Tag Archives: grocery shopping

Meal Planning: What it is, why you should, and how to do it

 

A very popular topic in food and cooking related blogs and forums is meal planning. What is it, how can you do it, is it worth the time? I’ll start by saying that this article is going to be just full of suggestions, tips and tools. Everyone’s situation is different, so I cannot write an article that will work for every single person who might read it. I don’t know if you’re single, vegetarian, diabetic, have three kids, on food stamps, or a combination of all those things. I will however try my best to give you general tips with more specific scnearios as we go along.

Feel free to email me at BudgetEpicurean (at) gmail (dot) com if you have a specific question, or any question really.

As featured on Stacking Benjamin’s podcast:
Meal Planning Made Easy

What is Meal Planning?


Meal planning is simply that: planning your meals in advance. The period of planning time may vary, for some you don’t plan dinner until it is 7pm and you’re starving. Some people plan per week, others plan per month. It is up to you how frequently you can and want to think about your upcoming meals.

The most common way to go about planning meals is to use a spreadsheet or pre-made printout. If you are an experienced cook or have adequate food in your home already, you could simply list the day and the meal(s) you intend to make. There are abundant options of formats available for free online, and there are also yearly or monthly services which will plan your meals for you. Most paid services will also create a grocery shopping list to go with the meal plan.

But why pay for a service you can do for yourself in 20 minutes on one weeknight? I am after all, the Budget Epicurean!

Why should I bother?


Well, if it really seems like too much trouble, you don’t need to read any further. Or pay for someone to do it for you. But meal planning can save you the loss of significant money in the form of food waste.

Americans waste billions of pounds of food per year, up to 40% of the food that households purchase!! This is due mostly to bad planning. You make too much and no one likes the leftovers. Or you cook, then go out, then cook again, and it goes bad before you can rotate the leftovers. Or you miss an expiration date and the goods expire. 

By planning your meals in advance, you are creating several opportunities to save money. You are also bettering your health. This is what planning meals and cooking at home does for you:

  • You can feature weekly sale items in your meals, saving you $$
  • You can buy in bulk for similar meals, saving you $$
  • You cut down on food waste, saving $$ and landfill space
  • You control portion sizes, helping your health
  • You control what ingredients go in it, meaning you can ‘have it your way’
  • You determine what meals to make, avoiding boredom
  • No preservatives or extra chemicals are added, boosting your health

How to make a meal plan

A typical week’s meal plan for me.

As stated above, there are plenty of free and paid templates online. But the simplest way to do it is make it on your own. If you are super new to cooking in general, take a gander at Real Simple’s “Cooking Basics” checklist. Then follow these steps:

Step 1: Make a list of meals you/your family likes to eat, and meals you know how to make.

Step 2: Draw out a grid for the week. Seven columns, and 3-5 rows for individual meals and snacks.

Step 3: Start filling in spaces you know. For example, if you have kids, you can fill in the “lunch” squares with “school” if they buy a lunch, or “PB&J + apple + string cheese + juice” if you make their lunches. Feel free to add in things like “Eat out” or “Leftovers buffet” for nights you know will be busy.

Step 4: Check your local grocery ads. Figure out what is on sale that could go into meals you would like to make. For example, if romaine, tomatoes, chicken, and salad dressings are on sale, you should schedule in a grilled chicken salad for dinner and/or lunch a few days this week.

Step 5: Once you have figured out what meals you are making, do a quick check of your cupboards and refrigerator. Write down any items you need to buy at the store. This is your week’s grocery list.

Step 6: Take your list to the store, and buy only what is on the list. Don’t let yourself be lured by that juicy looking steak or the whole rotisserie chicken, unless it was on your list. This will take willpower and practice, but will be a huge money-saver.

Step 7: Post your week’s (or month’s) meal plan where you will see it, maybe on the refrigerator door. Then simply follow it each day. 

Grocery cart

The planning process should take you only 20-30 minutes on a weekend or weeknight, and a 30 minute trip to the store. Once you get the hang of a basic meal plan, you can get much more detailed. For example, you can plan to make large amounts of a basic ingredient, like beans or rice, on the weekend. Then throughout the week take the portion you need for that day’s dinner out. Or have notes to yourself to defrost the pork chops you will cook Wednesday on Tuesday night.

Don’t forget to add in little things like snacks, desserts, and occasional days out so you don’t get ‘frugal fatigue’. 

For more information & ideas:
The CDC has a great article on cutting costs and calories by planning meals at home as well as one the go.
EatThisMuch has an awesome calorie calculator/meal planner that allows you to input a calorie amount, and it automatically gives you three meals (or more depending on what you choose) with that amount. You can change out meals you don’t like, or add more.
Cooking Light also has a weekly meal planner which allows you to choose recipes from their archives and drag & drop to create your week.



Do you plan meals in advance?

