How to Plan Meals on a Budget

meal planning notebook


Here is a more in-depth look into my weekly meal planning routine. I hope my method will help you save money, eat better, and waste less. It will also help you avoid those “OH, NO…I have nothing to fix for dinner” moments!

I will update this page as I gain more ideas and tips. Come back soon!


  • A school-sized notebook with lined pages
  • Pen or Pencil
  • Notepad for taking to the grocery store
  • Whiteboard, chalkboard, or notepad to note low or out-of items during the week


  • 1

Before deciding on any meals, take stock of the foodstuffs you have in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Make note of how much of each item you have. I often make a list in my notebook under a “Have” section for easy reference later.

In most cases, I don’t list any staples I keep on hand. I usually only list those foods which are left over from the previous week(s) or those staples which need to be used soon.

  • 2

While checking out your food-stores, make note of any staples you are running low on or are out of. We like to keep a whiteboard in the kitchen to write down needed items during the week.

  • 3

Note prices of necessary staples on your list. Calculate how much you have left in your budget. Estimate if you don’t know the exact prices.

In order to use your budget wisely, you may need to postpone any staples you will not need in the coming week. Just make note of them for the next week.

*TIP: While we are shopping, I write down the price of each item. This helps us in two ways: we can calculate our total before going to the cashier and I can reference them later. I make sure to save my lists each week so that I can keep an updated price list in my notebook.

  • 4

Now that you have your inventory noted, think about what your family will want to eat in the coming week. Make sure to consider any activities, holidays, birthdays, or other events that might interfere with your normal routine. One such event might be dinner or house guests. It’s crazy how much even one extra person changes meal planning!

Also, determine how many meals you must plan for, including dinners, lunches, breakfasts, and weekends. We usually only plan for 6 days. We often have leftovers or sometimes have a meal prepared for us elsewhere.

Use your inventory to come up with as many meal ideas which use what you have first. Make note of all additional items which must be purchased. I like to make a “Need” list in my notebook. Be sure to list the quantity/amount you will need.

TIME-SAVING TIP: If you have trouble coming up with meals each week, make a list of the types of meals your family enjoys (keeping the budget in mind). For example, I made a list with simple pasta sauces, rice, breakfast for dinner, pizza, and sandwiches. I don’t use everything on this list each week, but it helps get my mind rolling. Some other ideas might include a cultural cuisine, meat and vegetables, and crock pot.

This is a good time to bring out your recipe books, look through your Pinterest recipe boards, and search online. If you shop somewhere that has good sales, bring out the sale papers too! Keep in mind that you have full liberty to change recipes based on your own ingredients.

For example: A recipe calls for fresh parsley, but you have dried on hand. You can decide to use the dried instead (based on the recipe, of course). Or you might decide to use on-hand sweet peppers instead of bell peppers. Or maybe on-hand rotini instead of spaghetti. You get the idea. You can also choose to substitute less expensive, yet similar, ingredients (onion instead of shallots or breakfast sausage rather than Italian sausage or ground beef).

  • 5

When searching through recipes, make sure to note the servings of each. Check the ingredients list to make sure they match up with your family’s needs. It’s troublesome when you run short or have way too much leftover.

Another thing I do with recipes is alter the ingredients to suit our tastes and budget. For example, I might reduce a recipe with 2 onions down to one onion or increase the fresh garlic. I often choose petite diced tomatoes over regular or chunky tomatoes. Those are simply our preferences. In the case of the onion, it also saves us money to buy one instead of two.

  • 6

As you search, write down or make mental note of recipes or ideas you like. See how they work into your budget. It may be that you can fit them all in or you might need to add in some filler meals like pasta and sauce or beans and rice and save some of the meals for the next week.

It is also a good idea to multi-task ingredients. By this I mean you should use bulk ingredients in as many meals as possible during the week. Buying larger sizes is often more cost-effective than buying little packages of a bunch of different items.

