How To Meal Plan, Prep, and Shop On a Budget (Whole30/Paleo)
I’ve been “meal prepping” for years. Only recently did my husband and I realize how ineffecient we were actually being with our meal prepping and our meal plan. Sure, we could have several meals cooked up, but by the time we’d get to eating those meals, they’d be soggy. OR, we would pick out a few yummy recipes and be out of food by Wednesday night. And somehow, we’d still manage to spend way too much money. Sound familiar? Well keep reading, because we’ve gotten our meal planning, shopping, and prepping down to a science. Our family of four eats Whole30/Paleo for about $100 a week. Sometimes it’s slightly more, sometimes it’s slightly less. When I started working towards this, we spent $800 a month to eat Paleo/Whole30. I literally cut our bill in HALF. Along the way, I’ll also give you some money saving tips too! Oh, and before you go, “Rachel, I live in a high cost of living area, there is NO WAY my budget will be $100 for a whole week.” I hear you! My dad is from Hawaii and I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. I get it. Not all areas are created equal, but the good news is that this game plan works in any location and will help lower any budget. In fact, if you do live in a high-cost area, consider tracking the difference my meal plan/shop/”prep” makes and let me know how it works! I’d be willing to bet you will also save a lot. Just ignore my”$100″ and follow the methods below.
Step 1: How to Meal Plan
Once you get into the “groove” of this, planning meals becomes more reliant on compromising 1. What you want vs. 2. What you have available in your freezer/pantry. I don’t care how much storage space you have; it’s important to rotate these items through to keep your budget down and avoid anything expiring.
For now, let’s pretend you have nothing in your fridge, freezer, or pantry. This is unlikely, but work with me. We try to balance a few things.
Plan something that just sounds GOOD
We eat mostly Whole30 compliant meals, but we live our “Food Freedom” by making sure to include a tasty sounding meal. For example, this week I wanted meatball subs (on actual buns) and hubby wanted rice with our fajitas. So we will compromise on things like that. Obviously this would be different on a round of Whole30, but for our normal lives we’ll incorporate these items. We just plan for them to make sure it isn’t something at every meal.
Our meal planning lists don’t look the prettiest. Usually we scratch things out, and add arrows where we decide to switch meal days. The biggest thing we were bad at before was “stacking proteins.” To us, this is where we would accidentally prep a week of chicken straight, followed by all red meat. This led us into burnout and “I’m SO SICK of ______.” So now, we make sure to have a good mixture. Even this week (pictured below) we realized we were planning to eat poultry four days in a row this week. SO we reworked it.
Planning Around Sales/Leftovers
This leads into how we shop, but I always check my local stores for any really good sales. This is especially important for proteins or unique veggies. Above I said to pretend there’s nothing in the house, but typically this also feeds directly into how we’d meal plan. For example, if there were leftover mashed potatoes, I would repurpose them into mashed potato cakes (click here for the recipe) and work that into our breakfasts. If using leftovers, make sure to incorporate those early on in the week and balance your proteins accordingly.
Don’t Forget Sides
We were the WORST at this a year ago. We’d have tasty entrees ready to go, but nothing else on the side! So make sure to have some easy veggies planned and other sides on your menu too. Your meal plan should always include the full meals (or at least say “veggie” or “grain” as a placeholder)
Plan as a Family/Couple
Our toddler doesn’t get input, but hubby and I work through the meal plan together. That is how we incorporate the items we want and agree on our meals. In the past I created the “perfect meal plan” for the week, only for my husband to go, “I don’t want that,” once it was cooked up. This led to some major frustration and the occassional unplanned pizza night. So then, I’d say, “Fine. YOU plan and cook.” And he would! But then the opposite would happen. We’d eat exactly what he wanted and I’d want nothing to do with it by lunchtime Wednesday.
Eventually, we realized that it just might be a good idea to include each other in the planning process. Shockingly, it worked. Now, if one of us “doesn’t” want something, we have to justify why we’d want to go against our meal plan AND our budget plan. Because wasting food is wasting money.
