I’ve tried so many different methods for meal planning on a budget. Making the same six recipes over and over again. Making a list based on the store ads and then forming meals out of those ingredients. Themed days. The list goes on and on.
But none of them really helped me stick to a budget. We were still routinely scrapping the planned meal in favor of a quick bite with our busy schedules. It was not even remotely meal planning on a budget.
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Our meal planning method was not keeping us on budget.
I’ve read and pinned and reread so many blog posts about how other families handle meal planning on a budget. The idea of cutting our grocery budget down to $200 a month sounds amazing! But just impossible. Especially with the new food restrictions we’re on due to food sensitivities.
As I was reexamining our budget and where our already limited funds were actually going, I realized, why couldn’t I go this in-depth with our grocery budget?
Instead of writing down $500/mo as our grocery budget, what if I broke it down not by week (which I had been doing but found it really not all that helpful) but by type of grocery. Could this be the answer to meal planning on a budget?! (hint: it totally is)
So this is how our grocery budget now looks:
Groceries – $125/week
Bread and Pasta: $10
Household goods: $15
Other potential categories: Dairy, Canned/boxed goods, personal products
What does that actually look like?
I find it helpful when bloggers put what they actually do with those numbers so I’ll break it down to what we usually buy with that.
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While we’ve had to compromise on our desire to eat all organic and local foods, animal products (and dirty dozen) are the ones we stick to. There are lots of places you can buy grass-fed organic ground beef so that’s the cut we get the most of. Aldi usually has some, as does Meijer (though Aldi is usually $1-3 less depending on sales). We used to start with EarthFare and see what they have on sale so we could have one day every other week or so where we were eating something other than chicken or ground beef. We’ve been using ButcherBox (sign up with my affiliate link for some awesome free meat in your first box!) for almost six months now and we have been really happy with the quality and variety. I don’t include this cost ($129/mo) in the weekly grocery budget because it’s a one-time fee I pay at the beginning of the month so while it is included in my larger grocery budget, it isn’t included in my weekly breakdown. We usually have 1-2 meatless dinners each week and I buy around one pound of meat each week in addition to our ButcherBox, usually breakfast sausage, bacon or fish. We may bump up to the larger box in the near future.
Bread & Pasta:
We don’t eat bread often, especially now that we are gluten free. V and Husband love to have sandwiches, and Ezekiel bread toast for breakfast used to be an everyday thing here, so even though gluten free bread is expensive and not necessarily the most nutrient-dense, we do buy one loaf a week. I’m currently in the testing phase of trying to find a good home made gf bread recipe that doesn’t include yeast or corn. Send me links if you have one you love!
Our pasta varies and we don’t actually eat it as often anymore since we have had to cut out tomatoes. We’ve been doing Banza chickpea pasta lately but we handle quinoa pasta well. We just tried Miracle Noodle but it was love for V but not so much for me. I’ve found that since we cut nightshades we’ve been eating almost no pasta.
We do a mix of frozen and fresh fruits. V loves snacking on frozen fruit (and frozen blueberries are my sugar craving savior) and it is often cheaper than fresh (and perfect for smoothies). Meijer has a few great options (we usually get one large bag of frozen non-organic mangoes every two weeks) but Aldi is usually the cheapest for frozen strawberries and blueberries. For produce we follow the dirty dozen.
As a friend recently pointed out to me, the list goes in order so #1 has the most pesticides and chemicals so while we never buy non-organic berries, I don’t mind eating non-organic peaches or pears on occasion. Because we have candida issues, we do try to limit our fruit consumption and focus on low sugar fruits like berries and green apples. We love organic grapes but have really bad luck with mold so we pretty much just avoid those now because they are crazy expensive. Meijer’s organic True Goodness line recently came out with a frozen fruit medley that has peaches, dark cherries and some other fruit that we really love in homemade ice cream or smoothies but since it’s about $13 for a large bag, we do try to make that stretch over a few weeks.
For our meal planning on a budget, I found I really needed to budget these separately as V is a fruit hound and fruit can be more expensive than veggies. We always buy one large bag of whole organic carrots since they are great for hormones and V loves snacking on them. Other staples we rotate depending on budget are organic cucumbers, celery, sugar snap peas, etc. We buy a container of organic kale or salad mix once every other week unless it’s on sale, especially during the summer. If it’s on sale I’ll buy more and just make sure we use it up in salads, smoothies and soups, but I’ve found when I was buying one clamshell every week in the hopes that we would eat it, we just let it go to waste and that’s just too expensive to do. During the growing season we try to make it to one of our local markets as much as possible and eat a rainbow of locally-grown, in-season vegetables. We’ve also been using cauliflower/broccoli/carrot rice and shredded zucchini a lot lately which are all fairly budget-friendly and really help bulk up grain-free dinners.
Our snack consumption varies pretty widely depending on the state of our guts and what is on sale. We really like these plantain chips that are available pretty widely where we shop. We will also usually buy one bag of Boulder Canyon’s avocado chips if they’re on sale. We like Simple Mills sprouted seed crackers, especially with tunafish salad. Other things that I will budget into this category are bulk raw coconut chips for toasting (V loves them!) and freeze dried fruit, usually the organic apples, pears and strawberries from Aldi, the occasional Happy Baby or Sprout pouch for V and Baby A, jerky, etc. depending on what is on sale. I compiled a big list of AIP/Paleo-friendly snacks in this post. We do try to limit it and focus on eating enough at meals not to snack too much but we have little kids so we don’t stress too much about trying to be strict about meal times.
While I would eventually like to focus on cutting back on our paper waste, that’s not a priority right now while we’re focusing on our health so we do use paper towels, toilet paper and tissues. We buy whatever is on sale. I also lump cleaning supplies in with this but I make most of our household cleaners and we buy the store brand eco-friendly dish soap so it doesn’t end up costing much.
Because we don’t eat legumes or nightshades we rarely buy anything premade that wouldn’t fall into the snack category so we don’t budget for canned/boxed goods. The only canned thing I buy regularly is tunafish and I lump that in with my meat budget. We are now dairy-free but I do try to buy this twelve-pack of coconut milk once every few months whenever I have Amazon gift cards.
Breaking up our budget into these categories has truly been a game-changer for us with sticking to meal planning on a budget. While we do still struggle with the running out to get eggs and end up spending $50 splurges, the main grocery buying has become much less stressful.
Cash vs. Card
I am by no one’s definition a financial expert. That being said, we’ve tried the very popular “cash only” method of budgeting a couple of times. Twice, to be exact. And both times, I’ve lost our grocery money. The first time I put my wallet in a bag with supplies for V’s 2nd birthday party and then put the bag away in the closet, with my wallet, completely forgetting where I had put said wallet with all our grocery money. The second time was just a few weeks ago and the money fell out of my pocket while at the farmer’s market. Luckily a kind farmer found it and gave it to the market runners who already knew I had lost it. But still, I don’t think the cash-only method is a home run for us. I really want it to work though because I love the principle. Currently we use card but we run it as debit and I’m trying to get in the habit of going over our budget at least every other day so that if we do go over, I catch it right away and we can fix it quickly.
Do you have any meal planning/budgeting game changers? Share in the comments below or over at Facebook!
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