When Joel and I first got married our monthly grocery budget was tight and I had only just started learning how to cook. I started my blog as a way to challenge myself to try new recipes and share my results. I also had to learn how to make a weekly meal plan and stay within budget. I originally wrote this post to share tips that I found as a newlywed while learning to create a grocery list and budget for two. However, now we are a family of three, and meal planning has a whole new challenge: there is very little time now that my attention is pulled in different directions.
Creating a weekly meal plan has become more difficult and time-consuming than it was before.
In the past few months, I have found myself making multiple trips to the grocery store due to a lack of planning. I sometimes grab whatever I have insight - healthy or not - and our budget has been non-existent. Of course, we have a budget, but I haven’t stayed on track. I am revamping my old post with a new focus, which is to share the tips I have learned for simplifying a weekly meal plan without sacrificing quality meals. While I want my weekly meals to be easy to make, I am all about intentional living and cooking meals from scratch. They are healthier, easy to make, and ultimately cheaper than buying boxed or frozen goods. I want my meal plans to be easy, healthy, affordable, and sustainable.
5 Steps For a Simplified Weekly Meal Plan & Grocery List
1. Pick a day of the week to plan. Pick a day of the week that will best fit your schedule to sit down and take a few minutes to plan out your meals and grocery list. This does not have to be an exact ritual but it helps to have a general plan each week. Saturday is my day to meal plan because it is the day that works best for our family. I strive to get this task done every Saturday. However, if we have an unusually busy Saturday or want to take a family day, I push this to Sunday. It’s all about being flexible while having a plan in mind.
2. Check current inventory & running grocery list. The first items on your list should be items that you know are out of stock in your kitchen. I keep a running list throughout the week in a note on my phone. You can also keep a list on the fridge for your family members to make note of when they see an item is low or out. I don’t leave it to chance to remember to put them on my next grocery list.
3. Use Pinterest to keep a board of meals that you have tried and loved. Although this is the third step, this is my number one tip for simplifying your weekly meal plan. Now that Pinterest offers sections, I have a board that I titled Weekly Meal Plan Ideas. In this board, I have added sections that include our favorite recipes divided into categories from breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, to snacks. An alternative idea is to name your sections by cuisine instead of categories. For example, if you prefer to create a lot of vegetarian dishes, but occasionally make fish or explore other types of foods, you can name them by type of cuisine. If a recipe that you love isn’t one that you found on Pinterest, you can pin a photo of that type of dish to give yourself a reminder that you have one that you love. The purpose of this board is to have a treasure chest of ideas ready for you to scroll through and pick from a variety on a weekly basis. However, when pinning meal ideas, it's helpful to choose 90% of your meals to pair with your running grocery list items. If you buy a lot of avocados and have that on your list, it's helpful to plan meals that use avocados as some of the main ingredients since you are already planning to buy them. I keep a separate board of completely new meals that I mix in every few weeks or once a month. Trying a lot of new meals at once can add up if you're buying a lot of new ingredients separate from your weekly list and what you already have in your pantry.
4. Make a list of everything that you need for your meals. Read through your recipes and ensure that you have everything on your list that you need. I can’t tell you how many times I think I have an extra can of tomato puree for the spaghetti sauce that I am planning to make, only to start cooking and realize that I am out. The less prepared than I am before heading to the grocery, the more trips I know I’m going to make. This results in spending more each week on both food and fuel from a lack of planning. If there is an item that I most likely have in stock, I put a question mark next to it on my list to double-check my inventory before heading to the store.
5. Organize your grocery list by categories and the setup of the store. If you organize your list by categories and the setup of your grocery store, you will save time during your shopping trip. I start by organizing my items into categories. I group fresh produce together, salad dressing is grouped with pasta, and everything that contains dairy will be placed together. I make a mental note while I am grouping them to put them in order of how the store is set up. It sounds like an extra step, but it’s a natural part of the process that I don’t have to think about now that I consistently do it. I shop at the same store every time, so it is natural for me to organize my list this way. I start on the fresh produce side of the store and work my way around to the frozen section. If you're buying ice cream, you will want to pick that up last to avoid melting.
