How to plan your family's meals without draining your wallet

Planning your meals for the week can be time-consuming, but it can make a big difference in your grocery budget. Here is how to strategize your grocery shopping to save money while making delicious meals. 

Tim Isbell//Biloxi Sun Herald/AP/File
Tracy Millett sorts through her coupons while shopping at Choice Grocery in Gulfport, Mississippi. Meal-planning can be time-consuming, but it can help you save money at the grocery store.

For many people, meal planning is one of those items on our weekly to-do list that sometimes gets done and sometimes (maybe most of the time) doesn't.

But proper meal planning can make a huge difference in our grocery budget. Not to mention, the peace of mind in knowing "What's for dinner tonight?" instead of stressing over missing ingredients or wandering the grocery store for inspiration.

After years of experience, I've honed my routine to the basics. Here's how I set up a weekly meal plan that's going to lead to full and satisfied tummies, as well as shopping list for budget-friendly ingredients that won't drain my bank account.

1. Start With the Store Ads

Start by laying out the circulars for your local stores and going through them with a marker. Clearly mark all the ingredients that are on sale. Circle the items you purchase regularly, and make note of how many you should pick up if you are stocking up. You'll use these sale ingredients as the base of your meal plan.

2. Write Out Meal Ideas

Once you have your list of sale ingredients, begin to think about how you can use them in meals. What meals can you make with these ingredients and how can you stretch them?

3. Family Input

Ask family members about their favorite meals and keep a list in your meal plan binder or folder. Reference it as you are looking through the sale ingredients and writing out your meal plan.

4. Double Check the Pantry

Do a quick scan of your cabinets to make sure you don't miss adding an item onto your list, and to cross off any pantry staples that you already have on hand. Always compare the ingredients you need to the supplies you have on hand. This is particularly helpful if you have leftovers that you can work into the recipes. Save where you can and you will find that your waste will shrink to nothing.

5. Rearrange Your list

If you're Type A or hyper-organized like me, you'll want to write your list in the order that you'll go through the store. For me, it's produce, meats, snacks, cereals, pantry staples, dairy/eggs, and frozen. This will help you stay focused in the store and save you time too! It might help you avoid impulse buys during a backtrack through the store.

6. Stuck Like Glue

No, not the country song. I'm talking about your shopping list. If you have things that are distracting you like chocolate, fresh coffee, or a new apron to add to the collection, forget about it! Stick to your list!

7. Reap the Rewards

Finally, come back home and follow the plan that you're written out and enjoy dinner with your family throughout the week!

You will eventually get to where the meal ideas come easily and naturally to you, based on what's on sale and what your family enjoys. You will become a pro in no time flat!

And if you have no intention, time, or brain space for becoming a meal planning pro, we are happy to shoulder the burden for you! We can help you cross "Write a meal plan" off your weekly to-do list by delivering a meal plan to your inbox every week through The $5 Meal Plan. If you think that having meal plans sent to you every week is the answer to your dinner hour woes and you want to give the plans a try, we'd love for you to sign up for The $5 Meal Plan.

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