Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning on a Budget

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Are food expenses killing your budget? If so, meal planning will be your new best friend! Today, I’m going to give you a very simple method and some amazing tools to help you consistently do your meal planning on a budget and start saving hundreds of dollars per year!

For years, our food budget has been one of the lowest and most consistent parts of our budget. Meal planning is my secret sauce! Keeping our food budget low has allowed us to pay off thousands of dollars of debt and save a considerable emergency fund. I swear by it!

Does that sound like something you need in your life?

If so, keep on reading!

pasta noodles with text over the top Pinterest pin

Get Started Here

For best results, you should create both a monthly meal plan and a weekly meal plan.

Now, hold on!

I know what you may be thinking. This sounds complicated already.

I promise, it’s not! Creating a general meal plan for the month will make your weekly meal plan a complete breeze and it will save your sanity when your days get busy and stressful.

The last thing you want to do is put off your weekly meal planning because you’re too busy to get to it, and you end up ordering takeout for a few nights. That’s a huge, avoidable, budget-buster!

Do the monthly meal plan and it will set you up for success for the entire month!

Worried about coming up with a month’s worth of dinner ideas all at once? I have great news for you!

Every month, I create a monthly meal plan and send it out to all my subscribers absolutely FREE. Yep. I’ve basically made the monthly meal planning step easy as pie for you. Subscribe to the FREE monthly Meal Idea Calendar here.

All the ideas on my monthly calendars are easy, simple, tried-and true favorites like chicken caesar salad, frozen pizza, hamburgers, breakfast for dinner, etc.

Now, let’s move on to the essential steps of meal planning on a budget!


Step 1- Create a Monthly Plan for all your Dinners

Using a blank monthly calendar, write down dinner ideas for the entire month. You can plan lunch and breakfast too, but I find most people usually eat the same things over and over and don’t need a detailed plan for those meals, so I don’t recommend spending a lot of time on them.

free monthly meal plan printable

Include one leftover night each week to help reduce food waste!

Plan to batch cook as often as possible with key ingredients, i.e. cook chicken breast on one night that can be used for 3 dinners during your week. You will have to plan this ahead on your monthly meal plan!

Don’t overcomplicate your dinners. Be realistic about what you’re willing to cook. I highly encourage easy, quick family favorites most nights and maybe 1-2 creative and more labor-intensive dinners per week.

Sample Monthly Meal Plan:

free monthly meal plan printable

This is one of my free monthly meal calendars, and it’s a great example of how your monthly meal plan should look.

You can write your monthly meal plan in your personal planner, on your big family calendar, or on a printable calendar.

Want blank printable calendars to create your own? You can grab them in my Meal Planning Complete Kit.

Tip to make your meal planning more budget friendly:

I like to plan about 2-3 dirt cheap dinners for each week ($4-7 range for a family of 4). These are things like spaghetti, hot dogs, frozen pizza . . . dinners that cost next to nothing! We don’t want to eat these dinners every day, so by spreading 2-3 throughout the week we feel like we’re eating well since the other 3-4 dinners are in the regular price range ($8-13+ for a family of 4)  plus one leftover night.

On most nights, we don’t spend more than this. We like to eat out once a week plus a few lunches, so by eating inexpensive dinners most of the week we make sure there’s enough money for some restaurant splurging.

Step 2- Each Week, Solidify Your Weekly Meal Plan

When it’s time to grocery shop again, usually weekly or every 2 weeks, solidify your menu for the week.

Simply look at your monthly meal plan and confirm you still want to cook all of the dinners you planned out. Write them down on your weekly meal plan sheet.

Personally, I hate assigning dinners to a night of the week. I much prefer to leave that open ended! This is because I don’t know what I’ll be in the mood for or what I’ll have time to cook. I make my weekly meal plans completely flexible on which night I’ll cook each meal, but I will cook each meal eventually during the week. Mine looks something like this.

laminated weekly meal plan printable

You can also assign each dinner a night if you like the structure! Both flexible and assigned work very well.

Sample Weekly Meal Plan:

  • DAY 1 – 3 Ingredient Chicken Teriyaki (Medium cost)
  • DAY 2 – Spaghetti (Low cost)
  • DAY 3 – Breakfast for Dinner (Medium cost)
  • DAY 4 – Frozen Pizza (Low Cost)
  • DAY 5 – Chicken Caesar Salad (Medium cost)
  • DAY 6 – Leftovers (Free)
  • DAY 7 – BLTs (Medium Cost)

Step 3- Make Your Grocery List

Make a grocery list of all the items you will need to make each of the dinners on your weekly meal plan menu. Don’t forget to get breakfast and lunch items too!