  • 7

Once you’ve got your plan, make a grocery list.

The big key after this is to STICK TO THE LIST when you shop.

  • 8

Additional thoughts:

If something new catches your eye at the store, consider making note of it for next week rather than buying it immediately.

You can also keep an eye out for sales on items you frequently buy but don’t need immediately. Only buy what will keep until it is needed.

You know your budget and how much you can “fudge” or alter it. If your budget is strict, just be a smart shopper.


Some of these items will last you a LONG time. Others will be a more frequent purchase. One will last forever if you let it (honey).

You don’t have to have everything on this list. There may be some items you would never use and others I haven’t even listed that you use every day. Tailor this list to your own needs.

  • Milk of choice
  • 100% Juice
  • Eggs
  • Flour (if you bake often) – all-purpose, self-rising, whole wheat, gluten-free varieties, or a combination
  • Cornmeal (plain or other depending on your most common usage)
  • Butter, margarine, or spread of choice
  • Olive oil
  • Canola, peanut, or other clear oil (for shallow or deep-frying when olive oil should not be used)
  • Spray oil (great for light skillet frying, sauteing, muffin tins, and more)
  • Cooking sauces – soy, teriyaki, Worcestershire, sesame oil
  • Dried herbs and spices – garlic powder, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, chili powder, cumin, curry powder, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard powder, etc.
  • Sugar – white, brown, powdered (if used frequently enough)
  • Condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, BBQ sauce, salad dressings
  • Dried Beans
  • Rice – White and Brown
  • Vinegar – white, balsamic, other
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Bouillon cubes – beef and chicken (you can make ‘pork’ by combining the two – yeah, it’s weird)
  • Fresh garlic bulbs
  • Frozen vegetables: broccoli, corn, peas, peas and carrots, edamame, whatever you use often
  • Active dry yeast in a jar (if you use a lot) or packets (if you use it rarely)
  • Vanilla extract
  • Dried pasta (optional)
  • Honey (optional)
  • Cocoa powder (optional)
  • Chocolate chips (optional)
  • Peanut butter or other nut butter (optional)
  • Coffee and/or Tea and associated flavorings (optional)
  • Nuts (if you eat or cook with them frequently)
  • Oatmeal (good for breakfast and for cooking)
  • Cereal or other quick breakfast food, healthy shelf stable snacks like granola bars
  • Pancake syrup (if your family eats pancakes, waffles, and the like often enough)


The main point of keeping pantry staples in stock is simple: they are there when you need them. Another reason to keep certain staples on hand is to give you a base of ingredients from which you can make simple, emergency meals. Here is one of my favorites:


I always have these ingredients on hand! It’s a tastier alternative to plain white rice. Sometimes I leave out the onion if I don’t have any. It’s just as good without it.

  • Serves: 4
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Total Time: 30 minutes


  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/3 cup of finely diced onion
  • 1 cup of RINSED and DRAINED white rice
  • 2 cups of chicken broth (or 2 cups of water and 2 chicken bullion cubes)
  • 1 tbsp dried parsley
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup of frozen peas and carrots


  1. Heat 1 tbsp butter in a saucepan on medium heat.
  2. Add 1/3 cup of finely diced onion and cook until translucent but not browned (about 5 minutes).
  3. Stir in 1 cup of RINSED and DRAINED white rice. Saute the rice until it is ever-so-slightly browned and coated with the butter (about 3-5 minutes).
  4. Pour in 2 cups of chicken broth (or 2 cups of water and 2 chicken bullion cubes).
  5. Add 1 tbsp dried parsley, 1 tsp garlic powder, and 1/2 tsp salt.
  6. Stir in 1/2 cup of frozen peas and carrots.
  7. Bring to a simmer.
  8. Cover and simmer on medium low for 20 minutes. Make sure the rice is always simmering or it will not cook properly.
  9. Fluff with a fork and enjoy!

What are your best meal planning tips?

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