• Grocery Shopping 101: Meal Planning

    January 25, 2011

    Here’s the next blog post in my Grocery Shopping 101 series: Meal Planning. If you missed the first one, here it is: Assess Your Kitchen.

    Meal planning is the second step in my grocery shopping process. It saves me time during the busy work week and, of course, it saves me money. I plan my meals on Sunday morning for the upcoming week (Monday – Sunday), and I only buy what I need for that week. Here’s how I do it:

    Put It On the List

    As soon as I run out of something, I immediately add it to The List, which hangs on the side of the refrigerator. So, when I use the last of the peanut butter on Monday morning, I don’t forget about it by Sunday afternoon. This system works like a charm, and I only take one trip to the grocery store.

    Use Recipes for Meal Ideas

    I love trying new recipes, so I am constantly ripping pages out of magazines and bookmarking recipes online. I keep torn out magazine pages on the refrigerator right next to The List as a little reminder to test out some new meals. I also keep a separate folder in my Gmail account for recipes. I check it at least one a week for ideas.

    IMG_0028 (480x640) (480x640)

    Use Recipes to Create Your Shopping List

    My shopping list already includes items that we’ve run out of for the week, but adding to it with the help of recipes prevents me from forgetting necessary ingredients.

    My grocery list has two columns: one for meal ideas and one for ingredients that I need to buy to make those meals. Laying it out like this makes organizing our meals and shopping so much easier.

    After shopping, I save the list and stick it on the fridge so I don’t forget what meals I’ve planned for the week, so no food goes to waste. Wasted food = wasted money.

    Incorporate On-Hand Ingredients Into Meals

    I mentioned this tip in my Assess Your Kitchen post, but I often build my meals around what is already in my kitchen instead of buying more ingredients.

    Eat From Your Pantry or Freezer Once a Week

    Similar to the tip above, I try to create at least one meal each week using ingredients from our pantry and/or freezer. It’s a great way to save a few bucks and use up food before it goes bad or becomes freezer burned!

    Check Out In-Store Sales

    I only shop at one grocery store each week: Stop & Shop or Whole Foods. From week-to-week, in-store sales and what we’ve run out of determines where I shop. (I usually have the store flyer with me when I am meal planning on Sunday morning.) For example, if we’re out of staples, like peanut butter, oats, or canned beans, I shop at Stop & Shop, especially if my favorite brands are on sale. The prices are always cheaper than Whole Foods. But, if there are really good sales at Whole Foods, especially on fresh produce, I will shop there instead.

    A lot of the time, sale produce dictates where I shop. Whole Foods is expensive, but their produce is top quality and just as affordable as Stop & Shop when it goes on sale. I typically build my meals around fresh produce, so it’s important to know where I can find the best deals that week. It’s also the bulk of my groceries.

    Use the Same Ingredients in Multiple Meals

    Since I’m on my own for lunch most days of the week, I only buy a few items for myself, but I split them up over multiple days. For instance, a can of beans or a package of tofu often becomes part of two or three different meals. Instead of buying all sorts of ingredients to make a variety of meals, I stick to a few foods and use what’s in the house (e.g. dinner leftovers) to make my lunches. (I mostly just wing it and use up what needs to be eaten.) I change up the foods from week-to-week, so I don’t get bored eating the same things over and over again.


    Check Out Your Coupon Situation

    Coupons sometimes guide my meal planning as well. If I have a coupon for an item that is on sale, I usually incorporate that food into a meal for the upcoming week. (I hang on to specific coupons for just this reason.) For example, I had a coupon for Uncle Sam’s cereal, but I held onto it for months until it went on sale, so I ended up getting the box for about $1! It was worth the wait.

