How to Eat Well on Just $20 a Week (With Meal Plans!)

by Ashley Marcin on 28 July 2014 17 comments

Can you eat for just $20 a week? Well, I've been feeding my family of three on an average of $65 a week for several years now — so you can certainly get close. Beyond a basic shopping list, eating on a budget — any budget — takes some patience, planning, and creativity.

When I was cooking for only myself, I found shopping for two weeks at a time most helpful with my budgeting. Packages of food don't seem to be made for the individual alone; it's easy to create food waste if you don't plan out meals in advance. Thing is, the same concept applies no matter how many people I'm shopping for. (See also: What to Eat Every Day: A Month of Frugal Meals)

Check out this healthy foods grocery list and (mostly vegetarian) menu plans for a week of eats — no coupons required.

Shopping List

My family has switched to shopping at discount grocery stores like Aldi. The prices below are from my own Aldi receipts, so be sure to check out the prices at your local grocer to compare. If you haven't checked out this stripped down way of shopping, it's worth your time and effort, as I'm always amazed at just how much I can fit into a single grocery cart without breaking the bank. (Related: 6 Awesome Reasons to Shop at Aldi)

Item

Cost

Box of spaghetti noodles

$0.89

Container rolled oats

$1.99

Flour tortillas

$1.19

Loaf sliced bread

$1.19

3-pack of bell peppers

$1.99

Couple heads broccoli

$1.19

Bag of apples

$1.49

2 bunches of bananas

$1.50

Cauliflower

$2.39

3 pounds onions

$1.39

2 pounds carrots

$1.19

5 pounds russet potatoes

$2.89

2 cans chickpeas

$1.20 ($0.59/each)

2 cans black beans

$1.20 ($0.59/each)

2 cans other beans

$1.20 ($0.58/each)

1 large can peeled tomatoes

$1.50

Jar of peanut butter

$1.69

Jar of pasta sauce

$1.99

2 cans of tuna

$2.30 ($1.15/each)

Jar of salsa

$1.99

2 tubs low-fat yogurt

$4.00 ($1.99/each)

2 blocks of hard cheese

$4.00 ($1.99/each)

Dozen eggs

$1.55

TOTAL: $41.91 (for two weeks)

Now that you have your groceries, let's talk meals. The key with shopping and cooking on a budget is making your precious ingredients stretch. Use the same types of ingredients in different ways to make simple meals without any fuss. And there is also a certain level of predictability — learning to love cheap meals and to rotate them into your routine often.

Breakfast

As a vegetarian, I like to start my day with a dose of protein. About three times a week, I scramble or fry two eggs. The rest of the time I like oatmeal or toast because it fills my stomach. If you start to run out of sweeter staples, you can always cook veggies for breakfast!

  • Eggs atop toast
  • Eggs with potatoes and veggies
  • Oatmeal with peanut butter and sliced bananas or apples
  • Peanut butter toast with yogurt
  • Bean burrito with diced veggies and beans

Lunch

Sandwiches are an inexpensive, portable lunch option. You can serve them with sliced fruit and veggies on the side to make it a fuller meal. And a note with the bread: I like to divide the loaf I buy in half and then freeze half (around 12 slices) so it stays good for the following week.

  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich
  • Tuna sandwich, subbing lowfat yogurt in for the mayo
  • Egg salad sandwich
  • Tahini-free hummus melts
  • Toasted cheese sandwich
  • Veggie stuffed baked potato

Dinner

Beans are a fantastic protein option for dinners because they are filling and frugal. With many of the following meals, you might consider making enough for two nights and eating leftovers to save some time, all while using up the ingredients from your grocery list.

