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healthy meal plan on a budget

 

To kick off my series on Eating Well on a Budget, I’m going to start off by showing you how to meal plan on a budget. The easiest way to do that is to show you as I do our meal planning for the week! I’ve been feeding a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 currently 15- and 12-year-old boys) on an average budget of $100 per week for about 4 years now.

At first, it was a struggle and required a lot of work, but after a few months it became much easier and now I would venture to say it’s second nature. Don’t feel like you have to incorporate every money-saving tip all at once. Add in one at a time. Every little bit helps, and taking it on all at once can be overwhelming.

There are a few clarifications I should give on this:

  1. This does not include non-food household items (toilet paper, aluminum foil, hygiene products, etc) – we have a separate budget for those.
  2. This does not include our boys’ school lunches. That comes out of a separate budget. During the first couple of summers, we stuck to the $100 per week budget during the summer without much trouble, but in the last couple of years we’ve had a teenage boy so…we upped it to $125 per week. 🙂
  3. Some of the things that help make this budget easier require a bit of advance planning (canning and freezing food in the summer, for example). At first, I only dabbled in these (and still stayed within budget – it just took more work to do so). I have a decent routine for these now and hope to add more (garden, here we come!) in the future. When you first start, it’s unlikely you will have these benefits right off the bat, so keep that in mind. It’s a little easier for me now for these reasons, but throughout the course of the next few weeks I’m going to teach you how to do all of the things I do to save money on food. Yes, we’re going to talk about canning!

Previously, I did a post on how to meal plan (including a free printable template!). That is an excellent supplement to this article – in fact, you may want to start there, read through step 2, then come back here and continue on. This post will be a much more in-depth look at using your budget as a jumping point, as is mentioned in that article.

 



 

So here we go! Follow along with my budget-conscious meal planning process this week:

 

Know your budget

You can’t very well eat on a budget if you don’t know what your budget is! Decide how much you’re going to spend. For us, I tend to alternate between “stock-up weeks” where I go to Winco and buy regular groceries as well as bulk dry goods to top off our supplies, and “top-off weeks” where I fill in the gaps with produce/meat/whatever else we need. Winco is the cheapest option in our area, but it’s a bit farther away from us than some other stores, so my top-off weeks are sometimes done at a closer store like Fred Meyer. I spend more on stock-up weeks (typically about $120-125) and less on top-off weeks (about $75-80).

This particular week is a top-off week, so this week’s budget will be $85.

Look for food distribution programs in your area.

I’m not referring to food banks or need-based programs (though please seek out those valuable resources if you need them), but rather food waste prevention programs. In my area, for example, there is a large warehouse where loads of nearly-expired food and produce collects every week. From there, people deliver it to different food distribution locations around the area. These programs are a win-win-win. Grocery stores have a place to send food they can no longer sell, landfills avoid thousands of pounds of food waste, and we get the benefit of free nutritious food! Search for food waste prevention programs online to see what might be available in your area.

Since this food source is not predictable (some weeks there is a lot, and other weeks, nothing at all), I do my meal planning after I go, so I know what I will have. Here is this week’s food distribution haul – totally free!

 

free healthy food

 

There was quite a bit available this week, so this will help my grocery budget a lot! Keep in mind though, this food is nearly expired, so you’ll want to plan to use it soon. Don’t dilly dally with this stuff – it’s on its way out!

 



 

Shop Your Cupboards/Pantry/Fridge/Freezer

One of the greatest contributors to high grocery bills is buying duplicates of things we already have, then trashing wasted extras. You’ll notice that a lot of money-saving tips are also food waste-prevention tips because, well, food wasted = dollars wasted.

