Monday, September 27, 2010

Grocery Shopping on a Budget - Part 2

Menu Planning

If you want to save money in the grocery store, you have to menu plan.  I don't see any way around it.  It doesn't matter where you shop, what kind of food you buy, or how many you are feeding, if you menu plan you will save money.  Here's how:

  • You save money buy using what you have on hand,
  • Buying things when they are on sale,
  • Avoiding waste,
  • And  cuttting down on impromptu shopping 

1.)  What are your grocery staples?

There are the obvious basics that most kitchens need to operate, such as flour, sugar, rice, spices, etc.  Because they are common, they are fairly inexpensive at all times.  If you find yourself going through a lot of staples (for example, if you bake a lot) - check out buying them in bulk or online (or both).  But make sure that you only buy what you will use before it expires and what you have enough room to properly store.  A good online store for spices is Penzeys Spices - they get rave reviews for quality and you can choose the quantity you would like to buy.

Then determine your specific cooking staples.  This varies by cook, so I can't give you an exact list.  Look at what items you like to eat as a starter.  I'm originally from Louisiana, so I always have the "holy trinity" on hand - onions, celery, and green peppers.  I cook a lot of pasta, so try to keep that on hand, as well as canned tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and tomato paste.  And chicken stock - I buy it in the can or box (whichever is cheaper) and freeze the extra.

With your staples on hand, you will be able to whip up impromptu meals without going shopping.  And when it is time to go shopping, you should only have to buy a few supplemental items to make a meal.

I don't suggest keeping a ton of your staples in your pantry supermarket style.  Just a few backups are sufficient.  Group them together so it is easy to see what is low.

2.)  Shop at home

This is the most important step to menu planning.  My goal with grocery shopping isn't to simply buy stuff cheap; it's to not waste what I do buy.  Yes, there are leftovers that get tossed out occassionally, and produce that spoils.  But most waste in the kitchen comes from buying items and then not using them - which aggravates me to no end.

So, before I do anything else, I take a notepad and go through my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer.  I do not make a detailed inventory - I'm looking for 3 things:

  • Food I have on hand that will spoil
  • Food I have in the freezer
  • Staples we are running low on

3.)  Sales Flyers

Take a quick look at your supermarket flyer.  Don't study them in detail, instead focus on the meat and produce.  Other things will attract my attention, but I find that if I actually read a sales flyer front to back I am more likely to buy things because they are on sale and a good deal, not because I really need them.  Make a note of the items on sale.

4.)  Menu Planning

Now that you know what you have on hand, what you need to use, and what is on sale, it is time to make a menu list and a shopping list.

Take my example list (which is just a mock-up - my real handwriting is atrocious and the real deal is usually longer).  There was obviously a good sale on hamburger meat and I have nine pounds of it in the freezer.  Obviously my family isn't going to eat a week of hamburger-based dishes, but they can eat two.  I always buy extra meat when it is on sale.  I have been known to have up to 3 frozen turkeys in my freezer (and I just have the refrigerator-attached kind, not a stand alone deep freezer). 

I'm not a great cook, but I am a great recipe follower.  I can freely admit that because the end product is the same - great tasting food.  So when I am menu planning, I look through my cookbooks and find the recipes that I want to use based on items for sale and items on hand.  If you are talented enough to not follow recipes, you can still use this same system.

One of the main things I look at when evaluating a recipe is if it wasteful or not.  I have a lot of fancier cookbooks which call for buying a jar of some strange pickled pepper that I will never use again, but not using the entire jar.  I don't cook like that anymore.  I've gotten to the point that if a recipe calls for 4 oz. of cream cheese, and I know you can only buy it in 3 oz. or 8 oz., then I put the 8 oz. on my shopping list and then find another recipe to cook that week that will utilize the other 4 oz.  The goal is to eat your fridge down each and every week (or two weeks, depending on how frequently you go shopping).  There is nothing I hate more than throwing away half a bag of moldy cheese - you might as well be throwing away money.

Pretend Menu List - Please don't think I cook THAT much pasta
 When I like a recipe, the name of it goes on the menu list (along with the cookbook I got it out of and page number for quick reference) and the ingredients I need to buy go on the shopping list.  I immediately post the menu list on the fridge so I don't lose it and spend a week trying to remember why I bought 3 cans of broccoli cheese soup.  On the menu list I also make notes of any substitutions I'm doing, or if I have already prepped any of the ingredients.  When I'm really organized, I specify which day to make each dish so I don't forget to defrost the meat the day before, but not always.  One day I will get a real menu board and make it look all fancy - but right now the notebook paper and magnet system is working just fine.

I don't have a picture of my shopping list, but I usually make two.  The first one is made as I make my menu list.  Then I recopy it, only this time I organize it by grocery section:

  • Dry Goods
  • Canned
  • Bread
  • Produce
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Frozen
I group the shopping list like this for two reasons.  First, it's in the order that will allow me to kind of make a circle around the store as I shop.  No backtracking.  No going down random aisles.  A lot of days it takes me longer to check out than it did to shop.  Secondly, it keeps me focused on the list.  I'm less susceptible to impulse shopping.  It's a lot easier to not buy the chips that weren't on your list if you never go down the chip aisle.

Okay, so that's my short (and hopefully understandable) guide to menu planning.  It's not difficult, it doesn't take very long, and it will save you money. 

Next part of the series will deal with tips for the actual grocery shopping experience.

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