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:

http://www.inshapeindiana.org/93.htm (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?

    http://www.cainsfoods.com/cainscoupon/coupon.php
    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:

http://www.joyofkosher.com/2012/05/ground-beef-basics/
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!

    http://www.popsugar.com/food/Cupcake-Filled-Cupcakes-Other-Food-Fun-From-Web-11123222
    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!

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.)

The Obligatory Welcome Post

Welcome to AMeasuredLife.com!

My name is Andrea, and I live in a vast world where many things are quantifiable. (*ahem* For the record, so do you.) The word measured has a special meaning for me: it describes the way in which I live my life every day. What’s funny is that I didn’t even realize it: it took a friend’s observation of my behavior for me to see this side of my life. Dictionary.reference.com defines measured in the following ways:

adjective

  1. ascertained or apportioned by measure :

The race was over the course of a measured mile.

2.accurately regulated or proportioned.

3.regular or uniform, as in movement; rhythmical:

to walk with measured strides.

4.deliberate and restrained; careful; carefully weighed or considered:

measured language; measured terms.

5.in the form of meter or verse; metrical.

In my life, measure is everywhere. I’ve spent the last 3+ years regaining control of my health. In October 2011 I was a 275 lb pre-hypertensive, pre-diabetic woman barely making more than minimum wage. In the process of losing more than 100 lbs, there have been many things that required measurement: my weight, inches lost, the weight and volume of the foods I ate, the volume of water I drank, the calories I consumed and the ones I burned, the miles I walked, the stairs I climbed, the reps I lifted, the seconds I planked, the days I’d worked, the new recipes I learned, the money I spent on healthier food, workout equipment and (*gasp*) new clothes, the new friends I made, loved ones I lost, times I cried, times I raged, times I laughed and smiled. (Holy moly that’s a buttload of measuring!) And while I measured all these things, I, myself, was measured, controlled. I walked the line between lazy bum and overachiever. I found a middle ground that worked for me in all aspects of my life: emotional, financial, physical and dietary. I found that being measured worked for me.

I still don’t have a large income. Money will always be something that needs to be carefully budgeted in my household. But instead of using this as an excuse to buy cheap junk food, I thought of it as a challenge: how can I get the best results out of the least expenditure while still feeling like I wasn’t depriving myself? How can I still enjoy the things I love while bettering my health? I didn’t spend any money joining a gym, or using a diet club like Weight Watchers, or buying food from Jenny Craig. All of these things can, and have worked for people. But each of them represented a financial cost that I wasn’t willing to spend. What did I have that I was willing to spend? Time. I learned to budget and plan for meals. I learned I loved to walk outside when it was nice, or jog in place at my computer when it wasn’t. I learned, with the help of a few friends, to love kettlebells, a workout that I could do consistently from my living room. I learned that I could still enjoy all of the exotic foods I loved to eat by making them at home in a healthier way. I learned that eating healthier and saving money could go hand in hand. I learned I could enjoy my life and lose weight without feeling I was giving up everything I loved. I learned so many wonderful things about living and about myself. I have grown as a person on the inside as I shrunk on the outside.

This blog is not about telling you how to lose 100 lbs, or how to be measured. Sure, you could get those things from here if you wanted, and I hope you do. But what this blog is about is me, exploring the world as only I can: with measure, through budgeting, food, physical activity, culture and, perhaps most importantly, observation and thought. I hope, in the process of reading my recipes and stories, that you can garner some insight into yourself and your life, and expand your views of the world at large through your own exploration. There’s a lot to learn out there, a lot we can measure on our own terms. You just have to seek it.

Dare to know. Dare to learn. Dare to measure.

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