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How to Plan Your Meals When You’re on a Tight Budget

Meal planning is great for saving time, but, ideally, it should save you money, too. And when you're on a strict budget, meal planning can be quite the task. If you don't have much grocery money to work with, and you're not sure where to start, use this guide for planning meals on a tight budget.

Look for Meal-Stretching Foods & Recipes
Before you start anything else, you should have an idea of what foods and recipes are the most cost-effective. Look for inexpensive ingredients that still have some nutritional value.
The Best Ingredients for Budget Stretching
Food site We Got Real has a roundup of inexpensive food ingredients that can help stretch your budget. Some items on their list:
  • Sweet potatoes

  • Lentils

  • Eggs

  • Squash

  • Beans

Other options you might consider: brown rice, mushrooms, tofu, peanut butter.
Look for versatile foods, too. Chicken, of course, is the main ingredient in many, many dishes. One blogger came up with 17 meals made from just one roaster chicken. If you're not a carnivore, tofu might be a good alternative. Greatist has 53 recipes you can make with tofu.
We also discussed this chart of 20 cheap, healthy recipes that are made from pantry staples.
Resources for Cheap Recipes
The web is full of resources for cheap recipes. For example, a few useful sites include:
If you don't already have one, consider investing in a slow cooker/crock pot. You can make a ton of delicious, cheap and incredibly easy recipes using a crock pot.
Once you've rounded up your favorite, cost effective recipes, organize them. We've featured the best meal planning apps before. Basically, you want something that can:
  • Plan out your recipes for the week

  • Build shopping lists

  • Add recipes easily

If you're on a budget, the app should preferably be free, too. Pepperplate and Ziplist are free, but Lifehacker readers most praised CookSmarts ($72/year) and Plan To Eat ($39/year).
Plan Based on Sales
You can also plan meals based on the items that your grocer has on sale for the week. Grocery Pal browses sales at local supermarkets and discount stores, and Locavore tells you what produce is in season in you area. In-season produce is usually cheaper. Both apps are free.
Once you get an idea of what's on sale and/or in season, you can search for recipes based on these items. My go-to site for doing this: SuperCook. The site compiles a list of recipes based on the ingredients you already have (or plan to buy). You can sort your recipes by meal type (breakfast, dinner, casseroles) or by cuisine (Asian, Mediterranean, etc.).

You can also search for slow cooker meals and meals that are "quick and easy." When the recipes populate, the site tells you whether or not you have everything for the meal. If you don't have everything, they'll tell you what else you need.

It's a great site for planning based on what's on sale or what you already have.

Overlap Ingredients

Because you want to get the most out of your food, efficiency is key. You can use the above mentioned apps to automatically plan your meals based on the recipes you like. But let's say you have five great, cheap recipes that all have very different ingredients. Well, you might not use the entire pack of mushrooms you buy for a pasta. Obviously, you don't want to waste the leftovers. So here are a few options for overlapping ingredients:

Plan using an inverted pyramid pattern: We recently discussed this strategy. You start with your biggest meal, then work your way down, adding new recipes based on what might be leftover from the first meal. So each added meal includes ingredients from the previous meals.

Iron chef your leftovers: If you have a bunch of random ingredients left over from the week, go Iron Chef on them. Get creative and make a new meal out of your recipe remains. Or, if you're too tired to be creative, enter your leftover ingredients into the SuperCook site and see what they offer.

Shop for ingredient staples: This goes along with the "shop for versatility" tip. There are a lot of ingredients that are included in a variety of recipes—the old standbys, if you will. On my especially lazy weeks, I usually pick up chicken thighs, mushrooms, potatoes and spinach. This might be boring, but you can cook all of these together in a multitude of ways.

Get Deeper Discounts
It's easy to find out what's on sale. But there are ways you can get even deeper discounts on your groceries.
Couponing isn't for everyone, but if you find a way to do it efficiently, it can significantly cut your expenses. Check out our beginner's guide to couponing. I coupon, and it takes me, at most, 15 minutes a week. Here's how I do it:
  • I subscribe to the Sunday paper ($8/year), and pull the circulars each week. I write the date on the front of them, then stack them in a pile in my desk drawer. (5 minutes)

  • I check my go-to stores on Coupon Mom. I've bookmarked Ralph's and CVS. The site tells me what's on sale that can be combined with coupons. It then tells me which circulars to find those coupons. I check off the items I want, and it automatically populates a list. (5 minutes)

