Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Saving Money At the Grocery Store, Part 2

Note: All the forms and worksheets I refer to in this article are located here, at Apron String’s Kitchen Things.

When I was growing up—and even to this day—my mother would grocery shop by walking up and down every aisle, tossing whatever sounded good into the cart. While this method did provide us with groceries, usually A LOT of them, it was really ineffective in the meal preparation department as my father would have to stop on his way home from work almost every day to purchase an item or three that my mother forgot until she was in the middle of making dinner. I can only speculate as to the astronomical amount my parents must have spent on food over the course of each month.

I can’t remember where I learned about making a meal plan, but I know that when my husband and I where newly married I made out a meal plan every week and then made my grocery list from the meal plan. I would go off to the commissary and spend my $50 on hamburger and frozen burritos and toilet paper and cat litter and be happy as a clam knowing I kept to my budget. I know I did it because I recently found that very first meal planning notebook. Oh how I laughed at that old thing. I am afraid my culinary skill at the time was…uh…nonexistent. I had to look up how to cook a baked potato. I remember how excited I was to discover lemon pepper seasoning. I put it on everything!

Well, I guess I’ve dragged you far enough down memory lane for one day. Perhaps next time we can explore how poor my housekeeping skills were…But for now I’ll get on to what I’m supposed to be talking about: meal planning.

If you are driving somewhere, do you map out the route to save time and money while maximizing the sightseeing value? If you are grocery shopping without a meal plan, it is as if you are driving without a map. You can do it, but it is ineffective. If you are deciding what you are going to be eating all week while walking the aisles, you will forget items, or worse, be suckered into buying everything the store pushes at you.

There is a way of shopping and meal preparation called cooking from the pantry or something along those lines, whereby you buy whatever is on sale in bulk and then just cook from what you have. With all deference to those who can pull this off successfully, I believe it takes more creativity than I at least am able to muster. I’m afraid I’d stare blankly into that full cupboard and order a pizza. If you can do it, God bless you. You don’t need the rest of this article.

I am sharing with you MY way of planning meals. I am not an expert nutritionist. I haven’t taken classes in meal planning. I have 15 years of experience in meal planning and preparation in my own home for my own family that I am offering to share. If you don’t like my way, develop a way you do like. The point is that planning ahead will save you money at the store and time at home.

Firstly, I think it is very important to develop a workable template of meal ideas from which to work. I have seen several ways to do this. I have provided an example of the template I use here. There is also a blank one for you to use if you so choose. A template of meals is simply a list of what kind of meals you would like to have during a week. For example, meatless on Monday, chicken on Tuesday, beef on Wednesday, etc. I also have a template for lunches, provided there aren’t any leftovers, because I home educate and have to prepare a lunch for all the children every day. Since I already have these templates in place, I did one for breakfast. It eliminates thinking before 7 am. My template is a rotating 2-week plan, since I grocery shop every two weeks. You could just as easily plan a whole month.

I use my meal template to make a more specific menu every two weeks. I like to do it this way so I can shop according to what’s on sale, what’s in season and for special occasions. I have seen menu plans done without the template, just listing a month’s worth of meals and repeating it every month, which is a good idea, but it doesn’t provide me with enough opportunity to be creative. It would probably be a great way to get started meal planning, or when tending an infant (eliminate thinking for those first foggy months), or if your entrée repertoire is limited, or if you just don’t want to deal with planning a new one every month. Either way, the key is to plan ahead. I have provided a blank copy of my meal planning worksheet here. I like to plan side dishes, vegetables, salads—anything I’m going to buy and cook gets written down. If I’m consistent in this area, I ensure my family is getting enough fruit and vegetables, and I’m not buying things that end up not getting served.

When I am ready to plan my meals, I first go to my kitchen cabinets and freezer and pretend I have to shop from what is already there. Usually, I come up with a couple of meals or at least the main part of a few meals. Then I look at the current grocery store fliers to see what is on sale. For example, the local Safeway has boneless skinless chicken breasts on sale this week for $2.18 lb. That is an awesome price in Alaska. They also have frozen hamburger patties for $1.49 lb. Since this is grilling season, I will definitely include those. After the store fliers, I fill in the rest using what I know to be in season, taking into consideration any special meals, like birthdays or holidays.

It is wise to plan to cook more than one meal at a time. For example, a large beef roast cooked in the crock pot all day with a packet of onion soup mix and a can of cream of mushroom soup can be shredded and served over rice on Monday and on toasted buns on Wednesday. Likewise, one or two chickens can be “crocked” and spread out to two meals, and the carcasses simmered down to broth for noodles or dumplings or soup for a third.

When the plan is finished, all that’s left to do is make the actual grocery list. I divide mine by meat, produce, packaged items, bakery, frozen, dairy, and non-food. I have also arranged it by aisle, but I usually get several items in the wrong aisle, so that doesn’t work so well for me.

Just taking a few minutes to plan ahead will save money at the checkout. Your plan can be as simple or as complex as you wish, but having a plan is a guaranteed way to leave the store without feeling robbed.

One final note: I try not to make my plan so inflexible that I miss out on unadvertised sales and specials. Also, my grocer may be sold out of an item and I need to improvise at the last minute. I just try to get something similar or cheaper in price or that will go with the meal as it is planned. For example, if I’ve planned to grill steaks, but chops are cheaper, the substitution is easy. However, if I’ve planned, say, corned beef and cabbage, but there isn’t any corned beef, I may have to get an entirely different meal.

In Part 3, I hope to discuss some good shopping habits.

Warm regards,

Shannon

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