Saturday, April 19, 2014

Grocery Tips and Tricks

In every attempt to trim our budget, it seems that food is typically the most difficult area to control.

You’ve been there—aimlessly roaming around the grocery store trying to figure out what to fix for dinner, with a grumbling tummy to boot. This usually leads to buying expensive “heat-n-eat” foods and ultimately lands you in the very same position the next evening—because you still don’t have a plan!

You whine and exclaim, “I’m too busy to plan!”

Very busy you may be, however with just a teensy bit of creativity and organization, I’m confident you will be able to simplify your grocery shopping and save money as well!

In attempts to conquer the illusive grocery beast, I’ve tried couponing, monthly meal planning, freezer cooking, driving all over town to hit every sale I possibly can, and spreadsheets. Oh the spreadsheets!!

 At the end of each one of these techniques, I found myself increasingly frustrated and less motivated to stay on top of my intricately designed system. So, without the time or energy to maintain these time consuming methodology, I’ve learned to consolidate my efforts into six manageable steps that can be easily completed during baby’s naptime!

As with anything, it’s important to try new approaches with an open mind. If it doesn’t work for you, modify it! And it is equally (if not more) imperative to extend yourself plenty of grace in any organizational process. There will be blunders and roadblocks--expect them and roll with the punches!

The Plan
I try to coordinate my meal planning time with the store sale rollover day. Around here, that’s Wednesday for Hy-vee and Aldi. In a good week, I will plan the meals and make my grocery list on Wednesday morning and complete the shopping either Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. This way the sales are fresh and I probably won’t need to re-arrange my meal plan mid-shopping trip due to an out of stock item. Very annoying!

Take Inventory: Briefly glance through your cabinets and fridge/freezer to make a mental note of what you have on hand, and maybe some items that need to be consumed before spoilage occurs. I used to write everything down on a spreadsheet, but that process became very tedious and overwhelming for me so I had to simplify!

Browse Sales: Check the ads of a couple grocery/big box stores that are most convenient for you geographically. For me, this is Walmart, Hy-vee, and Aldi, and they always post the weekly sale ad on their websites. Write down sale items that you actually use in your every day diet along with what the sale is ($2/lb, $.99/ea or whatever), items you frequently use in favorite recipes, and items in new recipes you would like to try. When you are finished, scratch out the more expensive duplicate items. I use a basic Steno-pad and put my list of sale items (by store) on the left side of the sheet.

Plan Meals: On the right side of the sheet, list the days of the week you will need to make a meal. Then, plan meals from your recipes (I keep a stack of tasty sounding recipes nearby when I’m planning) using as many of your on-hand items and sale items in the store as possible. It’s helpful to also think about what kind of activities are going on each day/evening so you can plan a meal that suits the schedule for that day—otherwise your precious savings efforts could go to waste along with the food that was never prepared! After the meals are decided, I write them down on a calendar that is located near my food prep area so I always know what to prepare each evening. I’ve tried relying on my memory—but my mind is so cluttered these days that I just can’t depend on it anymore!

Make Grocery List: This part is usually the trickiest for me because I frequently leave items off the list only to realize it when I’m halfway through a meal preparation with no way to get to the store to pick up the missing ingredient! Don’t be like me! Double check your list! Anyway—I usually start by writing down regular weekly grocery items that don’t involve dinner recipes. Next, go through each recipe you plan to make during the week and write down the ingredients you will need to buy.  Additionally, write down any sale items that you will stock up on. Since you will be saving money by planning meals around the sales, there should be extra cash to stock up on items that you know you will use in the future. In our house, we are always on the lookout for a good deal on Pepsi. When it goes on sale for $3/12-pack or less (regularly $4.50 or more depending on the store), I buy at least three and then we are set for a month!

Organize by Store: Next to each item on the list, write down the first letter of the store where you plan to purchase the item and circle it (the letter, not the item). If this is visually overwhelming for you (it is for my husband), make a short list for each store. I don’t do this simply because I hate re-writing my list—but this might be something that doesn’t bother you! Sometimes I’ll even write down what the actual sale is next to the item in case there are signage issues at the store. You could also just print out the ad and take it with you. Or, you could be like my awesome friend and take advantage of price matching programs so you won’t need to travel to more than one store! One day I may attempt this—I’ll let you know how it goes!

Unload the Loot: Think your job is done as soon as the overflowing grocery bags land on the kitchen floor? Wrong! This is an awesome time to quickly clear out stale (ahem..moldy) leftovers and spoiled (chunky) milk before filling your fridge with new grocery items. Trust me, you will feel much more content looking into your refrigerator without the unappetizing clutter messing things up. AND—you’ll be able to find things MUCH easier. This is also a great opportunity to check the dates on any meat you purchased during the shopping trip. If it will go bad before the day you plan to prepare it, be sure to stick it in the freezer and then make a note on your handy meal calendar to thaw it in time to cook it.

And, that’s it! I hope you have found a few things that will ease your food prep woes—and if you have a different way to save money and time whilst grocery shopping, please share in the comments!  

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