Do a quick skim of your fridge, produce, cupboards, and freezer before even starting your meal plan. Take special note of the things that need to be used up soon, particularly meat and produce. Here’s my list for this week (not counting my food distribution goodies):

Need to use up:

  • cilantro
  • avocado
  • apples
  • cauliflower
  • spinach
  • fall harvest muffins (leftover)
  • chicken breasts (4)
  • mushrooms

Available:

  • dried grains: pasta, rice, quinoa, oats
  • baking stuff (flour, sugar, etc)
  • dried chili beans
  • clementine oranges
  • yogurt
  • trail mix
  • whole grain crackers
  • mozzarella cheese sticks
  • lots of canned goods
  • cheddar cheese
  • lunch meat
  • eggs
  • 2 gallons milk (we go through 4 per week usually!)
  • fresh-pressed apple cider (YUM)

I don’t usually write them all out like this, but for the sake of walking you through the process that happens in my head, here it is. Be aware that since this is a top-off week, I have more available than I will on stock-up weeks.

 

Check for sales and coupons

I’ll be providing a lot more detail about this step in future posts, but for now I’ll run you through the basics. Either find a store that puts out a weekly ad, or a store that has killer prices all around (yay Winco!). If there’s a weekly ad, check for the best sales, especially on meat and produce, and make a list of those. What’s on sale and healthful is what you’re making! Use any coupons you have to create more good deals.

 

Take stock and decide what to make

Look at the list what you’ve got available and what’s a great deal at the store. What can you make with these? If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, use a search-by-ingredient database  to help you find recipes.

This week, we have several Mexican-type ingredients (tomatoes, cilantro, avocado, green pepper, onions) so I think I’ll make an enchilada quinoa casserole with those. My kids have been requesting mac and cheese (I have a recipe that uses an entire head of cauliflower and a butternut squash in the sauce!) so I’ll put that in there too. My husband loves Vietnamese steak sandwiches that use the cucumber I got from the food distribution, so I’ll include those. I’ll round out the week of dinners with pork chops and chicken parmesan.

 



 

Make your shopping list

Go through your planned meals and add to your shopping list anything that you don’t already have and need to buy. I like to divide mine roughly by sections of the grocery store just to save time wandering. Include a rounded-up price estimate next to each item.

For us, lunches are typically dinner leftovers, and/or salad with canned chicken, so I’ll put salad and chicken on the list. I usually make sure we have two different types of breakfast options besides eggs, and oatmeal. This week, I have the bagels from food distribution and my fall harvest veggie muffins, so I’ll just make sure to pick up another type of breakfast protein to pair with those. We have quite a few fruits, veggies, and snacks already, and plenty of smoothie ingredients. I also typically plan to have dessert once or twice a week, so I’ll toss in some ice cream as well. Here’s my completed list:

 

food budget meal plan and shopping list for family of four

 

Click here for a copy of this shopping list/meal planning template. And to answer your question, no…my grocery list is never this neat. I used my best penmanship and avoided using too much of my made-up shorthand for your sake. You’re welcome. 🙂 Also, if you’re wondering what “scrounge” and “whatever” are all about – they can seriously help decrease your food costs and waste! Click here to read more about those.

Quickly tally your estimated prices to make sure you’ll be within your budget. If not, drop off unnecessary ingredients (garnishes, extra snacks/desserts, etc) until your estimate is within your budget. You’ll notice that there are a few ingredients on my list that are not particularly “low cost” items, like flank steak, Dave’s Killer Bread, and vermouth for my pork chop recipe. Regardless, we want to eat these and my estimate is still at budget. If I cut those or swapped them for cheaper alternatives, I could bring the cost down even further!

 

Shop!

Take your budget-conscious shopping list to the store and get the goods! If my estimate is very close to my budget, I like to keep a quick, rounded-up tally on the calculator on my phone as I put items in my cart to avoid overspending. If I have a bit of a buffer, I don’t bother with this. You’ll notice that I underestimated the costs of some things (hello, $13 PER POUND flank steak! Sheesh!), but rounding up on my estimates usually gives me some wiggle room.

So here’s my haul and the receipt for it – I spent $81.06 on all of my “top-off” items.

 

cheap healthy grocery haul

cost of healthy food

 

 

Combined with (most of) the ingredients I had from food distribution and my pantry/refrigerator, here’s a look at our food for the entire week.

