Meal Planning on a Budget: Part I – Before You Set Foot in the Grocery Store

Are these vegetables made for Fraggles? From: http://marxfood.com/how-to-use-microgreens/
Are these vegetables made for Fraggles?
From: http://marxfood.com/how-to-use-microgreens/

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat healthfully. Sure, you might *want* to subsist on sushi grade ahi tuna or the finest microgreens, or you may want to be lazy and order that fancy schmancy mail order diet food so you don’t have to think about what you put in your stomach more than how long it takes to microwave. (The idea of subsisting on frozen portion controlled meals that I pay way too much for is anathema to me.) If you truly wish to live that way, fine. Like I will repeat ad nauseum around here: do what works for you. Now I’m not “poor”. The Hubs and I make enough money to not qualify for public assistance. But we certainly don’t make a ton of money, either: we need to live on a budget so we can eventually buy a house. Financially we are moving in the right direction, and a lot of that is due to my affinity for planning. I may not be rich, but what I do have is time. Not tons, mind you: I work full time, do bookkeeping on the side for a few clients, and I come here and chat with you fine folk! The point is, I’m willing to spend a little time once or twice a week to save a lot of money. If you’re willing to put in the time and the thought, you can trim both your budget and your waistline!

A little bit of time spent once a week planning your weekly menu and perusing the sale papers can save you time and money later. The sale paper for our favorite grocery store comes out on Fridays, so that’s when my planning begins, usually over a cup of coffee after a strenuous workout! Here’s what works for me.

Before you set foot in the store:

From: http://www.kiplinger.com/slideshow/saving/T050-S001-10-ways-to-save-money-on-groceries-without-coupons/index.html
From: http://www.kiplinger.com/slideshow/saving/T050-S001-10-ways-to-save-money-on-groceries-without-coupons/index.html

1. Check the grocery store flyer for good sales. For me this mostly means meat. I never buy meat unless it’s on sale, except on very special occasions. I am, of course, on a budget! Spending as little money as I can on meat means buying very little red meat: I mostly purchase boneless skinless chicken breasts and pork chops. When they’re VERY cheap I will purchase chicken leg quarters in bulk for Frango Grelhado (“grilled” chicken rubbed with a Portuguese spice blend) or stew. Fish and seafood is, of course, special occasion food, mostly because The Hubs is not a huge fan. Salt cod, however, is always welcome in our household. But I digress. I write down all the sale items I will be purchasing on a list, along with the price. If I have a coupon, I note that also. See step 2 for more detail.

2. Check for coupons. Now I’m not one of those people who is so coupon crazy that I have a room full of baby wipes awaiting the day I someday have a baby. I am not an extreme couponer. But, there are times when coupons can make a good deal a better deal. My grocery store has digital coupons on their website that load onto our discount card and are deducted from the total when we swipe the card. Sometimes, these digital coupons correspond with printed or printable coupons you can find online, and guess what? Both the printed and the digital coupons work. It’s not often, but it happens. I would say I spend a maximum of ten minutes a week looking for coupons. (Websites you can use for legit printable coupons are places like Coupons.com or CouponSuzy.com.) Most of the coupons I see are for things I’d never ever use, like junk food, candy, or makeup. But occasionally I see something that I might want to try but wouldn’t pay full price for. Example: I kinda like Fiber One Chocolate Chip Cookies. They’re super processed but they’re individually wrapped and thus, portion controlled, have fiber, and they taste pretty good! At our grocery store they’re regularly $2.99 for 6. That’s 50 cents apiece. Not terrible, but not great, either. The grocery store had a 50 cent off digital coupon, and I printed a 50 cent off coupon that was eligible for doubling. So I had coupons for this one product that totaled $1.50 off. That’s HALF PRICE. Do I buy them at regular price? Hell no! It’s not a pantry staple, people. I do not NEED cookies. But I do buy them when I can get a good deal.

