I want to share the process I use week after week to make a whole foods-based, Mediterranean, and budget-friendly meal plan for myself and my husband, Jeremy. It all revolves around planning our core meals for the week.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Planning is essential, but it doesn't have to be super complicated or hard. I'll show you how I do it! Here are the actual steps I follow to plan a week's worth of whole foods-based, Mediterranean, and budget-friendly meals for myself and my husband.
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Select Your Main Meals
I usually plan 4 or 5 meals per week, which is almost always enough for us. We eat at Jeremy’s parents’ house once a week and have a couple of nights of leftovers. Our lunches consist of leftovers from the night or two before, plus fruit and nuts. I make one major grocery trip per week and typically run to the store one more time during the week for a few things we run out of or I didn't realize we needed. On any given day, I pick the meal that sounds best and I’m ready to go with what I’ve already stocked in the fridge.
Meal Inspiration from eMeals
We use eMeals for fresh recipe ideas each week. Since we are on a fairly strict food budget (less than $90 per week for the two of us), we chose the Classic Aldi plan initially but have also tried the Slow Cooker plan and recently switched to the Budget Friendly plan for variety. Just to be clear, all three of the plans we have tried save us money every week. I modify the recipes to make them healthier with simple swaps, like whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta and olive oil instead of butter. We also limit pork or beef to only one prepared meal per week.
Meal Inspiration from Other Sources
We don’t exclusively use eMeals though. If we’re craving something in particular, I make one of our favorites (chili, for example), google whatever we’re craving, or browse Budget Bytes for inspiration.
one Salmon meal
I make sure to plan one meal every week with canned salmon. It’s way cheaper than salmon fillets and contains all of the essential omega 3’s we need. We often use salmon in recipes that call for tuna because it contains more omega 3’s and less mercury for around the same price. Teriyaki salmon cakes and tuna noodle casserole (with salmon substituted for tuna) are two of our favorite recipes for this. We end up with leftovers for lunch, so we hit our target of salmon at least twice a week.
Breakfast all week
For breakfast, we make various baked oatmeal recipes from BudgetBytes. These are an inexpensive and delicious way to get a serving of whole grains and a little fruit at our first meal of the day. We also like baked oatmeal because it makes eight servings - enough for 4 days of breakfast for us! Our favorite kinds so far have been the pumpkin pie, apple pie, and peanut butter brownie baked oatmeal recipes. We've made all of these several times! We add a dollop of yogurt on top and a drink a glass of kefir to round out our breakfast.
Whole grains (in baked oatmeal in this case) are key to a healthy diet because they are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are relatively inexpensive. They are key players in our whole foods-based, Mediterranean diet.
Account for Extras
Once I’ve decided on our main meals, I start thinking about the extra items that balance out our diet. We each drink about 8 ounces of kefir every morning for the natural source of probiotics as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and protein. This is a key healthy, whole food for us. I buy three bottles per week at Aldi (they just recently started carrying it), which is enough for both of us.
I try to make sure we have 2 or 3 different kinds of fruit every day, which means we need at least 3 different kinds of fruit in the fridge at all times, and one of these is always some kind of berry (usually whichever kind is cheapest at Aldi). Berries are incredibly high in antioxidants, which help heal inflammation and prevent damage to the body from free radicals. Inflammation is a key player in chronic disease, so this is one reason we eat berries every week.
Apples, bananas, cuties, pineapple, and whatever type of berry is on sale are common fruits in my cart. I often look at the weekly Aldi ad for ideas. I usually include one or two fruits with lunch and one with breakfast.
We have two or three different vegetables with every dinner - not counting white-fleshed potatoes. White-fleshed potatoes don't count as a vegetable because they are high in starch but low in fiber (without the peel), and comparatively low in vitamins and minerals. Sometimes this includes a vegetable that is already part of the main dish. We have a salad or a cooked leafy green vegetable almost every night. I will buy any kind of lettuce besides iceberg, which is mostly water. Our other go-to vegetables are steamed green beans (sprinkled with salt and drizzled with butter-flavored olive oil) and oven-roasted vegetables.
Another daily “extra” in our diet is nuts. These are a key feature of the Mediterranean diet and are very anti-inflammatory. Nuts are packed with healthy fats and minerals. I typically buy a big container of mixed nuts at Aldi and keep them in the freezer so they stay fresh as long as we need them (rancid fats in stale nuts are a big no-no). We each eat ¼ cup of nuts per day.
We’re careful to not eat more than that because of $$$. Also, even though nuts are very anti-inflammatory, too much of any particular food is no longer good for you. This includes anti-inflammatory foods. Balance is so important! I leave the measuring cup in or on the container and scoop out our daily portion of nuts when we need them. These usually go with lunch.
