food shopping on a budget

How to Eat Well for Less: Frugal Grocery Shopping

I’m on vacation this week, so I’m posting a series about food shopping on a budget with a twist. Many of the grocery-saving tips I see rely on heavy coupon use and packaged foods. My husband and I could never eat that way. Instead, this series will focus on incorporating all the standard tips into a frugal grocery shopping strategy that allows you to eat well for less.

Several years ago I read an article in Money magazine that discussed how people often waste money by grocery shopping several times a week. The writer described how her child’s friend was amazed the amount of food the writer bought on her weekly grocery trip. The friend’s mom shopped every night and bought little at one time. This is a strategy for eating well, but not for saving money.

People in other countries shop daily, but American don’t do it the way the French do. The French go to the market, buy what’s fresh, and then decide what to make. Or they decide what to make, then go to market. Either way, they are able to buy much smaller portions and don’t have much left over. Americans who shop daily usually decide what to make on the way home and don’t check their fridges and freezers to see what’s they already have. Thus they end up with multiple half-full tubs of everything and freezer-burned meat.

How to buy groceries on a budget?

Menu Planning: Good Meals, Affordable Ingredients

There are two keys to eating well and saving money on groceries: home-cooking and menu planning. Instead of showing up at the store hungry every night or opening the freezer and staring into its depths before ordering out, set aside an hour or so at the end of the week to plan the next week’s menu. Here’s how I do it:

1. Keep a magnetic grocery list pad on the fridge so we can note things as we run out. This is especially important because I don’t look inside the opaque containers of foods only my husband eats, therefore I don’t know if something is low.

2. Each Friday night I sit down with my cookbooks, grocery pad, and mini menu book. This is a little notebook where I write the week’s dinner menus. I can usually fit four weeks per page and each notebook holds about 80 week’s worth of menus (I write small). I get the notebooks free at conferences, but you can use hotel notepads, Realtor notepads, or even buy a notebook. For each night I list the main course, the side dish, and the type of salad. For example, “Tue: Chix marsala, red pot, wal gorg.” That means chicken marsala with roasted red potatoes and a walnut gorgonzola salad.

By planning ahead, I can be sure we eat fish at least twice, chicken three times, and beef no more than once. I can also avoid serving potatoes too often. If one of us will be out one night, I can plan to make extra the night before or plan an easy one person dish. I also make sure to use things that are already in the fridge or freezer. For example, if I made crème fraiche for a dish last week, I plan a dish that will use it up this week.

3. I list everything I need that I might not have already on the grocery list. I ask my husband if there’s anything he needs or any cleaning supplies we’re low on. Then I check my cabinets for supplies, frozen foods, and raw ingredients. I either add or delete items as I go. I also check our breakfast, lunch, and snack foods to make sure we have enough.

4. I check my list against my coupons and store circulars, and then set aside any coupons I can use. If something we usually buy is on special, I consider stocking up. Some people look at the circular first and plan meals around what’s on sale, but I don’t buy most of my groceries from stores with circulars or specials.

5. Sunday morning I head to the farmer’s market for produce, bagels, beef, and pork (both naturally fed). From there, I proceed to Trader Joe’s for eggs, dairy, chicken, cheese, fish, wine, and most canned/boxed goods. Finally, I head to Ralph’s to pick up the last of the items I need, usually deli meat, bread, rice, dried beans, some household goods, and anything the market or TK didn’t have.

6. After each stop, my husband takes the groceries inside and puts them away. When I get home from the last trip, I divide and freeze anything that won’t keep in the fridge.

7. Each night before bed I check the menu book and put whatever needs to defrost into the fridge.

Food Shopping on a budget: Planning Saves Time, Money, and Hassle

Money: 

First, I’m not buying duplicate items because I check what I have against my list before I go to the store. Second, I can use coupons, which I wouldn’t have with me if I stopped every night. Third, I can shop wisely.

Time: 

Menu planning and grocery list prep takes me 30 minutes and I usually do it while watching TV. Shopping takes me about two hours, depending on how much I need to buy and how long it takes to find it at the farmer’s market. So that’s 2 ½ hours a week (max, sometimes less). If I shopped daily, I would need to spend at least 15 minutes wandering the aisles, then another 10-15 minutes in the checkout line, plus daily travel time to and from the store. That’s also three hours a week, assuming shopping only six days.

Hassle: 

I don’t like grocery shopping. I especially don’t like grocery shopping when there are tons of people there and the lines are long and slow. I don’t like arriving at the store only to discover the produce is sold out or the deli is closed. Plus, once I get home, then I’ve still got to start cooking. I know none of those things will happen on Sunday morning when I can get my errands out of the way and then have the rest of my day to enjoy.

Menu planning also has a health bonus. Prepackaged food is often high in calories and sodium, even if it’s supposedly healthy. By planning my menu and cooking from scratch, I can ensure that we eat a healthy, balanced diet.

The rest of the series continues with these posts:

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