Super Simple Frugal Meal Planning Tips

Frugal meal planning is a three-part system—shopping on a budget, meal planning and not letting leftovers go to waste.

Not all meal planning is frugal meal planning though. Meal delivery services or “done for you” meal plans or memberships add up. It’s not just the cost of the service. Making a grocery list from a meal plan doesn’t factor in sales, the season or what’s in your pantry.

When you shop from a meal plan, you’ll spend more money.

If you want to be a frugal grocery shopper, start with a grocery list (the meal plan comes after) and make a plan.

In this article, I give you tips and my weekly strategy to get you started with frugal meal planning so can reduce your grocery bill.

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Tips for Frugal Meal Planning

1. Schedule time to plan

Schedule a day and time every week to review grocery store ads and plan your meals. Look for sales, but don’t assume the advertised price is always the best deal. Compare prices across different stores and brands and whether you’ll save more by buying in bulk.

Reviewing the sales and ad and making a grocery list should only take 10 to 15 minutes, although the time varies for planning weekly meals. Keep the plan simple by sticking to mostly go-to family favorites, creating a rotating theme menu and only adding one or two new recipes a week. Then, incorporate the new meals that were a hit with the family into the rotation.

2. Cook from scratch

Some people debate the cost savings of cooking from scratch vs. buying convenience food or ordering in, especially if you cook for one. Based on my experience with cooking on a budget for over twenty years, first just for myself and then for a family of four, cooking from scratch rarely costs more per serving than packaged or chain restaurant food.

Are there exceptions to this? Of course!

Most of the time you’ll save money when you stock up on ingredients on sale at their lowest price and plan meals around what you have in the pantry.

If you’re cooking for yourself or a small family, make the most of leftovers by repurposing them into new dishes. Cook larger portions of ingredients and utilize them across multiple meals throughout the week. And freeze any extra portions to enjoy later.

Spending a little time making homemade meals instead of buying pre-packaged foods can save a significant amount of money in the long run. Plus cooking from scratch is a great way to reduce waste and get creative with leftovers.

3. Plan meals from sales and pantry

Forget extreme couponing; the secret to saving money on groceries is stocking up when prices are low. Look out for those weekly specials and plan your meals around them. By combining sale items with pantry staples, you can come up with a meal plan that’s in your budget.

If your family primarily shops the perimeter of the grocery store for fresh foods such as meats, fruits, vegetables and dairy, stocking up on sales is the best way to cut your grocery bill.

Over time, you’ll watch your average monthly grocery bills shrink.

4. Batch cook

Spend a little extra time each week batch-cooking meals and ingredients you can use in multiple dishes. Not only does this save you time during the busy workweek, but it also helps reduce food waste. And you’ll save time by having snacks and meals ready to go when you need something quick. And you’ll be less tempted to order takeout on those hectic nights.

5. Use your freezer

Freezers help save money by preventing food waste in two ways. First, you can cook in bulk and store extra meals or freeze leftovers. And you also save money when you buy lower-priced bulk food to pack in smaller portions for future meals. Freeze leftovers, sauces, soups, chili, homemade stock, bread, muffins and cooked meals to extend the shelf-life.

6. Keep the pantry stocked

Maintain a stocked pantry with essential ingredients like rice, beans, spices, canned goods, pasta, canned tomatoes, broth and condiments. Having these items on hand allows you to come up with quick meal ideas without relying on last-minute grocery runs. Don’t forget to stock some flavor boosters like olives, artichokes, roasted peppers, coconut milk, capers and different oils and vinegars to spice things up.

7. Try different brands

Experiment with store brands or generic alternatives to your favorite brands. You might find these options are just as good as name brands but come at a lower price point. If your family has non-negotiable brand favorites, consider buying different brands for foods and household products you’re willing to experiment with.

Sometimes the quality isn’t as good or the taste is slightly different. I’ve been there and my family has a few brands we’re loyal to. But the quality of most generic options is comparable to big name brands.

8. Repurpose leftovers

Reheating yesterday’s meal isn’t the only way to keep food from going to waste. Mix and max different leftovers and add fresh ingredients to create new flavor combinations. Mix leftover grilled vegetables with cooked quinoa for a nutritious grain bowl or toss leftover chicken with pasta and pesto for a quick and satisfying meal. Or top leftover chili with diced avocado and cilantro or serve leftover soup with a side of crusty bread and a sprinkle of grated cheese.

If you have more leftovers than you can eat before they go bad, portion leftovers into individual containers and freeze for a quick meal on another day.

Just remember to follow the USDA’s food safety guidelines for storing and repurposing leftovers. Store leftovers in airtight containers in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking and reheat them to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) before serving.

