9 Budget Meal Planning Tips, According to a Dietitian

<p>Getty Images / Cool Picture</p> Learn to shop for well-priced groceries

Getty Images / Cool Picture

Learn to shop for well-priced groceries

Medically reviewed by Kristy Del Coro, MS, RDN, LDN

The cost of groceries has increased over the last few years and prices are above historical-average rates. High prices make it more difficult for many people to afford nutritious and tasty foods.

In addition to looking for items on sale, you can save money on foods by reducing food waste and cooking in batches. Planning ahead before you go grocery shopping can also help you save money. Here are some practical and actionable tips to help you grocery shop and prepare foods on a budget.

Set a Clear Budget

It's important to figure out your budget before you plan and shop for meals. American households spend between $400 to $1,300 per month on food, or 11 percent of their income. Decide what your budget is— then stick to it.

It is good to keep track of your weekly and monthly grocery bills to see if you are staying within a reasonable budget. If you are dining out a lot, or buying food that spoils before it gets eaten, there are definitely ways to save.

Set a budget based on your income. Include the food you will buy and prepare at home, plus the foods you will enjoy when dining out. Plan your weekly shopping list and your meals based on the budget you set.

Create a Weekly Meal Plan

You can save money by planning your meals in advance. It can help ensure you only buy what you need, make good use of leftovers, reduce food waste, and order less take-out food.

Your meal plan should also include a shopping list with the ingredients you require for the week. This will result in fewer trips to the grocery store and fewer impulse purchases, thus saving you money.

Your meal plan can be set around menu options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for the week. Get started with this beginner's guide on how to meal plan and check out these examples of meal plans for inspiring ideas.

You can meal plan the old-fashioned way (paper and pen!) or can use a meal planning app or website for convenience. Here are some other helpful meal planning strategies.

Before You Grocery Shop: Plan Ahead for Savings

Once you have your meal plan and shopping list, it's almost time to head to the store. But before you do, you want to plan ahead for greater savings. Consider these money saving options:

  • Rescue healthy food. Food rescue apps connect you to surplus food from restaurants and grocery stores. You'll pay about 50% less for end-of-day restaurant food and soon-to-expire groceries.

  • Save up loyalty points. Some grocery stores offer loyalty cards, cash back accounts or points programs that can help you save money on specific items. Ask at your local store so you don't miss out.

  • Find coupons. Check websites, apps or flyers for store coupons and promotions before you shop.

  • Price match. Compare prices at different stores (look online or in flyers to save time) and see where you can save the most money. Some stores also match prices if you can prove it's cheaper at a competing store.

Other things you can do are to shop at discount grocery stores, compare prices with local farmer's markets, and see if there are any farm delivery services in your area.

While You Grocery Shop: Check Out In-Store Prices

Once you'rein the store,look for items that are on sale. But remember, it's only a bargain if it's a food you enjoy! Don't be swayed by sales on products you don't like -- they may end up being wasted.

Food companies pay listing fees to have their products on store shelves. The big food companies get the best shelf space because they can afford it. It does not mean the product at eye level is the best quality or the most affordable! Instead of always buying the well-known brand:

  • Remember that store generic brands are usually made by the big food manufacturers, and are the same quality as the name brands but cost less.

  • Look on the top and bottom shelves for good quality and affordable products, not only at eye level.

  • Compare prices of similar products. Large grocery stores usually have shelf labels that include unit prices, such as how much something costs per 100g. Dare to compare.

Embrace Seasonal and Sale Items

Food that's grown on local farms is less expensive during harvest season. Take advantage and stock up when it's on sale. You can freeze, jar, or can it for later use. For example:

  • Bushels of tomatoes can be made into tomato sauce and jarred for later use.

  • Seasonal summer berries can be rinsed and frozen on baking sheets overnight, then placed into resealable containers for use in baking, smoothies, and oatmeal.

  • Onions, cucumbers, green beans, and other vegetables can be pickled.

