Planning Meals on a Budget

Eating in a nutritious way does not have to be expensive. Some planning ahead and smart food substitutes will help you to get the most nutrition out of your food dollars.

Here are some strategies for meal planning on a budget:

  1. Plan meals around sales and low prices.
    Prior to planning meals and snacks, look through flyers, ads and coupons on hand to decide where you will shop to get the best prices. Read Comparing Prices and Promotions for more information on pricing. Knowing which foods are going to be on sale and where they can be found will save time and money. Once the food items you wish to purchase have been identified, plan balanced meals around those foods. Read Menu Planning for more tips on planning your meals.
  2. Plan for and make good use of leftovers.
    When planning meals, deliberately make an extra large batch to create leftovers that will save time and money later on in the week. Leftovers can be used the following day for lunch or in creating new dishes. Any food that won’t be eaten within one or two days should be frozen for future use.

    Consider “cooking once and eating twice”. What does this look like? As an example, on Monday night, a family may choose to eat a dinner of chicken with roasted vegetables and rice pilaf. By consciously roasting extra vegetables and doubling the rice pilaf recipe along with roasting a whole chicken, there should be enough for leftovers. These leftovers can be used in new meal ideas for the following day(s). It is often less expensive to buy bulk quantities of ingredients, allowing cooking of larger quantities that can potentially save money by creating two meals rather than one.

    Here are some ideas for meals that can be created from leftovers:
  • Burritos with leftover rice pilaf and shredded chicken
  • Soups using leftover vegetables, rice or chicken
  • Sandwiches using leftover turkey/chicken with a side salad
  • Poke or nourish bowls using leftover chicken, rice/noodles, and vegetables
  • Omelette made with roasted vegetables

    For other meal ideas, read Easy Meals for Great Leftovers from Eat Right Ontario.
  1. Eat foods that are in season.
    Plan meals around foods that are in season and available in abundance at your grocery store. This is a good way to save money and to ensure variety in meals and snacks throughout the different seasons.

    Generally speaking, in Manitoba, root vegetables along with different kinds of squash are in season during the fall/winter months while produce like berries, cherries, cucumbers and tomatoes are in abundance during the summer. Read What’s in Season on the Prairies for a complete list of fruit and vegetables grown in Manitoba. Buy extra of these vegetables when they are in season and freeze for future use. Buying cobs of corn during the winter months can be expensive, but if you buy and freeze them when they are plentiful at farmers’ markets in the fall, you can enjoy a very good price and delicious corn throughout the winter months. For more information on steps to freezing vegetables for future use, read Freezing Fruits and Vegetables.
  2. Be flexible on types of vegetables and fruit.
    If a recipe calls for a vegetable or fruit that is not in season or does not fit in your food budget, consider substituting the fruit or vegetable with one that is budget friendly. Some fruits like apples and bananas are priced about the same throughout the year. Vegetables like carrots, potatoes, onions, cabbage and sweet potatoes also maintain a similar price year-round. Vegetable substitutions are possible in most recipes. Here are a few suggestions for vegetable substitution:
  • Broccoli or cauliflower for zucchini, asparagus, green beans or brussel sprouts
  • Carrots or cabbage for celery, snow peas or kohlrabi
  • Spinach or beet tops for kale, collard greens or bok choy
  • Potatoes or parsnips for carrots, sweet potato or beets
  • Bell peppers or zucchini for tomatoes, mushrooms or eggplant

    Another nutritious and often more affordable option is to buy frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. These options are similar in nutrition, make a great kitchen staple for easy meals, and are easy to buy in bulk to take advantage of sale prices.
  1. Shop your pantry whenever possible.
    Check foods you have stored in the pantry, cupboards, fridge and freezer. When meal planning, be flexible to allow for changes in the meal plan to use up what is already on hand. What does this mean? If planning to make baked chicken legs for dinner, but you notice there is a whole chicken in the freezer, consider altering the meal plan to incorporate the chicken you already have. You will not only save money in the week’s food budget, but you will also ensure your frozen food is eaten while still at peak quality. Read Safe Food Storage for recommended storage times.
  2. Make it a meatless dinner night.
    Meat sources such as chicken, pork and beef are great sources of protein but can be expensive food items. There are other sources of protein that are nutritious and provide high protein content. Plant-based proteins such as pulses (beans and lentils) can be purchased dried or canned and are affordable. These versatile options can be incorporated into a variety of dishes and meal ideas.

    For example:

Watch this video on how to blend pulses in to your ground meat recipes:

  1. Use affordable ingredient substitutes whenever possible.
    Even if a recipe calls for a specific type of meat, it is okay to substitute with a less expensive option or whatever you may have on hand. As an example, let’s assume your family decides to have lasagna for dinner. The recipe combines ground pork with ground beef, but when you take inventory of food items on hand, there is only ground beef in the freezer, no ground pork. The recipe can be adjusted to simply use beef, or for a more interesting mix and added savings, the pork in the recipe could be substituted with a can of mashed black or kidney beans. It is cost effective to substitute with the ingredients you have on hand instead of assuming you need to buy new ingredients.

    Another example of an affordable substitution might be specific cuts of meat. If a recipe calls for skinless, boneless chicken breasts but whole chicken is on sale at the grocery store, consider buying the whole chicken, deboning and using the parts you desire for a particular recipe. Whole forms of meat will be more cost effective when compared to pieces and de-boned options.

    When purchasing fish or seafood, it is often more affordable to buy frozen varieties. Frozen seafood is still a nutritious, high quality product, but priced lower than fresh options. Canned crabmeat, tuna and salmon are affordable options that can be used in recipes.

    When using dried fruits and nuts, substitute ingredients for those you have on hand. Raisins or chopped apricots can be used in place of dried cherries or cranberries. Any dried fruits will work as a substitute as they have similar sweetness and textures. Another ingredient substitute that works is to trade specific nut types for what you already have on hand. Just like dried fruit, substituting one nut for another will work in most recipes. Be open minded when looking at recipes and substitute in salads, trail mixes, granola bars, and baked goods.

    For more suggestions on ways you can use the ingredients you have on hand, read Ingredient Substitutes.
  1. Cook more and order in/eat out less
    Though it may be tempting to order food for delivery, this is the fastest way to spend your food budget. Plan to cook simple, nutritious meals and you will be able to provide healthy, more affordable food for your family. Save eating out for special occasions.

Articles to read next:

Reduce Food Waste at Home
Healthy Eating Habits