I consider myself a meal planning and grocery budgeting dynamo of late, as I’ve been challenging myself to save as much cash and time as possible in the realm of groceries and food preparation. By putting more effort and paying attention to all the little details – I was able to reduce my grocery spending by about 50% (really) on weeks that I’m trying honestly. Since it’s been such a success I figure I should share my experience with readers.
I should note that my previous job technically scored me free breakfast, lunch, and coffee & tea – and my current one does not. So I am back to the drawing board making a new plan and adjusting accordingly, which is what’s inspired me to write about it here.
The first push I had to cut back on my cash spending and time wasting in regards to groceries and cooking was just the plain ‘ol annoyance of having to decide what to eat and have to go get, for dinner every night after work. I found this to be just a real pain in my ass and a waste of time. I was mentally drained at the end of the work day, and since I didn’t really give two hoots what I’d eat for dinner – this made me even more indecisive about what to buy and prepare, which just wasted even more time. Completely frustrating. And obviously – a first world problem, I know.
The second push I had towards getting my grocery shit together was the fact that I was getting sick and tired of spending money on groceries and then having to clean out my fridge after a week or two just to see all of the stuff that had gone bad. I also had multiple instances where I’d buy something just to go home and see I’d had the item already in the cupboard all along. Wasted money, wasted time. And lots of it.
What was I doing wrong?
We were grocery shopping (at least for dinner) pretty much daily, based on what we thought we’d like to eat right now. The idea was to get on with the day, work, work work, go home, figure out wtf to eat, then get the items needed, cook it, whatever. Horrible idea. Though I love cooking and food in general I do not love wasting time trying to decide what to eat, wasting time searching through store aisles, and standing in check out lines everyday. I can’t believe we used to do that.
But, what did you do about it?
Firstly I made a giant list of cheap things I like to eat. I love black beans, I love chickpeas, I love canned corn kernels, I love rice, I love sweet potatoes, lentils… you get the idea. Then I categorized them as proteins, grains/starches, vegetables, etc. Then I made a list of meals I make all the time that I love to eat, and googled even more ideas. Then I categorized those, and even made a list of types of cuisine I like to eat with their flavor profiles in case I needed a little last minute inspiration. Every time I cooked a meal that ended up being quick, cheap, and great tasting: I added it to the list. This type of project is a work in progress, just keep adding to it and re-categorizing it over time, don’t expect your habits to change overnight. This is a long list of inspiration you can refer back to when planning your meals each week.
Do not force yourself to eat things you don’t even like just because you want to spend less money. If you hate lentils, don’t bother trying to love lentils because they’re on sale.
Where to start.
The first thing to remember when it comes to drastically changing your grocery budget and planning your meals efficiently, is that you don’t need to start changing your entire diet. This isn’t about revamping your cupboard and learning to eat differently – the majority of the savings (both cash and time) comes from planning and awareness alone.
Step one is becoming very aware of what you have in the fridge, freezer, and cupboard. It is going through all of it and cleaning out anything that’s gone bad, or has been there for several months and hasn’t been touched. Clean everything out and familiarize yourself with what’s left.
Step two is deciding what you like to eat, and making a list of all of these things, along with anything new you might want to try. Then look at this list and decide if the ingredients to make them are expensive or inexpensive, and cross out the meals that are costly, at least for now (sorry, steak slathered in blue cheese). Now look at your list again and see if there are any common ingredients across any of those meals. For example: maybe you want to have tacos this week, but you didn’t think about what you’d do with the other half head of cabbage you’ll now have sitting in the fridge. If you aren’t sure what to do with a leftover ingredient – google it! Cabbage is great in stir fry, quick pickled and tossed onto a sandwich or burger, or even raw in a buddha bowl. Pick a theme for week 1’s meals, and take a look at how you can double up on certain ingredients from day one to day two, etc, and you’ll quickly start to see how you can cook all week without those dreaded rotting leftovers. I like to start with one or two meals I really want to make this week, and then plan the other several dinners based on the ingredients I’ll most likely have leftover from those meals. If you are a large family you’ll have less issue with leftovers, I’m sure!
Step three is, at least for me, deciding to eat a lot less meat. If you stop purchasing meat for a few weeks you’ll realize half your budget was that alone. Processed foods and meat are incredibly expensive per portion when you break it down. Preparing everything from scratch instead will affect your budget drastically, even without all the cupboard cleaning and meal planning. Just be sure you’re getting enough protein from other sources, it isn’t difficult.