 

affordable healthy food

 

Even if it seems overwhelming at first, this process gets easier with more practice. Now it only takes me 10-15 minutes to make my meal plan and stay in budget. Plus, we eat healthful, tasty food – all for an average of $100 per week!

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more tips on eating well on a budget – I have a lot of exciting posts planned to share with you! I walk you through a stock-up week in this post, so click there to see what my other weeks look like. Comment below with your favorite ways to keep grocery costs down!

 



 

Related Posts

 

Food Prep: Streamline your healthy life in just 20 minutes per week

Ready to Get Healthy? 5 Simple Steps to Set Yourself up for Success

How to Meal Plan to Save Time and Money (with FREE printable meal planning template)

 

Eating Well on a Budget Wellness Tips

You liked, you tagged, you voted, and the results are in…

 

eating well on a budget with cheap healthy food

 

Over the next three weeks, I will share with you the nitty-gritty of our food budget, along with every tip I’ve got for making healthy eating affordable. Stay tuned for more info on budget-friendly eating!

Congratulations to Kristin for winning our tiebreaker giveaway! I hope you love your new quick slice!

Eating Well on a Budget

For the first time in Dietitian on a Diet history…we have a tie! In honor of this very momentous occasion (and because, why not?) I am holding a giveaway!

 

 

You loved both Eating Well on a Budget and Weight Lifting/Strength Training. One will be my next feature and the other will have to wait until another poll. Which is it gonna be? Here’s your chance to decide a) what my next feature will be and b) what the giveaway prize will be!

 

Here’s how to enter:

  1. Like/follow Dietitian on a Diet on either Instagram or Facebook (or both for extra entries!)
  2. Comment on the post featuring the image above. Include your vote (Eating Well on a Budget or Weight Lifting).
  3. Tag friends who you think might like in on the action! Each friend you tag is an entry in the giveaway as well as another vote for your choice! Voting ends at midnight October 2nd. The winner will be selected on October 3rd by a random drawing.
  4. If the winner picked Eating Well on a Budget, they will receive the Pampered Chef quick slice I use in my weekly food prep (you can see it in action here!). It cuts my food prep time in half! If the winner voted for Weight Lifting, they will receive a 6-in-1 high density massage roller kit for ironing out all of those worked-out muscles.

Ready…start tagging! May the best feature (and prize) win!

 

 

 

 

Archives

Which diet or lifestyle would you like me to feature next on Dietitian on a Diet? Choose carefully! 🙂 The poll will be open until midnight September 30.

 

 

 

Archives

 

One of the biggest time wasters we struggle with involves our response to daily obstacles. The things that can stand in the way of our best-laid plans. My clients are often eager and ready to come up with their “plan A.” The “if everything works as it should” plan. The “this is how I really want things to go” plan. I also encourage them to come up with contingency plans. What if everything doesn’t work as it should? What if things don’t go how you really wish they would?

Having a contingency plan helps prevent the all-or-nothing feelings that can come into play when we don’t seem to be able to make plan A work. If plan A is all we have in our healthy tool belt, then we end up defeated when it won’t work for one reason or another. Your plan failed…guess you can’t be healthy today.

Not so!

Life is often not going to work out the way you hope, so be prepared! Have a plan for when the plan doesn’t work. It’s not defeatist – it’s realistic. Have a contingency plan. This is how I usually describe them:

Plan A: This is your best-case scenario. It is the plan that is designed to help you meet your health goals and fit into your (and your family’s) lifestyle at least half the time. If you make a plan A that rarely ends up ever working, it’s probably not the right plan A for you. Remember that it’s okay to try changes out before committing to them (in fact you should!) and it’s okay if a change doesn’t work for you. Keep looking for your best fit!

Plan B: This is your “oh shoot, I didn’t have time for plan A” or “we can’t afford plan A right now” or ______insert reason plan A doesn’t work this time_____. This is not as ideal of an outcome as plan A, but still keeps you on track with a decent second-best. Ask yourself what might stand in the way of your plan A, and consider how you might adjust.

