You’re at the grocery store check-out watching your total get higher and higher… $50.89… $79.08… $120.19. It’s enough to make you lose your appetite and almost put back that bag of Mint Milanos!
Well, take courage, this week’s guest iSpecialists Steve and Annette Economides have 3 saving stragegies from their book Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half.
1. Take stock of what you already have. Before we embark on our once-a-month grocery trek, Annette takes stock of what we have in our pantry and refrigerator and Steve inventories the freezer. Annette records items in a number of categories, noting what we’ll need to buy in order to make it through the month. If you go shopping once each week or twice a month this step is still critical for making sure your pantry and freezer are fully stocked so you won’t have to make a special trip to just pick up one missing item for a meal you are preparing (but you may not have to do a full inventory each time). Taking stock also helps us minimize duplicate purchases and “remind” us to use the things we already have in the house.
Using a blank sheet of scrap paper, we make note of the following items and quantities we have in stock (of course, your list will differ):
- Breakfast Foods: Eggs; milk; juice; oatmeal; cold cereal; bagels; and ingredients for waffles, pancakes and French toast. She also makes sure our pantry is well-stocked with baking soda, flour, baking powder, vanilla, cinnamon and commonly used spices.
- Lunch Foods: Peanut butter and jelly; tuna; bread; lunch meat; eggs for egg salad; tortillas and shredded cheese for cheese crisps; hot dogs; cottage cheese; yogurt; salad fixings and plenty of fruit.
- Dinner Foods: Steve basically takes almost everything out of our chest freezer and gets a count of the number of items in each of the following categories: pork/ham; sausage; chicken/turkey; beef; lamb and lunchmeat. He also notes how much margarine, bread and butter we have along with frozen vegetables. Finally we check our supply of beans, pasta and other items for meatless meals or side dishes.
Once you know what you have in your pantry and freezer you have two choices to make:
- Go on to the next step of reviewing the good ads so you decide where you will shop for the items you’ll eat in the next week or weeks. Or…
- Plan your menu from what you already have in stock and just go to the store to pick up a few of the things that you are out of. The rest of your shopping trip will be to pick up items that are steeply discounted. Over time, as your pantry becomes well-stocked, your shopping trips will be focused less on buying food to consume this week or this month, and more for the future.
2. Research and listing sale items. Once Annette knows what we have in stock, she carefully reviews the grocery store ads with a black marker in hand, circling items that we need and items that are at or below our “Buy Price.” In our city, food ads from most of the grocery stores arrive either in the mail or in the Wednesday newspaper. If for some reason a particular store’s flyer doesn’t arrive, we review their ad on the Internet. But it’s always easier for Annette to evaluate the sales flyers sitting at the kitchen table with all of the printed ads in front of her.
Once she has reviewed and circled all of the ads paper and writes a list of the best deals. But she doesn’t just write one long list of items she wants, she lists the sale items by store. This is not our official shopping list, but simply a list of sale items broken down by store. Just because an item is put on the list doesn’t mean that it will be purchased- they are just written down as sale items, to note the price as a possible purchase or for easy price comparison.
She lists one store at a time on a sheet of loose leaf paper, recording the best sale items they are advertising under the name.
This list serves three purposes:
- It helps us determine the store or stores where we will shop. We usually shop two in one night. The first one for the bulk of our shopping and the second for loss-leaders.
- It allows us to see prices on the items we want easier without having to flip through numerous pages of store ads.
- If we are short on time, it allows us to go to Wal-mart and more easily ”Ad-Match” the best prices from all of the other stores’ sales.
In reality, some of the sale items purchased on this shopping trip will not be incorporated into the menu now, but will be saved for future months. This stockpiling concept allows us to always be eating food purchased at the lowest prices.