    So, I basically collect coupons as a hobby. Here’s where I get them:

    • I cut coupons from the Sunday paper, magazines, and other print publications
    • I look for coupons online to print
    • I sign-up online for newsletters/coupons from my favorite brands
    • I save coupons from boxes, bags, lids of products that I buy
    • As a food blogger, companies send them to me
    • My mom gives me coupons
    • My sister and I trade coupons
    • I check out store flyers (like WF’s Whole Deal) before shopping
    • I save the store coupons that I receive with my receipt at check-out

    Schedules Meals Around Your Schedule

    Before I visit the grocery store, I look at my calendar as well as my husband’s for the upcoming week and create a menu around when we will be home for dinner. We typically plan a meal for each night at home and make sure to take into account meals with lots of leftovers, like chili or homemade pizza. Then, I schedule one or two nights, typically Fridays and Saturdays, as ‘wing it’ meals because we usually end up going out to dinner or meeting friends for appetizers and drinks. Even if our plans fall through, we can always pull a meal together from our pantry or freezer. (We eat a lot of tuna melts for this reason!)

    Limit Meat-Focused Meals

    In general, Mal and I aren’t big meat eaters. Even just a few months ago, we rarely ate it. But, recently, we’ve discovered the amazingness of the Whole Foods meat counter. They have high quality standards and Animal Welfare Rating for their meats. You can also ask for a single piece of chicken or pork or whatever, so you only buy what you need for the week. Even still, meat is expensive, so I typically limit our meat-focused meals to once a week, and they’re usually a special treat, like Beef Bourguignon or Coffee-Braised Brisket with Potatoes and Carrots.

    I also make a lot of meat substitutions in recipes. So, if a recipe calls for chicken or beef, I’ll substitute a more cheaper protein option like canned beans, tofu, tuna, eggs, or a different meat on sale at the grocery store that week.

    A lot of people have asked if Mal feels like a meal isn’t complete without meat in it, and the short answer is ‘no.’ Of course, he feels much more satisfied when a meal includes some sort of protein, but it doesn’t need to be meat. He’s learned to appreciate the greatness of other kinds of protein! We’ve also lived together for 6 years now, so he’s used to not eating meat with every meal. He says he doesn’t miss it. I guess it’s just become a way of life.


    Stick to Your List

    You’ve probably heard this one a millions times, but it’s important! Once I make my grocery list for week, I stick to it. I only deviate from it when my favorite staples are on sale. Otherwise, everything in my shopping cart has a use for it in the coming week.

    Nix ‘Fancy’ Ingredients

    Unless I’m making a fancy meal or trying to impress guests, I only buy the ‘essential’ ingredients for a recipe. So, ingredients like fresh herbs or fancy oils get nixed from a recipe. (I’ll use dried herbs or regular ol’ olive oil to save a few bucks.) I also make a lot of substitutions with whatever ingredients I have around the house. For example, if a recipe calls for scallions, but I’ll use a little bit of onion. It’s fun to get creative with ingredients!

    Learn to Love Leftovers

    Leftovers never go to waste in our house. They’re packed up for Mal’s lunch or incorporated into another meal somehow. We also make at least one dinner recipe each week (chili, casseroles, pasta, etc.) that we know will have leftovers just to make a future lunch/dinner easier and more cost-effective.

    How do you save money by meal planning?

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    { 104 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michelle (The Runner's Plate) January 25, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I use many of the same tips!

    I love going through my mom’s coupon stash when I go to visit! I’m pretty sure cutting coupons is a hobby of mine as well!


    Kerry January 25, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    On another note – you could come to my house shoot a video of my freezer and pantry and tell me that I have enough food to eat in for 3 weeks and plan my meals.

    It could be your version of a financial/nutrition/environment intervention.


    Tina January 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I think it’s just that. People tend to buy too much. So, I’d say the most important thing is to buy only what you need for the week.


    Lori Lynn January 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Great suggestions. Thank you!


    Andrea January 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Great post, I have been trying to get the hang of meal planning for a while, where did you get your meal plan pad?


    Tina January 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Check my FAQs.