Okay, what now?!
To start off week one, take a look in your fridge and cupboards and decide what you’d like to use as a starting off point. Maybe you have a huge jar of pasta that’s getting stale and old. Plan a pasta dish with as many ingredients as you can that you already have, and try to be creative enough that you only need to pick up a thing or two to finish it off. Check all cupboards, freezer, and fridge. Plan a few meals based on ingredients you already have that need to be used up, and just buy a few small items that can complete these meals.
When you don’t have much left hanging around in the cupboards, make yet another list – this time with a few basic non-perishable items you can purchase to keep as a ‘meal base’. These things include: a large bag of rice, dried pasta, dried or canned legumes, granola mixes or oats, items that keep in the freezer, a bag of onions or potatoes. All of these things can hang around for ages without going bad and are great starting off points for you. Purchase these items (only things you really like) so you have them always on hand. Try to find somewhere to buy them cheap even if it means going a little further out of your way.
If you’ve followed through with the above steps you will already have a list of meals you either love making/eating or want to try making, so writing a list of ‘base groceries’ shouldn’t be hard. Just refer to your list of fave meals. Keep these non-perishable base groceries on hand always, and your planning will be made easier when it comes time to check what’s in the cupboards for planning the upcoming week’s meals.
Always consult your list, and always consult your pantry shelves.
Do's & Don'ts
Don’t shop blindly. Always check what you already have and start planning based on that.
Don’t shop hungry. No explanation necessary.
Don’t plan 7 different dinners for the week that are completely unrelated and don’t share any common ingredients.
Don’t force yourself to eat things you don’t really like just because you know they’re cheap. But also don’t tell me filet mignon is the only thing you like to eat.
Don’t expect to save trillions of dollars right away. Though you might see a drastic difference in your spending right away like I did, it might take a few weeks to get the hang of it and to get creative with the meal planning.
Don’t buy random things just because they’re on sale. If they aren’t part of the meal plan you’ve created for this week, just leave it be. Unless of course it’s your favorite Smoked Gouda flavoured Triscuit crackers. *drool*
Don’t buy so much meat. It’s expensive. Try going without, you probably won’t hate it. That’s what spices are for.
Don’t forget herbs spices. They make everything delicious and won’t break the bank. Cheap food doesn’t mean bland food.
Don’t plan a lot of meals that have ingredients with short shelf lives.
Don’t buy processed snack foods. Again, unless they’re the above listed Triscuits.
Do google different cuisines and get inspired.
Do look for sales on items that are on your ‘base groceries’ list. Or other items you love that you’ll use regularly.
Do write everything down so you can refer back later. I use Evernote on my phone so that I can add and remove items wherever I am and whenever I think of them.
Do plan meals that are one-pot-wonders. Easy to prep, easy clean up.
Do plan meals that require ingredients that have a decent shelf life. If you can shop once for the week that’d be ideal.
Do plan meals you can “batch prepare”. I love rice pilaf, toss it all together, portion it out into containers, done. Holds well. I also make a batch of breakfast muesli (or as they call it these days, “refrigerator oats”) for the whole week.
Do look at your grocery receipts and analyze your own spending. If your green peppers are costing 3 bucks a piece find a new grocery store.
Do find ways to substitute certain ingredients. For example: make your own pizza dough with a dollar’s worth of flour instead of spending 6 bucks on the premade kind. Things like that. Learn how to make a killer loaf of bread. If you’re reading this blog you already know where to find the best no-knead easy-peasy bread recipe!
Do try new things.
Do analyze your coffee spending. That was a huge one for me.
Do pay attention to all the details, watch where every dime goes. Adjust accordingly!
Ideas & Sources
Some of my favourite meals to make that are great ways to use up old leftovers and odds and ends are fried rice and rice pilaf, pasta dishes, soup, stew, stir fry, and sometimes even sandwiches. I generally plan these types of meals near the end of the week so I can use up whatever is left in the vegetable drawer.
Great websites for meal ideas, recipes, and inspiration (click each to visit site) –
Jamie Oliver (honestly)
…and our fellow WordPress users blogs, of course!
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Photo feature courtesy of Unsplash.