Latest posts by R.J. Weiss, CFP® (see all)
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For myself and wife, planning healthy, budget friendly meals is a fun challenge. The goal is to feed our family the healthiest, best tasting food for the lowest possible price.
We win when we spend less than last month, yet don’t feel like we had to sacrifice on quality or spend hours in the kitchen.
Here are our 9 favorite strategies for optimizing health, cost, and time.
9 Hacks For Healthy, Budget Friendly Meal Planning
# 1 – Use The iBotta App
The iBotta app gives you access to thousands of coupons, and best of all, you don’t need to bring the coupons to the store.
Everything is stored on the app. When you get home you scan the items and receipt and get cash credited to your account, which you can deposit into your bank account.
Stores include Target, WalMart, Costco, and other large grocery chains.
For many stores, you get $1 just for scanning a receipt. They then have coupons for “Any Brand” items, such as milk, bread, bananas, and eggs.
You can easily earn $2-5 per trip without much work.
By signing up through my link, you also get a $10 welcome bonus.
# 2 – Shop at Costco
When it comes to quality food, at the lowest possible price, Costco is the clear winner.
Organic staples you can buy at Costco include: chicken, beef, eggs, yogurt, cheese, lettuce, frozen broccoli, frozen berries, kale, bananas, olive oil, coconut oil, apples, and peanut butter.
When you compare prices to a place like Whole Foods, you’re looking at 50% savings.
# 3 – Understand Nutrient Density
You can buy a bag of kale chips for $4, which has about 80 calories. So, you’re paying about .05 cents per calorie.
If you eat 2,000 calories a day and ate only kale chips, you’d spend $100 a day.
Extreme example I know but it’s to make a point.
It’s important to understand the nutrient density of your food.
Compare kale chips to eggs. You can buy organic eggs for roughly $3.25 a dozen or .27 cents per egg. One egg has 78 calories, making it a cost per calorie of .0033 cents. If you eat 2,000 calories of organic eggs, you’d spend only $6.90.
Eggs are a great source of nutrition, at an incredibly low price. Other sources include:
- Whole Chicken, Chicken Thighs or Drumsticks
- Dried Beans
- Frozen Fruits & Veggies
- Olive Oil
- Peanut Butter
# 4 – Stock Up on Sales
A few months Kerrygold butter was on sale at Costco. It was $2.50 off it’s normal price.
Butter lasts for 6 months in the freezer. So, I bought a six month supply.
My grocery bill was a bit higher that month. Yet, in the long run I saved.
Whenever there’s a sale on a staple with a long shelf life, buy as much as possible. The goal isn’t to lower your costs of groceries today. It’s to lower it long-term.
# 5 – Braise or Stir Fry/Grill
For the busy parent, the goal is to minimize prep time. Cooking time is OK, as long as it’s hands off.
What you don’t want is the middle ground. The meals that take an hour of constant attention.
So, when we plan meals we’re looking for meals which are long and hands off or quick and hands on.
Some people love slow cookers. I never have.
For me, braising in the oven is the best way to slow cook. It gives you 10X the flavor in the same amount of prep time. The only downside is you can’t turn it off before leaving the house in the morning.
For quick hands on meals, we typically grill or stir fry. Our go to meal is taco bowl, which we have at least once per week. We use America’s Test Kitchen taco meat recipe, which takes about 20 minutes to make. Then, throw the meat on the top of lettuce, carrots, and avocado.
# 5 – Batch Cook Dinners
With dinners, we always try to knock out at least one other meal. Sometimes we’ll cook the same dinner for a meal later in the week. Chicken soup seems to work well for this.
If not another meal, we’ll at least make enough for lunch for the next day.
# 6 – Limit Shopping To 2X Per Week
We live within a mile of three grocery stores. It’s pretty simple to run and grab a missing ingredient or two.
But our goal is to limit trips to twice a week. One big Costco trip, plus another trip to general grocery store (WalMart, Target, or Meijer typically).
The benefit here is it forces us to get creative.
We’re very fortunate to always have food in the house. We can make a very suitable meal with what we have on hand.
# 7 – Budget Meal Planning (But Buy Good Food)
When you’re trying to optimize your grocery spending, it’s important to budget.
But remember, the goal isn’t to spend as least as possible. Instead, it’s to optimize for time, health, cost, and taste.
With this mindset, a budget gives you permission to buy the ridiculous parmesan reggiano at Costco.
When meal planning on a budget, your goal is to meet a certain long-term budget. So, go ahead and buy great tasting food, that may be a bit more expensive. Just know that you can’t only eat that food.
# 8 – Calculate Cost Per Meal
For every meal you eat, calculate the rough cost in your head. It should take no longer than 15 seconds.
You’ll soon build a database in your head of what each of your favorite meals cost to make. You’ll naturally compare this to the enjoyment you get out of the meal. Soon finding that spending more, doesn’t always lead to a better, healthier experience.
# 9 -Know The Clean Fifteen & The Dirty Dozen
The Environmental Working Group released a list of the foods which contain the most (The Dirty Dozen) pesticides and the least (The Clean Fifteen).
Here’s the produce you want to buy organic, known as The Dirty Dozen:
- Sweet Bell Pepper
- Grapes (Imported)
Here’s the produce that paying more for organic, doesn’t make sense (The Clean Fifteen).
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas Frozen
- Honeydew Melon