Meal planning on a budget

Canada Life - Jul 15, 2021
With rising food costs, it’s hard to keep your grocery bill low without sacrificing the health and wellness benefits that come from a home-cooked meal
Lady with shopping cart at the grocery store

With rising food costs, it’s hard to keep your grocery bill low without sacrificing the health and wellness benefits that come from a home-cooked meal. 

Maybe the thought of meal planning doesn’t sound all that appetizing to you, but it’s not just good for your bank balance—it’s also better for your health. Having healthy, home-cooked meals ready when you open the fridge means you’re less likely to reach for a bag of chips or spontaneously order in fast food.

Budget meal planning

Here’s how to make a meal plan. You can use one of many templates available online, or you can start with a simple chart. Write all the meals you’ll eat until your next shopping trip, including snacks or drinks. A realistic and detailed meal plan means you’ll be less likely to spend spontaneously at the grocery store. Don’t forget to plan for meals that you won’t prepare, such as a dinner at your parents’, a work event that includes lunch or dinner, or a pub night with friends. You don’t want to buy food that you won’t eat!

Basic grocery list

Take stock of items already in your pantry or fridge and consider what other ingredients you need. Quantity is key to avoid waste. Ensure you record details on your grocery list. If the recipe calls for a ½ cup of cooked quinoa, write “1/2 cup” and “cooked” on your grocery list so you’ll know when shopping how much you really need. Remember to keep your list handy at all times; as you pour the last drop of milk, add it to your list. A good list means you can avoid paying double during an emergency milk run to a convenience store. 

To help build your grocery list, you can download a mobile app that allows you to share lists between multiple devices so anyone in the household can add items as needed.

What to buy on your grocery trip

One basic rule of budget meal planning is to ensure that you can re-use leftover ingredients in a later meal. For example, if you buy mushrooms to make a spaghetti sauce, but don’t use all the mushrooms, sauté the leftover mushrooms in garlic to serve with a meal later in the week.

There’s an app for this

Flyer apps show sales on foods you might need this week or want to stock up on for later. You can also see upcoming flyers, so you can plan ahead to next week’s meals. Another helpful type of app offers sale prices on food nearing its expiry date. This works best if you can eat it the same day or next day—good for both your budget and your stomach. 

Recipes are made to be broken

You don’t always need to follow the exact recipe; be on the lookout for substitutions or adjust quantities. Does your smoothie really need coconut water if you can’t taste the coconut? Would tap water do? In addition to adjusting ingredients, experiment with quantities. Edit and save favourite recipes as you modify them. If you’re budget meal planning for one, you could double the recipe and freeze half if a particular ingredient is on sale this week. Budget meal planning for two or more? You can play with quantities and plan a fun miscellaneous meal night where every member of the family eats a different leftover dish. 

What to keep in your pantry, fridge and freezer

It’s great to stock up on sale items, but only with non-perishable goods. Staples like bread, butter and grated cheese can be frozen to extend their shelf life. If you have favourites like tomato paste or rice, it makes sense to buy these in larger quantities and save! But the 12-can case of soup you don’t really like is a waste of money and space. 

Don’t forget to treat yourself

If you work hard making healthy meal plans on a budget, don’t forget to treat yourself from time to time! Maybe plan to order in with close friends on Fridays, given that you’ve followed your meal plan for the rest of the week. Or maybe splurge for your favourite tub of ice cream.

Keep it real

Remember that you’re bound to over-plan or under plan when you first start —there’s definitely a learning curve. You’ll soon learn the typical quantities of packaged items and how those quantities fit in with your favourite recipes. You’re bound to cave here and there to a spontaneous meal purchase; you may even plan ahead to have one spontaneous snack purchase per grocery store trip, so you can satisfy your craving. Learn each week from how you’ve over-or underestimated to help keep your meals and your budget healthy.   
 

Have more questions about budgeting and financial planning? Find an advisor today.