  • I cut my coupons. (5 minutes)

This is just how I do it; others print coupons or digitize them. Lifehacker writer Melanie Pinola rounds up some non-crazy ways to coupon.
You can save money by shopping at the right time, too. Check out our month-by-month guide to grocery sales. Many stores have manager's specials or grocery clearance sections. You might find discounts by shopping at the end of the day, too. It can't hurt to ask your grocery store when they price their discounts.
Prepare Your Shopping Trip
Once you have your recipes in order, you can make a list of your meals for the week. If you're using a meal planning app, it might automatically create your shopping list.
Some people hit up multiple grocery stores to get the best deals at each one. Of course, you should consider whether the savings outweigh the time and gas spent doing this. If you have to drive across town to save a few cents on a can of tuna, obviously, it's probably not worth it. If anything, it helps to know which stores have the best deals on specific items:
There's even a case for saving money by shopping for groceries online. Lifehacker's Alan Henry makes a few notable points:
  • Online prices are competitive with in-store pricing, and grocers honor their sale prices in their online stores.

  • Many of them offer virtual coupons.

  • You can easily see your subtotal increase as you add items to your cart. If you go over budget, you can simply remove something. This is easier than trying to keep track of your total in-store, where you risk going over budget at the checkout counter.

Once you have your store(s) in mind, plan when you'll go. Most people know not to shop when they're hungry. But it's also helpful to avoid shopping during stores' peak times, if you can. You'll likely shop more efficiently when you don't feel rushed, crowded and stressed. Of course, some stores discount their items at the end of the day, so if you're shopping for these discounts, you might have to fight the crowd. It's helpful to choose the best time to shop, but sticking to your list is ultimately what matters.
Tight Schedule? Come up With a Plan B

When you're on an especially tight schedule, you might not have the time to make lists or look up recipes, as menial as those tasks may seem. At times like this, it's easy to give up and just order take-out. To avoid blowing your budget, have a Plan B in place.

Here's one idea for a Plan B: create a backup list of your easy, go-to recipes and ingredients. Store it on your phone, or somewhere readily accessible. When you don't have time to plan, you can simply head to the grocery store and shop using your backup list. It takes the stress out of meal planning when your schedule is tight.

Of course, there's also the option of cooking meals in advance and freezing them. Check out the best freezable recipes from Cooking Light.
Be Selective about Organics
If you're on a budget but you also want to eat organically, consider being selective about the organic produce you buy. The Gracious Pantry pointed to the Environmental Working Group's list of the "dirty dozen." These are twelve foods that contain the highest amounts of pesticides:
  • Peaches

  • Apples

  • Bell Pepper

  • Celery

  • Nectarines

  • Strawberries

  • Cherries

  • Pears

  • Grapes

  • Spinach

  • Lettuce

  • Potatoes

If eating organically is important to you, but you also have to watch your money, the above foods will get you the best organic bang for your buck.
Avoid Food Waste
According to the NRDC, the average American family throws away $2,275 in food annually. Especially if money is tight, you want to be as resourceful as possible with your groceries. Here are a few tips for avoiding food waste:
  • Organize your fridge:We often waste food because we've forgotten about it in the back of our fridge. Prevent this by creating a system for storing food in your refrigerator and/or pantry. Apartment Therapy lists five apps that can help with this, too.

  • Freeze your food: We reviewed one blog's Ultimate Guide to Freezing Food.

  • Regrow your groceries: We've written about this before, too. You can regrow heads of lettuce, green onions, garlic sprouts and more.

  • Start a garden: If you have it in you, start a grocery garden filled with the best money-saving plants. Or, contribute to a community garden. My apartment complex neighbor started a community herb garden. It's small, but useful.

  • Rethink expiration dates: Most expiration dates are bull, a recent study found. We've discussed how these dates are based on quality, not safety, and the NRDC confirms this. To get a better idea of your foods' expiration dates, you can check out the web site Eat By Date.

In theory, meal planning sounds easy. But in reality, tight schedules and budgets can make it difficult to plan ahead for cost effective meals. To eat well on a budget, establish a system that includes strategies for saving, a backup plan, and ways to avoid waste.
Written by: Two Cents
Two Cents is a new blog from Lifehacker all about personal finance. Follow us on Twitter here.
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