Thursday, June 25, 2015

Eating Healthy on a Budget – A Long Post About Meal Planning


This is long, sorry about that.  

This may not work for you, so share what works for you!!

These are just my tips, it is all about finding a way that works for you!


One of the hardest things for me when it comes to a diet is planning healthy meals the family loves, while also not going over the budget.  I think we can agree, that sometimes eating healthy can come at a price!  But over the last 6 months I am learning that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.  I have managed to find ways to incorporate a healthy diet for me and for my family, while sticking to our budget.

Now I do have to say, many meals we eat separate things.  My husband works crazy hours so we may not always have dinner with him.  And my son is, lets say, a particular eater.  He does eat healthy, but the list of foods he likes is somewhat limited.  And then there is me who wants to eat healthy and try new alternatives.

I know some are thinking…SO DO YOU MAKE THREE MEALS?!

Uh, not exactly.

But I do prepare meals a little differently.  If my husband will be home for dinner then I make a meal we will all like and share.  If he is not, he eats what he wants (usually leftovers or frozen meals because that is his choice!) and then I make something easy for Henry (mac & cheese with broccoli, canned fruit, carrot sticks, chicken nuggets for example) and then I may make myself something easy like an omelet or salad.  These are easy meals to make for dinner, but also keep all of us healthy and happy!

Tip: Have a list of quick, easy and healthy meals to fit in your regular week.

We also budget to eat out maybe once a week.  We like to eat out.  Plain and simple. 

So, with all that said, I have learned how to eat healthy while staying on a budget.  The major key, for me, to eating healthy is meal planning.  I have been meal planning for over year for our budget, but the last 6 months have found ways to incorporate my healthy eating into our meal plan!

Meal planning is KEY for me.

If I do not have a plan/idea of what I am eating for the week, I not only go off my diet but I also overspend.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to order a pizza after a long day at work instead of coming home to make dinner?!

I have had meals planned as little as one week and as much as two months.  For me, two weeks is ideal as it fits into our pay period so I know exactly how much I have to work with after bills are paid, plus I have NO idea what I will be in the mood for more than 2 weeks out and what will be on sale.

Before you start meal planning you should write down a list of your favorite meals to make for everyone in the family.  They could be healthy or not, elaborate or basic like grilled cheese and soup...but I keep a list for an easy reference.  Otherwise I totally forget!  Keep this list with your recipes and you can refer to it whenever you plan your meals.

I tried to get at least 20 meals on our list.  We have about 40 on our list and your list will grow as you do this longer.  I use this as my base list and refer to it when meal planning.  It doesn’t mean I only use those recipes, but they are most of our “go-to” recipes!  I then look online for things that sound good and try out new recipes every so often.

Next, pick out a few meals for the week based on what you have time for.  I use a calendar and make sure to include evenings my husband works and if we have anything going on so that I know what type of meals to prepare. Do you have days it needs to be something quick, something that can be made the night before, a sit down dinner, ect...

I try to pick meals that use similar ingredients, to help with the budget.  For example, I may make chicken fajitas one night and make extras for leftovers to have burrito bowls the next night.  I will also plan quesadillas for Henry since he doesn’t like burrito bowls and this uses any extra tortillas we may have.  And to keep things healthy, we use brown rice or even quinoa for the burrito bowls.  Hey, how about we use the extra quinoa for an easy dinner with a poached egg on top and spinach.  And if I plan on a weekend, I may even make breakfast burritos with the fajita leftovers.  Or if you are using something that uses a half a bag of carrots, think of another way to utilize the carrots....another meal or that will be your vegetable snack for the week.

Tip: Always leave at least one or two leftover nights and I always leave a night for an easy meal to help clean out your pantry/refrigerator so food is not going to waste.  Not every night needs to be a gourmet meal!!  (I use to plan a new meal every night and not only did it cost more, but we wasted food because we never ate all the leftovers.)

When meal planning I also look at what I already have.  I don’t know how many times I will buy a can of black beans when I already have two in our pantry!  When you use what you have in your pantry it can save money.

When meal planning, I also have to figure out what other meals other than dinner we need to plan for.  Usually it is breakfast and lunches for myself.  I try to do the same, or similar thing every day for the week.  I am boring like that!  But at least I know my calorie count and what I have to spend.  I also figure out if I need to make extra of anything for lunches or leftover nights.

Tip: Don't over buy!!  Sometimes it is easy to buy all the fruits or vegetables or other perishable items that look good and throw half away at the end of the least I know I have.  I stick to one or two for the week so I know we will use them.  This not only saves on the budget and waste, but then I don't feel obligated to eat everything.

So after I know what kind of week/s it will be, how much time and money we have, and what nights I more time to cook and what nights we will have "easy" meals or leftovers I tally it all up and incorporate the appropriate recipes for that week,

So what does ALL this long winded stuff mean for eating healthy on a budget??

