Many have asked me how I am able to cook nutritious food on such a tight budget so I thought I would write a post about why and how I meal plan and how to find great deals!
Why Did I Start Meal Planning?
Prior to meal planning, I found grocery shopping and cooking to be a hated chore! I would wander the grocery aisles and pick up random things to make a set of basic meals – pasta, mac and cheese, chicken with veggies, stir fry, fajitas, tacos, and frozen pizza. Buying random food without a plan meant I was uninspired to cook and had the dreaded question “what should I make for dinner?”. This also meant I wasted a lot of food and went out to eat a lot.
Over 2 years ago, I decided to take matters into my own hands and cook healthy and exciting meals. I set out with the goal of making a new recipe for dinner every meal, and I have stuck to that goal for over 2 years! While the recipes have shifted from healthy meals that included grains to now eliminating grains my goals of meal planning have stayed the same. In October of 2014, I came down with a mysterious stomach illness that left me bedridden. After months of being extremely ill, I decided to go grain-free in January of 2015. After 3 months of being strict paleo, I began to see amazing results and lessened stomach issues! Now I am 90% grain free and 80% paleo but I still use the same meal planning process I used prior to my stomach conditions.
For me, meal planning has several great benefits:
I don’t waste food!
- I buy exactly what I need for each recipe and I generally make every single meal every week
I save money!
- In addition to not wasting food, I generally plan meals around sales and overlap ingredients for multiple dishes in a week
- I eat leftovers for lunch the next day and rarely go out to lunch on a workday
I don’t get in a rut!
- I make a new meal for dinner and I enjoy finding new and interesting things to eat. This keeps me interested and excited to cook dinner
I stay on track!
- By meal planning, I make myself accountable to my healthy lifestyle and don’t succumb to quick and unhealthy options
I save time!
- I no longer stand in front of the fridge wondering what to cook for dinner! I have a plan and it allows me to reach quickly into the fridge after a long day of work and grab the ingredients I need with ease and start cooking
I have improved my cooking skills!
- Utilizing new techniques for cooking over the past two years has greatly improved my cooking abilities and confidence. I know when and how to adapt recipes and have become extremely comfortable in the kitchen
How do I Meal Plan?
Starting is the hardest part!
Two years ago, I first sought out to find great blogs and started a “food” bookmark folder where I saved healthy and nutritious recipes. After a couple months of finding recipes and printing them out, I created a google doc, very similar to the “recipes archive” of this blog. Whenever I see a great recipe, I copy and paste the link into my sorted google doc so that I have access to pages and pages of recipes 🙂 This makes it very easy to pull 5-6 recipes for the week and have a plan. At the top of my google doc, I list the links for “recipes this week” so that I have them all at the click of a button.
When trying to prep for meals for the week I do a few things first:
I look at the sale ad for the grocery store and note what is on sale!
- For instance, if asparagus and eggplant are on sale the week I will go through my folder and try to find recipes that include those ingredients
I try to find overlap in recipes!
- If a recipe calls for half a butternut squash or cabbage, I try to find another recipe that also calls for those ingredient so I am not wasting any fresh produce, meat, or dairy
I utilize the entire ingredient!
- On the same vain as the above comment, if I buy a whole chicken, I will use the bones to make bone broth. If I have any ingredients leftover from previous recipes I will use them on the weekend to throw together breakfast or lunch or if they are still in good condition, I will find a recipe for the following week to use. I rarely throw food away and always try to find a way to use everything I purchase
I consider what I already have in my pantry!
- I will share my budget tips below, but I always consider what ingredients I may have on hand such as canned tomatoes, frozen meat, etc when I meal plan. This cuts down on the ingredients I need to buy at the grocery store while staying within my budget
I consider what events I have going on!
- If I know I have a happy hour, birthday party, etc I will make sure to not buy groceries for that night’s dinner. I also generally allow myself one night a week where I will eat out or grab something quick for dinner. For instance, this could be on nights I get home late from physical therapy and don’t feel like cooking
I plan my meals with variety in mind!
- I generally like to have a salad or two, a main dish, a faux pasta dish, and a soup each week. This is a general rule of thumb but I like to cook a variety of dishes for the week based on my mood and to keep things exciting!
How do I Eat Grain Free on a Budget?
I generally spend less than $300 a month on groceries for two to eat, nutritious, grain free, from scratch meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner 90% of the week! Most weeks our grocery bill is $50-75 (depending on if we need to buy staples like olive oil, honey, etc). Some weeks can be higher like $80-100 (which is rare, maybe once every 4-7 weeks) if we have to buy additional items like cat food, cleaning supplies, etc. I just checked my mint account and in the last 12 months we have spent around $3,000 on groceries and $2,000 going out to eat, which averages to around $415 a month for groceries AND going out to eat! I try to buy as much organic produce, dairy, and cage-free eggs as I can. However, with our budget that is not always possible but I try to stock up on sale items and utilize various tactics to buy the best products I can.
Here are a few of my tips to finding great food on a budget:
Shop at various stores!
- Many stores have better deals on certain items than others and while it took me a while to determine which of my local stores had the best prices on what products, once you figure it out it becomes second nature! For instance, Kombucha is ALWAYS cheaper at Natural Grocers by almost a dollar… and most of their organic bulk items are cheaper than Sprouts non-organic bulk items.
Shop sales and stock up!
- Sprouts frequently has amazing BOGO sales so I always stock up on olive oil, canned organic tomatoes and beans, and other pantry staples during these sales
- As mentioned above, I check the Sprouts ad prior to meal planning for the week and select meals given whats on sale. If salmons on sale, you bet that I’ll make a salmon dish!
Shop in bulk!
- Not only is buying in bulk cheaper, it is also so much better for the environment. I always buy in bulk nuts, almond/coconut/tapioca flour, chia seeds, spices, and other staples. Again, since these products keep very well, I will buy in bulk during sales. On a side note – I always keep my alternative flours in the fridge so they last longer
- I love using subscribe and save on Amazon and stack amazing deals with coupons. For example, I buy 90% of my Larabars on Amazon when they have a $4 off coupon for a 16 pack plus 15% off for subscribe and save. Watching for sales, I can buy 16 packs of Larabars for $7-10! Other great items I purchase online while watching for sales are olive/coconut oil, canned goods, Qi’a, Renola, coffee, etc.
- Kroger has an app where you can download coupons digitally. I find a lot of their organic Simple Truth brand to be on sale and also have electronic coupons so you get double savings. They tend to also have coupons for fresh items like cheese, eggs, and almond milk! Also get connected with mailing lists. Sprouts sends me monthly emails with coupons for heavy discounts or even free items!