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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Menu Planning on a Budget (Part 1)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

So now that you know some of the benefits of menu-planning, I thought it’d be helpful to share some suggestions for planning a budget-friendly menu. However, please remember that there is no right or wrong way to plan a menu. These are just suggestions–take what works for your family, and leave the rest!

1) “Shop” Your Cupboards

I always start menu-planning by looking in my freezer, refrigerator, and cupboards. This simple exercise often yields a great deal of inspiration.

For instance, last week I discovered that I had cream cheese, canned tomatoes, and noodles on hand. So I made this lasagna as part of Freezer Cooking Day.

Maybe you open up your freezer and find chicken and frozen broccoli and you open up your cupboard and see a bag of rice. Well, you have the beginnings of Chicken Broccoli Rice Casserole. Just add cheese and cream of chicken soup  to your grocery list (or make your own Homemade Cream Soup) and you have everything you need for one dinner that week.

One great resource for coming up with recipes based upon what you already have on hand is by using the Ingredient Search feature from AllRecipes. Type in the ingredients you have and those you don’t have, and it will pull up a list of recipes you can make.

Two other websites you can consult for recipes based upon ingredients you have on hand are SuperCook and Recipe Matcher.

2) Consult the Sales Fliers

Once you feel like you’re getting the hang of planning your menu based upon what you have on hand, you’re ready to move onto the next level of menu-planning–planning your menu based upon what’s on sale at your local store(s). This is where you really start to see the savings happening!

Most grocery store chains have their weekly sale fliers available online. If not, you will often receive a copy in the mail. Or, you could even pick one up at the store if you’re going to be driving right by it.

When you’re in the middle of planning your menu and grocery list, quickly browse through these sale fliers and see if there are any exceptional deals on things you need or things you will use in the next few months. Most of the time, the hottest deals of the week are listed predominantly in the front page of the flier. Oftentimes, these front-page deals are “loss-leaders”. (“Loss-leaders” are deals which the store is actually breaking even– or losing money on! They are designed to be good enough to “bait” you into shopping at that store.)

Don’t neglect to look through the full flier, though. Sometimes there are great deals which are hidden on the middle pages. However, remember that just because something is listed in the sales flier it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great deal. Over time, you’ll start learning what are the “rock-bottom” prices for items you buy and how often they go on sale in your area.

3) Survey Your Coupons

Once I’ve gotten a good idea of what I have on hand and what’s on sale at my nearby stores, I pull out my coupon box to match up coupons with the sales and see if I have any other coupons I want to be sure and use (such as high-value coupons or coupons for free items). I put these coupons  in a stack and then it’s time to make my menu plan–which we’ll talk about in more detail in the next post in this series.

What are your best tips for menu-planning on a budget? Comment and tell us!

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  • Jennifer says:

    I’ve really been trying to follow your advice of shopping our cupboards/freezer before I meal plan. It’s amazing to see what’s hiding there if I just take the time to look!

  • Ginger says:

    I do the same that you do in that I begin with what I have on hand; then, I check the flyer for Publix online to see if anything on sale matches my coupons. Thanks for this site Crystal.

  • Marjorie says:

    You must have read my mind. I finally finished calculating 2 months of grocery spending. My next step is going to be a pantry inventory. This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thanks!

  • celia says:

    My best suggestion for menu planning on a budget is to have an open mind. If you HAVE to have lasagna and cheese is not on sale, you are gonna pay way more than if you waited for the cheese to go on sale. So I always look at the sales fliers before planning our meals. And I never shop hungry. Shopping hungry is bad news for budgets.

  • Sara says:

    Rice makes everything go further. If I add rice to a soup, we can eat on it twice as long. No one in my family is picky about leftovers. =)

  • Tami says:

    I never have gone through with creating and using a menu plan, but I want to. Thanks for sharing the information and motivation.

  • Shelley Haskell says:

    Crystal- I sent you a beautiful blogger award. I love your blog and all your helpful information.

    Thanks, Shelley

  • Joelle says:

    I try to keep my menu simple. My husband and kids seem to love my easy meals even more than the extravagant ones, and of course they cost less. I always have breakfast for dinner one night of the week. Again, everyone is happy and it is a huge budget saver. Another rule I follow is one crock-pot meal, and two “Do Over” meals (fancy for leftovers) a week. This seems to keep my thinking on track even before I reach my fliers and coupons.