  • Peaches and nectarines can be canned or preserved in Mason jars.

  • Cabbage and carrots can be used to make kimchi.

Plan Meals Around Affordable Ingredients

Opt for more plant-based meals. Replace meat with less expensive options such as tofu or beans. Studies show that eating more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods can cut the cost of groceries by almost 30 percent. Well-priced plant-based protein options include beans, lentils, tofu, and peanut butter.

When you do include animal protein, you can save money by avoiding the most expensive cuts of meat and poultry and choosing these instead:

  • Regular eggs: they cost less than eggs with omega-3 fat or lutein

  • Chicken thighs: these cost less than boneless, skinless breasts

  • Stewing beef, chuck, flank, or tri-tip: these cost less than prime rib or strip steaks

  • Bricks of cheese: these cost less than pre-shredded or pre-sliced cheese

  • Haddock, sole, or tilapia: these are less expensive than halibut, shrimp, and salmon

You can combine these protein choices with grains and vegetables that are more affordable. These include:

  • Vegetables: cabbage, potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, squash, broccoli, celery, sweet potato, canned tomatoes

  • Fruit: apples, bananas, oranges, melon

  • Whole Grains: Oats, pot barley, whole grain pasta, brown rice, whole wheat flour

Some meal options made from these ingredients include:

  • Lentil soup (lentils, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes)

  • Cabbage rolls (cabbage, tofu or beans, canned tomatoes)

  • Hardy stew (tofu or beef, carrots, potatoes)

  • Loaded baked potato: (Potato, onion, cheese)

Stock Up On Staple Ingredients

Ingredients with a long shelf life, such as pasta, rice, and canned beans, can be purchased on sale and stored until you need them. If you maintain a well-stocked pantry, you'll have fewer items to buy every time you shop. Keeping essential ingredients on hand can save money and reduce last-minute grocery runs too.

When you meal plan, make sure to check your pantry and incorporate ingredients that you already have on hand. Some delicious, affordable pantry recipes include:

  • Rice and beans with frozen vegetables

  • Tuna casserole (tuna, noodles, canned soup, frozen peas)

  • Salmon rice bowls (canned salmon, rice, frozen edamame, frozen broccoli)

  • Lentil curry (canned lentils, coconut milk, canned tomatoes)

Reduce Food Waste

Each year Americans waste 119 billion pounds of food, which is worth about $408 billion dollars. This affects restaurants and grocery stores, but it's also happening in individual homes across the US. In fact, about 39% of all food waste comes from individual homes.

One smart way to save money is to reduce waste. Quite simply, stop throwing away food that you spent money on. Here are some tips for reducing food waste:

  • Meal plan and make a shopping list that only includes the perishable ingredients that you will need for the week.

  • Instead of tossing leftovers, enjoy them for tomorrow's lunch.

  • Wasting a lot of fresh vegetables? Buy frozen instead. They are not as perishable.

  • Store foods properly to preserve freshness. Use airtight containers to keep food fresh.

  • When you shop, move any older products up front so they get used up first, and add new ingredients to the back of the fridge.

Cook in Batches

Double the ingredients in your recipe so you can make and freeze meals. This is known as batch cooking, and works well for multi-serve meals such as lasagna, soups, stew, chili, and curry.

When freezing, use single-serve containers so you can reheat one portion at a time. Make sure to mark each item with a name and the date it was prepared, then try to use the foods up based on this timeline:

  • Casseroles, soups and stews: within 2-3 months

  • Cooked meat: within 2-3 months

  • Dinner entrees such as lasagna: within 3-4 months

  • Cooked poultry: within 4 months

These freezer storage times indicate how long the item will retain the best flavor and quality. Frozen foods remain safe even past these dates.

When ready to cook, make sure to safely thaw foods in the fridge, in cold water, or in the microwave. When reheating frozen foods, make sure they reach 165°F (measured with a food thermometer).

Related: How to Meal Plan: A Beginner’s Guide

Read the original article on Verywell Fitness.