3. Be okay with going to 2 stores (or 3) if it will save you money. I buy produce at a produce market where the fruits and veggies are pretty cheap most of the time, but they’re pre-bagged and you need to buy in bulk. However, it’s WAY less expensive to buy there than to buy the amount I actually need at the regular grocery store. Example: On yesterday’s trip I got:

Okay, I had to weigh these. Almost 8 lbs. together, making them 38 cents a pound. CHEAP!
Okay, I had to weigh these. Almost 8 lbs. together, making them 38 cents a pound. CHEAP!
  • 2 gigantic butternut squash for $3
  • 2 lbs of green bell peppers for $2
  • 5 lbs of Spanish onions for $2
  • 2 10-oz. packages of button mushrooms for $2
  • 2 dry pints of grape tomatoes for $3
  • 3 bunches of cilantro for $1.50 (at the regular grocery store ONE anemic-looking bunch is $2.99)
  • 3 Asian pears for $1.50
  • 2 lbs of red grapes for $3

That’s $18 for all that stuff. And the squash? They’re HUGE. And winter squash lasts a long time uncut. So even though I only need ¼ of it for a recipe this week, I can save an entire one for weeks if I need to, and I can keep the rest of the cut one in the fridge, or cook it and freeze it for later use. Bonus!

4. Check the pantry. I have two freezers, a fridge, and six cabinets full of items I either a) have leftover from last week, or b) are pantry staples I always have on hand (more on pantry staples in a future blog). When I buy meat on sale, I often purchase bulk packages and divide them into 1 lb bags before freezing. About every other week I spend 10-15 minutes making a list of what I have “in stock” in the fridge, freezers and cabinets. Keep a running list in Google docs and this is even easier!

Yeah I think I'm covered for the zombie apocalypse.
Yeah I think I’m covered for the zombie apocalypse.

5. Check the schedule. I do an hour long workout three days a week. On these three days, I try to plan protein rich recipes, leaving the vegetarian or lower protein recipes to other days. If there’s a day I know I’m going to be busy, I try to plan a crock pot recipe or something quick like summer rolls. My days off are Sundays and Mondays, so those are the days I plan more elaborate recipes or do batch cooking.

6. Write a menu. I use a Google Sheets spreadsheet for this, so I have access to it everywhere, even on my phone. That way, you don’t have an excuse if you forget your list! Plan out each meal for the week based on the ingredients you have on hand or those you will be purchasing. If you need additional ingredients, write them on your shopping list. If it’s something I know will cost less at a big box store, I write it on that section of the list. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a discount produce store like I do, buy your fruits and vegetables there if they are decent quality. Here’s an example of my weekly menu plan:

weekly_menu_planner – Google Sheets

Pro Tip: if you’re lucky enough, like myself and The Hubs, to have access to a microwave at your place of work, plan on making enough servings of dinner to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. (UNLESS IT IS FISH! NEVER REHEAT FISH IN A WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT, IT’S JUST RUDE!) Not only does this save you time and effort in planning lunches, it will save you money since you won’t have to purchase additional items like bread and lunchmeat. Plus, in my humble opinion, a hot lunch is the best lunch. As you serve dinner, simply portion out the rest of the food into microwave-safe containers and allow to cool before refrigerating.

7. Write your grocery list by aisle if you know your store aisles pretty well. This will save you time and will keep your eyes from browsing all the junk you might see while looking for something. I generally group my list into stores, and then by section as opposed to aisle. But only because my grocery store moves stuff all the time, and some things are in some aisles but related things are in unrelated aisles and it can be confusing and irritating. So section for me: produce, dairy, grocery, misc stuff, meat and frozen foods.