    Sara @ The Bucket List January 25, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    I love your “Feed Me” meal planner! What a fantastic idea! Not only does it help you stay organized but you’re able to see what foods you’re consuming through the week! I love it :)


    Melissa (MelissaLikesToEat) January 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Great tips! I already incorporate many of those in our home…The List and planning out the week’s meals on Sundays. I also freeze everything….whether I should or not. :) Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnt. If I have leftovers, I portion them out and freeze them. That way, if I don’t feel like cooking, there’s always something in the freezer.
    My freezer is getting pretty full so I like the idea of “freezer night” once a week. I need to incorporate that into my weekly plan.


    Katy (The Singing Runner) January 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    These are GREAT tips!!! As a college student who lives off campus, I have to buy my own groceries. I also have to be pretty careful budget wise. These tips will definitely help me save a few bucks!


    Christine @ What The Front Door?!?! January 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I’m just starting to follow these types of practices. I’ve never been a meal planner, so we eat a lot of frozen skillet meals and chicken nuggets. New Year’s Resolution is to feed my family “wholesome, real, and fresh food”. It’s challenging (for me) but really fun and rewarding too. I’ve been blogging about it.


    Christina January 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I love it, we use a lot of the same tecniques! I really need to get on my coupon game though lol. The one thing that I know has saved me money on food shopping is planning my meals out. I allow us each to get 1 snack pick every other week (usually). I base all my meals on what we have currently. For example, I have greens, frozen veggies and pasta. That’s 2 different types of dishes, tonight is ravioli with roasted veg, tomorrow might be a roasted veg with pasta and red sauce or some sort of casserole bake. The trick is getting creative and eating healthy.


    Kristen January 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Great post! I really should be better about hunting down coupons.
    I just love your meal planning notepad! Where did you get it?


    Lynn (The Actors Diet) January 25, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    i loooove leftovers. everyone else seems to hate them but i can stretch a meal for days.


    Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) January 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    every single thing on this post is awesome and it’s what i do too: eat from what i have, i rarely if ever buy something for a savory meal just to make that meal with ( I ‘shop’ from my own pantry or freezer).

    Desserts, sometimes i buy things just for that but not for savory meals.

    And sales, coupons, not being married to the idea of organic (i’d rather buy any apples than only buy organic and go into debt over them type thing).

    And planned leftovers. Saves time and money!


    Monica January 25, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Great post full of tips! I never once thought to sub fresh herbs with dried herbs to save on recipe costs, but it seems so obvious. 😉

    I love meal planning and just got a Monday-Sunday white board for my fridge to help with our schedule/meal coordination.


    Heather (Heather's Dish) January 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    i’ve recently started shopping based on the recipe i’m using…and i buy the store brands whenever i can! why pay two times the price if it’s not necessary?


    sarah (sarah learns) January 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    these are all really great tips! i follow a lot of the same tips, although i plan way fewer meals per week. i live alone so a lot of my meals get re-created into leftover meals later in the week!


    Rachel @ The Avid Appetite January 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    These are such fantastic tips! I am trying to get into meal planning because 1) I’m trying to cut back on meat, so no more throwing chicken together after work 2) I’m trying to cut down on my time in the kitchen after work (weekends only for fun cooking!) 3) Save some beans and try new foods!


    Sara (Miles andManhattan) January 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I fall into the fancy ingredients trap a lot…i need to simplify or it just costs too much!!


    Ashley (The Vegetable Life) January 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Awesome tips! I love the pad of paper that you use for your meal planning that has both the meal planning and shopping list on the same sheet!!!

    My hubby-to-be used to miss meat when I did not make it each night and now he is used to it too. I probably add meat to a dish 1-2x max per week and the rest he loves within the animal protein!


    Roz January 25, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    So many great tips!!! Thanks Tina. I do alot of this already, but love the idea of the clip with the recipes. I pull them out of publications and bookmark sites ALL the time, but they tend to pile up and I don’t refer to them often enough.


    Alaina January 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    I definitely need to collect more coupons. It all just seems to overwhelm me but if I set aside some time to just do it, hopefully it’ll get easier. :-)


    marie January 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Our problem is that we have a tendency to over-buy. For example, we probably have 4 or 5 bags of pasta and 6 cans of tuna and so on. Our freezer is FULL. Once in a while we’ll do a thing where we eat down our pantry and freezer, but we always end up over-buying (and wasting food as a result). I always worry about running out I guess.


