How to Quickly Plan Cheap and Easy Dinner Ideas

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    I’ll admit it – I hate trying to figure out dinner ideas for tonight. Needless to say, this is probably our biggest downfall when it comes to our food budget. Having nothing planned means grabbing dinner on the way home – on top of a coffee from the drive thru, a snack on the go, a quick lunch out on the way to an kid’s activity…it all adds up, and so fast. Starting with easy dinner ideas is the easiest and most effective way to stay on budget.

    We’d been struggling with our food budget for the past…well, since we started budgeting, basically. So I sat down to make a game plan that I know you can probably use as well. Staying on track with your food budget starts with finding not only cheaper options, but easier ones as well that you’ll be able to use on even the busiest of days.

    If you want to know how to stop eating out, the biggest bang for your buck is figuring out family dinner ideas. If you can tackle dinner, you’ll save more and it’ll be easier to stay on track. Here are eight simple ways to avoid getting caught with an empty pantry, a growling stomach and no time to cook:

    The easiest way to stop eating out is to plan cheap, healthy and easy dinner ideas ahead of time. You'll save a ton of money, time and your sanity! #easydinnerideas #foodbudget #budgeting #mealplanning

    Start with easy dinner ideas.

    Go with foods that are super easy to prepare. Don’t plan intricate and difficult meals, especially with kids, activities, work and school. Even if it’s premade frozen family meal – it’s still cheaper and healthier than fried fast food, right? Throw a frozen veg in the microwave as a side and you’re done!

    Wait to go all paleo gluten-free soy based vegan until after you’ve mastered the art of just getting food on the table that’s not from a fast food wrapper. One thing at a time, right?

    It’s easy to get wrapped up in doing it all 100% right, 100% of the time, right off the bat. I’m classic for that – and also classic for throwing my hands up and walking away when it doesn’t automatically work the first time I try it.

    Give yourself some grace and a pass to take it slow so you can build up skills that get you where you want to be. Then go all crazy with the gluten-free soy planted based stuff.

    Make a weekly food plan.

    Out of dinner ideas? Have each family member contribute a meal idea (or two). Write them on a whiteboard on the fridge, so you can see your options. Cross each out as you cook them throughout the week so you know which options are left.

    Have 3 to 4 “go to” easy meals you can whip together at any time.

    If you’re running out of ideas for dinner, have several “go to” dirt cheap meals you can throw together at any time. They MUST take zero effort, and MUST use things you generally have in stock. Sandwiches, soup, cereal, scrambled eggs, frozen pizza, whatever takes zero effort for you. These work perfectly as fall back meals for when plans change or you’re just too exhausted to face having to cook something.

    Pick a day of the week and shop that day EVERY week.

    Consistency is key. By keeping the pantry consistently stocked, you’ll be less likely to eat out. Always having snacks, your favorite bagels and creamer on hand means no excuses to run out for a quick coffee, snack or meal. You’ve already got it all at home.

    Create a grocery list of staple items you need to buy every week.

    For us it’s milk, fruit, string cheese, and bagels, among other things. Once you’ve written down your “must buy” items on a sheet of paper, photocopy it. A lot. Then use it as a jumping off point for your cheap grocery list. See? Your list for the week is already half done! When your list is already started, it makes the task seems so much less painful.

    Get organized and learn the ins and outs of meal planning.

    Consistency is the key to not only having meals planned, but with saving money as well. Taking the time to learn the ins and outs of meal planning will save money, time and your sanity. I took the Grocery Budget Makeover to learn the best tips and tricks on how to stop overspending on groceries. Erin Chase is the creator of $5 Dinners, MyFreezEasy, and Grocery Budget Makeover, so she definitely knows what she’s talking about!

    With the Grocery Budget Makeover, you learn a lot of key ideas about organizing, budgeting, and shopping that most people just don’t have time to research on their own. You’ll learn how to include your family in the process, how to set up your shopping list, how to stockpile, how to best use coupons (only if you want to!), and time saving kitchen hacks.

