Real Food on a Budget: Why Menu Planning is a Must and How to Do It

Menu PlanningIf you are on a real food diet AND on a budget menu planning is a must. Unfortunately, in our society it often costs much less to buy a bag of potato chips and a 2-liter of soda than it does to buy meat, seafood, and sometimes even fruits and vegetables. However, this does not mean that eating healthy can’t be affordable.

I often read articles about eating healthy on a budget and I wonder what the author’s budget really is. Is it as tight as mine? Well, let me lay all my cards out on the table for you… my grocery budget for our two-person household is $75 per week. This includes the few household or cosmetic items that we still buy, like toilet paper and my contact lens solution. Now, that being said I am not going to sit here and tell you that I eat 100% organic grass-fed everything on this budget, because I don’t  (that’s a different post for a different day) and I’m not going to tell you that we have food overflowing from our cabinets. We have had to make choices and sacrifices in order to eat the best way possible within our current budget and one of those choices is only buying enough food, not MORE than enough. That’s where menu planning comes in.

Without a plan it is easy to start walking down the aisles of the grocery store or among the farmer’s market booths and become filled with good intentions. Good intentions of turning that on-sale item that you’ll never cook into something delicious, good intentions of using that tin of cumin you just bought, even though there are two unopened tins in your cabinet. Without a plan we are subject to our good intentions, our imaginations, or our daily cravings and our budget quickly goes out the window. We either buy more food than we need and watch the surplus go to waste or we buy too little and end up making expensive and impulsive trips to the store throughout the week.

Menu planning allows you to sit down, away from the overwhelming temptations of the store, and figure out what your family really needs. You can check your cabinets and shelves to avoid repeats or oversights and you can enter the store armed and ready so that you are in and out as quickly as possible, saving you time and money.

So, how does menu planning work you ask? Well, it will probably take a few weeks of tweaking to get everyone satisfied and your budget on track, but I would recommend sitting down and just listing out the days of the week and the meals and literally writing down everything for every meal and then composing a store list from your menu. Here is an example of one day:

Monday Meal Plan:

–       Breakfast: 1 sweet potato, 1 apple, 2 pieces of sausage, 1 handful of spinach, 1 cup of tea

–       Lunch: 2 pieces of chicken, 1 cup of frozen broccoli , 1 handful of dried dates

–       Dinner: 2 pieces of salmon, 1 cup of green beans

Store List:

1 sweet potato

1 Apple

1 package of sausage

1 bag of spinach

1 box of tea

1 bag of frozen chicken breasts

1 bag of frozen broccoli

1 bag  of dates

1 bag of salmon fillets

1 bag of frozen green beans

Obviously, the amount on the store list includes a surplus because I only showed you my plan for one day, however because I repeat meals or ingredients throughout the week, that package of sausage goes towards my breakfast all week, the veggies get used for lunches and dinners, and the salmon and tea I would only buy once every other week or so because I won’t eat them all in one week.

Here is the hard part; I only eat what is on the menu. Meaning, I do only eat breakfast lunch and dinner most days. There are very few impromptu snacking sessions or PMS binges.

This can be a difficult transition, but not only does it help your wallet it helps your health.  While mainstream thought has told us for years that the healthiest way to eat is to graze, eating many small meals throughout the day, this is actually not always the best pattern for health and disease management. Author of The Paleo Approach, Sarah Ballantyne states, “While this approach (eating many small meals) may be useful in regulating blood sugar levels for the metabolically damaged, it does not support normal hunger-hormone regulation and may be counter productive in the management of autoimmune disease.” In fact she goes on to discuss that a handful of studies have shown that eating fewer meals a day without restricting caloric intake improves body composition, reduces cardiovascular risk, reduces cortisol, and reduces inflammation. That being said, not eating enough can cause irregular production of cortisol and lead to cortisol dysregulation or resistance, a condition to which those with autoimmune disorders are already prone. For this reason fasting is not recommended for people who suffer from autoimmune conditions. Therefore, the goal is to achieve a balance and for most people this comes in the form of 2-4 meals per day or 3 meals and a snack. (source)

Finally, menu planning has the potential to decrease stress surrounding meal times by allowing everyone to know what the plan is ahead of time. This keeps you from running in the door after work only to find a block of frozen ground beef and nothing in the fridge, and it can help keep children or other household members from becoming disappointed with the nightly menu (no promises). Prepare your menu at the beginning of the week or on the weekend, make one trip to the store, and then post your menu where you and your family can see it daily.

There is no one magic formula for sticking to a grocery budget or avoiding meal time stress, but it helps to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible and menu planning is a very useful tool.

What are some of your best strategies for sticking to a grocery budget and managing meal times at your house?







Jesse St. Jean

Jesse St. Jean

I am many things: a wife, a daughter, a sister, a nutritional therapist, a dog-mom… and I’m an autoimmune warrior.


  • Thanks for sharing! I recently started AIP, and feel like I have been breaking the bank trying to get enough good quality stuff from the grocery store! I’m definitely seeing the need to meal plan as our budget and situation is about the same as yours, so thanks for the encouragement and tips. I really enjoy your blog and recipes (especially since sweet potatoes have been largely responsible for keeping me alive lately 🙂 so keep up the great work!

    • Thanks for checking out the blog Tori! It took me a while to readjust my budget after going AIP. I had it all figured out on standard paleo and going AIP definitely added a few extra expenses, but in the long run I am saving a lot of money on medical bills so it does work out. After about a month or two I was able to get into an affordable routine and find meals that I could make regularly that weren’t terribly expensive. Good luck!

  • Great ideas! Sticking to a budget is tough – I go over pretty much every month, and always end up frustrated that it happens.

    • It is tough, it has taken me a while to get it to where I am usually within budget, but there are weeks where I end up needing a few more staples replaced that I thought I would or I just cave and get a treat and I go over. The point is really to become more aware of what you are eating and buying and as you do that the budget gets easier to stick to.

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Nutritional therapist Jesse

Hi, I'm Jesse

I empower women autoimmune warriors to reclaim their health by teaching each woman how to make the right food choices to heal her body while confidently owning her journey so she can live a vibrant life with chronic illness.


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