We took our family of four out to dinner and ice cream on a recent Friday night. Two adult entrees, two kids' entrees, gratuity and a round of ice cream cones later, we had effortlessly racked up an $80 dinner bill. While we enjoy treating ourselves to dinner out, it makes me appreciate how I can stretch our food budget to feed my family healthy meals all week long, often for about what we spend for just one meal at a restaurant. Relying on trusty low-cost meal planning tricks makes for affordable and healthy family meal plans week after week.
Here are my best tips for creating a cheap, healthy meal plan for the week (to feed two adults and two kids) based on a budget of $100, plus inexpensive recipe ideas to try for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. And don't miss the shopping list below!
Follow these tips for creating a cheap, healthy meal plan each week.
Proteins, like chicken or beef, tend to be the most costly items on the grocery list, so build a meal plan around items that are on sale. Consider seasonal produce, which tends to be cheaper, like asparagus in the spring and fresh berries in the summer.
Keep a stock of cheap staples like eggs and canned tuna that can be used in multiple meals throughout the week. Hard-boiled eggs add protein to your morning avocado toast or your kid's lunchbox. Canned tuna becomes an easy meal-prep filling for lunch wraps and doubles as melts for a quick dinner. When shopping, keep an eye out for deals and stock up when stuff goes on sale.
Pound for pound, plant-based proteins like lentils and canned beans are a steal compared to animal proteins (and some actually contain more protein than meat). Plus, research suggests that eating more plants is good for our health. Add in a few meatless options throughout the week for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
Assigning theme-night meals based on different meal types (like Slow-Cooker Sunday, Meatless Monday or Stir-Fry Friday) or based on pantry staples like brown rice and whole-grain pasta (think Rice Bowl Thursday or Pasta Wednesday) is a good way to stick to your budget and also reduce meal-planning decision fatigue. Adding in a leftover night (or two!) is also a good idea.
Pack up tonight's leftovers for tomorrow's lunch, or transform whatever is left into another meal for the family. Make loaded sweet potatoes with leftover chili, a frittata to use up any remaining cooked spaghetti noodles, or burritos with the last of a roasted chicken.
This week, I'm keeping things simple with no-cook breakfast options, versatile meal-prep lunches and kid-friendly dinners that come together in about 30 minutes or less. To minimize food waste and save on groceries, I'll use many of the same ingredients for multiple meals.
Planning simple, quick breakfasts I can serve in minutes is key to less-chaotic mornings in our house. I'll meal-prep a big batch of overnight oats to be eaten on demand during the week or packed up to-go. Or, I'll toast a stack of whole-wheat bread and let everyone choose their toppings.
• Overnight oats with sliced banana or berries
• Whole-wheat toast with nut butter and banana, or with avocado and sliced hard-boiled egg
Rolled oats, whole-wheat bread, bananas, frozen berries
We keep lunch extra-easy in my house with snack-style lunches for the kids and salads or rice bowls for the adults. Meal-prepping a few ingredients in advance minimizes cooking during the week and allows everyone to help assemble their own lunch. I like to have a couple of protein options, a batch of cooked grains, and some washed lettuce and cut vegetables on hand. Check out our best base recipes for meal prep for inspiration for what to make.
• Bento-box lunches for the kids
• Egg salad (to stuff in tortillas, lettuce wraps or sandwiches)
• Rice bowls with black beans and vegetables (I'll use leftover veggies from dinner the night before if I have them or will sauté whatever veggies I have in the fridge.)
Eggs, canned black beans, brown rice, leftover vegetables from dinner
I rely heavily on a well-planned dinner menu because this is where I spend the bulk of my grocery budget (plus it ensures I'm not scrambling to find something to serve come 6 p.m.). I'll plan on three easy recipes plus a night of repurposing the leftovers. Because our evening schedule can be unpredictable, I'll pick up ingredients for a pantry meal that won't go to waste if I end up not cooking one night (the canned salmon recipe this week). Make your own menu or try one of our budget dinner plans.
