Meal Planning is One “Hack” that Really Can Save You Money

One of the fastest ways to save money is by tracking your spending on food and planning your meals each week. Here are meal planning tips to get started.

Food is one of the biggest expenses for American households – and unfortunately, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of eating is only going up.

Cutting back on food spending is one of the fastest and most impactful ways to save money.

By understanding how much you’re spending on food and planning ahead, you can easily save hundreds and even thousands of dollars each year.

Along the way, you’ll almost certainly eat healthier and generate less food waste.

Learn how much you currently spend on food each day, week, and month


Most Americans have no idea how much they really spend on food.

From “occasional” lunches out to increasing food prices and spontaneous purchases at the supermarket, it all adds up fast.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, American households spend about $7720 each year on food. That breaks down as:

  • $4363 on groceries and eating at home
  • 3365 on dining out

A spreadsheet is the best way to gain total awareness of your food spending.

First, get your transactions into a spreadsheet. You can do this manually, or use Tiller Money to import your transactions automatically.

With your spending in a spreadsheet, categorize each transaction in a way that makes sense to you. (Dining out, Groceries, Work Lunches, etc.)

The simple act of categorizing transactions inspires many people to spend less and spend smarter.

Tiller Money offers free spending reports for Google Sheets to help visualize trends:

Weekly Analysis by Category Tiller Labs Thumb

Waste less and save time and money with meal planning

Once you know how much you’re really spending day to day and week to week, it’s time to make a plan to spend less.

The best way to do this is good old fashioned meal planning. Planning your meals and scheduling the days you’ll eat in or dine out will save you money, save time, and you’ll eat healthier.

Save Time

The average American eats an average of 4.2 commercially prepared meals per week. In other words, as a nation, we eat out between four and five times a week, on average. This number equates to 18.2 meals in an average month eaten outside the home.

The Simple Dollar

According to Gallup, half of Americans feel an acute time crunch. Not surprisingly, working Americans and those with children feel “least likely” to have enough time to do what they want.

Of course, time feels most crunched when it’s time to eat. You have to get out the door at breakfast, stay on top of work at lunch, and come home tired, cranky, and hungry.

A study of French families in 2014 revealed that a sense of time scarcity makes it feel more difficult to follow a meal plan.

It is a catch-22, though. Those who need to meal plan the most may feel like they don’t have time to do so.

So what can you do?

  • Schedule time for planning your meals. It should take less than 30 minutes, probably less than 10 if you tend to eat the same meals week after week.
  • Keep your menu options simple for when you just don’t have time to cook.
  • Involve your family if possible – kids love to be part of meal planning.

Waste less

Every year, each individual American throws away, on average, 400 pounds of food.

That’s a lot food waste. It’s also a lot of money to be throwing in the garbage.

Meal planning can help you keep that money in your pocket. When you plan ahead, you’re able to plan meals around specific ingredients, reducing the chance that your purchases will spoil in the fridge.

You’re also able to get all the picky eaters’ input as you plan the menu for the week, which can sometimes help bring your food waste down.

Eat healthier

basket of strawberries

US World News notes that “obesity has become a public health crisis in the United States.”

This stems in large part from our diets. Grab-and-go food may be an easier or sometimes feel like the only option, but its effects on our collective long-term health is undeniable.

Remember that study on French families? It didn’t just reveal that time scarcity makes it difficult to meal plan in the first place. It also demonstrated that people who planned their means ate healthier than those who didn’t plan ahead.

People who planned enjoyed a larger variety of nutrition. And women who meal planned were less likely to be “obese” or “overweight,” according to the study. Men were less likely to be “obese” when the meal planned. 

What to do before you meal plan

farmers market bakery

Before you can meal plan, you need to do three things:

  • Track your spending (as noted above)
  • Set a budget
  • Build your meal plan around affordable food options.

Taking inventory of what you have in the kitchen can save you from buying something you don’t need at the store, or can even provide you with an ingredient to build your week’s grocery shopping list around.

For example, if you have a bunch of fresh garlic, you might cook a lot of Italian one week. 

Looking over local grocery store sales circulars can also help you build a successful meal plan. For example, if there’s a BOGO deal on pork chops, you might fry them up one night and bake them another. 

How to meal plan with a spreadsheet

Recipe Planning with Google Sheets

As mentioned above, a spreadsheet is the best way to track your food spending. But spreadsheets are also useful tools for planning your meals.

Different spreadsheets will give you different options, but in general, a spreadsheet will help you plan out each meal for each day. It will then help you organize your grocery shopping list, and in many cases can help you evaluate cost.

From the simple to the complex, we’ve curated some of the best meal planning spreadsheets to help you reduce food waste, improve your health and save money. See them here.

What are your meal planning tips?

Have you found ways to save money on food, through planning or other methods? If so, please share them in the Tiller Money Community.

Other meal planning resources

Edward Shepard

Edward Shepard

Marketing Lead at Tiller. Writer. Spreadsheet nerd. Get in touch with partnership ideas at edward @ tillerhq.com.

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