An easy frugal meal planning system to keep your grocery budget low. Try this step by step guide to planning frugal meals!
I think it’s happened to all of us. You go to the grocery store, buy a bunch of stuff, thinking you’re being so organized and frugal by planning not to get takeout all week.
But the first wave of shock comes at the register when the cashier tells you the total.
And another shock wave when you get home and realize you can’t make a week’s worth of meals out of this random stuff.
Wondering what you’re missing?
The good news is that making an inexpensive meal plan doesn’t have to be some complicated process that takes up hours of your precious Sunday.
Here’s a step by step frugal meal planning process you can use to keep your food bill low.
Ramen noodles not required!
Follow these easy steps to make a frugal healthy meal plan and shopping list that you can feel good about eating and feeding to your family.
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Frugal Meal Planning 101
1. Decide on your budget
Food can be one of your biggest expenditures, but it’s also one of the easiest to control.
If you don’t have anything to aim for, you’ll miss it every time. Having a grocery budget helps you create some parameters to work within.
To start, I recommend looking back to see what you have been spending. Then try to reduce it.
You need a realistic number for your grocery budget, so don’t just pluck a number from thin air. You want to be successful at this, right?
2. Brainstorm a list of frugal meals
The absolute EASIEST way to meal plan fast every week is to keep a list of meal ideas ready to go.
Come up with a list of your favorite dinners. Concentrate on the ones you know are inexpensive.
Here are over 40 dirt cheap meals you can use for inspiration!
If you’re cooking for a family, get them involved! Maybe you made something in the past that they loved, but you totally forgot about it.
Or perhaps they’ve heard of a dish, or tried something at a friend’s house, that you can try.
Try to focus on the meals where meat is just an ingredient, not the main attraction.
Since it’s the most expensive ingredient, you can stretch it further if everyone isn’t eating half a pound of it.
3. Decide how often you’ll shop
The less often you go to the grocery store, the less you’ll spend.
If your current plan is to go shopping each day when you figure out what to make, you’re spending WAY too much.
We all fall victim to those impulse purchases. The store is set up to make you want to buy things (aka spend money), after all.
Some people shop every 2 weeks, or even once a month, with great results. But if you’re a beginner at this, I wouldn’t shop for more than a week at a time.
Let’s conquer the weekly meal plan first!
Now that you’ve decided how often you’ll shop, check your calendar to see how many meals you actually need to plan.
If you already have dinner plans, or know you’ll be away from home a few evenings this week, take those days off the list.
Be realistic. If you know you’re not really going to cook dinner all 7 nights, include a day to eat leftovers, have inexpensive takeout, or even eat a frozen pizza.
It doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated to be on the meal plan!
There needs to be a balance between being frugal, and knowing your actual behavior.
4. Shop at home first
Check your pantry, fridge, and freezer, and come up with a couple meals you can make from what you already have on hand.
The cheapest food is the stuff you don’t need to buy, so take full advantage of what you’ve already paid for.
You might be surprised at what you come with!
Here are 30 pantry staples that you can keep on hand to make tons of frugal meals from.
If your budget is especially tight one week, try making all your meals from ingredients you already have.
Skipping the grocery store completely is a great way to save money. Or just pick up a few perishable ingredients to supplement what you already have.
5. Check the sales ad
Every week, grocery stores have what they call ‘loss leaders.’ These are items they sell so inexpensively that they just break even (or lose money) on.
They do that to lure you into the store, then hope you’ll buy a bunch of full-priced items.
Clever, isn’t it?
The loss leaders are primarily on meat and vegetables. Luckily, those are the cornerstones of any meal plan!
Try to plan as many meals as possible around your store’s sale priced items. If chicken breasts are at a great price, make several of these easy 4-ingredient chicken dinners this week.
The more you can buy that’s on sale, the further you’ll stretch your budget.
If you don’t get the sales flyer in the mail, you can see it on the store’s website or app.
Or if you have a store like Aldi in your area, try shopping there. You don’t have to wait for a sale, since everything is already 30-50% cheaper than other stores.
Related: The 70 Best Things to Buy at Aldi
6. Eat Seasonally
When you buy and eat produce that’s in season, it’s at its lowest price. And its highest nutritional value!
The store hasn’t had to pay a premium to have the veggies and fruit shipped in from far away. They’re also fresher because they haven’t sat in a bin for weeks.
And bonus, they taste way better!
When you eat (and meal plan) seasonally, you can avoid getting stuck in a dinner rut. Every season, you’ll be enjoying different types of food.