  • Veggie stir-fry, using spaghetti noodles for bulk
  • Roasted or grilled vegetables with cheesy beans
  • Veggie quesadillas with salsa and yogurt for dipping
  • Stuffed bell peppers (beans and veggies) topped with melted cheese
  • Spaghetti with sauce and roasted veggies
  • Crock pot soup (use leftovers for lunch!)
  • Veggie burgers on toast or tortillas

Final Notes

  • Most of these meals don't require much in way of recipes. Instead, it's all about learning to cook basic meals with basic methods (roasting, for example). That way, if you find yourself with a random set of leftover ingredients, you can whip something up without wasting food in the process.
     
  • Vegetarian and vegan meals are inherently cheaper, but that doesn't mean you need to change your entire diet to eat on a budget. Instead, aim for a few sans-meat meals per week to see some savings.
     
  • Keep an eye on seasonal items and certain sales at your store. Although stocking up may initially cost more, you can enjoy some major cost reductions by shopping smart.
     
  • And if you do stock up, learn some basic food preservation methods to get the most out of your investment.
     
  • Shopping in larger increments — like an entire month — can also be a great way to save time and money. If you're interested in trying this method out, I wrote all about a month of freezer meals, complete with instructions and meal ideas.

More Cheap Eats

What's your weekly food budget? How do you keep it frugal?

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Guest's picture
Jill

Yuck. White bread, refined flour, and NO greens. This is a recipe for weight gain and upset tummies in our house. Also no consideration for diabetics or allergies. Won't work for a lot of people.

Ashley Marcin's picture

Thanks for your feedback, Jill. Having written about food as a vegetarian and vegan for, well, nearly a decade -- I've come to the conclusion that it's incredibly difficult to please/consider all possible diets for tips like these in a single article. There are innumerable choices when it comes to food and ways of eating, and this is just one example of a frugal meal plan. As well, the list states "sliced bread" -- and at my stores, there are many choices, from wheat to multigrain to, yes, the dreaded white. You can choose whichever is your preference and meets your health goals. As for greens, again -- this article is just an example . . . there are many other vegetables, beans, etc., in there. If I wrote another one, you can substitute in greens for one of the vegetables. In a way, this list is a guide that is meant as a jumping off point and not a closed circuit.

Guest's picture
Ingo

This is actually really good advice - cheers!

Ashley Marcin's picture

Thank you!

Guest's picture
Guest

These grocery items are even more economical at the 99 cent only store!! Live that place!

Guest's picture
tracy2

I am very sad that the grocery prices in my neighbourhood are at least double the numbers you have listed here on almost every single food item!
Thank you for the comprehensive menu and list, I think it's a marvellous menu for tight budgets. I could have really used this list in college!
As for Jill's comment, I agree that it could be uncomfortable for sensitive tummies, but it is REAL food, and not fast food garbage! A severely limited budget means a balance of fibre, proteins, carbs and other nutrients can be difficult, but I think you have done a good job here. Of course more greens would be ideal, but they'd have to be the in season varieties- a keen eye on the flyers and markets to deduce what exactly is the bargain green of the week. I'm a fan of windowsill sprouts as a cheap good green that can be grown anywhere in a short time - Not everyone's taste though. LOL

Ashley Marcin's picture

Tracy -- I understand the lack of access to cheaper groceries. On a trip to my hometown recently, I went shopping with my mother, and most of the prices were much higher than what I am able to find where I currently live. My parents actually live in a relatively remote area, so they combine a lot of errands and make a 45 minute to hour drive to get access to cheaper foods. And I think the key with some of the foods on this list (pasta, bread, etc.) is choosing the whole grain options. Our Aldi has whole grain and whole wheat options for most all of these things, which is great, and they are still at a low price. Thank you so much for your comment, and I'm glad this list helps!

Guest's picture
Jp

I like they foundation of staples. I have family of 4 and if I could use this list, of course I will sub the items I don't like, and buy protein powder, milk and some hamburger meat or chicken, I could keep it at $75-$100 a week. Every family and every budget is different. $75 or $100 a week for my family of 4 would be a huge help. I'm in the minority that has to work for my food.