• Monday: Lentil Sloppy Joes served open-face on toast + cabbage slaw
• Tuesday: Slow-Cooker Hearty Beef Chili
• Wednesday: Microwaved sweet potatoes stuffed with leftover lentil sloppy Joe mixture or chili
• Thursday: Eggs in Tomato Sauce with Chickpeas & Spinach + whole-wheat toast
• Friday: Black Bean & Salmon Tostadas
Lentils, cabbage, beef stew meat, sweet potatoes, eggs, canned salmon, black beans
Other Budget Recipes to Try:
Easy Vegetarian Chili
Baked Eggs in Tomato Sauce with Kale
Black Bean-Smothered Sweet Potatoes
Salmon Salad Tartine & Mixed Greens
Cheese Quesadillas with Peppers & Onions
Easy Chicken Fried Rice
I like to plan snacks and treats based on one or two staples or on ingredients that are already part of the meal plan. Smoothies are the perfect way to use up yogurt, bananas and frozen berries, and my kids love them as after-school snacks. Lately we've been crazy about salted roasted chickpeas, the best one-ingredient snack you'll ever make. And none of us can turn down a square of dark chocolate with a schmear of peanut butter after dinner.
• Fruit and yogurt smoothies
• Roasted chickpeas
• Dark chocolate squares
Apples (or any leftover fruit), peanut butter, canned chickpeas
A number of our meals this week incorporate a few pantry staples that I often have on hand. Here's what I'll rely on this week. Note: I did not include these items in my budget, but included approximate cost per serving for reference.
• Dijon mustard $0.05
• Mayonnaise $0.08
• Worcestershire sauce $0.04
• Ketchup $0.08
• Salsa $0.11
• Pickled jalapeños $0.42
• Brown rice $0.14
• Olive oil $0.27
• Vinegar $0.05
• Maple syrup $0.12
• Brown sugar $0.01
• Dried herbs, spices, salt, pepper $0.05
For $100 ($101.44 to be exact), I was able to pick up all of the ingredients I'll need to feed my family of four for five days, including breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and treats.
• Bananas (8) $0.73
• Apples, organic (2 lbs., or about 5) $4.98
• Avocados (3) $3.75
• Green bell peppers, organic (3) $2.99
• Red onion (1 medium) $0.53
• Onion (1 medium) $0.43
• Garlic (1 bulb) $0.42
• Scallions (1 bunch) $0.99
• Celery, organic (1 bunch) $3.50
• Carrots (1-lb. bag) $0.98
• Sweet potatoes (4 medium) $1.61
• Romaine lettuce (3 medium heads) $2.09
• Baby spinach, organic (5-oz. box) $3.00
• Cilantro (1 bunch) $0.98
• Green cabbage (1 medium head) $1.59
• Oatmeal (18-oz. container) $2.99
• Whole-wheat bread (1 loaf) $4.29
• Whole-grain tortillas (1 package) $2.99
• Natural peanut butter (16-oz. jar) $3.29
• Lentils, brown (1-lb. bag) $0.99
• Canned black beans (4 14.5-oz. cans) $3.92
• Canned chickpeas (2 14.5-oz. cans) $1.96
• Canned green chiles (4-oz. can) $0.89
• Canned diced tomatoes (28-oz. can) $1.99
• Canned crushed tomatoes (14-oz. can) $1.19
• Canned tomatoes and chiles (10-oz. can) $1.29
• Tomato paste (6-oz. can) $0.89
• Tomato juice (32-oz. can) $2.09
• Canned wild salmon (6-oz. can) $4.49
• Bittersweet chocolate bar (2.5-oz. bar) $2.49
• Greek yogurt (32-oz. container) $5.49
• Sharp Cheddar cheese (8-oz. package) $2.79
• Almond milk (½ gallon) $3.29
• Eggs, organic (2 dozen) $8.18
• Heavy cream (½ pint) $1.89
• Beef stew meat (1½ lbs.) $10.49
• Blueberries (15-oz. container) $4.99
With a bit of planning and creativity, you can feed your family a week's worth of nutritious meals for a little more than what you'd spend at a restaurant. Use this low-budget healthy meal plan as inspiration to make the most of your grocery budget without sacrificing taste or variety! See all of our other healthy meal plans and healthy dinner plans.