  • Sabrina says:

    I was wondering if you ever thought about separating your coupon deals from your actual posts? sometimes I miss out on your fantastic ideas because I’m sifting through all your deals — which are absolutely fantastic! — but sometimes I do miss the great ideas you’re giving out. 🙁

  • Amanda says:

    I like making homemade cream soup because it is really versatile, so I don’t need to worry about having five different kind of cream soups on hand! I use this recipe:

    • Julie says:

      @Amanda, Thanks so much for that recipe for the cream soup. My husband can’t have MSG and most of those can soups have it. I can’t thank you enough for sharing that! 🙂

  • Yes, this works. I shopped my cupboards for dinner today and made spicy beef nachos with leftover beef.

  • Kelley says:

    I’ve always done menu planning and it saves tons of time….however, there are times when we have had one dish of this, one dish of that for leftovers…guess what…it’s clean out the fridge nite(not left-over night)… draw a number and choose what your one-dish wonder is….kids LOVE this!

  • I look at what I have on hand and what is on sale, but the past 4 months I have made a monthly menu plan. That said, if I don’t have a needed ingredient and it doesn’t come in at a good price by the time I shop for that week, I just subsitute that meal with something else that I already have things on hand for or that the ingredients are on sale.

    Also, I know some people advocate shopping WITHOUT the kid(s), but I enjoy taking my 3yo with me- I am motivated to hurry along without browsing for things that aren’t on my list, AND she gets a lesson in how much things cost and why we should feed our bodies healthy food. She also enjoys simply watching the people around her and loves saying hello to the grandmas and grandpas that are always at the grocery store!

    • Vanessa says:

      @Milk Donor Mama, I love taking my children with me too.I have a 2,3,8&18 yearold.The older ones are a great help with the little ones.We homeschool so they are really learning a lot of things at once.Most important lifeskills.

    • Leah says:

      mmmm… hearts of palm…..

      I never thought about how my 3 year old helps me hurry along and shop. I certainly have to hurry and not browse. But then again I miss things and forget coupons because I can’t concentrate. I suppose it’s good practice making sure my list is exhaustive so I just follow it and don’t have to think things up on the fly.

  • Vanessa says:

    The best moneysaver I do is keep a pricebook.It takes a little time but is well worth the effort.

  • momondealz says:

    We always plan for one night a week to either be leftovers or a grilled cheese and soup night. Since soup is always on sale and I always have coupons for soup, it saves us money at least one meal a week!

  • Janine says:

    I’m trying to get better at meal planning and matching sales and coupons, but my problem is that I don’t have enough grocery shopping experience to know what is a good deal and what isn’t. I’ve heard of keeping a price book but I’m not quite sure how to go about doing that. I’ve started entering my receipts into a spreadsheet but this takes a lot of time, and I’m just not sure if it’s really that helpful. Do you write down what you spent on each item every time you shop? Do you differentiate by brand and price per ounce?
    Thanks for your help!

  • When I plan my menus, I check my cupboards and then I consult the sales fliers. Every Christmas my dad sends me a subscription to Simple and Delicious and I find that many of their meals are pantry/budget friendly. They also have an ingredient match on their website which I use ofter.

  • rachel says:

    But… what can you make when you open the cupboard and find a can of Hearts of Palm, cherry pie filling and pickles????

  • Laurie says:

    I stockpile pantry staples but love checking out the weekly sales (mostly at Publix) and make my menu plans based on that. I don’t have tons of freezer space so planning meals around what meat is on sale really helps! It’s amazing what you can save just with a little planning!

  • Jodi W says:

    Stir-fries are great when you have bits of veggies sitting around–you usually have onion, garlic, a can of .50 mushrooms and a lone carrot. Even with one more fresh vegetable, you have the makings of a stir-fry!

  • Jodi W says:

    Crystal, an idea for a post might be how to best use leftovers. You could include common leftovers that can become a full meal. For example, 2 cups of leftover chili could become chili and macaroni, burritoes, or a chili pie (if covered with cornbread). A lot of us would benefit from a post like that–or open it up to us to see if your readers have good ideas. Thanks for all of your great ideas–I read your blog several times a day!

  • zombiemommy says:

    Try also recipezaar for recipes using a ingrediant sifter.
    I actually find better quality recipes (tastier for one) at that site.

