Grocery Budget Makeover – Meal Planning

by Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom on June 2, 2010

Amanda writes…

I am in the process of trying to “makeover” my grocery budget.  I started a couple of weeks ago to find and use more coupons, make a grocery list and meal plan, and track prices of items so I can buy them/stock up when they are on the greatest sale.  It has been challenging and a little overwhelming here at the start!  

I love the idea of meal planning, but I have been unsuccessful at all attempts previously made :(

About us:  We are a family of four-me, my husband, and our kids ages 2 and 8.  We have a small dog and an outside cat.  I mostly shop at Kroger, but sometimes Meijer and I spend somewhere between $100-150/week.  I would love to bring this number down quite a bit. Maybe to around $75 or less!

I’m not sure I can conquer this, but I’m giving it my full effort!

A Few Tips from Me:

  1. You are starting on the right foot!  Don’t be discouraged. And try to be patient with yourself.  It takes a little time to get into your groove!
  2. Find a meal planner that works for you. There are a few free planners available here. Or you could get something like this. You have to figure out what system works best for you and your family.
  3. Use Ziplist to keep track of recipes you want to try. It’ll make a grocery list for you too. And there’s an iPhone app!
  4. When you find an ingredient that’s on sale and you’re not sure what to do with it, do an ingredient search!

What advice do you have for Amanda that might help her in her meal planning and decreased grocery spending efforts?!?

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Toni June 2, 2010 at 6:26 am

Possibly start by only planning dinners, as not to overwhelm yourself. :) Once you get the hang of it, then move on to other meals.

Next, combine what’s in your fridge & pantry with whatever is in the weekly sale flyer. I never pay more than $2 a lb. for any meat (unless special occasion). You will probably be surprised at how much you already have sitting in the cabinets. Add a few necessities to your list and you should be set.

Lastly, grab your coupons for items that are already on sale and shop away!

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Maria Teare June 2, 2010 at 7:22 am

The first thing i did was make a list of every meal I could think of! Ground beef / beef – chicken – fish – meatless and breakfasts. I skipped lunch because it’s leftovers most of the time (I may work on that more now that the girls are out of school). And not just the main dish, a whole meal idea. I asked my husband and kids for ideas too. So now when I look at the sales ad and see chicken breasts on sale, I can look at a list of ideas and just pick what sounds good and fits the season. Sometimes I change up the side dishes, but if I’m in a hurry, I have a whole meal planned with no extra thought put into it. I also plan the kids snacks because it seems to save alot of money around here! When snack time rolls around, they get 2 choices and that’s that!

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Amanda June 2, 2010 at 7:58 am

Good suggestions! I have some other ideas that might help Amanda too. Buy local produce, often times I find they are cheaper then the regular stores. What helps me when shopping is sticking to the list! 10 for 10 @ Kroger is great but it I go off my list too much I over spent and don’t have room in the pantry for everything. I also use websites where you can search for coupons and swap them. The last thing I suggest is baking more; cookies, brownies, cakes, bread, etc. It’s cheaper than buying most items. Hope that helps and good luck!

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Kaye June 2, 2010 at 8:04 am

The best tool I found? It’s e-mealz. Seriously…you pick the store you want to use (I use Kroger) and it plans the entire week’s worth of dinners for you based on the store sales. It even gives you a shopping list with cross-references to each meal (in case you want to skip one). You can get a 2 person plan, a family plan, a weight watchers plan, a low cal plan, a low carb plan, a vegetarian plan, or vacation or holiday plans. It’s awesome! I use that and then use some websites I like (for instance, southernsavers and couponmom’s coupon database) to match the menu and any other needs I have with coupons that are available. It works for me in so many ways!

First of all, it helps me continue saving money. The Kroger family plan, for instance, averages about $65-$70 a week without considering coupons. Throw those in and you’ll save even more. Secondly, it takes all of the work out of planning. I don’t have to think about anything except any items we might need for the house (you know, lunch meat, cereal, toilet paper, etc).

I LOVE it. It costs $5 a month and is WELL worth the investment to me!

I hope you find something that works as well for you!

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Emily June 2, 2010 at 8:24 am

I would recommend keeping your budget set at $100-$150 a week for a month or so while you build your coupon collection and get in the habit of shopping sales. Make your menu plan for the week based on your pantry and sale flyers. Build your list off that. Use any additional money in the budget to stockpile those items (include health/beauty/cleaning in there if you want) that are deeply discounted for the week. Once you have built up your stockpile (even just a little bit) you can work your budget down to $75 a week. Good Luck!!!

