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Meal planning on a budget: Plan, purchase, prepare

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If you often think that consistently eating healthy, affordable, home-cooked meals is impossible, you’re not alone. Many people can find it overwhelming even to find the time and energy to create a suitable grocery list.

But making great meals on a budget is doable, and once you get into the swing of it, you might even find — as do many people I advise — that it saves you time during your busy week. To start, remember the United States Department of Agriculture’s three P’s: plan, purchase and prepare.

Plan

It’s not always an easy habit to start, but planning ahead will save you time and money over the long term. Planning ahead will not only reduce food waste but also help prevent you from purchasing last-minute and less healthy meals at restaurants or gas station convenience stores.

Set aside time each week to plan:

  • How much you’re willing to spend
  • What you want to eat

Try to:

  • “Stretch” your meals. Try to include meals that can stretch more expensive food items (such as meats) or mix in lower priced options such as beans to help expand the volume of protein or even replace meats to help further savings.
  • Cook once, eat more than once. If your family includes someone who doesn’t enjoy repeat meals, think about ways to use already cooked food in different ways. For example, cook a larger amount of chicken breast than needed for a chicken salad wrap for one meal, then use it to top a bed of leafy greens for a second meal and add it to a stir-fry for a third meal.
  • Check the grocery store ads. See what’s on sale for the week — it might inspire an affordable meal idea.
  • Think low-cost options. Instead of fresh vegetables, go with frozen or low-sodium canned options. Instead of fresh salmon, try canned or pouched salmon or tuna.
  • Try something new. People tend to be creatures of habit and can get stuck in a dinner rut, so consider including some new quick recipe ideas. Mayo Clinic and MyPlate Kitchen both offer many recipe ideas. The MyPlate site even allows you to find recipes categorized by cost, and it includes over 800 recipes that can be made with ingredients available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Next, turn that meal list into a grocery list. Go through your meals one by one and write down needed ingredients. Don’t forget to check to see if you already have what you need — perhaps in the back of your pantry or freezer. Consider making a running list of staple foods and training your family to note when something runs out.

Purchase

To stay savvy and under budget at the supermarket:

  • Stick to the list. In addition, don’t go to the grocery store hungry! You will likely make impulse purchases that will probably be less healthy and may end up going to waste.
  • Speed past less healthy food options. Linger and compare prices in areas of the store with mostly nutritious options, such as the areas with fresh produce or the aisle with canned black beans. Skip or speed past areas with more processed food such as cookies and soda. It’s also helpful to learn the layout of your store so that you know which aisles may have temptations that are difficult to resist.
  • Find the best deals. Look for store brands, as they tend to be less expensive for comparable items. An easy way to compare prices between two competing products is to look at the unit price, which is often on a grocery item’s display price tag. Seasonal products such as produce may be more affordable. Actually, in-season fresh produce tends to have a low price point and high nutritional value. And don’t forget coupons and grocery store loyalty programs!
  • Buy in bulk when it makes sense. Buying in bulk can save money, but remember to check the unit pricing. Consider whether you can store and use larger quantities of a food before it goes to waste. Some good options for bulk buying include grains, rice, seeds and nuts, frozen vegetables, and beans. When protein and produce are on sale, buy them in bulk and freeze the extras.
  • Go back to the basics. Convenience foods such as pre-cut, pre-washed or prepared foods are more costly than buying foods in their basic forms, such as whole large carrots, and then washing and chopping them into carrot sticks yourself.

Prepare

Now that you have planned and purchased, it’s time to follow through and prepare those meals and snacks.

  • Prep and precook. You may find it helpful to precook or pre-chop. Maybe you make Sunday afternoon a time to grocery shop and meal prep for the week.
  • Double up. Doubling recipes so that you have leftovers for later in the week can save not only your budget but also your time.
  • Get creative with leftovers. Try leftover chicken in a stir-fry, in chili or over a salad. Cook leftover fresh or frozen veggies into a soup or casserole. Use leftover fresh or frozen fruit in a smoothie, to top cereal or yogurt, or on salads.

Remember, you won’t get everything right all the time! You may impulsively purchase several bags of chips you don’t need or let fresh ingredients go to waste in the fridge when you’re too exhausted to cook. Don’t beat yourself up; use these experiences to learn from for the next time.

To learn more about recipes and strategies for healthier living, check out Mayo Clinic’s Cook Smart, Eat Well book.

Kristen Blixt, RDN LD

Kristen is an advance practice level 1 clinical dietitian at Mayo Clinic and an instructor in nutrition for Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Rochester, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and two children. She has a passion for working with individuals to find enjoyable yet sustainable changes within their dietary and lifestyle patterns.

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