The Frugal Meal Planner

[ This article is part of our series of articles on the price of food and how to save money on groceries ]

Food is a major part of life and a large component of any household’s budget. With grocery prices continuing to rise year over year and over 10% of the average household’s disposable income going to food costs it’s no surprise that many people are interested in ways to save money on their meals. Meal planning, especially by becoming a frugal meal planner, is one of the most effective ways to do this.

Average annual per capita food costs in the U.S. are about $7,200, being split approximately evenly between “food at home,” which is mainly groceries, and “food away from home,” which represents take-out, delivery, and eating out. Meal planning is a great tool to directly impact your grocery costs and indirectly save on food away from home. For the average household, the total savings from being a frugal meal planner can easily add up to several thousand dollars per year.

Manage Your Inventory

Keeping your fridge, freezer, and pantry organized and knowing what you have on hand is core to effective meal planning. On average about one-quarter to one-third of the food we bring into our homes goes to waste, and it’s estimated 2/3rd of that is due to food going bad. Keeping tabs on what’s on hand, having a system to track expiration dates, and creating a plan to use food before it spoils goes a long way toward reducing your waste. If you cut your waste by 2/3rd that also means you’ll need to buy about 15-20% less food over the course of a year, which for a household of 2 people equates to around $1200 of savings per year. A bit of inventory management can save you big bucks!

Select Recipes With Lower Cost Ingredients That You’ll Use Up

It’s easy to get excited about trying out a new recipe, and you ought to incorporate that into your meal planning process. But think twice before you buy that gallon of fish sauce for the new Chinese dish you’re trying out or the 5 lbs bag of flax seeds for the flaxseed pudding recipe you recently discovered. Try to fill your meal plan mostly with recipes that use lower cost, more common ingredients. This way you won’t end up with a large quantity of untested specialty ingredients and you can narrow your grocery list by incorporating recipes with overlapping ingredients. Using overlapping ingredients also helps ensure you use items up before they expire and it allows you to buy in cheaper, larger quantities. When trying out new ingredients, start small, even if the unit cost might be a bit higher. If you love the recipe and ingredient you can go for the larger quantity that might have a lower unit cost the next time around.

The low cost ingredient advice is especially true with proteins. In terms of animal proteins chicken and pork are usually cheaper than beef and fish, so consider reserving the higher cost animal proteins for certain days per week or for special occasions. Don’t be afraid to try other protein sources as well, which can be even cheaper. Incorporating tofu, seitan, tempe, beans, eggs, and other sources of protein into the meal plan can save you big over the long term. These days there are ample recipes out there to make delicious meals without meat that are still high in protein, so don’t be afraid to go meatless a day or two a week. As a bonus, it’s also good for your health and the environment.

Even A Frugal Meal Planner Needs Backup Plans

Life can get hectic in a hurry, so even the best laid plans often need to be adjusted. When this happens it’s easy to default to picking something up, ordering in, or eating out, but that need not be the case. There are a few ways in which you can build some contingency options into your meal planning.

  1. Have a really simple, ready or nearly ready to go option on hand. Ensuring you always have a few boxes of mac and cheese, ramen, a frozen meal, or another option that can be prepped in 15-30 min and can be stored for a long time will reduce the odds that you find yourself needing to spend money on food outside of the home.
  2. Prepare components of meals, or full meals, in advance. As an alternative to the above, or in addition to it, you can always cook an extra large batch of a food that will freeze well one week and then keep that on hand as a backup meal. All you’ll need to do is defrost and heat it and you’ll have a home cooked meal if Tuesday happens to become too hectic for tacos.
  3. Once you’ve completed your meal plan, assess which things you might be able to make in advance and cook some or all of them. This is the intersection of meal planning and meal prepping. If you’ve already cooked a large batch of brown rice, or roasted green beans, then it’ll be easier to rustle something up when you realize you don’t have time to make meatloaf on Thursday as you’d planned. You don’t need to prepare everything in advance and some foods simply don’t do as well with advance preparation, but designing your meal plan to include a few things that can be prepped also creates a bit of a built-in backup plan.

Whatever your chosen method, including a backup in your meal planning effort will make it less likely that you end up spending a bunch of your hard earned money on a last minute meal. Creating the meal plan is only half the battle and it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll need to make adjustments on the fly, so be prepared. By meal planning you’ll have more control over when you eat out, or order in, so you can fully enjoy treating yourself instead of 

Frugal Meal Planning To Win

The reality is that while frugal meal planning isn’t rocket science, it requires a bit of work, discipline, and execution. Employing these three tactics will help you save money on food so you can reinvest in other parts of your life. If you’d like to take much of the work out of frugal meal planning check out the Budgeat app. The truth is meal planning can be made a lot easier when you have a purpose built tool that helps you implement these three tactics and many others. Whatever your choice is, we wish you luck on your journey to becoming a skilled frugal meal planner.

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Are you interested in reducing your food waste, saving time, and money? Check out our app. We create personalized meal plans that consider your budgetary, dietary, taste, and cooking preferences, incorporate ingredients you have on hand, and generate easy to use grocery lists that don’t break the bank.

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