Meal Planning on a Budget for Large Families

Woman meal planning

When you have a family with five or more children, meal planning isn’t just a nice idea–it’s a survival skill. Without a roadmap for dinner every night, chaos can easily ensue as you scrounge around for something—anything!—to feed your ravenous crew.

Even if you throw organization to the wind and let everyone fend for themselves at dinnertime, you’ll likely end up with a sink full of dishes and a fridge full of half-used ingredients. Clearly, it’s best to plan ahead.

When you outline a week’s worth (or more) of meals, it’s important to plan in a way that doesn’t just save you mental energy, but saves you money, too. By getting strategic in your approach, it is possible to stay within a budget, even when you have multiple mouths to feed.

The beauty of meal planning is that it puts you in control of your spending (and it can actually increase the variety of meals and snacks you can offer). We’ve rounded up several best practices to help you cut costs on feeding a large family, from the planning stages through actual meal prep.

Meal Planning on a Budget

Wondering how to make your meal plan work for your wallet? Start with these seven tips.

Set Aside Time to Meal Plan

Time spent carefully meal planning is time (and money) saved at the grocery store. Just like you may have a routine around shopping, establish a routine for meal planning, too. Set aside an hour or so on a weekend or evening when you can focus. Then get cracking! You might find a meal planning app that works for you, or pen and paper may be more your style. Whatever your M.O, giving planning a significant chunk of time will reap benefits all week long.

Plan More Than Dinner 

You probably know planning dinners can save you money, but the same principle applies to planning breakfasts and lunches, too. It may sound like a lot of extra work, but in a large family, scheduling three meals a day isn’t unrealistic. With numerous mouths to feed before school and work, a pre-planned breakfast can reduce chaos in the mornings.

Likewise, outlining lunches means you have a game plan for what you’re packing in school lunchboxes or taking to work.

Shop Your Pantry

Once you’ve sat down to your weekly planning session, it’s time to get up again! Take a trek to your kitchen to assess existing stores in your pantry and refrigerator, then plan around what you've got. You’ll reduce food waste and won’t accidentally re-purchase ingredients you already had on hand.

Look at Grocery Store Circulars

It’s common sense to check store ads before meal planning, but it’s easy to skip this step when you’re in a hurry. Don’t! Even if you’ve tossed print ads that cluttered your mailbox, you can still typically pull up your store’s weekly ad online. Use it to identify loss leaders you can use for budget-friendly meals. (And see what else you might want to stock up on for future use.) 

Consider a Meal Rotation

If there’s such a thing as meatless Monday and Taco Tuesday, why not designate a Soup Saturday or Salad Sunday as well? Theming each day of the week with a pre-assigned category helps take the guesswork out of the all-important question, “What’s for dinner?” It also can cut down on spending when you build up a supply of commonly used ingredients.

Embrace the Double-Duty Dinner

The word “leftovers” carries some serious baggage. We’re rooting for the phrase “double-duty dinner” to catch on instead. A double-duty dinner doesn’t have to be the same meal on repeat multiple nights in a row. Rather, it can mean taking a part of one meal and reusing it later in a different context.

For example, when you make a large slow cooker’s worth of barbecued chicken for sandwiches on Monday, save a portion of the meat to use on a barbecue pizza on Wednesday. Likewise, a super-sized pot of rice can play side dish to pork chops today and the base of a fried rice main dish tomorrow. 

Double-duty dinners not only give you a jump on meal prep throughout the week, they also allow you to buy ingredients in bulk, which usually saves money.

Opt into One-Dish Meals

What do pastas, casseroles, and quiche have in common? They can all serve as one-dish meals, encompassing a starch, a protein, and veggies. Grouping these components together eliminates the need to spend money on additional ingredients to flavor multiple separate courses. Plus, you’ll save time on washing dishes—a perk everyone enjoys.

Tips for Budget Shopping

You’ve formulated your plan and mapped out your list. Now for the fun part: shopping! Here’s how to stick to your budget, even when clever marketing tempts you to spend more.

Stick to Your List

There's nothing new in this advice, but sticking to the grocery list you’ve made really does reduce spending. Impulse buying and overbuying are all too common when you go off-script. Naturally, it’s one thing to take advantage of deals you just can’t pass up—but another to let clever marketing or an empty belly pull you toward unnecessary ingredients. Try to have a meal or snack before shopping.