This Week’s Meal Plan
To show you how this all happens, I want to share this week’s meal plan, starting with our main meals:
- Teriyaki Salmon Cakes
- Chicken and Dumplings
- Quinoa and Chicken Stew (from the eMeals Slow Cooker Plan)
Besides our main meals, here are the fruits and vegetables that I planned for us to eat this week to round out our diet:
And here are the staples we need this week:
Nuts (almonds and peanuts this week)
Protein bars (filling but not particularly healthy, so these are part of our 20%)
My Weekly Shopping List
This is one of the keys to success for us. I use Google Keep, which allows me to organize items in the order that I find them in the store so I don’t have to keep coming back to the same section of the grocery store over and over.
(June 2018 update: I now use the Out of Milk app instead of Google Keep to organize my grocery list. It was designed specifically for making and organizing grocery lists, so it is much faster and easier to use. One of the great things about it is that you can share your list with other people in your household, just like you can with Google Keep.)
Organizing my grocery list this way also prevents impulse buys. I’m able to breeze past the packaged snacks section because I know that I have a checklist to finish and exactly what sections I need to go to in the store. This makes my shopping much more efficient and fun.
Grocery Stop #1: Aldi
I always start at Aldi, because the one in my neighborhood is clean, new, and of course, has amazing prices. I buy everything I possibly can there, including meat. After this, I head over to my local Hy-Vee or Walmart for specialty items that I can’t find at Aldi. I’ve discovered time after time that I save money by going to Aldi first. Even items like canned salmon and croutons can be up to a dollar cheaper at Aldi. This really adds up over time. Here’s how it all shakes out for the week. As Jeremy often points out, most of our groceries are fruits and vegetables.
Raspberries ($1.49 x 2)
Sweet butter lettuce ($1.99 x 2)
Kale salad kit ($2.49)
Halo oranges ($3.99)
Tri-color peppers ($1.69)
Black beans ($0.69 x 3)
Kidney beans ($0.69)
Unsweetened applesauce ($1.89)
Crushed tomatoes ($0.95)
Tomato paste ($0.39)
Canned wild salmon ($2.49)
Cage-free eggs ($2.99)
Low-fat kefir ($2.29 x 3)
100% whole wheat bread ($1.49)
Fair trade brown sugar ($2.99)
Peppermint tea ($1.49)
Aldi total with tax: $42.16
Grocery Stop #2: Walmart or Hy-Vee
These were the only two items I couldn’t find at Aldi this week. The extra trip is a little bit of a pain, but the huge savings at Aldi make the extra grocery store trip very worthwhile for us.
Spaghetti squash ($4.40)
Walmart total with tax: $6.63
Items already in my kitchen
In addition to what I buy at Aldi and another grocery store, I purposefully plan to use some ingredients that we already have. It definitely pays to plan at least one meal based on what’s leftover in our fridge. Not only does it save us money, but it also helps prevent food waste.
Leftover items in my fridge:
These were the staples we already had on hand this week.
Extra virgin olive oil
Whole wheat flour
Jeremy was craving ice cream on his way home from work one night, so he picked some up from the store.
Ice cream total including tax: $3.27
I believe that all foods can fit into an overall whole foods-based, Mediterranean diet that nourishes your body, so I try to indulge in "fun" foods several times per week (but not daily) as a treat, not a reward for good behavior.
Using food as a reward will often have very negative consequences in the long run. Avoid the baggage and have fun foods as "treats" here and there instead.
I don't feel icky after having treats as long as I stick to a moderate portion (a medium sized scoop of ice cream or one or two medium-sized cookies). Even if I do have more than a reasonable portion (which I do once in a while - oops!), I practice grace towards myself instead of feeling guilty. This is crucial for helping me keep a healthy mindset surrounding food. Practicing this also helps me get back to actually following my whole foods-based, Mediterranean eating pattern for the long haul instead of completely falling off the wagon and giving up as soon as I make a mistake.
One of the most freeing things that I have learned about nutrition is that it's not about perfection.
I follow the 80/20 rule. This means that I eat foods that nourish my body about 80% of the time and foods that don't the other 20% of the time. I'm convinced that your overall eating pattern (what you eat most of the time) makes the biggest difference in your health. I don't sweat the small stuff when it comes to my overall eating pattern, and this makes eating nearly stress-free for me.
Total grocery bill for the week: $48.79
There you have it: how I plan and shop for one week’s worth of food for two people. The way I plan our meals helps my husband and I nourish our bodies, save money, and stay healthy!
Download my FREE Mediterranean Meal Planning Guide to help you put all of this into practice!
What are your biggest hurdles to planning your meals? And what tips and shortcuts make meal planning easier for you personally?