 

How to: Save money on your grocery bill

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Groceries are a fact of life. Unless you are one of a VERY small minority, you do not raise and/or grow all the food you eat. Also I’m sure there are people out there who never cook their own food, but rely on take-out and fast food for daily nutrition. That blows my mind of course, because I find such joy in cooking, creating, and enjoying homemade meals.
There aren’t many things more exciting to me than to bring home a big load of groceries for less than I intended to spend. Every time I go grocery shopping, I have a certain number in my head that I am allowing myself to spend. If I get everything I need for the week for less than that number, I am excited. If I go over that number, I just know I need to plan better, or have better impulse control, next time. 
 
My plan of attack when it comes to grocery shopping is always the same. It comes down to:
1. Knowing what you use most often
2. Paying attention to sales & in-season produce
3. Price comparing between a few stores
4. Buying generic or store brands
5. Making a budget and sticking to it

Know what you use most often

To know what you use most often, simply pay attention to what you run out of the most. What types of foods do you and/or your family want to eat often? Do you make a lot of pasta? Maybe cereal disappears within a day. Is there a tradition in the family like Taco Tuesdays? Noticing what you use often will help you plan around sales and stock up on staples. What I use most hasn’t changed much over the past few years: rice, canned diced tomatoes, canned beans, frozen mixed vegetables. These things make up the bulk of my weekly diet. I don’t know that I’ve ever gone a week without eating each of those things somehow.

Pay attention to sales & in-season produce

Sprouts Farmers Market is a place I go often because of their amazingly cheap produce. I get weekly salad greens, fresh fruits and vegetables there. Most staple items like bread, tortillas, canned goods, etc, comes from King Sooper or somewhere else. Which reminds me, if there is something or certain kinds of food you need a specialty store for, keep them in your rotation of ads to watch.

All this produce was under $30! And most of that is just their everyday low prices, not bargain sales. However, most grocery stores will greatly discount whatever produce is in season, because they have a lot of it and it needs to sell before it goes bad. Pay attention to what is in season, and maybe try a new fruit or vegetable you’ve never had that’s on sale. You may have found a cheap new favorite!

Price compare between stores

Every week I get ads from at least seven different stores. I have a few favorites that I pick out, the others I discard because they are too far from me or for some other reason I don’t shop there. Typically Sprouts Farmers Market, King Soopers, and Albertson’s ads get saved and looked through.

I will sit down and look through each ad quickly, circling items which I know are a good deal, or which I use often and are on sale. Then I compare amongst the three which has more deals that week. Sometimes I will go to all three if the deals are worth it, usually I end up going to only one or two with the most things I want to buy. 

When there is a really good sale, I mean one that you only see once or twice a year, I will stock up. For example Albertson’s sometimes has “buy one get two free” sales on meats, or King Soopers often has 10 for $10 sales. I know how quickly I go through my pantry items, so if kidney beans are 50 cents, I will be bringing at least a dozen home. Because they usually are 69 cents, which saves me 19 cents per can. That may not sound like much, but it’s little things like that, added up over years, that makes a big difference in bank account balances. 

Buy generic or store brands

If you are a loyal brand-centric consumer and you don’t trust generics, start small. Try the store brand of flour, or salt, and cook with it. When you can’t tell the difference, try some granola bars or oatmeal. Pretty soon you will see what items you can’t tell the brand name from generic and which items are really different in quality. By this point, the things I refuse to buy generic I could probably count on one hand, because there just isn’t enough of a difference in quality for me to justify the price difference. And that saves me hundreds every year!

Make a budget & stick to it

As mentioned earlier, I look at a budget as a game. It is a number I set in my head, based on how much I think I’ll buy, that I try to beat. If I find some deal or coupon that brings down my total, I have a better chance of winning. If I plan and price compare, I have a better chance of winning. The lower the total at the register, the higher the total in my checking account!

You can read more in my earlier article on making a budget & sticking to it, which includes how to add in all the things you spend money on monthly, not just food.


I have read tons of articles that advocate for making a weekly or monthly meal plan, stressing those items on sale that week, and then buying only those things you need to complete the plan. I am not quite that organized to pull that off yet. Instead, I have a rotation of meals that I know I love and can make quickly, which all use the same basic ingredients. Then I add in a few meals I’ve found recently that I want to try making, or if there is an event coming up, I’ll add any items I need for those things to the list. 

If I’m feeling extra over-achieving, I will even split the list into types, like “dairy”, “carbs”, “produce”, etc.  to make navigating the store easier. But if I don’t get around to it, I don’t beat myself up. And almost every week for several months, I get more than enough groceries for under $100. I’m sure I could pare that down to half or less, but I also enjoy cooking new and more expensive foods now and then, and experimenting with things for this blog. 

Anyhow, if you normally only grocery shop when there’s nothing left in the house but a can of spaghetti-os and some green sour cream, try these simple steps. Check around and price compare, make a list before you go, then pick up only those things on the list. Short, sweet, and you can be sure you’re saving yourself some cash. You can look over those grocery receipts and smile.


How often do you shop for food?