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Planning Meals on a Tight Budget? Here Are 5 Ways to Keep it Healthy and Cheap

Rebecca Jones  |  July 20, 2019

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The struggle is real when it comes to feeding your family on a budget without compromising nutritious, wholesome meals. It’s so tempting to give your kids boxed mac-and-cheese (particularly when it’s cheap and their favorite food) but when you’re the mom and the cook, it’s on you to keep the healthful car on the road. And as easy as it can be to go out for dinner or just order take out, it definitely isn’t the healthiest — especially when your kids always seem to choose French fries as a side — or the cheapest.  The average American family spends more than $3,000 every year on restaurant meals. 

What’s the alternative? Cooking, of course. Which is still the preferred option for dining for 98% of Americans, according to a study on American mealtimes. Today 50% of people cook between three and six days a week. As a stay-at-home-mom with two boys, I’ve learned a few things over the years about how to keep everyone happy while never sacrificing healthy ingredients or our family budget. 

1. Let Pantry Staples Lead The Way 

Behind every good cook is a well-stocked pantry with basics including noodles, rice, beans, a variety of sauces, and canned vegetables, says Leanne Brown, chef and author of Good and Cheap, Eat Well on $4 a Day. “Have some compassion for yourself, and don’t be so tied to a specific recipe. A little pasta, some leftover veggies, and a little sauce can go a long way,” she says. Also don’t be afraid to forge on even when you don’t have all the ingredients on hand. “It’s all about trying something even when you don’t have everything a recipe calls for,” she advocates. Sometimes when you’ve added a little freshly ground pepper and veggies to pasta and left out the cayenne, it may end up being a family favorite (or at least one you know NOT to try again!) The thing is that you are trying to keep it healthy and within budget, and that’s what counts, Brown says. So before you throw in the towel and order take-out after an exhausting day, check out the pantry and see what you have on hand. A quick quesadilla with black beans and cheese or some easy spaghetti marinara may wind up being the biggest crowd pleaser you’ve whipped up in a while. 

2. Involve Your Kids with Meal Planning and Prep

Kids love to be creative, and the more you can involve them in the process of planning and cooking family meals, the more likely they are to try new foods and appreciate the process (not to mention be proud of what they’ve created). For me, with a very picky 7-year-old, it’s been helpful to have him involved in making meal choices and grocery store visits each week. When we’re in the grocery store, I encourage him to look for a fruit and a vegetable and choose one of each to be an ingredient in one of our family meals. You can take this a step further and allow your child to choose an entire meal for that week. If he or she opts for pizza, then encourage them to also choose a vegetable that can be chopped up and put on top, suggests Brown. “It may end up being asparagus pizza, but they’ve chosen and helped prepare it, so they are going to be much more likely to eat it and like it — or at least pretend to like it!” Brown says.

3. Plan a Weekly Menu

With work, school, and kids’ activities scattered throughout the week, it may seem much easier said than done to plan a weekly meal menu. But for me, taking a few minutes at the beginning of the week to scratch down a tentative menu helps me to focus on what I need for the week, and note which days may afford time for more elaborate meals. It’s also crucial in keeping your trips to the grocery store to one a week, which saves considerably. “Pre-planning is a personal decision, so if it feels good for you then do it, but just be sure it yields less work overall, and helps you spend less time on meal planning,” says Brown.  Start by sketching out what meals may look like for 3-4 days out of the week, and remember that things will always get shifted around a bit, especially when dealing with schedules for an entire family.

4. Cut Down On Meat

Newsflash: every dinner does not need to have meat as the main attraction, complemented with an array of colorful side dishes. Consider cutting out meat — one of the highest-cost items in a food budget — one day a week or more. “You can do this by changing the ratio on your plate, and shifting from meals that are heavy in meat and dairy to meals whose bulk is whole grains, beans, vegetables, or a mix of those three,” says Beth Moncel creator of budgetbytes.com and cookbook author of Budget Bytes. Consider starting with a “no-meat Monday” or “veggie taco Tuesday,” and see how much you can save in a month. “Instead of pinching pennies on small things, limiting or eliminating meat from some meals allows you to save big with less effort,” says Jen Smith, founder of ModernFrugality.com and author of Meal Planning on a Budget.  Thankfully, the best meat-replacement options happen to be incredibly low-cost, and easy to keep on hand in the pantry, including dried and canned beans, legumes, nuts and whole grains, Smith says.

5. Purchase In-Season Fruits and Vegetables 

“Not only is purchasing in-season fruits and vegetables efficient from a money-saving angle, but it’s also a way for us to have more healthy variety in a cyclical way with the seasons,” Brown says. Watermelon, peaches, berries, and corn are great for summer while we can look forward to winter squashes and apples in September and October. Other basic veggies like carrots, celery, potatoes, onions, cabbage, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes are typically inexpensive year-round, says Moncel. And of course you can still indulge in cravings for out-of-season items by checking out frozen and canned options. “They’re pre-chopped, ready to throw into any recipe, and won’t spoil,” Moncel says. 


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