How to Meal Plan Like a PRO and Save $200+ Per Month!

woman with piggy bank saving money on food

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Open up your fridge. …Go on!

Now, take one third of all that food you see before you…and dump it straight in the trash. 

…Okay, so don’t actually do this.

But did you know that American households waste about one third of the food they purchase?! 

That’s an average of $1,866 per year that people are just throwing in the garbage. 

Think about that for a second. Picture that much money just suddenly disappearing out of your bank account. Inconceivable!

Food is one of the biggest expense categories that we can all seriously cut back on. 

Reducing the number of times you dine out is an excellent frugal living habit to get into…but what about those meals you cook at home? How do we cook more at home AND save money on our weekly grocery store trip? 

The trick is to master your weekly meal plan. 

But, meal planning isn’t just about sitting down and writing down what you’re going to eat. There’s a certain strategy required in order to stick to your plan and save some serious cash—enough cash to inch you closer towards your financial goals. 

So, here are my 7 steps to make your perfect meal plan. Follow these, and you can save $200+ per month!

Why you need to start meal planning.

Because groceries comprise a large chunk of everyone’s monthly budget, meal planning has the power to make an enormous impact on your finances!

After I started meal planning and cutting back on my grocery bill, I’ve saved thousands of dollars.

Here are just some of the benefits to starting a meal plan that you’ll experience too:

  • You’ll save money (remember that average of $1,866 Americans waste?).
  • You’ll save time by not going to the grocery store as often. (1x per week, that’s it!)
  • You’ll save time by knowing what’s for dinner.
  • You’ll reduce your food waste.
  • You’ll eat healthier! No more delivery, take-away, or drive-thrus!
  • Your cabinets, fridge, and pantry won’t be cluttered. You’ll know exactly what food you have in the house.

For all these reasons (and more!), it’s time to learn how to meal plan like a pro!

Related Read: 11 Steps to Create a SIMPLE Budget (You Can Stick To!)

1. Pick a day to meal plan every week.

Meal planning is an extremely effective way to save money. However, if you only meal plan every once in a while, then it won’t make as huge an impact on your savings as it could. 

The goal is to make meal planning a habit so that your savings builds up over time. Just like with exercise or meditation, in order to make anything a habit, you need to set aside time to do it. 

Choose one day a week, every week, to sit down and plan out your meals. Think about what day you’ll go grocery shopping, and do your meal planning the night before or that morning. 

For example, my boyfriend and I make time every Saturday morning to plan out our meals and write up our grocery list. Then, Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning we do our weekly grocery shopping. On Sundays, we also do any necessary meal prep for the week (like healthy lunches for work) and we’re all set!

To really benefit from this frugal habit, you need to make it one! I promise, it’ll become second nature after a few weeks, and you’ll even start looking forward to it!

2. Determine how many meals you can cook, realistically.

In an effort to save money, it’s easy to tell ourselves that we’ll cook at home every night. We ambitiously proclaim that we’ll: “stop ordering food for delivery”, “quit visiting the drive-thru on the way home”, and “avoid our favorite restaurants after work”. 

But, just like with budgeting, in order to meal plan the right way we need to be realistic. 

Some weeks we’ll have time to prep every lunch and cook every dinner…but other weeks we won’t—and that’s okay!

Your meal plan needs to fit your schedule. 

Otherwise, this scenario is sure to happen: You’ll arrive home from work completely exhausted after a busy day. You’ll glance at your meal plan and realize that you’ve foolishly planned a meal that takes 1 hour to cook. So instead of bothering with that, you’ll pick up your phone and order Chinese take-out. 

Trust me, we’ve all been there! 

Alternatively, set yourself up for meal-planning success. To do this, first you need to figure out a few things, like:

  • What time will you be home from work each day?
  • Who will cook dinner each day?
  • Which days are your busiest?
  • How much time (and energy!) will you have to cook each night?
  • Are there any special events or evening plans this week?

Make sure on nights when you’ll be home late that you’re planning those quick, easy meals like pasta or salads. 

Conversely, if you have extra time on a Tuesday, for example, because it’s your easiest day, plan on cooking a soup, curry, or stew that you can make in bulk. The leftovers will save you time and cover another meal, like lunch or dinner the next day!

Planning meals that fit your schedule ensures that you won’t be tempted by take-out halfway through the week. You’ll have already planned for those busy days and taken into account your time and energy needs, so you can stick to your plan and save that money! 

how to meal plan pin4

3. Inventory what you already have. 

Now that you’ve determined how many meals you’ll be cooking this week, it’s time to take stock of what food you already have in the kitchen. 

