealthy snacks such as cookies and sweets and buy healthy options such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Snacks like sweets and cookies might be more expensive than more nutritious snacks like baby carrots or apples.

Another strategy is to buy alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer only on special occasions and holidays. Alcoholic beverages are generally more expensive than non-alcoholic drinks, and preserving alcohol for special events makes it even more special.

Meal Planning Should Be Fun

Although it might seem overwhelming and tedious, meal planning should be fun. It’s a process in which you can experiment with different recipes and menus while hopefully discovering new family favorites.

Once you get accustomed to budgeting and meal planning, you will be overjoyed at how much you’re saving and how much you learn about different food options.

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