save on groceries with meal planning

Frugal Grocery Guide Part 3: Meal Planning



To cut down your grocery spending, you’ll want to utilize a flexible meal plan. Not only does this help prevent unplanned eating-out, it helps prevent impulse buys and makes the most of what you have. Avoid entering a store without a plan (unless you’re really awesome at buying only what’s on sale and making whatever it is into fab meals at home, and you know by heart what’s in your pantry, and you aren’t hungry when you enter said store…) Here’s the strategy:

Plan around your pantry.

First, take a look in your pantry (including the freezer), and your fridge. Plan the week’s meals based on what you already have. Presumably you bought these items at a great sale price and stocked up. Centering your meals around groceries you already have minimizes waste and keeps you using items you intentionally bought at a low price instead of buying more expensive food to match an extravagant or out-of-season meal plan.

Scour the weekly ads at your local stores.

Fill out your menu with the fresh foods that are on sale. For example, I might have potatoes in the pantry and ham in the freezer. I see that butternut squash is on sale at store A, so I figure on some bisque this week. I know that I have plenty of oats in the pantry and eggs in the fridge, and I see that apples are on sale at store B. So I plan some baked oatmeal for a breakfast. With my freezer stocked with chicken breasts and a can of chipotle peppers in the pantry, I decide to grab some of those on-sale limes and avocados and make chipotle-lime chicken with this dressing.

Here’s the trap to watch out for when you’re creating your menu plan and you want to stretch your grocery dollars as far as possible. I speak from experience because it is a trap I often step into. It sounds delicious and enticing to pick out all your favorite meals from your cookbook and try a few of those recipes you’ve collected on Pinterest too. So you write them on your meal plan, create a list of all the ingredients you’ll need, and set out to buy them. Buying everything you want for your meal plan regardless of whether it is on sale, combined with not using groceries you already have, is a sure way to send your spending through the roof!

Use discipline and flexibility.

Be willing to change your plans while you’re shopping. If it turns out the cheese you wanted to go with your tacos is twice the price it usually is, replace it with something else (a different kind of cheese for example) or change the meal plan on the go. (This is a tough one for me!) Store ads likely won’t reveal the prices for everything you need, and sometimes prices will be different than what you usually see. Roll with the punches.

Being flexible at the store requires being flexible in the kitchen. Be willing to experiment and substitute. Oftentimes meats and cheeses can be swapped out for something less expensive than the recipe calls for. White or brown rice can be swapped for wild rice, white mushrooms for those portabellas, swiss cheese instead of Gruyere, lean roast instead of steak, and so on. Just because an ingredient isn’t the finest and most expensive, doesn’t mean it can’t taste dang good.

Be smart about brand loyalty. Are your meal plans dependent on certain brand products?

I’m not going to pretend that name brand foods are all identical to their house-brand counterparts. Most of us have our favorites that we only like in a certain brand. Our family is hooked on this ice cream and I rarely buy other brands.

You can still have the brands you like and shop within your budget if you are careful. Here are a few keys to accomplishing this:

  • Know which items really matter to you in terms of brand name, and which don’t. I could care less about the brand when I buy many basic goods like canned tomatoes, corn, pumpkin, tuna and beans. Fresh milk is all the same to me. I’ve never detected a difference in baking powder or salt (referring to brand differences here and not to different types of product, such as sea salt vs. table). On the other hand, the differences in mayonnaise, flour, ice cream, and crackers give me reason to buy certain brands almost exclusively.
  • How will the brand affect the end product (the dish you are creating)? Some foods, like cheese for instance, have a slightly different taste or quality by brand. But will it significantly affect the overall dish you are creating enough to justify the cost? In many cases, using house brand ingredients will still produce a recipe that is very good, even without the finest, most expensive ingredients. It’s all about your priorities—do you want good food purchased for less, or do you consider top-tier ingredients worth the cost? Sometimes you might even find you prefer a less-expensive brand. Name brand doesn’t always ensure the highest quality–read the ingredient list for clues!
  • Buy your favorites only at great sale prices. We’ve hit on this topic before, but it is especially true when you insist on name brand items. Sometimes name-brand goods that are normally way more pricey than the house brand will be featured in promotions that make them a great deal. Stock up on your favorites when that happens!
  • Don’t make assumptions. The house brand won’t always be the cheapest, so always look at all the price tags before you make your choice.

Give the leftovers some love.

When you take a look at what’s in your pantry, don’t forget those containers in the fridge. Leftovers make great hot lunches or sack lunches. Look for ways to incorporate odds and ends into the weeks meals. Can you use that portion of leftover meat in a soup or casserole? Can that cup of refried beans make a few breakfast burritos when combined with eggs and cheese? Would the random leftover noodles that lingered longer than the spaghetti sauce be used to fill out a stir-fry?

According to the Natural Resources Defensive Council, the average American family throws out about 25% of the food they purchase. Yikes! Don’t let that be you—that’s a whole quarter of your grocery budget going in the garbage!

How to actually plan your meals:

There are dozens of apps and printouts floating around cyberspace to help you fill in meals for each day and create shopping lists based on those meals.

I don’t use any fancy planning system. I prefer a plain old spiral bound notebook where I can scribble down my ideas. This is my basic process.

  • Recall what’s in my fridge/freezer/pantry.
  • Read the grocery ads and jot down the best sales at each store I like to shop.
  • Brainstorm some meals that will utilize what I have and what’s on sale.
  • Browse my Pinterest boards to see if any of those tasty things I pinned align with my pantry and shopping plans.
  • Add the ingredients that I need to purchase to my master list along with anything I know I need to replenish in my pantry so I can watch for sale prices on those things at the store.

The biggest reason I like the scribble-in-a-notebook style of meal and grocery planning is that it feels like an open slate. I don’t feel like I have to stick to a set schedule. Honestly, I don’t plan every meal of every day. Since I keep a stocked pantry, I just create a lot of simple meals on the fly based on the staple goods I keep on hand. I find this less stressful and it promotes creativity in my meal planning and less spending for me in the long run. Plus, I get to look old-fashioned and nerdy at the grocery store with my lined paper and pen instead of a smartphone.

If the structure of an electronic or printout meal-planner helps you and helps you save on groceries, stick with it. Let us know in the comments which ones are your favorite!

More from the Frugal Grocery Guide:

Part 1: Don’t Buy at the Regular Price

Part 2: Stock Up to Save

Part 4: Eat From Home

Part 5: Managing the Meat

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