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Emily June 2, 2010 at 8:40 am

These are all great tips. We do much the same – I took out the cookbooks & recipe box a couple months ago, and wrote a list of everything we “like” to eat. I was amazed to find 30+ dinner ideas! That helped me a lot – I could see that something like broccoli was on sale this week, and then go through & pick out every recipe that used broccoli, and make up all those things in a 2-week span. Some of them we ate that day, some we froze for later; but either way I used up the broccoli before it went bad at the back of the fridge. :) Maybe you’ve got a sale for a 10-pound bag of potatoes. That’s a lot! But you can make casseroles & put them in the fridge/freezer, you can pre-bake them for potato skins or twice-baked, and you can chunk them up for salads. Think about grouping things, that might help. And I agree about keeping your budget a little high for a while, and stocking up on staples. Spaghetti sauce, noodles, and some kind of meat makes a good main dish. Top with some shredded cheese or parmesan, it’s easy to add a salad & some bread. My little boys are picky, so we have a lot of plain chicken & hot dogs. :) Good luck!

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The Downhome Diva (aka MrsD05) June 2, 2010 at 9:10 am

My tip is to plan your meats around what is already in your freezer and your sides based upon what’s on sale. So for example tonight we’re having hot dogs (hot dogs from freezer- buns were on sale) with tomato pie (tomatoes were on sale, made crust, other ingredients from pantry/freezer) and baked beans (from the pantry).

When I get meats on sale I process them for the freezer right away. For example last week I bought two huge London Broil roasts. I cut one of them in half to have as two dinners, I cut the other in half and used on half for strips and the other half for cubes. I have two meals of strips, one of cubes and two of roasts. They all went straight into the freezer and the next time I find mushrooms on sale the cubes will turn into a beef stew.

I’ve been doing the couponing thing for about a year and a half now and I really think once you get your stockpile up it starts to come naturally. I only buy what is at the absolute best price now because I don’t NEED anything. I also don’t chase every deal because even if you are buying things that are a great deal, if you buy too many of them you’ll still spend A LOT of money.

Oh, and if you have a CVS nearby make sure you do the drugstore game so that you can take the health and beauty part of your budget down as low as possible. Of course there is also the tip to cut down on things that you throw away such as napkins and paper towels and to make sure you aren’t using too much of other things like shampoo, body wash, hand soap, laundry detergent, etc. It’s easy to squeeze or pour out just a little too much and that really adds up over time.

Good luck and I know you can do it!

Oh p.s. Recipe websites such as http://www.allrecipes.com will really help out with your menu planning because you can find recipes based on ingredients.

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Lea Stormhammer June 2, 2010 at 9:52 am

Great tips! I agree about just planning dinners to start with – it’s a lot easier than all three meals plus snacks! I agree that buying local is often cheeper – we buy all of our veggies at the Farmer’s Market and get literally heaps of food for only a few dollars. We blanch and freeze for the rest of the year, so I rarely buy vegetables and have yet to buy frozen fruit unless I get it for free after sales and coupons.

My suggestion is this: go through your pantry, freezer, etc. and literally write down everything you have. Then make a list of as many meals as you can using what you already have! Then you can start supplimenting with what is on sale at the store. We have a tiny freezer and an even smaller pantry, and I’m always amazed at how much food we have in there (1 – 3 months worth just buying milk and fresh fruit). That allowed me to use couponing to get my ‘staples’ back up and then we’ve been able to really slash the budget since then!

Good luck whittling that budget! You can do it! Just by watching sales and using what I have we went from $250/wk (also for a family of 4) to $75/wk. Now that I’ve gotten a small stash and figured out the coupon game, we’re at $40/wk and I can even wittle that down to $20/wk if need be.

Cheers!
Lea

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Shell June 2, 2010 at 10:02 am

I buy what is on sale/ and or a great deal (free even sometimes) with coupons. That way I am not shopping for what I “need”, but rather what I will use sometime, but is a good price now. I know what things need to be in my pantry and stockpile, based on the type of foods we like to eat. I am good at remembering prices, so I know when I spot a good price, however I have known people who keep notebooks with prices written down.
Then I meal plan, a few days at a time, from what I have on hand. Be sure to keep in mind possible leftover uses as you plan. Such as making a pork roast one night and turning it into pulled pork sandwiches the next. My family is not so keen on leftovers, unless I make them over into a second a dish (not just reheat what was already served).I have been married 25 years and this method has always served me well.

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Candi June 2, 2010 at 10:42 am

I shop the coupon deals each week at the grocery store, buying what’s free or cheap (less than $1 usually) and stockpile 2-4 depending on the coupon I have. I stockpile ground beef when it’s $1.88/lb or less (usually about 5-10 lbs) and split chicken breasts when they are $.99/lb (usually about 10 lbs). Pork roasts usually go on sale for $.98/lb and when they do, I pick up a big one and it will make it’s appearance in several meals throughout the menu plan. I also plan meals based on what is in my pantry and freezer from the previous month’s purchases. It helps me rotate my food supply so it doesn’t expire. For example, last month I got some major reduced ground sirloin for $1.29/lb and I bought 4-1/2 lbs. This month we’re using it in taco meat, spaghetti and pizza. If you’re wondering what a good price is in your area, you can always make a price book. You keep track of the major pantry and fridge items and each week you note the price. After 6-8 weeks, you’ll know when the lowest price occurs. There’s several bloggers who blog about the deals each week and Southern Savers has a “buy price” list which helps me know what is a good price in our area.