Basically, when you take an hour or two every couple weeks and plan your meals, you can SAVE big time.  You also KNOW what you are going to eat, so there are no questions.  And note, there is no right or wrong way to meal plan!

I usually put my final menu on a calendar and hang it up so we all know what we are eating that week.  But many times I am scribbling stuff on post-it notes and pieces of paper and may change my mind throughout the week until I make my final meal plan the week before.  It really is what works for you!!

Here is an example of a two week menu and a week of groceries (we were out last week so things are a bit off this week).

Monday – Salad for Me, Noodles with tuna for Henry and Terry. (yields extras)

Tuesday – Easy Pantry Night (I had tomato soup and an english muffin then a bowl of cereal for a snack later)
(J. Breakfast – Egg Muffin Sandwich 238 calories; J. lunch – 2 cup salad with hard boiled egg. 2oz turkey lunch meat, 2 tbsp yogurt ranch, ½ cup Low fat cottage cheese & ½ cup pineapple – 353 calories, Snacks: 1 cup grapes, baked Cheetos = 182 calories)

Wednesday – Frozen Ravioli (Vegetable and fruit on the side for Henry – Small side of Ravioli with Salad for me) (yields extras)
(J. Breakfast – Protein Bar and coffee = 280 calories plus 50 calories for creamer, J Lunch = Egg Muffin with lean turkey, ½ cup cottage cheese, baby carrots = 380 calories, Snacks = grapes 62 calories)

Thursday – Grilled Chicken with a balsamic glaze, grilled asparagus, Rice Pilaf (make extra box for Saturday) – extra chicken for lunch Friday. extra asparagus for omelets for dinner Friday.
(J. Breakfast – Egg Muffin Sandwich 238 calories; J. lunch – 2 cup salad with hard boiled egg. 2oz turkey lunch meat, 2 tbsp yogurt ranch, ½ cup Low fat cottage cheese & ½ cup pineapple – 353 calories, Snacks: 1 cup grapes = 62 calories)

Friday – Easy night/leftovers - Omelets with asparagus (use leftovers from thursday)
(J. Breakfast – Egg Muffin Sandwich 238 calories; J. lunch – 2 cup salad with hard boiled egg. 2oz grilled chicken, 2 tbsp yogurt ranch, ½ cup Low fat cottage cheese, XXX calories, Snacks: 1 cup grapes = 62 calories)

Saturday – Shrimp Kabobs over rice (use leftover rice from Thursday)

Sunday – Chicken Fajitas (can use any extra shrimp as well) 
Sunday Meal Prep – Breakfast burritos. Make a Turkey Kale Soup for lunch and for the next week.  Prep lettuce for salads and lunches for the week.

Monday – Burrito Bowls (Use extra chicken Fajita Mixture)

Tuesday – Grilled Fish with Grilled Veggies (Make extra veggies)

Wednesday – Easy Pantry Night

Thursday – “Chinese” Lettuce Cups - Couscous with extra veggies from Tuesday and cabbage with a little soy sauce 

Friday – OUT

Saturday – Pasta Casserole

I think in the future I am going to start listing our meals and grocery items on the blog to give you a better idea!!!

So for me, I calculate how much my dinners will be calorie wise.  Then fill in my breakfast and lunch.  Whatever is leftover I use for snacks.

Here is a breakdown of the cost:

(hard to really tell, but a lot of food there for $49!)

So for groceries for Monday – Friday.  I spent $49 at Aldi’s.  We also had been gone a week so didn’t have much in our fridge at all so had to get a couple extra “restock” items like cat food, milk, two dozen eggs, frozen pancakes, and even got batteries so spent more than normal!!  We then spent another $6 on two HUGE (I only eat half and save half) chicken breasts at the butcher and about $12 on Rice pilaf, asparagus and a few frozen meals for Terry’s lunches at a different store. This gave us our meals for $67. Now, we did have stuff in our pantry but that is why I try to keep a full pantry with the basics.

Groceries for the reminder of my menu above it will probably run me about $85 plus a night out of food (approx. $35-$40) which means about $125 for the second week.  That puts us at $192 for two weeks of meals and we are eating a good variety of foods that are still HEALTHY!!    Now granted, if I wanted something special as a meal or we splurge on  something the budget goes up.   And this does happen...sometimes the week is busy and we may eat out a few times. But by estimating how much we want to spend and planning ahead, we know what or if any wiggle room we have in our budget!  Next time we may only spend $150 for two weeks or maybe $300 for two weeks.

**For the record, the low-end food budget for a month for a family of 4 is $786, about $195 per week.  I know there are others who can do this and lower their monthly bill more than mine, but we still like to eat and there are certain things we won’t give up.

So here is how I do it:

1.       Shop at Multiple Stores & Don’t be afraid of Aldi’s!!
I am probably the person who HATES grocery shopping more than anyone else out there.  BUT, I do love saving money so it is a give and take thing!  So I shop multiple places.  The best deals for meat is at the butcher, hands down.  The quality is usually amazing and the cost is comparable and normally less than a big box store.

