Living Healthy On A Budget: Menu Planning

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Read the other posts in this series: Living Healthy On A Budget

One of the biggest misconceptions about healthy living is that it can’t be done easily on a budget. I respectfully disagree. Living healthy is possible on any budget!

The first thing we need to do is throw out today’s meaning of the word “healthy”. Rather than buying expensive “health food”, instead we’re going to focus on buying WHOLE foods. We’ll walk outside instead of paying $100 a month to use the elliptical at the gym.

Now, it’s true that buying a box of sugary cereal with a coupon could feed your family for a week at the cost of just a few pennies. Buying a container of oatmeal or a carton of eggs might be pricier when you look at your up front cost. However, which makes you feel fuller for longer? Which gets you through to the next meal without needing another snack? Which keeps you out of the doctor’s office and from paying pricey co-pays and deductibles?

It’s big picture health we’re going to discuss in this series, and we’re going to do it on a budget.

Step 1 of Living Healthy On A Budget: Menu Planning

Menu planning is the key to any grocery budget. Whether you are eating healthy or planning to dine on snack cakes for breakfast and potato chips for dinner, you need to have a plan.

Have you ever walked into the grocery store without a real good idea of what your menu is for the week? Trying to keep the meals you’ve already placed into the cart in your head (along with the list of the ingredients for each dish) as you go aisle by aisle, only to get home and realize you only bought for 4 days worth of dinners instead of 7. Or worse, preparing dinner one night, with your hungry family anxious for their meal, realizing that you forgot a vital ingredient.

Well I have. Many times!

It’s not a good feeling.

To avoid making these mistakes, the solution is quite simple. We sit down once a week and make a menu plan. (I provide a printable menu plan and shopping list later in this post)

Now, I’m not going to discuss how to use coupons and store ads to make your menu plan/grocery list for the week in this series. I cover those topics fully in my strategic shopping series.

What I am going to discuss is how to come up with a menu plan that both supports a healthy lifestyle and keeps you within your budget.

Let’s Get Started

First, go through your refrigerator/freezer and pantry. Write down any staples you might need to replenish. See if you have anything near it’s expiration date that needs to be used up this week.

Next, where do you find your recipes? Do you have cookbooks? A folder on your computer? Maybe you browse Pinterest and bookmark recipes like I do. 😉  Concentrate on recipes that:

  1. Are full of whole “perimeter of the grocery store” foods and don’t require many (if any) prepackaged foods.
  2. Logically fit into your weekly schedule. Don’t choose a dish that takes 2 hours to make on the night  you take one kid to soccer practice and than race across town to get the other kid to dance class.
  3. However, foods that you make from scratch will definitely be less expensive and typically are more healthy for you. See if any of your meals have any prep work you can do ahead of time when you are less busy.
  4. Use up any foods you might have a surplus of or that might be close to their expiration date.

How Do We Determine What’s Healthy AND Budget Friendly? 

The key to planning a healthy menu that will keep you within budget is to plan for things that you will enjoy and that will nourish you so you don’t feel the need to consistently snack or ditch the planned meal for some tastier takeout.

I recently read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and one of the key points the author (Michael Pollen) made that really resonated with me is that so much of what we eat nowadays simply doesn’t fulfill our needs. Which is why we are constantly snacking. Snacks can be expensive. 2 snacks a day add another 14 meals per week/per person! That can really add up. Especially if those snacks aren’t in the form of a bag of apples or oranges.

Think about it, the last time you had a really good balanced meal filled with whole foods…how long did it fill you up for?

Last time you had a doughnut for breakfast, did you make it to lunchtime without gnawing your arm off?

Pollen goes on to give a few rules that I think will be helpful to anyone reading this series and wishing to eat healthy on a budget:

1. “Don’t eat anything that your great-great grandmother would not recognize as food.”

2. Don’t buy anything to eat that’s packaged and consists of more than 5 ingredients. (and if one of those ingredients is high fructose corn syrup…steer clear!)

So our goals here are to fill our bodies with whole nutritious foods so we actually eat less overall and the food we do eat is nutrient rich and good for our bodies.

Now, I know…this is not easy to do. Especially the 5 ingredient rule!

Putting it Into Practice

My first grocery shopping trip after reading this book (which is an incredible read btw. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how much awesome information is included. Very enlightening stuff.) took me close to 2 hours because I was reading labels and realizing that so much of what we eat would NOT be recognizable by my grandparents!

