Low Budget Meal Planning

by Deborah Taylor-Hough

How much of your family’s hard earned money goes to groceries? $150 per week? $100?

Believe it or not, it’s relatively simple to spend as little as $50 per week on groceries for a family of five or six. But slashing the food bill down to those lower numbers means you may need to rethink the way your family eats.

For today’s busy families, it’s often easier to swing by the local drive-thru restaurant rather than finding time and energy to cook a new meal every night. Not only is fast food an expensive alternative for feeding your family, it’s also not the healthiest way to eat on a regular basis.

If this describes your dinner-time dilemma, you’re not alone.

Keep ingredients on hand for several quick and easy meals.

Cook some of your meals ahead to store in the freezer for easy preparation later in the week. For an easy way to build up a stash of frozen assets, you can simply double and triple recipes now and then as you go about your regular cooking during the week. By stockpiling the extra meals in the freezer, all you’ll need to do is heat a meal and make a side dish or salad for one of those all-too-frequent busy nights with no time to cook. By cooking ahead, you can also save money by purchasing ingredients in bulk and taking advantage of sales at the market.

Occasionally serve breakfast for dinner. Even when prepared in a big way, breakfast is one of the most economical meals to make. In many busy homes, families rarely have time for a big breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon in the morning, so it’s a special treat to have a meal like that for dinner now and then. Omelettes also make a good dinner choice.

SIMPLIFYING FOOD PREPARATION

By planning and preparing bigger meals at dinner-time, you can use the leftovers for lunches brought from home rather than buying lunch at work everyday.

Have one night each week where your children are each responsible for dinner for the entire family. This can be as simple as opening a can of soup and fixing grilled cheese sandwiches.

Slow cookers are great for easy dinner prep — just throw the ingredients into the crock in the morning and dinner’s waiting when you get home.

PLANNING AHEAD

Even if you don’t think cooking for an entire month would be of interest to you or your family, planning your meals ahead of time can really simplify meal planning during the month, and also save money.

First, set your grocery budget and then make the menus and grocery list fit your budget — not the other way around. Decide what you can afford to spend and don’t go over that. You’d be surprised how creative you can be when you know you can only spend “this much and no more” at the store.

Take a few minutes to make a monthly menu and write down just what you need in the house for each meal. Go through the freezer and the cabinets to take stock of what you have on hand already. Then look at your calendar to see what the monthly activities are — for example make note of any birthday dinners, evenings when everyone will be leaving the house for the evening so you’ll need a quick meal, times you’re eating at someone else’s home, or whatever events would effect your meal planning for the month.

Then take a look at the sale flyers for your local grocery stores. To save the most money, plan your meals around what’s on sale and what you already have on hand. If you plan to shop weekly, make up all your individual weekly grocery lists for the month ahead of time (write up the entire month of shopping lists in one day so all you’ll need to do is run to the store when it’s time to shop).

Write out your meal plan on a blank calendar page and hang it in an easily visible spot (on the refrigerator, on a family bulletin board, etc.). It takes time to make out the menu and grocery lists, but it saves even more time everyday and causes much less stress when the decision is already made about what’s for supper that night.

FOOD CO-OPS / BULK BUYING

Be sure to check in your local areas for food buying co-ops. Many have small membership fees that you’ll quickly recoup from the significant savings you’re able to receive on many commonly purchased items. Natural food co-ops are common and a great way to purchase organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other expensive items at competitive prices.

Some communities offer a food buying program called Share. For a minimum charge (usually about $14) and 2 hours community service, participants receive a box of food valued at $35-$40. The community service can be something as simple as helping an elderly neighbor or working in your church nursery or Sunday School. The Share programs often offer meatless shares as well as the standard grocery items.

You can also start your own little unofficial food bulk buying co-op with a group of friends or neighbors. By purchasing items like flour, sugar, cream of wheat, oats, etc., in large bulk containers (50 pounds), you can then divide up the item into family-sized amounts, and split the cost.

Many people purchase large quantities of items from their local club store. While many of the items at these stores can be found at tremendous savings, be sure to shop comparatively even here. Sometimes you’ll find that the sale at your local corner grocery store will actually be less expensive per pound or per item than the prices at the big warehouse stores. Always bring a calculator with you so you can make sure you’re really getting the best price per unit.

Also, be sure to only buy in quantity those items that you’re sure you’ll be using before they go bad. Stockpiling toilet paper is a good idea since it’s one of those items you know you’ll be using eventually. Stockpiling bananas on sale might not be such a good idea since they spoil quickly — unless you’re planning on baking with them, or freezing banana pulp to use in recipes later.

GENERAL GROCERY TIPS

  • Buy ground beef on sale and divide up into smaller portions for casseroles etc. Freeze until ready to use.

  • Grate your own cheese, rather than buying it already grated. Also, purchasing cheese in large quantities, grating it, and then freezing for later use is a great way to save time and money.

  • Avoid pre-packaged whenever possible. Make your own individually packaged puddings, applesauce, yogurts, etc.

  • Buy produce in season.

  • Avoid the gourmet-type stuff.

  • If your kids want pop, chips, candy etc. have them buy their own. This will help to limit how much of that they will buy, plus they will begin to learn the value of money.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Deborah Taylor-Hough is the author of a number of popular books including the bestselling Frozen Assets cookbook series, Frugal Living for Dummies®, and A Simple Choice: A practical guide for saving your time, money and sanity. She also edits the Simple Times email newsletter. To visit Debi online, go to: www.theSimpleMom.com


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