Why I Quit Meal Planning..And What I Do Instead

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Frugal living rule #1 – meal plan for the entire week. The same rote advice that goes along with brown-bagging your lunch and quitting your latte habit.

Those are GREAT tips. They save a lot of money.

But recently, meal planning started to get me down.

Sticking to a plan and having to buy the things on that plan sometimes meant I was spending a lot more on my grocery bill than I would’ve freestyling it.

So in the past few months, I’ve stopped meal planning and starting freestyling my family’s meals.

I became slightly more obsessed with our grocery spend when we figured we needed to save a huge amount in order to qualify for residency in Spain (which we plan to do in around two years time).

My entire budget has been revised and updated many times since, and the grocery bill has always been a great place to cut costs.

How I save money without meal planning

1. Have a core rotation of meals

We have around 10 meals we eat regularly.

I know which ingredients are required for each and they make up the staple items in our grocery shop.

I make sure I always top up the staples when I shop (tomato paste, coconut cream, red lentils, tinned chickpeas, chilli beans, brown rice, rolled oats etc), so I’ll have enough dinner options to maximise the value from whichever meat is on clearance.

2. Buy meat on clearance

This is really where my freestyle strategy comes into its own.

By planning our meals around clearance items, we can save a lot of money grocery shopping.

For example, if I can get 2kgs of ground beef on clearance, I’ll buy that and plan for 3 meals that week to be ground beef (chilli, spag bol, tacos) at 250gms each meal, and throw 5 portions in the freezer.

The next week it might be chicken on clearance.

And I’ll do the same, but interweave some ground beef recipes in using the supply from the freezer. This is my absolute best frugal living tip.

3. Regular vegetarian meals

Vegetarian meals are what keeps this entire operation moving.

We have some delicious vegetarian staples which we can whip up with just lentils, beans, spices and rice.

These easy meals are always plentiful and give us enough leftovers for lunch the next day.

I love the ideas in this cookbook for easy vegetarian meals. Check it out here.

4. Daily Pantry Check-in

Most days I’ll check the pantry/freezer/fridge in the morning to see what we have available and figure out make for dinner that night.

I aim to pull together a complete meal using only what we have and 6 out of 7 nights I’ll succeed.

On the nights I don’t feel like cooking, the kids will have something like baked beans on toast, scrambled eggs or an omelette. I love these easy meal nights.

Plus the food takes less time to whip up than it would to go and pick up takeout.

5. Regular trips to the store

Now, this might not be ideal for a lot of people, but I pass our local supermarket twice a day before and after school drop off.

After the school run in the morning is the best time for me to find clearance meat specials, so I usually duck in for a minute to check the specials. It takes very little extra time.

6. Breakfast and lunches

I’ve mentioned before that one of the best ways to save money is to eat similar things each day.

For breakfast, the kids and my husband have cereal (rolled oats or Weetbix) topped with fruit or honey.

My husband takes leftovers for lunch, plus a small tub of roasted unsalted almonds and a piece of fruit.

My kids have the same combo every day – sandwiches, fruit, home baking, yoghurt.

It helps a lot that my eldest’s school does zero-waste lunches.

That means the kids can’t bring anything wrapped in plastic or packaging. They don’t even have rubbish bins in the school.

It’s great because I’m forced to give them fresh, healthy or home-baked food which takes a little more time but is better for everyone.

We use a Sistema bento lunchbox to keep everything separated and fresh.

I recommend them even if your child’s school doesn’t do litter-free lunches as they remove the need for cling film or any packaging which saves money. Check out the lunchbox we use here

These items required for lunches (almonds, fruit, yoghurt, bread, butter, spreads) form a part of my core grocery list.

Why you should still meal plan

I’m still an advocate for meal planning if you are a working parent or super stuck for time.

It really does save a lot of time and stress knowing exactly what’s for dinner each night, even if it might cost a little more.

For mums who are home during the day, a lot of money can be saved by planning each day’s meal on the fly around what you find on clearance.

In this season of our life when we are mega-focussed on saving money, this way works for our family.

Quick overview

  • Have a core rotation of meals you can whip up in hurry
  • Keep the staples topped up
  • Plan your meals around clearance items
  • Find some easy vegetarian recipes you can make from pantry-only ingredients
  • Keep an eye on your pantry


Hi, I'm Emma. I set about gaining financial freedom back in 2012 when my son was born. I've been hustling to pay down debt, save money and build online and passive income streams ever since. You can find out more here.

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