9. Don’t dismiss the frozen food aisle

When you’re short on time and want to save money, don’t forget the savings you’ll find in the frozen food aisle. Not all frozen food is ultra-processed. Frozen fruits and vegetables are nutritious, convenient and often cheaper alternatives to their fresh counterparts, especially when they’re not in season. And the best part about cooking with frozen produce is it’s already washed, chopped, and ready to be used.

By stocking up, you can enjoy a variety of fruits and veggies all year round. Freezing extends the shelf-life so you can buy in bulk without worrying about food waste. I always have a few bags of frozen fruit, vegetables and individually portioned salmon in the freezer.

10. Stretch meat

Make the most of your meat purchases by using it as a flavorful addition rather than the main attraction in your meals. This is especially helpful in large families that enjoy hearty portions. One-pot meals with meat as a component such as casseroles can be more filling than meat as the main course, which might require a big portion to feel satisfied.

Look for lean cuts and incorporate them into dishes with plenty of vegetables, grains, and legumes to add bulk and nutrition. Don’t forget to repurpose leftover meat into new meals and consider planning at least one meatless meal in your weekly menu to stretch your budget even further.

Steal My Action Plan

Since I shop at a few different stores, I plan to go shopping when I need something from a specific store. I don’t have a set shopping day. For example, I get milk and half and half from Aldi. So, when I need milk I take the Aldi list I’ve been compiling and go.

I keep grocery ads, shopping lists and my whiteboard meal planner together. And make separate grocery lists for your local stores or websites.

Store #1 – your main grocery store where you buy most of your weekly food.

Store #2 – a smaller store or website where you buy specialty items that you find cheaper than your local grocery store.

Buy later list – items that you don’t need right away. This way you can wait until they’re on sale or add to a smaller shopping list week.

During the week, add ingredients to the lists as you run out of items. If you can wait for sales, add the items to the “buy later” list.

Now let’s look at an example of my weekly meal planning tasks.

Example of Weekly Tasks

Here are my weekly tasks to prepare for the following week’s grocery shopping. Meal prep tasks for the current week include batching ingredients and washing and chopping vegetables ahead of meals when I have extra time.

Monday: make grocery lists

  • Review sales ads from local grocery stores and take inventory of pantry items.
  • Create a grocery list based on sales ads and what’s in the pantry.

Tuesday: meal planning

  • Finalize meal options based on sales ads and pantry staples.
  • Write down the meal plan for each day, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
  • Look for ingredients that you can make extras for leftover nights and lunches.
  • Plan at least one slow cooker meal over the weekend.
  • Add ingredients to the list needed for next week’s meals (consider substituting ingredients you already have in the house).

Wednesday: batch cooking prep

  • Prepare for weekend batch cooking by making a list of ingredients needed for double batch cooking recipes.
  • Pre-chop any vegetables or ingredients needed for upcoming batch cooking sessions.
  • Shop at a specialty store that sells a few staples at the lowest price.

Thursday: prep ingredients

  • Chop vegetables, fruits, and herbs for upcoming meals, focusing on ingredients needed for double-batch cooking recipes.
  • Marinate meats or tofu for slow cooker meals or other recipes.
  • Wash and portion out salad greens and any other prepped ingredients for quick access during the week.
  • Store prepped ingredients in airtight containers in the fridge for easy use.
  • Organize the grocery list in order of store aisles or food categories for quick and easier shopping.

Friday: reheat leftovers

  • Enjoy a day off from cooking and reheat leftovers or make homemade pizza (don’t forget to plan extra time for proofing the dough).
  • Go grocery shopping at my primary grocery store.
  • Plan weekend breakfasts and make yeast bread to rise overnight in the refrigerator.

Saturday: Double batch cooking

  • Leftovers for lunch.
  • Cook double batches of ingredients while cooking dinner.
  • Use a slow cooker to make two meals at once.
  • Portion out cooked ingredients into containers for easy storage and label them.
  • Make Instant Pot yogurt overnight.

Sunday: batch cook and food prep

  • Portion yogurt into containers.
  • Continue batch cooking by preparing additional ingredients for the week ahead.
  • Chop vegetables for the week.
  • Portion lunches, snacks and breakfasts into individually sized containers.
  • Update the kitchen meal plan calendar on the wall so everyone knows the plan.
  • Clean the kitchen.

Planning doesn’t take as much time as you think.

It may seem like spending a few hours on making a budget grocery list, prepping food and planning meals isn’t worth your effort. But the payoff later in the week, when you’re tired and busy and don’t want to think about what’s for dinner, is worth it.

And, if you consistently apply these frugal meal planning tips and strategies, you’ll see your monthly grocery budget go down.

Do you have frugal meal-planning tips? Let me know in the comments below.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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