The idea of cooking for yourself during the week can be daunting between your work schedule, school, and social life. However, preparing your own food makes it easier to eat healthy, and can save you a ton of money on eating out. If you find yourself experiencing the afternoon stress of wondering what’s for dinner, only to break down and order take out on the way home, you may want to look into meal planning.
Meal planning makes it easy to tackle home cooking, and maximizes your food budget! It’s all about planning out — and shopping for— each meal before the week starts. This helps you stick to your health goals and budget in several ways. For me, knowing we have food to cook in the house prevents me from spending money on meals outside of the home. Not wanting to waste food, I opt for what’s on hand even if it takes a little effort to prepare. Working with a weekly budget being spent in one go helps minimize unplanned splurges. Keeping foods that cater to my health goals nearby also cut down on late night snack runs.
Want to know how to get started with healthy meal planning on a budget? Keep reading for my favorite tips, plus a printable to help you plan!
Meal Planning vs. Meal Prep
First, I want to point out the difference between meal planning and meal prepping so that you can decide what might be better for you.
Meal prepping is when you actually cook a week’s worth of food (or limiting to lunches/dinners) ahead of time. This menu often consists of recurring meals, or a recurring main ingredient with a few different side options. The immediate draws for meal prepping is having everything ready for you to heat up during the week, so you don’t have to worry about cooking when you’re the most busy. You’re also saving money since you’re not buying a bunch of various ingredients for different meals every week. However, if you’re one who gets sick of the same meal over and over, this is probably not the right choice for you.
Meal planning, on the other hand, is merely deciding all of your meals ahead of time, and making sure you have the ingredients available. You can certainly incorporate some elements of meal prepping into meal planning, like pre-chopping veggies to throw into a stir fry, but it’s mostly about making a plan and sticking to it.
How to Plan Your Meals
To stay within my personal budget, I usually go for meals with shorter ingredient lists, and hopefully I already have a few on hand. Further, I like to look at my meal plan as a whole to see if I can use the same ingredients at least twice to cut down on my grocery list. This is where writing out your menu comes in very handy.
For example, I can plan out 2-3 chicken dishes, which means I can buy the bulk chicken packs that are usually less $ per pound. If I’m buying fresh herbs, I try to make sure they get put to use at least twice in a week. Universal sides like rice or mixed veggies can pair well with any meal throughout the week.
Side note: investing in a spice rack will be one of the best things you do for your at-home cooking, and save you a ton on individually priced spices. I purchased a Kamenstein 16-Jar rack which included free spice refills for 5 years. It’s a great value at $30— I’ve probably redeemed more than $100 worth of spice refills at this point.
I find breakfasts to be the easiest part of meal planning. If you don’t mind something simple like a whole grain and high fiber cereal every day, then you’re golden. If you need something a little more savory, hard-boiled eggs and a few slices of microwaved bacon could do the trick if your mornings are rushed.
Planning for Leftovers
I cook for two people every night— my fiancee and myself— but make four portions of every dinner. Why? Preparing guaranteed leftovers lets you reduce the number of meals to plan and buy for. Plus, buying larger quantities of the same ingredients is usually cheaper than buying another meal’s worth of different ingredients. Every night’s dinner is the next day’s lunch. This takes a lot of stress out of planning, and also means you’re cooking two of your meals at once. Just throw the leftovers in a storage container and head to work knowing you have a healthy, pre-made option.
I prefer using glass tupperware for any leftovers, because they tend to last longer. They’re also pretty dummy-proof, most being microwave & dishwasher safe. These containers from Prep Naturals have dividers to keep your sides separate. This comes in handy with saucy dishes to prevent soggy veggies or rice. For larger dishes that don’t need separation, I highly recommend the Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids Glass Food Storage Containers. The lids keep the food sealed air-tight and they have even survived a few drops in the office!
Shopping for your Meal Plan Menu
After you plan out your meals, it’s time to go shopping! Creating a shopping list is imperative to a productive trip to the market. Avoid browsing and stick to what’s written down. I’m a big advocate for buying generic brand products, though I also pay attention the nutrition labels. Make sure the ingredients you’re purchasing align with your health goals, whether that be low calorie, low carb, low fat, etc. While cooking for yourself is an overall healthy option, just because a meal is homemade doesn’t make it good for you. The point of meal planning is to make it easier to stay on track, so your biggest hurdle will be getting through the grocery store without a detour to the junk food aisle. Opt for healthy snacks that are easy to pack.
Buy generic. Buy bulk where it makes sense. Then check out without any impulse buys.
I typically meal plan Monday-Friday each week, and then play it by ear during the weekends. This is a great way to allow yourself the flexibility for social meals while being diligent about staying on track the majority of the time. To help you get started, I created this printable meal plan template so you can visualize your menu.
Here’s a healthy meal planning example of a menu I would have in our home. Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get a blank version of this free meal plan printable emailed to you. Take a picture of your plan filled out and tag @slashedbeauty when you share on social media, so I can see!