• 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    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!

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    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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