Tips for Healthy Meal Plans on a Budget

FT Contributor  | 

Food is expensive, especially if you’re trying to stick to a health-conscious budget. In fact, one study found that eating healthy can cost as much as an extra $1.50 per day. That adds up to hundreds of dollars per year. One of the best ways to manage your food expenses is by building a meal plan.

A meal plan is simply a series of pre-planned meals, scheduled out in advance. This gives you a clear picture of what ingredients you need when you go shopping and can prevent untold quantities of precious cash being spent on unnecessary purchases and wasted food.

Below are some basic tips to help create a healthy meal plan, even if you’re on a tight budget.

Take Inventory

If you’re going to build a meal plan, the first thing you should do is assess the state of your pantry. Take stock of your current staple options and consider what items, such as that bag of half-eaten chips, you know you want to weed out of the food rotation.

By taking inventory of your current stock of victuals, you’ll gain a better understanding of what you already have. This can impact what meals you initially choose to plan and what ones should wait until your next shopping trip.

Start With the Basics

Just because you’re planning out healthy meals doesn’t mean you can pick whatever you want. If you’re trying to keep your options on the affordable side of the equation, take that lobster frittata off of the menu and replace it with some culinary basics. Look for meals that are based on things like:

  • Rice.
  • Chicken.
  • Soup.
  • Lentils.
  • Beans.
  • Salads.
  • Cheap veggies.

Over time you’ll begin to build up a base of ingredients that may enable you to branch out to more expensive or exotic fare, but for now, try to keep things simple.

Stock Up on Items With a Long Shelf Life

It’s tempting to blow your budget on fresh fruits and veggies and a ton of meat, but keep in mind that you’re going to need to buy them in small quantities and then return to the store often in order to keep things from going bad. This kind of behavior, when it’s the foundation of your grocery shopping, can quickly boost your spending.

Instead, start by allocating more of your budget to stocking up on healthier items with a longer shelf life, such as:

  • Canned foods.
  • Canned or dried beans.
  • Frozen veggies.
  • Dry pasta.
  • Dried herbs.
  • Rice.
  • Dried fruits.

Many of these can be bought cheaply and in bulk, and they’ll give your pantry a solid baseline of options to work from.

Plan Meals With Similar Ingredients

When it comes to planning your meals themselves, try to aim for dishes that have shared ingredients. You can do this in a couple of different ways.

First, look for items that you like to cook with. Chicken, for instance, is cheap and adaptable. Second, consider allocating “themes” to each day of the week. Monday, for example, could be chicken and veggies day, Tuesday could be pasta-based, Wednesday could be rice and beans focused, and so on.

This gives you the freedom to choose different meals each day without having to overhaul your grocery trips too dramatically.

Don’t Start With Recipes

One nifty, easily overlooked trick is starting with what you have and then working your way backward into a recipe that fits your current ingredients. It’s tempting to start by choosing a recipe and then planning your shopping trip around the ingredients list, but more often than not, that kind of recipe becomes one for financial disaster.

As you bend over backward to pick up a bottle of saffron, grape leaves, or any other unusual (and expensive!) items in your recipe, you’ll quickly find that your meal planning is drying up your bank account. Instead, start with your current stock of food and then marry it to a recipe that works with what you have. That way you’ll be much better off, financially speaking.

Don’t Waste Food

One nice thing about meal planning is that it enables you to be holistic in your food preparations. Rather than simply pulling together a meal and throwing away the leftovers, you can purposefully plan to use everything.

If, for instance, you cook a whole chicken for one meal, you can save the leftovers for the next day. Pick off the extra meat and use it for lunch. Then use the bones to make broth that you can either drink or turn into soup.

Stick to Your Grocery List

While several of these tips have had to do with strategically planning your grocery shopping, once you’re actually in the store there’s another critical step that absolutely must be followed: sticking to your list.

If you can’t stick to your list, all of your efforts to plan meals, eat healthily, and save money will be in vain. Resist the urge to toss a treat into the cart. Don’t go off-script with a frozen meal. Just get what’s on your shopping list and get out of the store without additional drama.

Don’t Cut Your Budget Too Much

Finally, if you want to create a healthy meal plan that is going to last, you have to be realistic about the costs. While a thought-out plan should save you some money, if you artificially cut your budget to the bone, you’ll find that you’re running out of food before your next planned trip. And if you run out of food and go “off-budget,” it’s a slippery slope that will likely end with you wasting, rather than saving, both food and money.

Make sure to set a dollar amount that will actually cover a reasonable meal plan and then work your options to line up affordable yet healthy meals that actually stay within your budget.


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