I usually make a list on my phone notes app or just add the ingredients right into my Walmart Grocery Pickup order.

Step 4- Go Grocery Shopping

Set a budget before you go, and make sure you can grab everything you need with that budget ahead of time! Then, do your best to stick to your list. Don’t grab a bunch of things you didn’t plan to, unless they are essentials of course.

Grocery Budget Rule of Thumb:

I’ve heard some people suggest $100/mo per family member including all toiletries that you can get at the grocery store (i.e. TP, soap, shampoo, etc). In my opinion, this is outdated! I recommend $125/mo per family member as a good grocery budget rule of thumb. For a family of 4, this would come out to $500/mo. You may need to spend more if you have special dietary needs, live in a high cost of living area, or prefer organic foods.

Look for sale items, generic brands, and bulk-buys to save even more money.

Related reading: 19+ Realistic Tips to Save Money at the Grocery Store

Step 5- Keep Your Meal Plan in Plain Sight

Set yourself up for success by keeping your weekly meal plan right on your fridge, ideally laminated or in a page protector.

weekly menu on fridge

When 5:00pm rolls around, the last thing you want to do is dig around for the meal plan you made or search through your fridge ingredients trying to remember what you’re supposed to cook.

Make it easy by sticking that weekly meal plan right on your fridge! I have been doing this for about a year now and it makes a huge difference in making dinnertime a breeze and sticking to my meal plan!

Now it’s time to cook! Use Your weekly meal plan and cook each of the dinners you planned out. Cha-ching! I can hear the savings already!

red beans and rice in a blue pot

Step 6- Do a Monthly Pantry/Freezer/Fridge Inventory to Use Up any Soon Expiring Food

This step is optional, but I highly recommend it if you want to stick to a meal plan on a budget.

Once a month, grab a piece of paper and go through your pantry, freezer, and fridge and write down everything you need to eat up because it will soon expire or you just want it gone.

Use that list in your monthly meal plan, making sure to plan dinners that will use up those items. This helps prevent food waste and lowers your weekly spending because you’ll be using up items you already have on hand!

You can also find a ready-made printable to guide your monthly pantry cleanout in my Meal Planning Complete Kit.

Want a Shortcut?

For all the tools needed to complete a monthly and weekly meal plan, plus a list of over 70+ easy dinners ideas, check out my Meal Planning Complete Kit! This 9 page printable kit has everything you need to do your meal planning on a budget quickly and with expert organization including:

  • Blank Monthly Meal Plan Calendars
  • Blank Weekly Menu/Meal Plan Printable (flexible + daily)
  • Blank Grocery List Printable
  • List of 70+ Easy Dinner Ideas
  • Pantry Cleanout Checklist
meal planning printables

To Summarize What We’ve Gone Over So Far:

  • Step 1– One per month, make a monthly meal plan
  • Step 2– Once per week, make a weekly meal plan using your monthly plan as a guide
  • Step 3– Make a weekly grocery list
  • Step 4– Grocery shop
  • Step 5– Put your meal plans on your fridge, cook
  • Step 6– Each month, do a pantry cleanout and plan some meals around it

I hope this guide has helped you understand all the steps to meal planning on a budget!

Meal planning doesn’t need to be complicated, you just have to commit to it and get it done. It will make dinnertime so much less stressful to have a plan ready to go and you’ll save loads of money!

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing this!! It was helpful… I am trying to learn how to meal plan, and I have found this to be helpful!

  2. Hi! I really love your monthly meal ideas, I’ve been subscribed for about a month but I only get a March calendar even though it is a new month. Thanks!

    1. Hi Katie! I sent the April one in an email titled something like this: “I can’t believe my husband said this to me (+April meal idea calendar)”. Try looking through your email for that one, you can also search for “Easy Budget” or “Merilee from Easy Budget” and see if that pops up! 🙂 I usually send it with my monthly newsletter and blog review.

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About the Author

Welcome! My name is Merilee and I’m the creator of Easy Budget. I started this blog to help other families like mine crush debt, budget, manage money, and meal plan like pros!

Everything you find here will be useful, motivating, and always easy. Need to contact me directly? Reach me here!

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