Scenario 1: Rushing out of your final meeting of the day, you glance at your phone — 4:52 p.m. Like a floodgate being opened, the tasks of the next 90 minutes pour through your brain. Pick up kids. Race home. Unpack work bag. Go through homework. Baths, laundry, prep for tomorrow. Then the dreaded question, “What’s for dinner?”
Scenario 2: Workday complete, kids tucked in the backseat, and we’re cruising home. “Mom, what’s for dinner tonight?” A smile spreads across your face as you confidently answer, “Chicken fajitas and strawberry smoothies!” When you get home, you don’t have to run to the kitchen and frantically start chopping, defrosting, or order an overpriced meal because you are a meal planning pro. Heck, you even chopped the produce already. A delicious dinner is a mere 20 minutes away.
I’d prefer the second scenario every time. Less stress, less headaches, less precious time wasted, and best of all? Way better for your budget.
First, it’s important to understand why you need a budget and how to start a budget. Then you can dive deeper and learn about how to take control of your budget, specifically as it pertains to food and meal planning.
Finances and Food
Food is a unique expense category because it accounts for a large percentage of your overall spending, but it’s also an area that you have a ton of control over.
Let’s be real, you don’t have much wiggle room in what you pay for health insurance or childcare each month. However, you can control how many times you go out to eat. So although food may not sound that financially significant, it really is.
And food is not only an important aspect of our daily routine, it’s a part of almost every social event as well. Every time we take a family vacation, plan a fun event like a party, or go visit someone, food is typically involved.
It’s important to budget for it realistically. And a little bit of intentionality and focus can pay off big time.
How Much to Spend
So, how much should we budget each month for food?
Every family is different, but a good starting point is $300 per month, plus an additional $100/month per child. So, if you and your husband have two kids, plan for $500 per month. If that number sounds low to you, start with something higher and try to incrementally work it down.
Also, it’s up to you if you want to include all food in that amount (meals at restaurants, happy hour drinks, gas station slushies, etc.) or just groceries.
Remember, it’s your budget. Make it your own!
Now that you have a starting point, let’s talk specifics.
Ways to Save Money on Food
1. Meal plan.
If you put into practice only one thing from this article, make it this.
Meal planning is arguably the most effective way to control your food spending. Even better, it also saves time, effort, and energy. You don’t have to plan all 21 meals each week (breakfast, lunch and dinner), but at a minimum, plan out your dinners.
Take 15 minutes on Sunday to jot down what your family will eat the following week. To take some pressure off, include at least one meal of leftovers, or something incredibly easy like PB&J sandwiches, cheese quesadillas, or mac and cheese with chicken nuggets. “Piggy back meals” that share the same key ingredients are smart as well. For example, if you buy a huge pack of bacon, be sure to include a couple meals to use it up, like chicken bacon ranch pasta and “breakfast for dinner” that week.
2. Budget weekly.
It’s less overwhelming than monthly budgeting and much more manageable. For example, a family of three on a $400/month budget? Plan to spend $100/week on groceries. That way, if week two of your month was really costly, you can scale back and save a bit the following seven days to help get back on track.
3. Involve the whole family!
My kids are three, two, and not even one. When I say, “Hey girls, what should we eat this week?” I usually hear suggestions like suckers, ice cream, or a bunch of baby babbles. However, in the next few years, that will change. Form the habit now that your whole family becomes active participants in the meal planning, prepping, and maybe even budgeting process. It lightens your load and creates interest in the meals that are served.
4. Know when to splurge and when to save.
I would never advise someone to feed their family something unhealthy in the name of saving money. Your long-term health is priceless and should be treated as such. However, I would encourage you to look through the items that you buy most frequently and decide which ones are worth the higher price tag and which ones you can save some cash on.
Perhaps you can’t live without name brand ketchup, but are okay with buying your tortillas from a “generic brand.” Also, try to have a realistic mix of splurge and save meals. If you’re eating salmon and steak this week, throw in a few more economical meals the next week.
5. Eliminate waste.
Think of it this way: every time food goes into the trash, essentially your hard earned money is going with it. Put a little notebook next to your main kitchen garbage and track what you’re tossing.
You’ll be amazed at how much gets thrown away and you may start to notice helpful trends too. If you can pinpoint what you typically toss, you can make changes to minimize waste.
6. At-home or homemade is almost always cheaper.
Even if everyone at your office goes out to each for lunch most days, you don’t have to. Be the “brown bagger” and pack a lunch. Brew your own coffee and take that with you in the morning. Whip up a batch of tasty muffins for a mid-morning snack at work. Bring your own snacks for road trips, play dates at the park, etc. Not only will this approach save you money, it can often be healthier and tastier, which definitely makes it a win-win.
7. Your freezer is your new BFF.
It’s amazing what you can freeze for later use.
Before you toss something, ask yourself if it can be frozen instead (when in doubt, Google it). I promise you most of these foods taste just as good after they’ve been frozen. Everything from extra hot dog buns to chocolate chip cookies to pans of casserole can be tossed in the freezer. You could even take time to make freezer meals once or twice a year to really take advantage of this money-saving strategy.
8. Double up.
Do the work once, enjoy the benefits twice (or thrice!). If you’re going to make lasagna and go through the chore of browning hamburger, cooking noodles, and mixing sauces— double or triple the recipe. It really doesn’t add much time to the initial work, but it yields 2-3 extra meals for you to enjoy later. Freeze the extras and reap the benefits of your good meal planning.
9. Do not fear leftovers.
Leftovers save time and money. Once you start meal planning and being more intentional with your food budget, you’ll learn your family’s “comfort level” with leftovers. Maybe you loathe “Day Two Beef Stew.” That’s ok! Just try to be mindful with quantities for meals so that you’re not having to choke down leftovers, but also not throwing away tons of food each week. If you love leftovers, go nuts and incorporate them into your meal plan as often as you can. Or, get creative and repurpose them. Monday evening’s tacos can become Tuesday night’s quesadillas, or even taco salads for Wednesday’s lunch.
10. Grocery delivery or pick up can save you serious cash.
Impulse buys don’t typically find their way into your cart if you’re not physically in the store, leaving more money in your pocket. Try scheduling a grocery pick up once a week. It’s a free and extremely convenient option. Throughout the days leading up to this, put things into your (virtual) cart. Then, when you go through your weekly meal plan, add the remaining items that you need to buy.
11. Comparison is a good thing.
Take a few minutes to glance at the sales ads and shop around for the best deals. When comparing prices, be sure that you’re looking at the price per ounce, per serving, or per item, not just the overall cost.
Meat can oftentimes be expensive, so if you find a great price, don’t be afraid to stock up. Also, buying in bulk can save you money.
12. “Sad produce” still has a purpose.
Veggies that are on their way out can be used in fajitas, omelets, or soups (really, any recipe where they’re going to be cooked, fried, or softened). Almost-too-ripe fruit can still be used also — think applesauce, smoothies, muffins, or pancakes.
14. Cheap ingredients are money-saving heroes.
Potatoes, rice, eggs, pasta, and beans are affordable, hearty, and extremely versatile. For a low-cost meal, make one of these items the main ingredient.
These are my tried and true tips and tricks to save money on your food budget.
What are your favorite ways to save money on food? And what are your biggest struggles when it comes to staying within your food budget?