A Broke Girl’s Guide: Meal Planning

As a struggling college student who works part-time and odd jobs to support myself, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to want to eat healthy on a (very) limited grocery budget. So here are my top 5 tips for cheap, easy meal planning…

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1.) Plan your week. Surprise, surprise, successful meal planning actually involves planning! Sit down on whatever day you grocery shop and plan what meals you want to eat that week. You can easily DIY a whiteboard to have three separate slots for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week. Pick out what you want to make, but leave room for spontaneity. If Tuesday rolls around and you decide that Friday’s dinner plan would really hit the spot, switch them! The meal plan isn’t a contract – it’s a guideline. Another thing to keep in mind is if you like to eat out once a week, don’t plan a meal to cook that night. And, if you’re making batch meals (which you probably should be), you can easily delegate a few meals to leftovers.

Once you have your meals planned for the week, it’s time to tackle the grocery list. Look up the recipes for what you want to cook and scale down the servings (some websites will automatically adjust the ingredients based on your ideal serving number, otherwise it will take a little math). Only buying what you need ultimately means less food going unused at the end of the week and more money in your pocket – yes, please! For more efficient grocery shopping, group your list by location (put produce at the top of the list, deli needs at the last, etc.) It will save you from doubling back a million times.

2.) Stock up on staples. You’re at the grocery store, list in hand, leaving no aisle left behind. While you’re picking up what you need to cook for the week (and a few of those irresistible treats they were handing out free samples of), make sure you have the staples you need at home. These are the key ingredients you need to make a healthy, filling meal in a hurry. So check your kitchen and make sure you have:

  1. Frozen veggies and fruit. Fun fact: frozen produce usually has more nutritional value than the refrigerated variety, since it was frozen shortly after being picked. Frozen veggies go great in stir fry and pasta, which disguise their softer texture, while frozen fruits work in smoothies of any kind.
  2. Brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal. Rice is a cheap food that makes a great base for whatever you want to throw on top (you could make a full meal out of rice, frozen veggies, soy sauce, and a scrambled egg). Quinoa is rice’s protein-packed little brother and can support savory and sweet dishes alike (do yourself a favor and find a good recipe for quinoa oatmeal). Oatmeal is, well, oatmeal. Filling, healthy, and as elaborate as you make it.
  3. Tofu. Poor, misunderstood tofu gets almost as much hate as broccoli. In reality, it’s tasteless because it’s magical. You get to decide what your tofu tastes like and whether you want to fry it, bake it or fillet it. This nutritional little sponge should be in your kitchen at all times.
  4. Whole wheat pasta. Not as exciting as regular pasta, but are you going to taste it after smothering it with a whole jar of marinara sauce? No. So buy the whole wheat kind and make your mother happy.

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3.) Download coupon apps. Clipping coupons has gone digital. Apps like Ibotta offer rebates for specific items at your favorite stores (some you might already buy, some you can try for the first time) and once you upload your receipt, they will give you credit. You’re not going to make a fortune from couponing, but the little savings really do add up over time. I personally use Ibotta every time I shop and have over $25 waiting to be cashed out from my account. That’s a lot of lattes for doing almost no extra work.

4.) Make batch meals. You probably do this already, but if you’re cooking for yourself make sure to prepare 2-3 servings. Whatever you don’t eat one night can make a delicious meal later in the week (surprise, leftovers night isn’t just for happy suburban families of four). Doing this saves you money, time and effort. It also gives you the chance to flex that creativity muscle when you’re trying to figure out how to turn three different leftovers into one appetizing meal.

5.) Decrease your food waste. Less food waste means less wasted money, which means a happier you. If you follow the above tips for cheap meal planning, you will already be taking steps to avoid food waste. There’s more you can do, however. If you have some wilted veggies that aren’t quite salad fresh anymore, throw them in a stir-fry or add them to your morning smoothie for an easy green boost. Have fruit on its last legs? Pop it in the freezer for (you guessed it) smoothies later or for when you get the urge to bake banana bread on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I hope this first broke girls guide article was helpful! Let me know what you want tips on next & please comment any of your meal planning advice to help everyone stretch that dollar.

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