Go Once a Week

If you only go grocery shopping once a week, you only have so much opportunity to spend. Of course, unexpected situations (and fridge/freezer space) may make additional trips unavoidable, especially in a large family. However, the more you can stock up in one fell swoop, the less cash you’re likely to drop—and the less stress in your busy schedule.

Go Alone 

There’s no doubt that kids can be a major distraction when you’re grocery shopping. Little ones’ requests for pricey items not on your list, sibling squabbles, or toddler meltdowns don’t make for clear-headed food choices. Whenever possible, to keep your mental focus sharpened—and avoid giving in to wheedling for items you don’t really need—make grocery shopping a solo event. This may require some schedule juggling with your spouse or partner, but will likely save you money in the end.

It is important to note that kids who take part in some aspect of planning, shopping, or preparation are more likely to eat a variety of foods and try the meal served. So if younger kids aren't coming to the store with you, see if they are interested in choosing a meal or ingredient while you are planning, and/or helping with prep.

Shop Seasonally

Buying seasonal ingredients isn’t just good for the planet. It’s good for your wallet, too! An abundance of in-season crops means that certain types of produce may sell for reduced prices, depending on the time of year. Try brushing up on what’s in season in your area with the Seasonal Food Guide. Then keep your eyes peeled for those foods when shopping. 

Stock up on Low-Cost Healthy Staples

Having low-cost healthy staples on hand can save your bacon (literally) on nights when meal plans fall through. If you have the pantry and freezer space, stock up on frozen and shelf-stable items that will keep indefinitely. Beans, lentils, grains, and pastas all last for ages and provide excellent nutrition. When you see can’t-miss prices, it’s smart to grab several.

And don’t be afraid of canned goods! These days, canned and jarred offerings aren’t just your grandma’s green beans. Unique products with diverse flavorings are definitely trending. Plus, most canned fruits and veggies are harvested at the peak of freshness, so they may even contain more nutrients than out-of-season fresh produce.

Grab nutrient-rich staples like canned pumpkin, whole or refried beans, artichoke hearts, red peppers, or peaches. When choosing canned fruits, look for those that have been packed in fruit juice, rather than syrup.

Saving Money on Meal Prep

In addition to trimming costs while meal planning and grocery shopping, there are even ways to save during the preparation of meals. Here are some ideas to turn meal-making into money-saving. 

Get Freezer-Savvy

Repeat after us: The freezer is my friend. When feeding a large family, a spacious freezer can mean the difference between efficient food use and unfortunate food waste.

After all, family meal-making isn’t always an exact science, and sometimes you’ll have extra odds and ends. Rather than throw them out, learn which ones can be safely kept in the freezer. Foods that don’t always freeze well include dairy products, some fried foods, and cooked pasta.

Store extra tomato paste in individual tablespoonfuls, pop citrus zest or fresh herbs in an air-tight zip-top bag, or freeze past-their-prime bananas for smoothies or bread making. Even scraps like extra veggie pieces can be frozen to make a vegetable broth later. 

Make Dinners With Lunch in Mind

The double-duty dinner strikes again! Even if you haven’t planned lunches for the week, perhaps you can squeak in some re-use of your dinners for the next day. When making dinners that could easily function as a mid-day meal—such as cold dishes like pasta salad, wraps, or grain bowls—prep a little extra. This homemade lunch will be cheaper than a restaurant meal the next day.

Practice “FIFO”

Restaurants and other food-service establishments often practice the principle of FIFO, or “First In, First Out.” Just like these professional outfits, your large family kitchen can save cash with this policy. The idea? Whatever you first stored in the fridge should be the first ingredient you use up. If you buy a second of one item before the first is used up, store the new one behind the older one.

The same goes for refrigerated items. Keep items that need to be used quickly toward the front of the fridge so you don't miss them. To save money, it’s vital to use ingredients that will go bad quickly. Otherwise, you’ll likely end up tossing foods before you can use them.

A Word from Verywell 

For parents of large families, meal planning is a surefire way to take control of your health, your budget, and your stress level. From sitting down to make your list to getting dinner on the table, stick to these tips to keep hungry tummies—and your bank account—full.

By Sarah Garone
 Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.