An Honest Look At How I Meal Plan, Grocery Shop, and Entertain On A Budget

A few months ago I wrote a post called, What I Ate Last Week. One reader, Jana, asked me to talk a little bit about how I meal plan and what my kids eat for snacks. I love hearing from you! Thanks for the comment and suggestion, Janna!

I call this “An Honest Look” for two reasons. One, I want you to know that I buy my kids cheddar penguins from Aldi and I don’t feel even remotely bad about it. We eat very healthy, but life without things like cheddar penguins isn’t much of a life at all. You’ve gotta have a little fun along the way, folks!

And two, I’m going to be honest with you on what we spend. Why? Because a lot of people say that they can’t afford to eat healthy or invite other people over for dinner. And for some people that absolutely might be true. But I want you to know that we have a monthly grocery budget of $400 for five people. It’s rarely enough to “get everything,” but it’s more than enough to get what we need to eat well and share our table with others throughout the month. Here is what that looks like:

meal planning

Meal planning takes a lot of time and effort and I pretty much hate it, but it’s so necessary. I plan out a main dish for every night of the week. This eliminates me standing in my kitchen at 4 PM looking through every cookbook I own in a mad panic. I don’t really plan side dishes. I’ve been doing this long enough that as long as I have my main dish planned, I can wing it when it comes to the sides.

I’m a vegetarian. The rest of my family hasn’t made that choice. However, I only include a meat as a protein probably 2-3 times a week at most. This is partially a budget issue, partially a health choice. It’s simply cultural that we center our meals around meat in America; it’s absolutely not necessary for a well balanced meal.

I do not make separate meals for the kids. We all eat the same things. Sure, there are nights that they don’t eat all of a dish I’ve made, but I’ve found that if I keep putting the same, healthful options in front of them, eventually they will develop a taste for it. Theo told me he loves quinoa the other night. This coming from the boy who never used to eat anything! Trust me. The crap is tasty and easy to get them to eat; the good stuff requires hard work, patience, and persistence. But IT DOES PAY OFF. Stick with it.

grocery shoppingIMG_0668

Because I have $400 total to spend on groceries each month (that’s $100 a week for all you math people out there), I shop at Aldi. I love Aldi. I adore it. I want to kiss whoever brought Aldi to America. It’s so great. I love their products. I really love their prices.

I also make a monthly trip to our local bulk food store and health food store. I don’t shop at Walmart. It is a joy sucking, soul stealing, hot mess of humanity that I can not handle.

The first shopping trip of the month never, ever, evvvvveeeerrrr stays at $100. There is simply too much to purchase. So it’s pretty safe to assume that the last week of the month I have about $50 at best. It sucks, but it’s ok. We do just fine. Again, it requires some creativity on my part in the meal planning department.IMG_0678

That first trip is also the most expensive because it tends to be the one where I stock up on staples such as: quinoa, lentils, beans, veggie broth, condiments, coffee, grains, pastas, and toiletries such as toilet paper. Fortunately, thanks to Norwex, I never ever have to buy any cleaning products. And thanks to cloth diapering, I don’t really buy many baby products, either.

cooking, eating, snacking

This week’s dinner menu came almost entirely from the blogger, Minimalist Baker. I’m doing a vegan week because, honestly, I’m struggling a bit with how I feel about consuming dairy. That is neither here nor there for this post. So this week I’m making:

dinner menu:
quinoa sweet potatoes
veggie burgers (homemade, not frozen) + vegan broccoli soup
Mexican quinoa salad
lentil sloppy joes + cumin lime slaw
vegan hash brown casserole
spinach and chickpea pilaf
sir fry with rice noodles and tofu (no recipe, I’ll just wing it 😉 .)

(make) walnut cranberry cookies
(make) homemade gummy snacks
(buy) cheddar penguins, hummus, applesauce, granola bars, and peanut butter crackers
***I always, always try to have a frozen pizza or fries on hand for late night munching/tv watching with my husband.
I also try to always buy something fun and unplanned. This is usually made possibly by Aldi’s low prices and fun, rotating seasonal selection. I also buy flowers each week because they make me happy :-).IMG_0787

We do a lot of eggs, toast, oatmeal, and breakfast sandwiches.IMG_0503

My husband packs his lunch; usually he takes leftovers. For me and the kids, it tends to vary. The kids get a hot lunch about 50% of the time. Those include chicken nuggets with a fruit and veggie; mac and cheese (Aldi has awesome organic boxed mac and cheese!), or little english muffin pizzas, to just name a few. Cold lunches are usually PB&J, or a bunch of finger food like hummus and veggies, crackers and cheese, nuts and fruit. For myself, I will eat leftovers, or I might make myself a quick veggie stir fry with beans and whole grains.IMG_0822

a word about entertaining on a budget

We invite people into our home for meals on a weekly basis. It’s who we are and what we do. We believe that our home is not just ours, it’s yours, too. We believe we have this space so that we can be an encouragement to others. We invite people over or take people meals whether or not the meal plan is fancy; whether or not we have the budget for it; whether or not it makes sense on paper.

There have been plenty of times that the money I spent to make one meal for someone else was the rest of our grocery budget for the remainder of the month. And you know what? We’ve always been fine. What someone else might view as reckless or impractical, we view as what we are called to do. My kids have never gone hungry because of our decision to make a meal for someone else or to invite someone to our dinner table. But someone else might have missed out on the encouragement, love, and mental/emotional/spiritual nourishment if we would have chosen not to invite them over for a meal.

This is our passion. It doesn’t have to be yours. I simply mention it because I would be remiss to do a post on how I menu plan and budget for groceries without including this component of our lives. Maybe you’ve been holding out to become financially stable before you start reaching out to others. Let me encourage you today that financial stability will only offer you one thing: a budget that looks the same from week to week. Opening up your heart, home, and dinner table to others? That offers you so, so much more.



5 thoughts on “An Honest Look At How I Meal Plan, Grocery Shop, and Entertain On A Budget

  1. This is a great post – of course I love all things related to grocery shopping and menu planning. But your words on shopping at Walmart? Couldn’t. have. said. it. better. Every time I make the unfortunate decision to walk in there, I’m reminded why I avoid it like the plague! 🙂

  2. Just curious:
    1) Do you use cash budgeting for groceries?
    2) Do you budget also for eating out?
    3) The last week or two of the month do you look at your pantry and what you have left to meal plan?

  3. Sheila:
    1) I use cash for almost everything (pay bills online). If you look on the reciept I have pictured, the total came to $120.30 and I paid $120.30 in cash. I am that person standing in the check out, holding everyone up so I can find exact change ;-).
    2) I budget for eating out, but it usually (always) has to come out of our grocery budget.
    3) Meals for the last week or two are almost entirely made from ingredients found in my pantry.

  4. Thanks for the shout-out, haha! Loved this post. Appreciated the candor and the photos and links to recipes and reality of it all!

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