For many people, food can be the hardest line item in their budget to manage.  One of the most common money saving tips for food is meal planning.  However, the thought of meal planning may be overwhelming, especially if you typically live a fast paced, busy life.  If you have school aged children involved in sports or other extracurricular activities, you may consider it a win if your family eats at least one dinner at home each week.

Your family’s weekday hustle may have slowed down dramatically over the past year due to COVID restrictions.  If you have not adjusted your family’s eating habits to take advantage of this slower pace, now is the time!  You have the opportunity to learn how to meal plan, shop efficiently and get comfortable with these techniques before life resumes a normal level of chaos.  Follow these tips and you will be amazed to see how much easier it is to stay within your food budget.

1. Plan your Meals One Week at a Time

Meal planning does not have to be fancy or complicated. In fact, the simpler you make it, the easier it will be to stick with week after week. Here are a few goals to consider as you plan your meals:

  • Identify the main dish for each night of the week to avoid costly impulse meals out.
  • Take advantage of leftovers! Be strategic and design your meal plan to cook only every other night if you cook large enough portions. This can save money and time.
  • Include a few nights of take-out if that fits in your budget.
  • Rotate through similar meals every week, especially if they are well rounded meals you know you the whole family enjoys.
  • Keep a Pinterest board or start your own recipe book with a variety of recipes that use the core main dishes your family prefers to make meal decisions easier.
  • Be flexible! Plan as well as you can but it’s ok if you decide to bring in pizza on a random Tuesday. Just revisit the plan and make sure you are still set to use the food you bought and stay within budget for the week.

Let’s take a look at an example meal plan:

Sunday: Casserole
Monday: Leftover Casserole
Tuesday: Chicken Bake
Wednesday: Leftover Chicken Bake
Thursday: Pasta Dish
Friday: Takeout/Dining Out
Saturday: Takeout/Dining Out (or leftovers from Friday)

You will notice that none of these entrees are overly specific.  You can find a plethora of recipes for casserole (ground beef, ground turkey, chicken, vegetarian, etc.) and baked chicken. Look for recipes with simple and affordable ingredients that are easy to have on hand and slim down your budget (think: condensed soup; rice and pasta sauce).

2. Make Grocery Lists and Use Online Shopping

Once you have your meals picked out for the next 5-7 days, you can make your grocery list.  The tips on meal planning above focus on dinners but you will also want to consider what you need to have in the house for breakfasts and lunches too. One way to make grocery shopping easier and affordable is to stick to the same foods for breakfast and lunch, at least on the weekdays. It makes your days simpler and helps streamline the food shopping process.  For example, if your family eats oatmeal every morning, you will want to make sure quick oats are on your list when the container starts to run low.

Since the pandemic started, a lot more people have embraced online shopping and curbside pickup than before.  There are three fantastic benefits to online shopping and if your local grocery store offers it, take advantage of it!

  • Limit what you forget to buy: Online shopping from your kitchen counter allows you to peek inside your refrigerator and pantry to check for any items you may not have on your list. Some people have smart refrigerators that allow them to look inside from their cell phones while shopping, but taking a peek inside your pantry while walking the aisles of the grocery store is not likely an option.
  • Avoid impulse purchases: Grocery stores are very strategic in their product placement and are designed to encourage you to spend more money than you planned. While you may walk in the door with a solid list, you will likely walk out with more items than listed. Online shopping limits the number of extras that end up in your virtual basket.  Many grocery websites still do a great job of marketing online, but it is much easier to click past a picture than walk past something that smells amazing.
  • Slow the spread of COVID-19: When you shop online, you usually have at least one of three options to retrieve your groceries: pickup in store, pickup curbside or delivery. Delivery sometimes comes with a surcharge which is not ideal when you are trying to stick to a budget; picking up your order is the more affordable option. Additionally, many people only leave their house to go food shopping so it might be hard to part with a good excuse to momentarily escape your four walls. If your grocery store offers curbside pickup, you can experience contactless grocery shopping. Many stores will even load your trunk for you after bringing the items outside. If curbside is not an option, going inside to pick up your order still makes a big difference in your exposure to the virus since your interactions will be limited to a few people rather than the entire store population.

3. Limit your Visits to the Grocery Store

One of the greatest outcomes of meal planning and intentional food shopping is that it minimizes your trips to the grocery store. Grocery stores are constantly marketing in an effort to get you to spend more money and the more trips you make, the greater your risk of exposure to COVID-19.  Instead of wrapping up your workday and having to run to the grocery store on the way home a few days a week, your goal should be to have everything you need to make it through at least one week.  Every once in a while, you may realize you underestimated the amount of milk, eggs or bread you will need, and a quick visit will be necessary.  If you have friends and family that live close by, give them a call before heading to the store to see if there is anything they need as well. Remember, excessive travel to the grocery store also costs money.

4. Stick to Store Brand Products

You have probably heard this advice many times before, but it is worth hearing again.  Store brands are frequently just as good as name brands and they will save you a significant amount of money.  If you are buying name brand products now, take note of how much you are spending on groceries each week.  Next week, swap them out with as many store brand products as possible and see what the savings are.  Also take note of which store brand products are as satisfying to you as the name brand so you can purchase them again in the future.

5. Be Intentional with Dining Out

If you recall from our sample meal plan, Friday and Saturday night were reserved for take-out.  Setting aside one or two nights a week for takeout will give you a break from cooking and makes a few nights a week feel a little special. There are a few things to keep in mind when planning for nights where you do not cook:

  • Try to stick to takeout: Even outside the pandemic, ordering takeout from your favorite restaurants can save you money versus eating inside the restaurant.  When you pick up your food you will typically give a smaller tip to the server, you will not incur the cost of fancy beverages and you will be less tempted to add on extras like appetizers and desserts. This keeps your meal fitting better within your budget. Takeout also has a lot of benefits during the pandemic like curbside or contactless pickup. Additionally, many restaurants have vastly improved their takeout so even the fanciest of dishes are transportable and will taste just as good at home as they do when dining in.
  • Support local restaurants: Dining at restaurants that are owned by local business owners supports your local economy and is extremely important during the pandemic. Many restaurants are still at zero or limited indoor capacity which has dramatically impacted their profits.  Rotate your takeout each week to spread your support among local businesses and give your family a nice variety of options.
  • Keep the expense within your budget: Based on how your week went, your budget should drive how much money you spend on takeout each week.  Some weeks, you may have incurred more than you planned so fast food or pizza might be the most affordable options. Other weeks, you can order from more expensive restaurants. Be honest with yourself and your family so that one night of dining out does not break the budget and have a ripple effect into the following week.

Meal planning, strategic grocery shopping and intentional dining out will help you save money on one of the most important line items in your budget: food.  Finding ways to lower your expenses in necessary areas is especially helpful when you are faced with a financial crisis.  Even without crisis, practicing these habits will give you more money to enjoy other parts of life or to work towards paying off debt.  CCCSMD offers webinars on budgeting and our Financial Advocates are here if you need help getting started on a budget.