Plan any Treats/Extras
This has been a bigger thing lately because of my pregnancy, but I’ve been wanting paleo treats lately. No problem, we just plan for them! We also include an extra “fruit/vegetable” to pick up but leave it open ended. I.e. the list literally says “fruit” and “extra vegetable”
Write Down What You Need as You Go
Once your plan is set, make sure you write down everything that you need to make it happen! This leads into how we shop..
Step 2: Shopping for Meals On a BUDGET.
Keep your Shopping list electronic
As we work through our meal planning, we will create our shopping list together. We use the Google Keep app. It’s free and this isn’t a sponsored recommendation. My hubby told me about it, and it’s awesome. Before we used Google docs, but Keep allows you to check off items as you go. That way, you can click off items as you shop! It’s actually helped a lot with the next item. It also allows anyone invovled in the meal planning process to add to it as well (assuming you’ve shared the list with them in the app, which I highly recommend!)
Prioritize Budget Friendly Stores
Not all stores are created equal. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone, but it’s amazing to see how our budget transformed when we “prioritized” our shopping. You see, once you have your shopping list, you can make sure to shop the cheapest place first. I admit part of this is based on geography. I’m able to shop at Aldi, Walmart, Sam’s Club, a regional store, and a local health food store all within a few minutes of each other. It’s about a 30minute drive from our house so it makes the shopping list extremely important. What has saved us a TON of money is shopping stores in this exact order:
- Walmart/Sam’s Club
- Meijer (Regional grocery store with tons of produce/meat options)
- Local Health Food Store/Trader Joe’s/Ordering Online
Again, you might be thinking, “Rachel, I don’t have an Aldi, there is no hope for me!” or “I live in a remote area, this isn’t even possible” and that’s just not true. Find out which stores are the cheap ones and get there first. Figuring that out may take an adjustment period, but you will get into a groove. Where I went to school there was only Walmart and a few (like 3 total) grocery stores. That meant I had to do almost all shopping at Walmart, and fill in any unique Whole30 items online because they weren’t available in person. Things like coconut aminos I had to buy on Amazon. That’s okay! Make what is cheapest in YOUR area YOUR main shopping place and work from there. For some, Trader Joe’s might actually be the cheapest, but for us it’s somewhere I try to avoid because we’ll overspend. Maybe Thrive Market would be a good option if you are really remote, but I’ll be honest we have not used that service so I’m not comfortable recommending it. I just know it exists.
Shop ONCE Whenever Possible
This is why you need to write down every ingredient needed during the meal planning process. It also makes life a lot easier when you have to get to multiple stores. Plan for one large “shop” and get everything you need. Now, I get it. Things happen, and you may need to “fill in,” but the more you can avoid that, the better you will stick to your budget.
Get the “Extras” On Sale
I mentioned above that we always plan for an extra “fruit” and “vegetable” or “side.” These will 99.9% of the time come from whatever is on sale at Aldi (or your cheapest equivalent store). We intentionally leave this open ended for the sales.
Buy Protein in Bulk
This isn’t realistic for everyone, but we had a “sinking fund” for meat in the past. Last year, we bought 1/4 cow from a local farmer and had it processed at a local butcher. We are just finishing up the last bits of this cow a little less than a year later. Everything from ground beef to porterhouse steaks cost us under $3/lb. Granted, this was a large upfront cost and required our chest freezer (purchased secondhand for $20) but has saved us immensely in the long run. The meat is also local and fresh, which is a huge draw too. If you have that option available, look into it! If not, or for other protein types, the next tip is mroe helpful.
Stock Up When There are Deep Discounts on Protein
I always, always check for heavily discounted meats when I do our shop. This week, the “extra” item I came home with was a large pack of bone-in chicken drumsticks. I scored these for $0.69 a lb! While they won’t be used this week, they will be in our chest freezer for future meal planning. I always check the “manager’s special” stickers where the meat must be used or frozen in a short time-frame. Again, if you can allow a few extra dollars in that week’s shop, then you will ultimately save money in the long run. I have bought $35 hams for $5, Ground chicken for $1/lb, and other great deals.
I avoided using an app for a long, long time. My opinion was that these apps are made to cause you to spend more money. Which is true. Cash back grocery apps want to tap into that part of your brain that go, “oh yay! A sale! I need to buy that!” But I decided to give it a go because people were asking my opinion. So now I use ibotta but in a very specific way. I scan my receipt after I walk out of the store. I do ZERO checking beforehand when it comes to food. Do I miss sales? Inevitably, yes. But it keeps me from overspending and I get a little bit back. TBH I’m saving for a new laptop (the one I’m typing on right now is from 2012) so anything I get from ibotta is going to go to an Amazon gift card towards that. If you want to get the $10 bonus offer, AND help me with that dream, click here to sign up free and get that $10 welcome offer.
Step 3: Meal “Prepping”
You might have noticed there are quotes around the word “prepping.” That’s because we don’t fully meal prep anymore. We used to fully make EVERY meal for the week on Sundays, but that left us burnt out. Both hubby and I work full time. I’m also a full time online grad student, and we have a toddler and a puppy. We NEED our weekends to keep sane (side note, I even try to do our “shop” on Friday after work to further give us the weekend).
Chop, Chop, Chop!
We make sure to chop/slice/dice/mince everything that needs to be done for the upcoming week. Recently, I bought a mini chopper from Aldi for $8 and it has been a game changer. I can get onions done in a fraction of the time as before. Also, remember how I said we like our weekends? Usually, we will do this portion of meal prepping while our toddler is napping or contained (coloring in her high chair, eating a snack etc.). Often Netflix is involved.
Make ALL of Your Breakfasts
Typically, breakfast is our one redundant meal. Whether if it’s a frittata, or sausages and greens etc, we typically eat the same breakfast all five days and fully meal prep these over the weekend. We just make sure to change these up from week to week. This week, I bought two packs of Sam’s Choice Chicken and Apple Sausages, sliced them in half and seared in a cast iron skillet. It’s a Walmart/Sam’s Club version of the Aidell’s Chicken and Apple Sausages. We’ll have these over greens and with a side of olives, so the prep was super easy this week.
If we are going to make a meatball or meal that needs meat or veggies marinated, we’ll get that going today too. This means any defrosting, slicing, and seasoning. It doesn’t take much effort, but goes a long way in the flavoring of the dishes and the ease of cooking the night of.
Have the Sides/”Snacks”/Treats Ready
Often, I’ll roast up veggie sides this day that will reheat fairly well. Things like
- Roasted veggies (carrots/peppers/brussel sprouts)
- Hard Boiled Eggs
- Cooking Rice
- Sauces (Mayo/Ranch etc)
Pre-Roast or Casserole Prep
This is very dependent on the Meal Plan you’ve created for the week, but if yout need a roasted vegetable (I’m thinking things like spaghetti squash based dishes) then we’ll prep that. OR if we make a casserole, we’ll try to get the casserole prepped or at least the components ready to go. The whole point is to limit the work done throughout the week. Dishes used to be a major concern, but now that we have our dishwasher this isn’t as big of a deal, I’ll just run it throughout the week (almost daily with all of our glass meal prep containers)
I hope that gave you some tips on how to meal plan, shop, and meal prep to make life a bit easier, cheaper, and healthier! Let me know what your #1 tip is when it comes to planning/shopping/prepping in the comments. Thanks!
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Hi, my name is Rachel Smith. I’m a personal finance nerd, Aldi connoissuer, book lover, yoga enthusiast, and budgeting wiz. I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska but currently call Michigan home. I want to help people with their finances and eating healthy on a tight budget (no matter what your cost-of-living area is!)