Open up all your cabinets, the pantry, and the fridge! See what ingredients you can use (and need to use, before they spoil) for meals. 

Using up these items you already have means that the money you’ve spent won’t be wasted!

Based on the ingredients you have, start thinking of meals you can cook with them. Try to finish off any produce as soon as possible, and check any jars and cans for expiration dates!

Ultimately, plan to eat through the food that you have, as much as possible. You’ll save money and reduce your food waste. 

4. Plan your week’s worth of meals. 

Again, taking into consideration your schedule this week and the ingredients you already have in the kitchen, it’s time to plan your meals for the week. 

Think about: 

  • prep time required vs. time you actually have
  • the shelf life of ingredients vs. the days you’ll need to use them
  • meals you’ll finish in one sitting vs. meals that’ll provide leftovers

There are a lot of things to consider when devising your weekly meal plan, so make sure you plan carefully!

Here are some other meal-planning tips and tricks to rock your meal plan:

  • Don’t be beholden to recipes. Who doesn’t love a good Pinterest recipe find? The problem is though, some recipes call for specific, sometimes strange and expensive ingredients that you probably don’t have. Before you buy them, decide if they’re actually necessary for the dish or if you already have something similar that you can use. You might discover a delicious and cheaper replacement instead!
  • Consider using ingredient(s) substitutes. Always consider the versatility of an ingredient to help determine what you can buy in bulk and use to make multiple meals. Ingredients that add depth of flavor like garlic and ginger can help make most dishes nicer. Soy sauce, vinegars and chili sauce are versatile cupboard staples that you could use in place of some recipe ingredients and across multiple meals. 
  • Plan meals with shared ingredients. Try to plan meals for the week that have common or shared ingredients. For example, you might buy bell peppers to roast for a salad on Monday and then make stuffed bell peppers on Tuesday. Maybe Wednesday you’ll make sweet potato mash and then chuck some sweet potatoes into a nice curry for Thursday! Meals with shared ingredients means you’re less likely to waste food, especially produce, and your money on these items will be well spent. 
  • Include a “fail-safe” in your weekly meal plan. Make one of your meals for the week something you can push back or move up in the week, i.e. one that has a longer shelf-life, like pasta. There are always going to be those nights where you unexpectedly have to stay longer at work and need a quick meal, ready to go. This is where you “fail-safe” can save you from spending money on take-out or delivery!

5. Create your shopping list. 

You’ve laid out your meals for the week, and now it’s time to create your shopping list with all of them in mind. 

Limit your list to only items you need for this week’s meals. Check and double-check your list to ensure you don’t forget to write anything. Another great frugal hack is to avoid extra trips to the store. The less time you spend at the store, the less money you’ll spend!

Also, organize items by section of the grocery store to make your shopping trip quick and efficient!

Related Read: 55 Cheap Foods to Buy When Money’s Tight (+ FREE Grocery List!)

6. Do your shopping (and make money off it). 

What better way to save money on food, than making money off your food purchases?!

With Ibotta, you can earn cash back and rewards by simply doing your regular shopping. It’s true. 

With the Ibotta app, you just shop at your favorite stores and pay using the Ibotta or submit a photo of your receipt. Within 24 hours, you’ll earn cash back and rewards! It really is that easy. 

Ibotta works at over 300 stores and retailers, so whether you do your grocery shopping at Whole Foods, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, or Target, you’re covered!

7. Buy only what you need!

You’re ready to shop and make money off your purchases, but here’s where you must avoid the temptation to spend more than is necessary!

With your organized and minimal shopping list, go straight to the items that you need. Avoid wandering through the aisles and picking up any extra things! 

Check out what sales are going on, but shop sales wisely. If an item’s on sale that you typically buy in bulk, has a long shelf-life, can be frozen, or better yet substituted for an item on your list, go for it! 

But don’t just buy something because it’s on sale. More than likely, it’s something you don’t actually need, and that’s what we’re really trying to limit ourselves to. 

When that “SALE” sign is screaming at you, here’s a little something to keep in mind: spending $0 is better than that sale price!

Related Read: 27 Hacks to Live Frugally on ONE Income

Final Thoughts

Like any frugal living tip, turning meal-planning into a habit takes time, so don’t get discouraged!

If you make a meal plan and don’t stick to it because work got in the way or you forgot you agreed to dinner with a colleague, no sweat! Dust yourself off and meal plan again next week.  

For more frugal living tips to help you save money, be sure to check our my 75 frugal hacks that helped me pay off over $55k in debt! 

You can even click here to download it to your phone, so that living frugally becomes a way of life. 🙂 

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