Plan C: This is your hail Mary. The “well…nothing went the way I planned so we will do the best we can with what we have today.” Sometimes you actually have a third-best option, and sometimes your plan C is just to let it go and try again tomorrow. Either way, make it an intentional choice, not an automatic response to a plan A roadblock. Plan to take a day off if plans A and B fall through, and don’t feel bad if they did. This mentally helps us stay away from thought patterns like “well, I didn’t complete plan A today, so I guess I’m not being healthy anymore.” It sounds dramatic when you say it out loud, but it’s the way a lot of our brains think. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from clients about healthy changes they did great with…until that one day, then they gave up since they had “broken their streak.”

 



 

Here are some examples of contingency plans my clients have made:

Cooking at home

Plan A (best-case-scenario, works at least half the time): Make a meal plan each week and cook at least 5 dinners at home.

Plan B (second-best option): This client felt her most likely roadblock would be not having time to make the dinner on her meal plan, so her plan B was to buy pre-cooked salmon fillets and a vegetable/red potato medley to keep in the freezer so she could always have a microwave back-up option if she got stuck in traffic on the way home from work.

Plan C (do the best you can with what you’ve got): If she comes home late and her kids have a nighttime activity, she usually needs to bring something home or take the kids out on the way. We selected 3 different restaurants (Subway, Chipotle, and Miso) that her kids would like and where everyone could customize their own healthful option.

Strength Training

Plan A: Go to the gym before work to strength train three times per week.

Plan B: This client’s gym is very busy in the afternoon, so his biggest roadblock would be getting his workout in if he missed going in the morning. If he didn’t make it to the gym before work, we selected a Youtube body weight workout he could do at home in the evening.

Plan C: If he did not want to work out in the evening when he got home, he could either try going to the gym a different morning that week, or take a day off and try again on his next scheduled gym day.

 

The point is, that making the plan ahead of time helps prepare you for challenges and makes any of the options okay. It allows you to realistically navigate life’s curve balls while still keeping focus on your goal. All while avoiding a defeated attitude when life just doesn’t play nice. So hang in there! Make a plan, and another, and another. And don’t beat yourself up when plan A and plan B don’t work! It happens to everyone – now you can be prepared.

 



 

Related Articles 

 

Guest Post: Health Hacks for Busy Moms

How to Make Healthy Changes that Actually Stick

How to Meal Plan to Save Time and Money (with free printable meal planning template)

 

 

 

 

Eating Well in Less Time Wellness Tips

 

You asked, so here they are! My top tips for getting in the all-important, nourishing breakfast, even on a tight schedule. Eating in the morning helps reduce cortisol (a stress hormone) that climbs throughout the night. Breakfast also fuels our bodies and brain for the day ahead. Breakfast is a great protector against nagging nighttime snack cravings too, since often our bodies are trying to catch up from nutrition missed in the morning. Even if you feel like you don’t have a morning minute to spare, you can have a quick healthy breakfast!

 

1. Get the Good Stuff

First thing’s first, what constitutes a nutritious breakfast? There are many ways to answer that question, but as a general rule I boil it down to this: include at least three different food groups and make one of them protein. That ensures that you are getting energy-rich carbohydrates, satisfying protein, and several vitamins and minerals along the way.

For more explanation and examples of building three-food group breakfasts, check out this (very old) video post. Please look past my amateur editing – the content is good! So include a protein plus at least two other food groups (or more if you want, you overachiever, you).

2. Find your “Formulas”

Keeping our three-food-group goal in mind, use these basic “formulas” to select a handful of breakfast ingredients that you enjoy and can mix and match. Here are a few of my faves for examples:

Sweet breakfast: whole grain + fruit + protein source

> oatmeal + berries or apples + PB (and cinnamon, because…cinnamon)

> whole grain bagel + sliced bananas + peanut butter (and you guessed it, cinnamon!)

> granola + strawberries + low fat vanilla Greek yogurt

 

Savory breakfast: protein source + vegetable + whole grain

> scrambled eggs + peppers/onions/mushrooms + whole grain toast

> poached egg + spinach and tomato + whole grain English muffin (+ sausage and cheese if you want!)