    Christine January 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    For those who cannot give up eating meat regularly (like my husband), I’ve taken to just reducing the amount of meat in our meals and I rarely make a meal where the star is a hunk of meat and the produce is just a side dish. I make a lot of one-dish means like curries, stews, burritos, lettuce cups, wraps, and stir fries. In all of these instances, I can put some meat in them so my husband doesn’t cry, but that small amount of meat shares the spotlight with a whole bunch of good veg (and often beans!!). He likes his meat but this method has health benefits and budget benefits!


    L January 25, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Great ideas!
    Whenever I’m shopping and see amazing deals or have coupons, I pick up extras and keep them in my bottom drawer at work as an “emergency lunch.”
    That way if I don’t have time to pack lunch, forget it, or run out of food, there is always my drawer. Right now I have a box of instant oatmeal, a jar of peanut butter, granola bars that I scored at whole foods for almost free, and some cans of soup from when they were on a super sale. It has definitely saved the day more than once!


    Mandy January 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Wow, you have so many great tips in this post-thank you! I’m definitely going to incorporate the menu and shopping list idea! We spend sooo much on food it seems ($450 for 2 people in a month!) so I’m going to try to be thriftier!


    Mabelle @ dance, love, dine January 25, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    I love this article! Looove it. I also really like the idea of collecting coupons as a hobby. Sounds like something I would do—and will start doing :)


    Katherine: Unemployed January 25, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    you’re great at organization and such. good post!


    Kelly January 25, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I can barely get under $75! I would say I buy 85% organic. How much of your food do you think are spent on spend?


    mary (what's cookin' with mary) January 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    My Mom taught me the ‘put it on The List’ method when I was a kid and she was SO RIGHT. People will ask me how I stay on top of things/ never run out of things… well… THE LIST 😀

    I really like that tablet you make your list on. What a cool way to keep organized. Where did you find that ??


    Ellie @ The Mommyist January 25, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    I know many people would find this boring but my family’s approach is to eat pretty much the same thing M-Th and then get more creative on the weekends. It makes shopping much easier and we feel much healthier when our week night meals consist of only a vegetarian protein, some quiona or brown rice and TONS of veggies. We then eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. I know it would bore most people but I feel much better, have much more energy, and almost never get sick now that I eat that 2x a day most days. Then, on the weekend we indulge in homemade pizza, homemade Thai food or other delicious treats.


    Megan (Running Foodie) January 25, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I LOVE meal planning! I did a post on it this summer with an example of my Master Grocery List here. If I didn’t have this list, I would be totally lost! I’m willing to email a copy to anyone who is interested – it really helps me plan/shop!


    Hillary January 25, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I LOVE this. So many food bloggers post ingredients that are “fancy” and just out of my budget as a soon to be (2011 Northeastern!) graduate. Your “real-ness”, personality, and motivation has inspired me to start running and exercising more, and also meal planning! I did it for the first time last week and was just amazed by how much money I saved during the week by taking some time on Sunday to plan.
    Thank you for your posts. They are helping me immensely.


    Hannah January 25, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    My tip? Let go of the addiction to fresh herbs. Just too darn expensive :(


    Liz M January 25, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    http://Www.eattheseasons.com <– love this website because it'll tell me what's most likely to be the freshest/on sale.

    I also use store coupons and manufacturers coupons at the same time. I was super excited one week when Greek yogurt went on sale and I had two coupons. I ended up getting them for about $0.15 each!


    Marie C. January 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I wish I had time for all of this. Oh wait….maybe I should stop reading so many blogs and plan my meals??