3. List daily events. Having determined what sale items Annette will buy, she starts to create the month’s meal plan by pulling out her calendar. Why the calendar? Simple. She plans the menu based on our family’s schedule for each night. She doesn’t want to cook a roast on a night when the children will be out with activities. When nothing is scheduled for the dinner hour or after dinner, she’ll plan a more complex meal like a turkey or roast. The bottom line is to plan meals that fit with the schedule.
Sample beginner menu
This is a simple beginner menu that Annette presents at our seminars. It’s not perfectly nutritious, but it will give you an easy target to hit-so you start off being successful.
- Monday: Tacos-lettuce, tomato, cheese, meat
- Tuesday: Mac & Cheese, Carrots-cooked or raw
- Wednesday: Hot Dogs, Beans, Pickles
- Thursday: BBQ Chicken, Corn on Cob, Applesauce
- Friday: Spaghetti & Meatballs, Salad
- Saturday: Hamburgers, Baked Potatoes, Green Beans
- Sunday: Vegetable Soup with Muffins
Over the years, Annette has been transformed from being a culinary challenged cook to a menu planning machine. She isn’t one of these women who just loves to be in the kitchen cooking from morning to night. She views it more as an exercise in efficiency, “I want to feed my family good tasting, healthy meals. So how can I achieve this goal without spending my life doing it?” It’s not that Annette hates to cook, but that she has so many other things she wants to do with the kids and Steve that she wants to minimize the time spent preparing meals. It helps to break down meal planning into various components (veggies, starches and main dishes) so you can create nutritionally balanced meals.
Before you select your meals, it’s a good idea to create a reference list of all the veggies, fruits and starches that are available for you to choose from. It’s a lot easier to have a list in front of you than to have to try to remember all of your options.
The meal combinations are decided based on a number of factors:
- Seasonal: Almost all of the fruits and vegetables we eat are ones that are in season- and inexpensive. So if we have a hankering for asparagus or some other seasonal fruit or veggie, but the price is outrageous, we just wait for it to be “in season.” That is unless we have previously purchased a fruit such as blueberries and stored them in the freezer. If you’re not sure when particular fruits or veggies are in season in your area, consult with your local county extension service, they should be able to provide you with accurate information. Another great source would be to stop by a farmers market-they’ll know for sure.
- Variety: We try not to repeat the same veggies or starches two days in a row. We once heard of a mom who just didn’t like the idea of planning meals, so she fed her family the same meal every day for two weeks! We know that’s an extreme example, but planning a little variety into your menu will go a long way to helping you really enjoy the process.
- Nutrition: Having a menu planned with three categories-proteins, starches and vegetables-provides a balanced diet and helps our kids understand the food groups so they can develop healthy eating habits from a young age.
Another time saver in selecting the meals is to compile a list that contains all of the meals you currently know how to cook. Annette’s list has grown over the years from just a handful of meals to over one-hundred. From this list, Annette selects and “plugs in” meals on her menu planner sheet always being mindful of the amount of preparation time required for the meal and the events of each particular evening. She even includes the judicious use of left-avers-knowing that many of the meals are prepared in large enough quantities to serve again. Planning the daily meals is probably the most time consuming and mentally intense part of menu planning. It’s also the step that will give you the most freedom throughout the week or month because you’ll have a plan, written down. With this step completed, you’ve just taken dinner out of panic mode and planned it to perfection.
Annette usually plans 15-18 dinner meals to be cooked on our once-a-month cooking day. (We view this much like our once-a-month food shopping trek-it is efficient and helps make the household run smoother throughout the month. These meals are stored in the freezer to be used later in the month when the menu calls for it. Once she has the freezer meals planned, she fills in the remaining days with leftovers or roasted chicken; pasta with homemade spaghetti sauce; pork chops; steaks on the grill or other meals cooked on the day they are eaten.
Can you see how having a written plan can really reduce your stress level? It’s more like fitting together a jig saw puzzle-just getting the pieces to fit rather than creating some- thing from scratch.
Taken with permission from Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family by Steve and Annette Economides.