    After taking this online video course, we were able to shave over $400 from our grocery budget consistently, every month! That’s a HUGE chunk of savings for us, and it’s made a huge difference in our budget and debt payoff. Read more about what we learned from the course here and how we learned to plan dinner on a tight budget.

    Figure out your weak points.

    Do you generally grab a coffee in the morning because you’re running late? Or get snacks at the drive-thru when you’re carting the kids from school to practice? Figure out when your defenses are most likely to be down and work on those points. If it’s coffee because you’re running late, try getting up earlier, or getting an automatic coffeemaker that has a timer.

    Maybe your weakness is that you love lattes and can’t give them up. Can’t quit coffeeshops? Splurge (just a little!) and get the good beans to grind up at home. Get the fancy creamers you like. While it might be a tad more than the cheap stuff, if it tastes good, you’ll be more likely to stick with it. And it’s still cheaper than Starbucks. Now go treat yo self (without getting too crazy)!

    Look for recipes that you can “set and forget”.

    After a long day at work, last thing you wanna do is cook, right? We got our crockpot as a wedding gift almost eight years ago, and I love that thing like it’s one of my kids. Seriously. It’s super easy to throw stuff in and let it go. Plus, it’s so easy to clean up as well. I also hear crazy good things about instapots, but haven’t tried one yet.

    Not to mention, it’s easier to make easy kid friendly dinner recipes in a crockpot. My kids love shredded chicken with just about anything I throw in there. It’s amazing!

    Make eating out a special family treat that is planned and happens one a week or month.

    No one said you could never eat out again, just plan it for days when no one is swamped and running around. You’ll all actually have the chance to appreciate it more! And heck – you might even actually enjoy that time with your family.

    As boring as routines are, you’re just more likely to succeed by having one. By shopping weekly, having your staple items figured out, planning easy dinner ideas, and having an overall game plan, you’ll be much less likely to eat out and blow through your food budget. By focusing on these food budgeting basics and making them routine, we can then move on to the next set of changes, such as the types of food we’re eating and finding time to cook more.

    Eating Out Dinner Ideas

    When you decide to eat out for dinner, don’t forget to trim where you can. Order water instead of drinks. Skip the appetizer, share an entred e, and skip dessert. Go on nights when you know kids can eat for free. Find coupons or discounts. Purchase a gift card for that restaurant at the gas station to earn fuel points. Even better, wait to buy the gift cards until the grocery store is running a promotion and stock up.

    Learn more about how to find the the best cheap places to eat to help you save even more.

    There are a ton of ways to avoid eating out all the time, it’s just a matter of adding those tasks to your weekly to-dos. Being organized and having a plan (as well as a back-up plan!) makes it that much easier to avoid going out to eat.

    What are some shortcuts that you use to make sure you’re saving money in your food budget? Comment below and share you ideas!

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    A forty-ish web designer/developer by day, a budget & financial fanatic by night. I’m a mom, wife, avid reader, and DIY enthusiast who’s tracking our journey to debt freedom. Read More

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    1. Mindy Iannelli on July 26, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      Great tips here, Tana! Having something you can whip up quickly for dinner is so important! I know when I fell out of this for a while we were ordering pizza instead – definite money-waster! Thanks for inspiring me to get out my crock-pot! Using that, and planning my weekly meals better I know will save me a lot! Thanks!

      • Tana on July 26, 2017 at 9:09 pm

        Mindy, my crockpot is a life saver, even my young kids will (generally) eat what I make in it. Worth it’s weight in gold!

    2. Rosa on September 15, 2017 at 12:23 am

      Great tips! I just started a new job with a long commute and have been struggling with trying to make a good plan. You’ve really inspired me to get a food/money/time budget and schedule set. Thank you!

      • Tana on September 15, 2017 at 12:32 am

        Glad to help, Rosa! Good luck and congrats on the new job!

    3. Heather on May 1, 2018 at 11:57 pm

      We always have pasta, the makings for cheese quesadillas, and some frozen shrimp and boxes of risotto in the house. So whenever we’re caught short with a kid activity or missed grocery run (or massive laziness), we have something quick, easy, and not too unhealthy in the house to get us through.

      Have not yet tried a crockpot. Have been pondering it for a while, though.

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