When you create your healthy menu, keep those rules in mind. Be logical about what your family is prepared to change and be gradual about the change if need be.

Time To Save Money

Expect that you MIGHT spend a bit more at first. Especially if your pantry does not currently have any of the staples for healthy eating.

However, remember that you can use coupons and strategic shopping to save money on your health & beauty items by playing the drugstore game. You can save money on your clothing and other needs by strategic shopping. Long term, you’ll be saving money because you’ll have less doctor bills and better attendance at work and better performance at work as well.

When you come up with your new grocery budget for eating healthy, you might need to add a bit more to it in the short term while you build up your freezer and your pantry. 

This is the point where we need to sit down and look at our priorities and decide how high on that scale having a healthy family is. Make sure your priorities accurately reflect your desire to eat healthy and you’ll find ways to add a bit more to your grocery budget. It’s important to remember that this is likely short term! Once you get into the habit of eating healthy, you’ll still shop the way you always have. Strategically stockpiling when you find good deals and buying in bulk when it makes sense. Using coupons when they are available and combining those coupons with sale prices to lower your overall grocery bill.

Time To Save Time

Is time an issue for you? Trust me, I get it! That’s why I think it’s important that we utilize the tools we have in our kitchens to make our lives a bit easier. With a bit of pre-planning and a bit of delegation, you can have a home cooked healthy meal every night!

    • Prep prep prep! You know you are going to need chopped onions for 3 dinners and that you will be serving roasted broccoli another night. Why not go ahead and chop all of that up on Sunday evening while you are tidying up the kitchen? I’ve been using these 1 qt Mason Jars to store my pre-cut veggies and fruits in and it’s worked great! (I bought a dozen for about $12 at Kroger)  They kind of “seal” a bit all on their own so the cut foods stay fresh all week long. I also use baggies for the larger veggies that don’t fit easily into the mason jars.
    • Slow Cook it. Have a night of running around planned? Throw everything into the slow cooker in the morning and come home to a fully cooked meal!
    • Plan a soup night. Soups are easy and after the initial cutting of the veggies, require little tending. Remember you can do the prep work earlier in the week to.
    • Enlist your children to help with age appropriate tasks.
    • Do you have a bread machine? An Ice Cream machine? These might seem like pricey expenditures up front, but over time they more than pay for themselves when used on a regular basis. Fresh bread everyday! Ice Cream made with real ingredients for dessert every night!

Make an investment in  your kitchen and it will pay you back in good health and good foods.

I have included a weekly menu plan and shopping list PDF for you to print out and use if you wish. It’s very basic, but it might give you a good springboard to customize something more suited for your own needs, or you might find it works perfectly as is:

Click to download & print

Key Points:

√  To eat healthy on a budget, you need a menu plan

√ To make a healthy menu plan, use what you already have on hand and remember to make sure meals are well balanced so they are filling.

√ Choose whole foods and recipes that include minimal convenience items

√ Prep when you can to make weeknights a bit more streamlined

√ You might spend a bit more at first, but know that it’s short term

Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist and I’m not a size 2 fitness model (far from it!). I’m just a mom, trying to do better for herself and her family. Take my advice from mom to mom or parent to parent, woman to woman or human to human, but not as an expert…because that, I am not 😉

I’m not perfect. We definitely use convenience foods sometimes and I don’t make everything from scratch. We still go out to eat and I have been known to go over budget. I like Doritos and I can’t pronounce 90% of what is in them. However, my family’s health is a priority to me so I am striving towards at least an 80/20 ratio of good whole foods to easy or yummy packaged maybe-not-perfect foods.

I’m doing it on a budget and it’s working, so I know it can be done.

Read the next article in the series: Living Healthy On A Budget: Grocery Shopping 


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Heather is the creator and owner of Family Friendly Frugality. She calls Texas home and is married to her best friend. With 2 children 22 months apart, she has her hands full. So full that she decided to start blogging as a hobby. That hobby blew up into a full time job. Now she's got the husband, the kids and the blog. We're not exactly sure what she was thinking, but she's too busy for us to ask. Find Me On Google +

2 thoughts on “Living Healthy On A Budget: Menu Planning”

  1. This was a great post! I love Micheal Polan! I just got Food Rules last week. I’m looking forward to reading more!

    1. Have you read In Defense of Food? Are the rules the same in both books? If not, I’ll have to check that one out!

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