Tips for a Successful Meal Plan, Grocery List & Shopping:
1. Don’t create a weekly meal plan that is too tightly planned, but have ideas in mind. I haven’t had a ton of success in creating a strict weekly meal plan. I find that it works best when I create a meal plan of ideas with suggestions for the day that we will make it, but I leave room for change. If we are cooking with meat, that is a more time-sensitive meal and I will put that at the front of my meal plan or freeze it. I find that a weekly meal plan is helpful to have ideas planned for that week while going with the flow for which meals we want to eat each day. Some people suggest creating meals around the items that you purchased at the grocery instead of meal planning around recipes. However, I have found myself missing one to two items that I actually needed to make a particular dish one too many times. I prefer the idea of having a plan, with recipes in mind that I can prepare for and have all of the ingredients to create. As I mentioned earlier, I only choose recipes that have 90% of the ingredients already stocked in my pantry.
2. Plan weekly, but budget monthly. I plan our meals on a weekly basis because we can use our items each week while they are fresh. If I try to plan out farther than one week, it never seems to go to plan. We have a monthly budget that we divide into the number of weeks in that month to give us a consistent weekly budget. If I buy a higher-priced item such as protein powder, I might need to adjust that week to accommodate that item, and budget less for the following week. Keeping an overhead monthly budget will help you stay on track through the weeks of spending. Our monthly budget typically stays the same unless we foresee changes where we need to adjust.
3. Keep your weekly meal plan in a note on your phone or on a dry erase board on the fridge. One of the reasons that we create a weekly meal plan is to have just that, a plan. We need to write our meal plan where we can keep it in front of us each week. This comes in handy when Joel asks me what he can have for lunch since he doesn't always know what I stocked up on. I can consult my meal plan to give him ideas for that day.
4. Keep it well-stocked. I have found that keeping my kitchen well-stocked is rewarding in several ways. To start, having a stocked pantry gives my family a variety of ideas for any given meal. Second, I avoid last-minute grocery trips where I often spend more than I otherwise would have. Lastly, we don’t eat out as often if we have enough ideas to spark our interest.
5. Only use coupons if they are discounts on items that you are already purchasing. Before becoming a mom, I was all about coupons. That seems a little backward, as it would seem that couponing becomes a natural part of motherhood. These days it's just one more thing to remember and I am happy with the discounts that our store provides with our membership. If you want to save the extra from the discount, I recommend collecting your coupons and checking their expiration date along with the details before heading to the store. If I am using a coupon, I only use coupons for items that I would already buy. I don’t use coupons to purchase items just because they are on sale.
6. Clean out your fridge before you go. Purge your fridge before you go to the store. That way, when you get home you can place all of your items directly into the fridge without having to then purge in addition to organizing and storing your new groceries.
Tips For Budgeting
I wanted to share a few tips that have helped me in my journey to budgeting for our groceries. These tips are from our own personal experience. Every family will have a different budget and different needs to accommodate their weekly meal plan and budget.
- Use an app to track your spending habits for a few months. The first step to planning a grocery budget is to track your income and spending habits for one to two months. I did this with the Every Dollar app. You can use any app that allows you to input your income and track your spending. I added every shopping trip to the penny into the app for several months worth of trips. It allowed me to see our spending habits and be more realistic about our budget. It also keeps me on track each month instead of keeping a mental tally or running a checkbook.
- Take note of the food that you are constantly buying. In my family we eat a lot of the same meals, we don’t buy a ton of alcohol, and fresh produce is a priority on our list. It helps to know what items you are frequently buying so that you can set a realistic meal plan and budget based on those items. If you want to buy all organic produce, that needs to be a factor in your budget.
- Set a Budget. Once you have a realistic idea of your spending to income ratio and the types of food that you buy, you and your partner need to determine the best budget based on your income and budgeting needs. If you are overspending in any area, especially at the grocery, tracking in an app can help you adjust moving forward. If you do a quick Google search, the average family of two adults in America spends about $350-$690 per month according to OneMain Financial. For our small family of three, our budget sits at about $550-650 per month. We buy a lot of organic items, so we are on the higher end of the budget. This gives us an average of $150 per week.
- Budget For Eating Out. I always create a separate budget for eating out. We occasionally will grab margaritas down the street at our local taco place, but these outings don’t replace our grocery store trips. If we don’t eat the meal that I had planned one night, it rolls into the next night. We always find room to eat the items that we have. If you find that your family enjoys eating out often, you can budget that into your grocery budget for how many nights a month you prefer to eat out.