I prefer to inject my caffeine directly into my veins, thank you. From: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/buying-coffee-at-the-supermarket/18598/
I prefer to inject my caffeine directly into my veins, thank you.
From: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/buying-coffee-at-the-supermarket/18598/

8. Be flexible. Brand loyalty can hurt you. If you must be loyal to certain brands, only buy them when they’re on sale, and stock up. Example: I love Melitta coffee (this is like heaven in my mug – I think it’s the finer grind), but Melitta coffee is $4.99 for an 11 oz. can at regular price. However, every couple of months, it goes on sale for $2.99 a can. At this time, I buy 6 cans. If I use 1 can a week for six weeks, and buy one can a week, I’m spending $4.99 a week on coffee for the first 5 weeks, and $2.99 for the last week. That’s an average of $4.66 a week. If I buy six cans at the sale price, the math is easier: $2.99 a week. You spend more money up front, but save in the long run. Now Andrea, you might say, That’s only $1.67 a week, that’s not much money at all. I could save that by skipping ONE latte (if you buy really, really cheap lattes)! Well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much. But for 52 weeks? That’s $86.84 a year. JUST ON COFFEE. And you know what? If I run out of Melitta before it goes on sale again, I BUY SOMETHING ELSE.

Pro Tip: I really love the flavor of Melitta’s Hazelnut Creme coffee, but it can be a little strong. Often I will buy Folgers and use half of each when I make a pot of coffee. Lighter flavor and it stretches the more expensive coffee, saving you money.

9. Check unit prices. Just because an item is in a larger package doesn’t mean it’s cheaper per unit. The larger can of tuna on the right is $4.12 per pound, while the smaller cans on the left are $3.58 per pound. Again, it might be more convenient for you to purchase a larger can of tuna, particular if you’re making a large batch of tuna salad or tuna noodle casserole (mmmm, tuna noodle casserole), but it might be more expensive!

From http://consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/08/save-on-groceries-with-unit-prices/index.htm
From http://consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/08/save-on-groceries-with-unit-prices/index.htm

10. Double check your grocery list. Make sure everything you’re going to need is on that list! If you miss something, you’re just going to have to haul your butt out in the rain or snow to pay a premium for it later. Pro Tip: NEVER buy standard groceries from a convenience store, even milk. Convenience comes at a premium. Example: pre-cut onions in the produce section. Onions are DIRT CHEAP (I buy them 5 lbs. for $2 at my produce market) and don’t take long to cut up. Do it yourself! (Also, you can save the cleaner bits of onion trimmings and other vegetable trimmings in your freezer and make veggie stock when you have enough.)

Phew! Now you’re FINALLY ready to put your coat on and head out to the grocery store(s). Stay tuned for Part II! (PS – It took me longer to write this post than it does to make my grocery list every week.)

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7 comments

  1. Great post! I admit the finances of healthy eating are something I haven’t entirely mastered. I’d like to blame that on the fact my local farmer’s market closes and opens under new management at least once a month, but there’s another only 10 minutes away that I have yet to motivate myself to actually go to.

    But, one thing I DO do is like my staple brands on Facebook and susubscribe for mailing lists. Yeah, it means more junk in my inbox, but it also means I never miss out on a manufacturer’s coupon for products I buy almost every week, and several of those coupons are limited in number and first come, first serve.
    With special dietary needs, it’s not always possible to switch brands based on sales, but what is possible is making darn sure that if there is a coupon, I’ll be sure to know about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my. Apparently I have been rude at work! Seriously, great blog! It IS much cheaper and healthier to cook for ourselves AND it tastes way better.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment, Connie! I used to work at a Civil Engineering Firm and we had an engineer who insisted on microwaving swordfish once a week. Enough people complained that management had to ban him from bringing fish for lunch!

      Like

  3. Great post. Love your disclaimer NEVER REHEAT FISH IN A WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT, IT’S JUST RUDE! I also hate it when people microwave broccoli. But at least they’re eating their veggies.
    I thought I was the only one who wrote their grocery list by aisle! It is super duper helpful. When I moved 2 years ago it was awful to go shopping as I felt so lost! So I wrote down what was on each aisle and took it home with me so I could make my list in order again. 🙂

    Like

    • Years ago I worked with a woman who liked microwave popcorn every afternoon, but she always burned it! I also used to have a coworker who complained every time I brought leftover curry in to work, which makes me sad, because I ❤ curry! He quit though! Thanks for your comment!

      Like

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