> sliced ham + tomato/avocado + whole grain toast

These are just some examples – play with them to find combos that work well for you!

 



 

3. Blend, baby, blend!

Smoothies are some of the most versatile and efficient ways to sneak in a quick healthy breakfast, particularly if you are time-crunched or aren’t hungry in the mornings. It’s usually easier to drink than eat if you aren’t hungry, and you don’t have to take the time to sit, chew, and swallow. Your smoothie goes with you to carpool, work, or school, and you can take all morning to finish it if you need to. Boost breakfast nutrition by including greens, fruit, and a protein source like peanut butter, Greek yogurt, or whey protein. There are tons of delicious possibilities – piña colada, triple berry, pumpkin pie, or chocolate peanut butter anyone?


Make your smoothie even faster: ask yourself honestly – am I more likely to spend a couple of minutes in the morning or in the evening to prepare my breakfast? If your answer is evening, load your blender the night before and place it in the fridge or freezer. In the morning you can grab, blend, pour, and go.

4. Consider convenience

Be realistic about what you will be able to add to your morning. If you have exactly 10 minutes to spare most mornings, it’s not likely that you’re going to be cooking up a veggie-loaded omelet. Simple can be okay and in most (seriously, just about all) cases, something in the morning is better than nothing.

Grab a handful of nuts or a granola bar with a few recognizable ingredients, like oats, nuts, fruit, and honey. KIND and Nature Valley have some good options. Pair those with a piece of fruit, a hard-boiled egg, or a yogurt for an on-the-go breakfast. Or pour boiling water on some quick oats and add a dollop of peanut butter, some berries, and a teaspoon of brown sugar for a delicious PB&J oatmeal.

Prefer something savory? Some of the frozen breakfast sandwiches actually aren’t bad – look for one with Canadian bacon or turkey bacon/sausage, low-fat cheese, and/or a whole grain English muffin. These include protein, dairy, and grains, and some even add veggies! Just because it comes from the freezer doesn’t mean it’s off-limits, but choose wisely. Some of these pre-made goodies can be higher in sodium or saturated fat than you might like.

5. Dare to Be Different

Depending on where you live, this tip might blow your mind a little. In the US, we tend to have very defined boundaries around the types of foods that are considered “breakfast foods.” Pancakes, cereal, bacon, eggs, and toast? You’re welcome to join us in the morning. Salad, soup, or dinner leftovers? Come back at noon.

That this assignment of foods into time slots is strange never occurred to me until I spent some time in other countries. When I traveled in Japan, my friends served me a sandwich with salad in the morning. In El Salvador, I had tamales and refried beans for breakfast. I couldn’t believe it – is this even allowed? Turns out, it is! And much of the rest of the world is doing it. So unless it weirds you out (you know who you are), consider “unconventional” breakfast foods. Got a turkey leg, mashed potatoes, and veggies leftover from dinner? That’s really easy to heat up for breakfast. Why make something new? This can totally change the morning game, because it opens up so many possibilities.

 

I hope these tips will help you navigate that tricky morning time and find a way to incorporate some much-needed brain and body fuel into the beginning of each day. Let me know which tips you liked the best, or what ways you make sure to get in some tasty healthy breakfast in the comments! Oh, and comment if you want me to post the recipes for any of the smoothies I mentioned!

 



 

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How to Build a Long-Lasting Breakfast

Save Time with 5 Healthy Convenience Foods

Eating Well in Less Time Wellness Tips

Finding healthy strategies that are actually sustainable can be a challenge. How many times have you tried to drink more water, exercise more, or eat more vegetables but just can’t seem to stick with it? The first (and most important) step is that you must test drive new healthy changes to find the ones that are right for you. Don’t commit right away! Find changes that work with the strengths of your personality, and also help keep your weaknesses in check.