Hope that helps!

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FoodontheTable June 2, 2010 at 10:56 am

Amanda, I’d like to offer you a free trial of an online meal planning tool called Food on the Table that can get you started and save you a lot of money. It incorporates the sale items of your local store into your recipes for you so you don’t have too! Just shoot me an email and I will set it up.

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Carrie June 2, 2010 at 11:05 am

with the pets and growing kids it might make sense to start shopping at costco for things they use a lot of but you have to be careful not to go crazy when you get there and make sure to stick to your list

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Crystal June 2, 2010 at 11:06 am

I’ve been “silently” following this blog for a while! Great ideas, thanks for sharing all these recipes and tips, it has been so helpful to me! As one who started out not knowing what to do, I can say that figuring out what works (for me, a calendar w/ meals on it & weekly shopping trips, and I try to stay under $50/week for my family of 4) is working great. It’s a work in progress, but your blog has helped me so much! Thanks!

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Kim in Minnesota June 2, 2010 at 11:12 am

I love dinner planning, and keep it flexible. For a week, I generally plan 5 to 6 dinners. I write a list (including sides) and post it on the refrigerator. Then I choose that night’s meal based on our schedules and what “sounds good” that day. (If I swap the sides, etc., I make sure to cross them off or make a note to eliminate surprises later.) We end up wasting less and using our produce while it’s freshest. What about the other 1 – 2 nights? That’s when we wing it, do take out or start all over again.

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Gina June 2, 2010 at 11:26 am

Planning meals by using the grocery store’s weekly ads helps reduce your costs, too. I see which meat/chicken is on sale and plan around that. I also serve 2-3 meatless dinners each week to cut our costs. Good luck!

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Jennifer Lorenzetti June 2, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Tis the season for farmers’ markets! You are “forced” to buy in season, which means cheap and fresh! Consider preserving some of the food. Canning is much easier than you might think, but freezing is an easy way to start. For example, soon (late July) you will be able to get corn on the cob for 10 cents an ear. Blanch the corn, cut it off the cob, and freeze it in freezer containers or freezer bags. Presto, it is ready to be a side dish, to go into spoon bread, or to add volume to a soup or stew.

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Kelleigh @ Kelleigh Ratzlaff Designs June 2, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Along the lines of what Jennifer (above) said, now is the time to plant a garden! Even if you just keep a couple of pots with herbs, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers, you’ll save some money.

ALSO, and this is big, I would definitely pay only cash for your groceries. It will force you to decide if you REALLY need that item you just tossed into your cart. You will probably find that you put the junk food back on the shelf and stick to the necessities. That’s a good thing, no matter what!! PLUS, if you only put $100 in your envelope for the week, then you will already be cutting your budget down. Then, take $10 out each week and see how low you can go. I started out with a $100/wk budget for my family of 4, and now we are down to $50/wk (which includes the occasional bottle of wine or trip to McDonalds! LOL!).

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Jen June 2, 2010 at 8:23 pm

What is it that has caused the failure of menu planning in the past?

One thing I have heard of some people doing to simplify menu planning is to have a weekly rotation (which is actually a very old-fashioned idea). So for instance, Monday is pasta night, Tuesday is sandwich and soup night, Wednesday is breakfast-for-dinner night, etc. etc. The nice thing is that there is plenty of room for variation within those categories so you can plan recipes around sales/coupons/seasonal produce.

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Shannon June 7, 2010 at 6:45 pm

@Jen,
I like this one. The idea just came to me before I read this post. I am going to give this one a try.

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ATL Cook June 2, 2010 at 9:40 pm

I too shop at Kroger and since the first of the year, they have not been a cheap place. I’ve switched to buying more at Publix. Here in GA, Buy One Get One Free (BIGIF) means each one is half price–know the law for your state. I look at the ads on line and decide before every going to the store what I am buying. Never buy unless it is on sale and/or I have a coupon to double. Stick to the outsides of the store; do not go down an aisle if you don’t have to. Stick to your list and shop alone as children and DH tend to want things not on your list. Walmart has had a lot of produce on sale the last week or so, so I stocked up.

I keep about 30 dinner menus in NOTES on iPhone. I keep a master grocery list there too. Easy to post menus for the week, and they are based on what I have, what is in season, and sale items. If I need something and it is not on sale, I do my best to either take from my stash or do without until it is on sale.