    Sarah L January 25, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Thanks for the tips & I look forward to the rest of the series. I need to start these practices. I’m on matt leave, my husband has just been laidoff, my transmission needs replacing, & we just discovered that we have an expensive home repair.


    lauren @ spiced plate January 25, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    thanks for these tips! I definitely use the slow cooker when I don’t have time after work to cook a meal at a decent hour — and it smells SO WONDERFUL to come home to a finished meal!


    Denise @ Do you have that in my size??? January 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I really appreciate the tips for pulling together a list since this is something I really need to work on.

    A question for you, Tina: does Whole Foods have good, not-previously-frozen fish options? My husband is super picky about seafood and we have a really tough time finding anything he’ll buy at most of our local markets (even organic markets). Whole Foods is about 30 minutes from the house but I’ll make the trip if we can get some yummy salmon or halibut. Thanks!


    Hilary January 25, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I love leftovers too….and have recently posted a couple ideas about them!


    Melissa January 25, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Do you have a system for keeping your coupons? I recently started clipping and saving coupons. I keep them in envelopes by month they that expire. I know other people categorize them. Wondering what system works for you?

    Also, where did you get that meal planning notebook? Thx!


    Melissa January 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Never mind on the pad. I googled it and found it! Thx!


    Kelsi January 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    wow, such an in depth post. thanks for all the tips. i love the meal planning paper.


    Jenni January 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    I love the tips, I already do a lot of what you do! I love to collect recipes from everywhere too and use them in my meal planning. I was suffering from total paper/bookmark overload though until I got an iPhone and discovered Evernote – now I use their clipper for what I find online, email recipes to my Evernote email address, and take photos of recipes in magazines and cookbooks, and it all collects in one place (plus bonus – no printing, and I can recycle all those torn out magazine pages!).

    There are lots of ways to organize notes with notebooks and tags, but the beauty of Evernote is you can do a search all of your text within your notes – even text in the pictures! So even if you’re not the organizing type, it’s still easy to use. Plus it is available on so many platforms – can access all of my notes on my iPhone, use the PC version on my laptop, or even pull it up from any browser if I’m on a random computer. I love the cloud :-)


    Marian @ Clock-Racing Gourmet January 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    I do a lot of the things you’ve described, but I rarely use coupons because I seldom find any for things I was going to buy anyway.

    If I know that a big batch of food is going to yield tons of leftovers, I consider putting a couple of portions in the freezer so they’ll be there if I need them (after a few days out of town, etc.) Doing this also means I can start cooking and eating whatever fresh produce is waiting its turn in the fridge.


    Alisa January 29, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    It is SO nice to see a blogger mention coupon cutting!!! I cut coupons all the time, get them from friends and family, etc. – thanks for talking about this 😀


    Carla @ Practical Meal Planning January 30, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Great post with very practical meal planning ideas. I pretty much follow the same method in my meal planning. Living in Bermuda we don’t have coupons, it’s just not a part of our culture here – to my dismay! However, the grocery stores do print out their weekly specials; the trouble is many of the ingredients they have on special are not very healthy. However, every now and then we get lucky with a real deal, like chicken thighs at $1.29 per pound. I do my best to take advantage of these deals when I can. This week I got my grocery bill down to $150 for my family of three, which I’m so psyched about. My strategy is to use the same ingredients in a couple of different meals and have leftovers for lunch.


    annelies February 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Tina- these are fantastic tips. I sometimes get overwhelmed at the grocery store if I don’t go with a specific plan. You give a lot of great ideas for saving money (and in the end saving time during the week) by planning ahead. I’m going to keep this on my short list to refer to again before my next grocery store trip. Thanks!


    Rebecca August 5, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    After I plan out my meals for the week I plug my shopping list into an excel spreadsheet. I have the Stop and Shop cost for items in one column, the Whole Foods cost in another column and qty in a third column. After i type in the qty it tabulates automatically so I can tell once I have plugged everything in where the cheapest place will be to shop for that weeks list. I buy only what is on the list and don’t get any surpirses at the register. I have a $180 – $150 budget per week for a family of 4. If I spend $150 for a few weeks, we all go out to a restaurant with the money I saved as a reward.


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