Everyone falls on the spectrum somewhere between a type-A (numbers, details, budgets, lists, organization) and a type-B (free spirit, go-with-the-flow) personality. Someone on the more extreme end of the type-A spectrum might be very good at self-discipline. Too good, in fact. If they choose a very detailed, overcomplicated-because-they-love-control method of keeping their food in check, they may tend to become obsessive. They track grams of carbs, proteins, and fat, and monitor every calorie down to the very last crumb. They thrive on this control until one day – whoops – we pass over healthy and slide down that slippery slope into disordered eating. Eating is no longer fun but a competition. A highly structured eating plan may not be a good idea for someone who is ALL the way at the type-A end of the spectrum.

Let’s try the other end of the spectrum. An extreme type-B may avoid the control of number-tracking like the plague, so they go for a much more flexible method. Too flexible, in fact. So flexible that they free-spirit their way in the opposite direction of their goals. Their personality is so extremely type B that they need a more structured (but not overly restrictive or controlling) method if they’re going to get anywhere. They just need a little more accountability.

 



 

In reality, most people do not fall at either extreme but instead somewhere in the middle. When you’re in the middle, you have some of the strengths of each personality and possibly some of the weaknesses too. No matter where you are on the spectrum, it takes a little honest introspection to know which might be some of the best approaches for you.

Use this flowchart to help you decide which strategies might work well for you:

 

how to make realistic healthy changes

 

Daily Food Group Checklist

Using a daily food group checklist can help you make sure you’re getting a wide variety of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber in the right amounts, but without the detail of a food tracker. Visit this website to calculate your daily needs and get a list of your personalized daily goals for each food group. Make a simple checklist or tally mark for each group each day so you can meet your goals without too much time investment.

 

Healthy Meal Plan

While I’m not a huge fan of meal plans made by people other than you, getting into the habit of making your own regular meal plan is a great way to set yourself up for success. If you already have the plan and the ingredients (possibly prepped and ready to go!), you are much more likely to eat more healthfully than if you were playing it by ear. Check out this post for a step-by-step guide and free printable to help make meal planning simple and easy.

 

Food Trackers

Food trackers are some of the most detail-oriented options for providing structure, accountability, and awareness. They can be as simple as a food journal with pen and paper or as complex as some websites and apps that have barcode scanners and track your calories, macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. While these tech marvels are nifty, they have their pros and cons, so make sure to test it out first to see if it’s a good fit for you. This post has some reviews of apps and websites to help you create healthy habits. One important thing to remember for tracking: it’s a tool for you, not a rule you must follow. Only track for as long as and to the extent that it is useful and helpful to you – and absolutely no farther! Most of my clients end up settling in to a routine of tracking every other week or a few days a week. Tracking every day forever is pretty exhausting!

 



 

MyPlate

MyPlate is the visual put forth by the USDA to provide nutrition recommendations, and it replaced the Food Guide Pyramid in 2010.

 

Personally, I feel that MyPlate is much more user-friendly, since it does away with memorizing portion sizes and numbers of portions. Instead, it provides a evenly divided plate that builds in a bunch of nutrition recommendations in (so you never have to think about them!). It balances your carbs, proteins, and fats, while helping ensure you are meeting vitamin, mineral, and fiber goals. And you can do this anywhere – you can hit every food group at a fast food restaurant, mini mart, grocery store, or in a packed lunch. It’s so simple my kids have been doing it for years! Just take this mental picture with you and try to make as many of your meals (especially lunches and dinners) resemble MyPlate as possible. A good rule of thumb for breakfast? Include at least 3 different food groups and make one of them protein. You can read about my experience following a MyPlate plan, as well as some of my tips for following it starting with this post.

 

Intuitive Eating

This is a method of allowing your body’s hunger and fullness signals to guide what you eat. Often this begins by practicing mindfulness of your body’s cues. This approach helps separate moral feelings (like guilt or pride) from simply honoring your body’s needs for fuel. You can read more about intuitive eating here.

Hopefully these guides and resources help you find the best healthy changes to test drive for your life. Let me know if you have other ideas of healthy changes, or which strategies have worked the best for you!

 

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Eating Well in Less Time Wellness Tips