Do not assume that Costco is cheaper–too many times it costs more. That means the savings must come from not having to shop as often, or from not driving. Also, don’t pay $3 for something at the Farmer’s Market that Kroger has on sale for $2. Know your prices. I buy ground sirloin for $2.74lb at Sam’s Club– I pay that extra 10¢lb to buy them already made into patties.

Cooking for 1 can be harder than doing it for 4-6 people. Cooking for 1 is not always 1/4 the cost of cooking for 4.

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Lori June 2, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Watch the sales! I shop at Kroger, Meijer, Walmart and Aldi’s occasionally. I’m lucky that I have all of these stores practically next to each other so I’m not running all around. I agree that Krogers has not been cheap lately; you even have to watch the 10 for 10 sale , a lot of the items are always 1.00 so this is not a sale! And they are very repetitive in sales. If you have a Walmart close by they have some very good deals, usually cheaper than Aldi’s or very comparable in price. Make a meal plan, a list and stick to it! Don’t take the kids with you, that’s an extra $10 easily. Farmers markets are wonderful for cheap produce, the prices are awesome!

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Debby June 2, 2010 at 10:39 pm

See what part of your “spending $100-150/wk” is actually human food. Are you including baby items, diapers, cleaners, pet food, paper/plastic products, gifts/cards, school supplies, newspapers/magazines, etc? You may not be spending as much as you think. Personally, I don’t think that for a family of 4, 3 meals a day plus snacks, 7 days a week, your budget is that far off. We budget 75/week for my college student daugher and myself, and that includes dog food and cleaning/paper supplies. Monitor your spending for a couple of months – yes months – that should include some sort of holiday, birthday, etc, that would throw your total off if you’re not careful. Most of all, be patient with yourself! You’re a good mom wanting to do the best for her family!! =}

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Andrea June 3, 2010 at 5:50 am

The tips posted above are great, so I just have a few things to add. One, don’t get frustrated and give up. It took me nearly two years off and on to figure out a system that works for us, and even then we have weeks that I don’t really “try” and come home with $150 worth of groceries and it reiterates that the work I do on meal planning real does have an affect.

Anyway, someone suggested allrecipes.com, which we use often. Just click on ingredient and then type in what you have on hand. You can even narrow it down by using a keyword like coleslaw or chili. We also use recipezaar.com in the same way. And on both sites, I usually try to skew my results so that the “top rated” ones are at the top.

Also, if you have a deep freezer, consider buying meat in bulk. My husband won’t eat grocery store meat but I find that buying a side of pork and a quarter beef lasts us about 6 months easily and costs about the same (and we get a lot more “expensive” cuts).

You don’t have to use any fancy meal planners. For me the easiest thing is just to grab a piece of computer paper (or a scrap piece of paper), fold it in half and write your meals on one side as you write your grocery list on the other. I also try to write my list in proximity to wear the items are in the store (fruits and veggies at the beginning, dairy at the end, etc). And at the end of each item I write the price, x how manonlyy I need to get and + save $1.00/1 if I have a $1 off coupon on one, oh and in (4) if I have 4 of those coupons. :)

I am one of those people who cannot have the same meal within 6 months, so I contantly try different things, even if it’s just a different type of burger. I first go through my freezer and pantry and write down what we have that needs used up….tomato going bad, steaks/chicken, etc. Then I find recipes for those only if I have to buy two ingredients or less (and it helps if I can reuse that item in another meal and double bonus if it’s on sale with a coupon). Then I plan out for two weeks including some meals where I don’t need anything fresh….like homeade waffles with eggs or nachos with leftover chicken a salsa. I then assign the days, making the items with things that will go bad first.

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Amanda June 3, 2010 at 8:23 am

I would suggest starting by looking at what you already have in your pantry to see what you can make meals with. Then start clipping coupons and matching them to sales ads, I suggest blogs like southernsavers.com and hip2save.com, they do coupon matchups for a lot of stores and can help you get started in couponing. Always look at weekly sales ads in your area to see what’s on sale and stock up when things go on sale for their lowest price, along with using a coupon on the item if possible. Start planning your meals around sales ads or what you can purchase at rock bottom prices by combining sales and coupons. Stock up on the basic essentials, Erin has a list of essential pantry items on this site and then you’ll always have something on hand to whip up a quick meal. Write out a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly menu by what you have in stock in your kitchen and by the sales that you shop. Figure out the best way for you to organize your coupons and when to spend a little time looking at the weekly deals at your stores. Don’t get discouraged, you can’t grab every deal (even though you might want to) and you might not be able to go to every store so you’ll have to decide what the best deals are for you to grab for you and your family. Don’t be loyal to shopping at one store or buying one brand. You can get many foods, health and household items for free when matching coupons to sales and it’s amazing how much you can truly save. Good luck!!

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