Aldi’s.  DO NOT BE AFRAID OF IT!!  I know I was intimidated by the fact that I had to bring a quarter for a cart (huh?!) and then my own bags (really?!) but they do that to keep costs down, allowing for some of the lowest prices you will find.  AND, the food is good and good quality.  Their Fit & Active product line is fantastic.  They sell organic items, including produce. Their produce is great! They even have a wide variety of gluten free.  And many of their breads do not have High Fructose Corn Syrup and half the cost at any other store!!  Their seafood and lunch meat are great and some of the BEST deals you will find on cheese.  And almonds are an amazing deal.  Their canned fruits and vegetables are a HUGE money saver and where else can you find organic tomato paste for 25 cents! 

About every 6-8 weeks I go to Aldi’s to stock up on pantry items.  Diced tomatoes, canned vegetables, canned fruits, organic sauces, olive oil, ect.  This is about $50-$60. Then I go every week or two for meal items.  Shopping here has really saved us a lot of money on the things we use regularly!!  I then go to a regular store and pick up any remaining items I need that Aldi's doesn't have.  

2.       Veggies, Veggies, Veggies
Summer is the best time for veggies and I supplement a big part of my diet on vegetables that are on sale/in season.  I also make sure to have one or two fruits for the week (one week grapes, next apples, next bananas..ect…) but whatever it is I pick one or two and go with that for the week.  

3.       “Filler Foods” 
Don’t forget about “filler” foods.  Cabbage, beans, brown rice.  These foods are inexpensive, high in fiber, and a GREAT addition to meals.  I am taking leftover vegetables from one of my meals and mixing it with a bunch of sautéed cabbage and a little light soy sauce and adding it to some lettuce cups for a meal for me.  Sometimes I throw beans on my salad for extra protein and fiber.  Brown rice is also a staple.  Spaghetti squash and cauliflower are also foods I am learning to use to supplement meals.  All of these are extremely budget friendly.

"Chinese stir-fry with cabbage"

4.       Prep as much as you can!!
This may go more on the eating healthy side, but I find when I prep as much of my food as I can ahead of time, it makes eating that healthy food way easier!  I wash, let dry and then put all my shredded lettuce for salads in a ziplock bag for the week and just grab as needed.  Same with vegetables for the week.  And if there is ANY cooking I can do for the week on Sunday I do it.  Make a soup for the week, make rice for later that week.  You normally eat all the food you have and spend less time during the week preparing meals.

5.       Let someone else do the work when it comes to coupons and saving money!
There are websites like and coupon mom that tell you what is on sale, what coupons to use, and how to save money!!  Many times this may be on packaged food or home items (got 3 clorox toilet bowl cleaners for .49 each!!) but you are saving money.  I am by no means an extreme couponer, but I do look for deals.  And then if I save on home items, I can spend a little more on healthy food at the store!

(Got all this for $25!)

6.       Frozen and Canned Fruits and Vegetables
There may be differing opinions about canned food, but I use it and find it to be a GREAT value.  Low sodium is always the way to go.  But frozen vegetables are a HUGE savings and packed full of nutrients.  They are flash frozen at their peak, so lose very little in regards to nutrients.  I can get a bag of broccoli florets for $1.10.  And if you want spinach to put in something, frozen spinach is amazing!  The amount of fresh spinach you would have to add would cost you way more than the $1 box of frozen spinach.  I buy mine at Aldi's as I find the quality to be great with nothing added.

7.       Have “Go To” Easy and Healthy Meals in your Pantry
We always have light and easy items in our house.  As I mentioned above, having a pantry of basics is great.  There are lots of websites that talk about pantry items.  We do go to bulk food stores to buy many of these pantry items.  It really is a great savings on things you use all the time!

My go to meal on an "easy" night!

You don't have to like to cook or make elaborate meals to meal plan.  You also don't have to eat boxed foods or limit your fruits and vegetables to save money on food.  It can seem intimidating at first, but really it is like a puzzle and you should find ways to make it fun!!  When you start having fun with meal planning AND meal preparation, it doesn't seem so much like a chore and it is easier to stay in your budget.   And if you do a lot of the prep work on one day when you have time, you do not need to worry about as much during the week when you are busy.

Phew.  Ok, I should probably shut up now!!!

But what did I miss on meal planning?! 
Does it make sense?  
What do you do to eat healthy on a budget?!

*Update - went to the store and left my list at home!!  Not only did I spend about $30 more than I wanted, I forgot a couple things and spent more time in the store than I wanted!!  Seriously, meal planning and organization is so important for me! :-)

1 comment:


    Honestly, I'm in awe.

    I strongly feel that you should post this to your FB page. This is exactly the type of post that people want to read. I'm TERRIBLE at meal planning and you just inspired me.