Meal Planning 101 - How to Plan and Budget (even when that is not your thing)

For the greater part of my life my approach to managing money has been to follow my impulses. Yes I have always been "that girl". I was not raised in a family that used a written budget so I grew up clueless as to how to go about using or creating a budget. I did not write things down, did not plan, and I did not check myself other than looking at my online bank statement from time to time. Then I met my husband...when it comes to managing money Ben and I could not have been more opposite. I was the impulsive free spender, never looking ahead, and he was/is the calculated budgeter that puts thought into every purchase. Opposites attract right?! 

Once we got married and were living on a newlywed income I was in for a rude awakening. I had no clue how to use a budget, and even less of an idea of how to meal plan (or even cook really). But I began researching, trying things I had never tried before, and honestly, between you and I, I FAILED/busted the budget/went over/whatever you want to call it A LOT. So today I am sharing some tips that I have learned from my mistakes and how you can become a planner (even if you are like me and tend to spend impulsively!)


CREATE A BUDGET (and stick with it)


Our family spends about $75-85 a week, and we try to stay within the budget of $300 a month. Some weeks may be $85, while others may be $65. I am sure some of you are thinking this is crazy, we have to be starving ourselves or eating ramen noodles all the time right? Well we aren't, in fact as crazy as it sounds I have never had ramen noodles, though my husband claims they are actually quite tasty. We eat 3 meals a day, and I plan out 5-6 meals a week that I cook at home. We plan for one night out to eat as a date night, and one meal a week with our church family (this is potluck style so what I bring varies from salads to main dishes and desserts). 

How do we do this? Well here are a few things to keep in mind when making your budget...

  • Leftovers are your friend! Save money by eating leftovers for lunch the next day, freeze leftover soups, stews, or chili to have as a quick meal later on. 
  • Don't be brand specific! We shop sales, and are not ashamed of buying the grocery store brand. I have learned that most everything tastes just as good as that "name brand" food item I love. So save a few bucks by being brand neutral. 
  • Do it yourself. Rather than buying spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, stocks, pizza dough...and the list goes on. Try making more pantry staples yourself! 

EVALUATE YOUR STOCK


Before you even sit down to start planning out your meals take 5-10 minutes to browse through your pantry and fridge. Check to see what you have and take note of those things. I almost always have a variety of grains, beans, frozen veggies, and sauces. I write these things down and try to incorporate them in my planning. Also I look to see what items may be expiring soon. If I have milk about to go bad I make up a batch of homemade pudding or yogurt. Eggs? I will usually plan for a breakfast for dinner night or make a veggie frittata. The key to keeping a lower budget is to use what you have and avoid wasting anything! 


CHECK FOR SALES & COUPONS


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Another key part to successfully staying on budget when it comes to meal planning is shopping the sales and buying seasonal ingredients. Grocery stores always have sales, so plan your meals around the sale items rather than creating a menu and making your list fit the menu. Make the sales work for you! 

Also, seasonal ingredients are the fruits and veggies that are growing at any given season. As we go into fall you will begin to notice the prices will drop on things like winter squash, kale, Brussel sprouts, beets, cabbage, and more. Plan meals around these things, you will be saving money and eating what the earth is naturally growing during any time of the year. 


PLAN YOUR MEALS 


Now is the time that I sit down to write out my meals for the week. Like I mentioned earlier I plan to cook 5-6 meals a week. I try to never plan out my meals on the same day I go grocery shopping, it becomes exaughsting and leaves me feeling overwhelmed and frantic. I try to take some time over the weekend to browse for recipes, and get my head together before ever venturing into a store. 

My rule of thumb is that I plan for meals that have leftovers we can eat them the next day for lunches, I try to have one meatless meal, and one "leftovers" dinner per week.

I use a variety of resources for my meal inspiration every week. Below are some of my most used food blogs, and then of course I have an arsenal of recipes that I rotate through regularly. (side note, if you do not have a binder of recipes you LOVE I would highly recommend creating one. Pinterest is great but I love my recipe binder that is full of tested and hubby approved recipes)


NEVER SHOP UNPREPARED


After all the planning you have put into your meals you do not want to get to the grocery store and find yourself unprepared. You will be able to unravel all the planning in just a few minutes (or at least that is how I am).

I always have my list written out (I use my lovely Seasonal Meal Planning Journal from my friend Natasha Red) and I always have a pen and calculator ready to go. 

I make sure that I am not hungry before I walk into the store (this is the meal planner's mortal sin! eat before you go!!) and I plan to go at a time that is not overcrowded with people (usually early in the morning or late at night). 

I only buy the items on my list, and I try very hard to calculate everything I place in my buggy as I go so that I am not shocked by my total at checkout. (which even now still manages to happen to me from time to time). 


REMEMBER THIS IS A GUIDELINE, NOT A LAW


Meal planning and budgeting require lots of time and energy. Some weeks I slip up and am not able to prepare the way I usually do...those weeks are usually the times that I bust the budget. AND THAT IS OKAY! Life is short, and I am all too quick to beat myself up over spending $10 more than I meant to. Budgeting is a guideline to make your life less stressful and more free...but do not let it become something that causes you stress and becomes a shackle rather than a freedom! 

Busting the budget is not worth your tears!! (this is coming from the queen of crying over groceries) 


OUR MEAL PLAN THIS WEEK


I plan my meals around 7 day periods so this week the first of the month happens on a Thursday so this is day one of this 7 day plan. 

Do you meal plan? What tips do you have for making the process easier?