Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half, Part 2
In college, I could walk through ALDI and fill a cardboard box with the same $10 worth of food each week. How I ate on this I can’t remember; I must’ve been deficient in several vitamins. Since then food prices have roughly doubled and my number of mouths to feed has quadrupled. And it turns out not everyone can eat oatmeal, peanut butter, and potatoes every day (if they don’t have to). This group very much includes my husband and son.
In Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half we made a case for shopping at discount grocery stores. But the temptation with these stores is to impulse purchase lots of goodies you don’t really need. Turns out buying twice as much at half price equals no savings. Whether you’re new to discount shopping or just want to slim down your already-discount grocery budget, here are some helpful principles for taking grocery savings to the next level.
- Make a menu. Especially if you have a family, creating a weekly menu can streamline grocery shopping. You’re less likely to purchase items you don’t need or make multiple trips, which can easily increase spending. If you have no idea where to start, there are services like e-meals that charge a small fee and provide meal plans and shopping lists based on different dietary needs or grocery stores’ weekly sales. I’ve never used a service but it would save money compared to shopping without a plan.
If you’re new to menu planning, here are some tips:
- Bookmark recipes and refer to them when you make a list.
- Add one new recipe per week. It often costs extra to add a new dish to your repertoire so take it one at a time.
- Use “pantry list” type recipes that mainly use staples you keep on hand.
- Follow a pattern. We have a Thursday taco night tradition. You might also follow a general pattern like meatless Monday or leftovers on Friday.
- Plan 3-5 dinners and eat leftovers or pantry meals.
- Start with a simple menu. Planning ahead will get easier and you can save old shopping lists and menu plans to reuse next month.
- Make a list. Based on your menu, make a comprehensive list. Look at each meal and write down the ingredients you don’t already have. Then check your pantry list and see what staples you need to replenish. This may include breakfast and lunch foods, baking supplies, spices, or condiments.
- Establish a pantry. What’s this pantry list I keep talking about? It’s the staples you need to make your favorite meals, and for the thrifty shopper this will include ingredients that allow you to buy less processed food. I’ll share mine soon.
- Buy real food. While you don’t need to adopt a totally different diet, buying less processed foods is a great way to save. You may have heard that all the real foods are around the perimeter of the store, while all the aisles in the middle are processed foods you don’t really need. There’s some truth to this. Real food is more filling and nutritious, and therefore a better value than cheap junk.
- Buy in-season. As much as possible, I try to buy in-season fruits and vegetables as these tend to be tastier, less expensive, and sometimes local. In the summer we have also have a garden, raise chickens, and do some canning. We’ll share more on this when the weather warms up.
- Stock up. When there is a good sale, if the budget allows, stock up! Just don’t burn through it faster because you have more.
- Shop at ethnic markets. Love dishes from other cuisines? One way to save on dining or take-out from ethnic restaurants is to invest in the basic ingredients and make your own. These ingredients are less expensive and often more authentic (and delicious) when purchased at a local ethnic market. Ideally, go with a friend from the country of choice for insider info. Since running around to the Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern markets each week isn’t feasible, apply principle #6.
A note on my list & menu above: this week I’m trying some Indian food from a cookbook I received for Christmas. All I needed were a few spices and the best way to get these at the local Big Store is in the bulk section. There you can buy a small amount so it doesn’t get stale, and is much cheaper (per pound and also because you can buy less) than the pre-packaged options in the spice aisle.
- Put food in perspective. This is perhaps the most important grocery shopping principle of all. Americans seem to have evolved from the SPAM generation into a bunch of foodies. While we love good food and the social milieu of breaking bread with others, it’s helpful to remember food is primarily about survival. Accepting that not every meal needs to be gourmet goes a long way in cutting food costs.
That being said, I’m off to start dinner. What are your meal planning tips and tricks?