Plus you’ll be supporting local farmers, and stretching your grocery budget farther.
7. Stock up on sales
One of the best ways to continue frugal meal planning is to stock up on your favorite items when they’re on sale.
Most stores have sale cycles of 4-6 weeks, meaning your frequently bought items probably only go on sale once a month or less.
If you buy can enough extra to sustain you until they go on sale again, you can avoid ever paying full price for something.
Try to reserve 10-15% of your weekly grocery budget to buy those sale items.
You’ll start building a ‘stockpile’ that you can use to supplement your grocery shopping each week.
All the little savings really add up!
🛒 Pro-tip: To really stay within budget, keep a running total as you shop. Next to each item on the list, write down the total next to it when you put it in the cart. That way you can put things back or adjust, and you won’t be shocked at checkout.
8. Buy generic
Did you know that generic and store brand products are often actually made by the brand name companies we know?
Just without the fancy packaging and big advertising budget.
Check the shelves surrounding the brand name products you like, to see how the store brand items compare in price.
Most of the time, they’re at least 30% cheaper!
Just the simple act of comparing prices while you shop allows you to always get the best deal. Even if those items aren’t on sale.
Pantry staples are a great place to start buying generic. How different can black beans really be?!
Related: The Best Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression (that we still need today!)
9. Check the clearance section
Most grocery stores have several clearance sections where they’ve deeply discounted food.
(Don’t get skeeved out. Stores aren’t allowed to sell food that has gone bad.)
Most of the time, it’s clearanced because the brand is changing the packaging, or the store no longer plans to carry that particular flavor.
Sometimes the item has a small dent, or the produce doesn’t look as pretty as the rest.
Use your discretion of course, but you can really find some inexpensive gems!
10. Use coupons and cash back apps
Many stores offer digital coupons on their app or website. Just ‘clip’ them digitally, and they come off automatically at checkout when you use your reward card.
There are also printable coupons online that many stores accept.
Know anyone who gets the newspaper? Ask them to save you whatever coupons they don’t plan to use.
Cash back apps like Ibotta and Fetch are a good way to earn cash back on your purchases.
That cash back amount adds up, and you can use it for free gift cards, or even money sent to your PayPal account.
Be sure to sign up for the Ibotta app (and get a $20 welcome bonus!) before you go shopping. Signing up on the app instead? Use code uwhaflc to receive your bonus.
You can earn cash back on brand name items, plus ‘Any Brand’ offers.
Fetch Rewards is SO easy to use. Nothing to clip beforehand. Just scan your receipt through the app after you shop, and they give you points for any applicable purchases.
Use code UGY82 to receive 2000 bonus points when you download the Fetch app.
📄 Pro-tip: Read over your receipt real quick before you leave the store. You’d be surprised how many times you’re charged for an item more than once, or the price wasn’t as listed. If that happens, stop at the customer service desk, and they’ll make it right.
Now that we’ve covered a ton of ways to save on groceries, here are some cooking tips to help stretch your budget!
Frugal cooking tips:
Cook soups and stews often
It really helps stretch a pound of meat. They also freeze well, and can use inexpensive veggies and starches. (Here are a bunch of easy & delicious slow cooker soups to try!)
Have a few meatless dinners a week
With the rising cost of meat, try incorporating at least 1-2 meals that don’t contain meat into your weekly meal plan.
Make your own sauces, spice mixes, and marinades
Instead of buying premade packets and jars, put together your own mixes for things like taco or chili seasoning.
Homemade pasta sauce is actually really easy to make, too.
Use less expensive cuts of meat
Proteins like chicken thighs or a whole chicken are a lot cheaper than chicken breasts.
Eat all your leftovers
Repurpose your leftovers into other meals, eat last night’s leftovers for lunch, or have a ‘leftover night smorgasboard’ one night a week.
Such a great way to lessen food waste!
Make your own snacks instead of pre-packaged
You can get a box of Ziploc-style snack bags from the dollar store, and portion out crackers, chips, veggies, or whatever you like to snack on.
You really pay a premium when someone else does it for you, and it’s super easy to do yourself.
Ready to try some frugal meal planning?
I truly hope these tips and ideas for shopping and cooking on a budget are really helpful to you.
Whether you’re cooking for two, or a family of 5, you can put together a list of frugal meals for a week. Even on a tight budget!
Check out this list of the cheapest foods to buy, and start making that grocery list!
For other budget meal planning ideas, be sure to read: