Meal Planning Ideas for Creating Dinner on a Budget

meal planning ideas

Making use of these meal planning ideas will help you to come up with a meal plan or menu so you can:

  • save money on groceries (because you know exactly what you need to buy)

  • eat healthier (you plan healthy, balanced meals instead of throwing something together at the last minute) and

  • saves you stress ("OMG - it is 5:00 - WHAT am I going to fix for dinner!?!")


A good menu takes your budget into consideration and can save you quite a bit of money.




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What are your favorite meals on a budget? Share them with us here!



How often you need to plan your menu depends on how often you shop for groceries. If you shop every week, then you can do a one-week menu plan before you do your shopping. Or, if it is more convenient, you can plan for a longer period of time and then make your grocery lists a week at a time before you shop.

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One way to save money on food is to use what you have on hand. Instead of coming up with a dinner idea and then heading to the store for all the ingredients, use what you already have on hand. You will be surprised at what you can make with leftovers by adding a few staples that you already have on hand!


I have discovered recently that I prefer to "brainstorm" many ideas for meals, and then plug them into a monthly calendar. That way I can make sure we don't have any one meal too often (once a month is enough for most) and I can plan a balance of different types of entrees (soup, chicken, vegetarian, etc.) throughout the month. I am a "list" person, so I love to make lists. It was very easy for me to make a list of my family's favorites by category (chicken, fish, pasta, etc.). After I had done that it was easier to lay out a month's worth of meals.

Take your family's preferences and lifestyle into consideration when you do your planning. Also try to plan balanced meals. The Dana- Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center Nutrition Department recommends for a balanced diet:

  • Breakfast - One serving each of lean protein or dairy, starch (carbohydrate), and fruit
  • Lunch and Dinner - One serving of protein, one serving of starch (carbohydrate), and two servings of non-starchy vegetables



Steps for creating your meal plan:


Brainstorm Ideas (optional - for those that like lists!)

I did this by starting with these categories: pasta, beef, chicken, fish, pork, and soup. Your headings will depend on the type of foods your family eats. Then under each heading I listed 4 - 6 main dishes that we enjoy (for chicken I listed oven-fried chicken, chicken pot pie, lemon pepper chicken, roasted chicken, and chicken chow mein).

Plan your meals

Next I plugged the meal planning ideas into a monthly calendar. You can use a week or any other period of time that you are planning for. Take into consideration any special events that will require quick meals or some family members being absent for meals or other special needs. For example, my teen son runs track and cross country and likes to eat pasta the night before a meet (carbo loading, they call it). So I try to plan pasta on days before his meets on my menu plan.

Other things to consider: Are there days when you will be home late and need an easy meal? Will you be having company? What have you eaten a lot lately and are tired of? What types of produce are in season?

To stretch your budget further try to include some low-cost menu items such as vegetarian options and less expensive cuts of meat.

Add side dishes

Don't forget fruits and vegetables! After I plug the main dishes into the calendar, then I go back and put side dishes in. I list when I will going to the farmer's market and try to use the most perishable items soon after that, saving the more hearty ones (cabbage, carrots, apples, potatoes) for later in the week.

After you have completed your meal plan, make a list of the ingredients you will need to prepare the meals you have planned.

Take inventory of what you have on hand

After you have made your list of ingredients, go through your pantry or cabinets and your refrigerator and freezer and see how many of these items you already have. Mark these off of the list (make sure you have the quantity you will need for the recipe!).

If you come across something that you have on hand that needs to be used soon, you can adjust your menu to include this item - you may be able to mark something else off of your grocery list.

I also like to try to put my list roughly in order of where things are located in the store. This makes it easier to keep up with what I need to look for next as I am making my way through the grocery store.

Go through your coupons

If you collect manufacturer's coupons , go through these now and see if you any of them can be used for things on your grocery list.

Shop for the things on your list only

Take your list and any coupons that you have selected with you grocery shopping and try to stick to buying things on the list and nothing else.


By putting these meal planning ideas into practice you can save a lot of money and headaches. It’s a great return on a relatively small investment of time!



Meal Planning Ideas back to Frugal Food

Meal Planning Ideas back to Frugal Living Now


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