People say time is money. They should say food is money too, because we all spend a lot of dough on our food costs.
That’s why it pays to have good budget meal planning skills under your belt, so you keep more of that dough in your pockets (and your pantry).
In this post:

  • Learn tons of tips on how to do meal planning on a budget
  • Grab our free budget meal planner printable
  • Get step-by-step instructions on how to create a cheap meal plan


  • Download our simplified meal planning template (look for green box)
  • Take stock of what you have to start off your meal plan
  • Shop for the rest of your ingredients using the Ibotta app for extra savings

budget meal planning tips and ideas with free planner printable


Tips for budget meal planning

Here are some guiding principles you’ll want to follow to make sure that your meal plan is actually economical:

Borrow someone else’s cheap meal idea

Luckily, you’re not the only person looking for a cheap meal plan. Feel free to borrow ideas from someone who has been there, eaten that. We’ve got an entire menu of dirt cheap meal ideas that average only $1.01 per serving!

The fewer ingredients, the cheaper the meal

Remember that the more ingredients your meal requires, the more expensive it will probably end up being. Setting a limit of 2-3 ingredients other than the starch and seasonings will help keep the meal low-cost (and easy to make!).

Use specialty ingredients for… special occasions

Specialty ingredients are more expensive, and it’s more likely to go bad because it’ll be hard for you to use it up. By saving meals that require specialty ingredients for fancy occasions, it’ll make those moments extra special.

Go veggie as much as you can

Vegetarian meals are known for being great on your waistline, but they can help you bulk up your wallet too. Beans and grains are incredibly cheap, so try to plan as many meals as you can that feature those items heavily instead of meat.

There are a lot more vegetarian protein sources than you think. For example, pair this simple recipe for fried tofu with chives with quinoa and get two sources of protein in the same dish for a very low cost.

Choose produce that’s in season

Figuring out what produce is in season now and going for those means you’ll get fruits and veggies that are both tastier and easier on your wallet. Double bonus!

Consider skipping the grocery shopping altogether

The best grocery bill is $0, which you can achieve by trying a pantry purge challenge. This is when you make all your meals using only what you already have at home, meaning you don’t have to spend a dime on groceries for the week.

Learn the right way to purge your pantry, and grab our free kitchen inventory sheet to help you take stock of the ingredients you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer while you’re at it.

Take shelf life into consideration

One way to reduce food waste, which reduces money waste, is to pick up staples that can last a while, like canned beans or frozen vegetables. That way, you don’t have to scramble to use something right away before it’s no good anymore.

Use a single ingredient in multiple ways

If you can use a single ingredient in a variety of ways, that means you can buy it in bulk to save even more. For example, this Tex-Mex black bean mix is easy to make, but can be used in nachos, tacos, burritos, Mexican bowls, taco salad, and more!

Make cheap staples a regular part of your diet

Dried beans, lentils, and oats are super dirt cheap ingredients, so if you eat them all the time, that means you’ll be saving money on the regular. (They’ll also help you to be regular, if you know what we mean).

Aim for smaller portions

The concept is simple: less food = less money spent. Americans eat a lot more than they actually need, simply because of the way we serve food. Figuring out how to control your portions is literally the easiest way to eat cheaper because it requires so little effort.

Ring up extra savings with a grocery savings app

Remember the slogan “there’s an app for that”? Well, there are definitely apps for saving money on your groceries! These kinds of apps offer tons of rebates, coupons, and cashback opportunities each time you take a trip to the grocery store.

Our absolute favorite app is Ibotta, which you can get a $10 welcome bonus from if you are a first-time user.

Be strategic about where you buy from and how you shop

Saving on food isn’t only about what you eat. Where you buy from and how you do your shop matters a whole lot too. Find out how to save money on your grocery bill by doing your homework before hitting the store, and what pitfalls to avoid while you’re roaming the aisles.

Budget Meals Planner

The master plan behind all of your grocery shopping should be your carefully-crafted budget meal plan. That’s why we created a meal planner template that’s specifically designed to help you save money. Here’s a simple set of instructions to come up with a cheap meal plan for the week.

free budget meal planner template printable

  • Step 1. Check what food you have in your fridge, freezer, and/or pantry that you want to use up this week
  • Step 2. Build your meals and snacks for the week around those ingredients
  • Step 3. Fill in the “Use up” column with the ingredients you already have
  • Step 4. Do your best to keep the “Buy” column as sparse as possible
  • Step 5. Add any pertinent notes (ex: sales, pricing, total spent on groceries, family feedback, and number of portions you were able to create)
  • Step 6. Keep a binder or take a picture of these meal plans + accompanying grocery receipts on your phone so you improve your spending or can refer back to ideas that worked well for your family
You can download this worksheet template for free without any sign-up required. Please help us share our resource so other can enjoy it too!

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Incorporate cheap meal plans into your financial diet to save big. Reduce your food costs by using a budget meal planner. meal planning on a budget doesn’t have to be hard, if you have our tips and free meal planning printables to help you out.


  • Download our simplified meal planning template (look for green box)
  • Take stock of what you have to start off your meal plan
  • Shop for the rest of your ingredients using the Ibotta app for extra savings

stacy trinh aka aunty chang headshot


STACY, aka AUNTY CHANG, is a personal finance blogger set on a mission to show people that there's more to money than just the numbers. With two rental properties and a six-figure 401k by her 30's, she's on track to retire early without sacrificing work-life balance to get there. She wants to teach others how to identify their goals and use money to make them happen. Dual income, no kids, based in Hawaii.

Hangs out on Keeping Up with the Changs: Facebook | Twitter