Ashley Marcin's picture

I completely agree that $75-$100 would be an AMAZING budget for a family of 4! We are a family of three and I am usually able to stick around $65 up to $75, but it's very hard. And we need to keep those numbers low in the picture of the rest of our budget. So, I'm right there with you :)

Guest's picture
Guest

I am with you: family of three, and we end up around $60/week. We also love scratch 'n dent type grocery stores, and we use our short growing season to reap extra veggies and stuff

Guest's picture

This IS a good jumping-off point, thank you! Our grocery budget is the fianl frontier in our frugal life, and I'm always happy to find ideas and inspiration for lowering our number. We're also going for as many unprocessed, organic options as possible, but we're far from perfect in adhering to our own standards.

Articles like this are INCREDIBLY helpful and much appreciated!

Ashley Marcin's picture

Thank you, Elizabeth!

Guest's picture
Guest

One error with this grocery list is a miscalculation with the bread. On the shopping list it has one loaf of bread, yet when I add up all of the bread needed for lunches and breakfasts for a family of three it comes out to 36 slices of bread for the week (5 sandwiches = 10 slices times 3 people = 30 slices just for lunch, plus 1 slice of toast 2 mornings times 3 people = 6 slices, 30 slices for lunch + 6 for breakfast = 36 slices per week)...and then 12 left to freeze? I have never bought one loaf of bread that contains 36-48 slices. According to this meal plan for a family of 3 you'd need at least 2 loaves containing 24 slices of bread to last one week (36 to eat and 12 to freeze)....and this list of groceries is supposed to last 2 weeks? For 2 weeks you'd need 72 slices of bread to eat. I'm assuming the bread you buy has 24 slices, if you can freeze half (12 slices) like you say. For 2 weeks then you'd need 3 loaves. So the total for bread would be $3.57

I pay $1.99 for a loaf with 12 slices of bread. (almost the cheapest loaf that I can find) So for my family to eat this much bread we would spend $6 per week on bread which is more than 1/4 of this $20 weekly budget spent just on bread! (and we're a family of 4 so I'd need more than 3 loaves a week to follow this plan)

Be thankful for inexpensive groceries. I too pay 2-3X more for some of these items at our cheapest grocery store. I've never even heard of a discount grocery store....

Ashley Marcin's picture

Hi -- Just a couple notes: This list is intended for just one person, not an entire family, for $20 a week. I make a note that I've been feeding my family for around $65 a week, but that's around $20/person average. The meals in the plan are just suggestions -- not a play by play of what you should eat for the week -- and you need not eat sandwiches each day. The meals can mix and match. Sandwiches are just easy to make, so I suggested several options.

And -- yes -- I am thankful for Aldi and access to less expensive groceries. In the town where I grew up -- which is located in the mountains of PA -- I cannot find groceries this cheap. However, a 45 minute drive from there can get me to an Aldi. It's all in the hunting around. Or also general cost of living, I suppose.

Guest's picture
Guest

This appears to be a very high carbohydrate, low protein based diet. I understand it's inexpensive, but it's also a tough sell for me. Thank you for your opinion though, as different perspectives are always useful to draw from.

Guest's picture
cwaltz

From where I'm sitting there is quite a bit of protein on the grocery list. Much of it is plant based(beans) however, it is protein. Garbanzos have 14 grams of protein per cup. Kidney beans have around 16. Eggs,cheese and yogurt are sources of protein. So is tuna and peanut butter. It's not a horrible looking diet by any stretch although her prices are way better than what I can find in my neck of the woods. There's is no way I'd be able to find peanut butter)even the cheap stuff with trans fats) for $1.69.

Ashley Marcin's picture

This menu draws from known vegetarian/pescetarian sources of protein like eggs, beans, peanut butter, yogurt, cheese, tuna, etc. I'm a relatively competitive distance runner and do just fine on this sort of diet. But we all have very unique nutritional needs -- that's for sure!