  • I have been following your blog for awhile now and have been inspired to start meal planning! Starting with a list of meal ideas, I then went through the house looking for ingredients to make those meals. Little did I know that I had enough to make 8 full meals and with just a little shopping from the store I now have enough to make 16 meals! I’m excited to see that meal planning will lower my grocery bills!

  • Jenny says:

    I have been getting better about substituting. I needed salsa for black bean and chicken enchiladas, but didn’t have any, so I used 1/2 can of rotel and then used the other half in the rice to make it more of a “mexican” rice! It worked great. I’m trying to utilze what I have instead of thinking I need to run to the store to get something the recipe calls for – like beans. Use whatever bean you have or making wraps instead of sandwiches if there isn’t enough bread for everyone.
    Also, I’ve been trying to incorporate smaller amounts of leftovers – bread ends – freezing then using the to make bread crumbs or croutons, spaghetti sauce or chili for an easy go to meal for just one of us if we are on our own or a quick lunch to take with me to work, and using up veggies in omlets or a quiche!
    Another thing we try to do is have 1 or 2 meat free meals. I try to buy meat in bulk when its on sale and separate it before I freeze it into smaller portions.
    I love this series and reading all the comments…Gives me great ideas and inspiration.

  • Yenna says:

    Know if the only thing that I need for example for the lasagna is cheese and is not on sale? What to do buy the cheapest or generic/store brand at the moment? or What if I prefer the quality/brand chesse better, pay full price? any suggestions?

  • Ellen says:

    I buy ahead… for example, if ground turkey is rock-bottom priced one week, I will stock up enough in anticipation of the next time it goes on sale. (watching sales fliers and keeping a record of the sale cost and how frequently it goes on sale really helps with knowing this.) I do this with many, many items, including meat, cheese, and canned/boxed goods for the pantry. After doing this for awhile, it really adds up! You will find yourself heading to the grocery store and stocking up on only a few items at a time b/c you’ll have enough of everything else stocked in your pantry to fill in the rest of your meal plan. When I first started this process, it felt like I was spending a little more out of pocket, but now that I have an amply stocked freezer and pantry, my costs for groceries has decreased DRAMATICALLY since I rarely buy anything without it being a loss-leader or a great deal with a coupon.

  • Kerry D. says:

    Love the series!!! One of our difficulties is that so many budget friendly dishes and uses of leftovers include cheese or dairy… And my daughter cannot tolerate dairy. One cream soup recipe I’ve made with coconut milk, and that was a delicious solution, but probably wouldn’t taste right in many dishes. Most soy cheese still uses casein or whey; vegan cheese just wont melt! We’ve tried making personal pizzas and it could be used on the space shuttle! Does anyone have experience substituting soy or rice dream type products, in soups for example?

  • Stephanie says:

    I love ingredient finder. When I am going through my cupboards, I type in some things i have on hand and come up with all kinds of great recipes. I make sure I search by rating and choose the highest rated recipes and I have had very few fails! I also do this if I find out I forgot to pick up an ingredient for a recipe I was planning on make. I can’t imagine how much money this has saved us!

  • Erin says:

    For me I tried making a true menu plan and while I enjoyed it I felt for me and my creativity it put me in a little bit of a funk, I like being a little on the fly. That said I have a very well stocked household with a large pantry and 2 freezers, I buy things only on sale and funny that now I barely even have to shop due to my having such an amply stocked household with most of the basic pantry goods, tomatoes, rice, beans and pasta. I personally plan my menu based on what we have in the house, plus we live 20 minutes from town, so popping to the store is more like an hour trip. Tonight for example I made beef stew with stuff solely from my cupboards and fridge, I had a lot of odds and ends that needed to be used, so I used them up.

    One thing that I really like to do is double duty dinners, I’ll purposely make extra chicken breasts for example, have them for dinner one night, then either use them for caesar salad or chicken stir fry.

    My grocery bills have continued to decline the past couple years, this blog has helped and so have many other resources.

  • Melanie says:

    I have a question about coupon-ing: I have tried in the past to collect them, but they always seem to be for stuff I never buy to begin with. I don’t get the newspaper, which is where most of them are, and haven’t had any success with the online-printable types. I’ve tried shopping the sales, but always end up with needing what’s not on sale. What advice would you all give a VERY beginning coupon-er? : )


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