Meal Planning on a Budget: Part I – Inside the Grocery Store & At Home

This is part II of a 2-part series on meal planning on a budget. You can read Part I here.

You’ve made your menu and your grocery list. You’ve checked your pantry and printed your coupons. You’ve maybe even grabbed some reusable grocery bags to bring to the store with you, and you’ve made it into the grocery store at last!

In the store: (Shop the perimeter graphic)
Shop the perimeter!


  1. Slow down. Start at one end of the store and try to grab everything you need as you walk. I start in produce (I usually only get bananas, as I’ve gotten most of my produce at a produce-only market), then do dairy, then dry goods, meat, and lastly, frozen. This keeps your frozen stuff frozen solid. Now I don’t spend much time in the center of the store, because I shop the perimeter, but if you plan on spending extra time in the center aisles, you might want to do those first, then hit the perimeter. Since I’m spending a maximum of 30 minutes or so in each store to shop for 2 people, I just start at one end of the store and cherry pick the center aisles if I know I need something.
  2. Stick to your list. Impulse buys are a) expensive and b) bad for your health. If you planned your food out well enough for the week, including your snack foods, you won’t need to browse all the other stuff, because you’ll be buying all that you need. Pro Tip: It’s okay to buy an item on a whim if it’s a particularly good deal and it’s something you’d normally buy. This week I bought a half-shank ham for 99 cents a pound. Regularly it was $2.39 a pound, so I saved almost 60%. And ham is one of those amazing meats that you don’t even need to season, it’s delicious plain. It’s also my second favorite meat of all time, just after corned beef. Yum.

    This list is making me hungry!
    This list is making me hungry!
  3. Don’t forget those pesky unit prices! It may not be less expensive to buy a larger size every time, and it may just be less expensive to purchase a name brand if it’s on sale, as opposed to the store brand at regular price. Flexibility is really important here.
  4. Hand over your coupons! If you have them, give them to the cashier for goodness’ sake! Otherwise what good are they?
    Hand ’em over!
  5. Pay attention to the prices as the items are scanned to make sure you a) got the right items that were on sale and b) they scanned correctly. If they scan incorrectly, be nice about it: your cashier didn’t enter the prices into the database, and they most certainly don’t have the prices of everything memorized. Don’t blow your top because of an easily fixable mistake. Example: last week I noticed a weird charge for $2.08 ASPAR on my bill at Walmart. I mentioned it as soon as I saw it, and the clerk was just as confused as I was about it, and voided the item. No big deal. It was a weird glitch, she fixed it, problem solved.

At home:
Break down those bulk packs yourself!
  1. Separate your bulk packs of meat out into freezer-ready packs in a portion size you frequently use. For me, it’s 1-lb bags. Don’t forget to keep out what you’ll need for this week’s recipes! Label the meat with the weight, the type, and the date. (I don’t do this, because I’m lazy, but it makes it really difficult to figure out if I’m pulling out chicken thighs or pork chops, because they look pretty similar when they’re frozen into a solid block. I would seriously do this more often but I’m always misplacing my Sharpie. Lame.)
  2. Use your leftovers. If you find you have a lot of older produce that’s still good but might be a bit limp or just generally looks unappealing, make soup! You don’t need a recipe for soup, just cut up your veggies, throw them in some broth, toss in any leftover meat scraps you have lying around, or maybe some small pasta, etc. Spice it up and you’re good to go! Pro Tip: Freeze things that might might make delicious stock later. I always keep poultry carcasses, ham bones, and the ends of veggies that are good enough for stock but not good enough for regular consumption in bags in my freezer. When I get enough, I make stock!
    Chefs call this pre-prep “mise en place”, which translates to “putting in place”.
  3. Prep if you need to. If you’re particularly busy, or you have a recipe that you know is going to take a little extra time, see what you can prep before hand. Are you going to need a lot of chopped onions this week? Chop them up now and put them into a sealed container in the fridge. You can take what you need from it all week. Peeled and cut up winter squash lasts for several days in the fridge, and you can roast several sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week for use down the road. Cook large batches of rice, quinoa, or dried beans (I use my slow cooker for this). Leave out what you need and freeze the remainder for later weeks.
  4. Hang your meal plan in the kitchen. This gives you easy access to your meal plan and allows you to see in advance what you’ll be cooking for the next day or so, so you can make sure you pull anything you need from the freezer in time. (I have had many panics in regards to still-frozen packs of meat I’d forgotten about until the last minute.) If you’re like me, a tree-killer, you can also print your recipes and hang them up with your menu, so everything’s ready to go when and where you need it.
    You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.
    You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

    So do you feel like an expert in smart shopping? It might take some time to get used to the methods I’ve used here, particularly if you’ve never given a thought to watching how much money you spend on groceries. Also, you’ll note that I cook every night of the week. This might not work for you, but for me it kills two birds with one stone: I save money on eating out in restaurants, and I am much more in control of the calories I ingest. This doesn’t mean I never go out to eat! I do, I swear! It just means when I do, it’s special, an event. It’s usually and event shared with family or good friends, and not just something to do because we don’t feel like cooking. Everything in moderation, including moderation, they say. I’m always game for new tricks and tips, and am interested in the concept of batch cooking, so if you have anything to add, please tell me in the comments!


4 thoughts on “Meal Planning on a Budget: Part I – Inside the Grocery Store & At Home”

  1. You’re definitely a better planner than I am.

    For me, cooking every night just isn’t practical. I drive an hour to and from work, so it’s just not reasonable to spend anything more than maybe 15-20 minutes preparing food in the evening. My way around this is precooking all the meat – I cook my meats once a week (on Saturday, generally), and pack them up in individual packages. That means I can just drop a single serving of lunch/dinner in the fridge the night before I need it, and it’ll be defrosted by the time I want it.

    Rice takes five or ten minutes at most to cook in a pot on the stove, so I can cook that in batches as needed, and it’ll be done by the time I’m out of my shoes and into my sweats. Frozen veggies and rice/shirotaki/etc makes a super quick stir fry – provided any meat I’m planning on adding is already cooked and defrosted. Since meat is the only thing that can take a considerable amount of time to cook and prepare, precooking just that one thing save me a ton of time in the kitchen during the week, which is handy for those of us who travel for work.


  2. You are organized AND ambitious! I would LOVE to have time to cook every night, but I leave for work at 7AM and do not get home until 6:30 or 7 so I am usually too hungry and tired to cook. I cook big on the weekends and freeze leftovers so I always have a pretty good variety in my frozen meals stock (chili, rice & beans, Morrocan stew, split pea soup, minestrone, etc.) so I can take something out the night before to thaw and I can microwave dinner in a few minutes and add a salad or fruit.


  3. These are some great suggestions. The one I have found to be most helpful to me is cherry picking the aisles. Dh and I {okay, me, and he tagged along behind} used to feel the need to go up and down every aisle, then be shocked when our bill was $50 more than we expected. Stuff just jumps right off the shelves and into your cart when you do it that way. Now we only traverse an aisle if there’s something in it we need, and we come out with considerably more cash still in our {dh’s} wallet!


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