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Healthy on a Budget

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Tips to Know for a Great Meal Planning & Grocery Shopping Experience

Posted by Whitney Ajie -


I've learned a lot in the past 4 years I've been cooking at home for myself and the past 2 years that I've taught others how to plan, shop, and cook for their families. I learn new things all the time, but for now I've collected a list of tips and advice that work consistently to save me money and time, while providing me with nutritious home-cooked meals. I've added some advice for families with children as well.

I'm sure these tips will help you too!

  1. Meal plan and shop on weekend days when you have more time to plan out a weekly menu and shop without being rushed.
  2. Use mostly recipes that you already know and are comfortable with. Don’t add more than 1-2 new recipes in a week.
  3. Include snacks in your weekly meal planning so that when hunger strikes you have a healthy option available that you already paid for and don’t have to spend more money on an expensive snack, like at a vending machine or a fast food place. Think about how to include food groups you don’t get enough of in your snacks.
  4. Ask kids to tell you a few meals they’d like to have each week so that they feel included in planning your family menu, and it gives you some guidance as to what foods in include in the menu that your kids will eat.
  5. Plan ahead! Know when you need to thaw your frozen chicken meat the day before, or if you could chop and refrigerate/freeze vegetables on Sunday enough for Monday-Wednesday to put yourself ahead of schedule.
  6. Mentally prepare for about 30 minutes of meal preparation every meal on average. The actual time you spend might be more or less, but this average gives you an idea of how much time to give yourself each day. The time will be more efficient if you get some help in the kitchen from your kids. It might take longer in the beginning because kids will have to learn how to do things, but eventually they will catch on and cooking with their help will be a breeze! Kids learn valuable skills in the kitchen far beyond cooking and nutrition. They can talk about their colors, numbers, they can identify kitchen objects and what they’re used for and food objects, improves their dexterity (practice holding utensils, cutting, chopping, stirring), math practice (fractions from measuring, addition, multiplying/dividing with changing recipes amounts), vocabulary/spelling, more likely to eat what they’ve made, family bonding time and social skill development (table manners, conversation, sharing).
  7. Be flexible with what items can be used in a recipe or meal. If you’ve made well-thought out meal plan, but see that something else at the store is on sale – keep a look out for things that can be substituted in your meal plan if that helps your budget. Also, keep an eye out for things in a recipe that you don’t need to spend money on, e.g. extra seasonings/herbs you don’t have, can you use rice instead of pasta since you already have it, etc.
  8. Use store flyers to direct you to sale prices on items at the store. You can pick up a flyer as you leave the week before and use that to tell you what sales will be going on the next week and use that to plan your menu. Or, pick up a flyer once you get to the store and compare that to your grocery list to see if anything you need is on sale or anything that’s on sale can be used instead of what you came to buy.
  9. Make a grocery list from your meal plan and bring it to the store. This is a guide for things you need to get that follow your budget. Check your freezer, fridge, and pantry to see what you already have and don’t need to buy.
  10. Write down the rounded price of every item you get on your grocery list. If a loaf of bread is on the list, and bread is $2.07, write $2.00 next to the word ‘bread’. If 2 gallons of milk is on the list, and milk is $1.97, write $4.00 for 2 gallons of milk at a rounded price of $2.00 next to the word 'milk'. Do that for everything you get, then BEFORE you get to the cash register, add everything up and check that you are close to your budget for the week. This gives you a chance to put back any items that make you go over budget, or get a little more if you’re under budget.
  11. When creating your weekly menu, create a plan to use leftovers. This might be obvious or not so obvious. Chili on Monday? Have chili for lunch on Tuesday or use it to make soup for dinner tomorrow.
  12. Think about have themed days so that you always know what meals you’ll be making those days to cut down on meal planning time. For example, Taco Tuesday, Spaghetti Wednesday, Burrito Thursday, Breakfast for Dinner Friday.
  13. Try to plan 1-2 meals each week without meat. This lets the meat you do buy stretch for the whole week because you’re not eating it every day, and is a chance to include more fruits, vegetables, beans, peas or whole grains.
  14. Keep pantry staples in your kitchen, which are common foods or condiments that are commonly used in many recipes. This way you’ll be prepared to make your recipes each week. Staple foods typically last a few weeks to months.
  15. Buy generic food/products instead of brand name products. There are no major differences in nutritional quality between cheaper brands and more expensive brands. There may be differences in taste, but often you can’t tell the difference. There may be differences in amounts of sodium, sugar, or fat, but usually not enough to justify spending more money. Generic products have improved in taste and quality over the years to be on par with some name brand products so more and more people, no matter what their income, have started to buy generic products.

Hope you learned some valuable information to add to what you already know. I'm always eager to learn more tips to shop smart and spend less, so what tips do you have for me?! Send me a comment below and let me know!

Wishing you the best of health,

Whitney Ajie
Extension Educator, Illinois Nutrition Education Programs

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