Shopping for One! – Grocery Budget Makeover

by Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom on January 20, 2011

It’s another edition of Grocery Budget Makeover!

Alycia shares her situation and needs our help…

I am a young professional who is single (no kids, spouse etc.) and somehow I spend around $200 per month on groceries. Part of the problem is that I shop individually for each meal and also that I usually shop after work when I haven’t eaten since lunch! The other major factor is poor planning. Is there any way I can cut my grocery budget in half? Are there any recommendations as far as meal planning, shopping in bulk, etc? Any advice is greatly appreciated!

First off, I’m am quite impressed with your desire to cut your grocery bill in half at this time in your life Alycia!  While I was never spending extravagantly during this time of my life, I can’t say that I was trying to cut my spending either! I commend you for taking steps to spend less of your hard earned dollars, and I hope that your peers see your example and follow suit!

You are right on track in terms of meal planning and shopping more in bulk. It’s now time to put it into action.  I would definitely recommend having a meal plan and very specific list in hand before you go into the store. Then you can get through the store faster and feel less pressure from your stomach, as you go through the store with a grumbling stomach.  (And if you can get to the store at another time, that would be much easier for those cravings…but I realize that might not work with your schedule!)

If you have a well stocked pantry with items that you’ve purchased in bulk, then you can make any of my pantry staples meals…just scale them in 1/2 or 1/4 to get a smaller portion for your meal, depending on how much you eat, and if you want leftovers.

For your situation, meal planning will be essential…especially when it comes to leftovers!  Because most recipes are written for 4 servings, I think that the key to cooking for one is the creative use and reuse for leftovers.  Then you can make the recipe “as is” and then get clever with what you can’t eat!

You’ll also want to check out my stock the freezer list, for meal ideas that you can cook, eat and freeze the extras!

Your turn…

What advice do you have for Alycia?!  What did you, or do you, find that worked well during your young professional days!?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky January 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Make a regular meal that is freezer friendly (stirfry, etc).
I used to do about 4 or 5 meals for a month and just rotated them.
Also check out bento box ideas – you can bring leftovers for lunch but make them look good.

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Laura January 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I agree that using your freezer is the best way to do this. For example, if I make a big batch of spaghetti sauce, I may have it the first night but then I can only stomach the same meal so many days in a row, so I’ll end up dividing it into 2 containers and put them in the freezer, and pull them out in the following weeks. You would be amazed how many things you can freeze (taco meat! bread, etc) I say cook a meal then freeze the other half – don’t feel like you have to use the other half for lunch the next day. By doing this, my food waste has been cut down quite a bit too.

I think making foods from scratch helps to decrease your food bills to especially if you have a well stocked pantry and stock up on those things when they go on sale.

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Jodie January 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm

I would suggest maybe getting a foodsaver. That way she can buy the large value packs of meat when they are on sale, but package them up individually. It would take a little time to make your money back on that, but it has been worth it for my husband and I. Smaller packages of meat are so much more expensive…

I suppose you could do the same thing and just wrap them yourself, but in my experience freezer burn would always get them, no matter how well I thought I wrapped them.

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monique January 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm

I would add to choose only 1 or 2 grocery stores to frequent each week, and instead of shopping daily, shop weekly or biweekly. Look at the sales in the weekly ads, and that will help keep your spending low. Buy what you’d normally buy, but only when it’s a great price, and when it is at a great price, buy in bulk, as described above.
As you start making your favorite meals, start keeping the recipes in a binder, and start meal planning. You can rotate your meals as often as you like, but use at least one portion of leftovers for lunch sometime in the next few days. On the mornings when you know you won’t have time to make dinner, pull something out of the freezer that was previously prepared. Thaw it in the fridge and reheat it for dinner.

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Sarah (Frontier Kitchen) January 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm

What I would do is every time you go to make dinner, instead of scaling the recipe back from 4 servings, follow the recipe regularly. Freeze 2 of the servings in freezer bags or small foil containers. Then you’ll have two other servings leftover – one to eat now and one to have for lunch leftovers later in the week. You could do this for the first two weeks each month and then during the next two weeks, just eat mostly from the “freezer” meals.

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Danielle January 20, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Something I have done for the past 20 years has been to take my weekly flyers on Sat or Sun night and nake a list of sale items(doing coupon match ups, etc). Then I see what fresh produce, fruit and meats are good buys, go through my recipes and make a list of what sounds good, works with sale items and my stocked pantry/freezer. I then narrow it down to 6 dinner choices( usually we have cereal for breakfast and leftovers for lunch). Then I make the grocery list. I put a copy on the fridge and during the week, after getting home from work, dinner is a no brainer. I have all the ingredients on hand and I have several choices. It has worked for me, and now my husband and daughter for all these years. Good luck!

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Paula January 20, 2011 at 8:15 pm

I’m not single but I am on a low carb diet so I eat slightly differently than my family. One thing I like to do is when I bring the groceries home I divide up the meat in useable servings. I like to take ziploc baggies and put one chicken breast in each and add some marinade or spices to each and then freeze, this way I can just grab one out of the freezer at night and put it in the fridge for dinner the next night if the family is having something carby. I also do individual burger patties for lunch or dinners in single bags.

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Mir January 21, 2011 at 1:45 am

Welcome to the Club, I’m single too.
1. get used to eating the same thing for two or three days in a row, with some changes. Like, cook a couple pounds of greens. The first day you’ll eat them steamed, with butter and garlic. The second day you’, you’ll cut them further and stir fry, the third day you make an omelette. This means having quick meals almost ready.
2. ony days allowed for the grocery store: Saturday and Sunday (or whatever is your day off). And you shop for a week worth of food, or two weeks. (I do two weeks in winter and one in summer)
3. knowing how much food you need is a pain if you are single, but it can be done if you calculate portions. Like, I always eat proteins and vegs for dinner, that means I need 14 portions proteins (meat or fish or beans for me) and when I shop I check my cart to be carrying 14 portions + 1 (emergency). Same goes for lunch, I do not have lunch other than some plain yogurt, so I know I need 14 portions yogurt…and there you go. Apply the same rule to everything.
4. Throwing away food is a no-no, recycling it is absolutely the best. Yesterday I cooked mushrooms and greens, I’m not eating much of them, good, this weekend they’ll go into a quiche.
5. To cook lots of food in advance and freeze is the general advice people will give you. In my opinion it’s not a good idea unless you limit it. First, you’ll be making a lot of something that you don’t necessarily want to eat often, like I make sheperds pie, I make 6 portions, I won’t eat all of them in a week, but I have no space to waste in the freezer to keep food I’m not eating. Second, you’ll be wasting part of your weekend in the kitchen, that’s fine if you like to do it, it’s not fine at all if you don’t. Once in a while I make casseroles and freeze them, but I don’t make and habit out of it, even because casseroles tend to be fattening, with carbs and lots of cheese.
6. For the low carb, do pre-cooking, like: buy a lot of ground meat, cook it until it’s brown but not ‘cooked’, let it cool and freeze into portions. When you’re ready take them off and stir fry, or cook whatever you want with them, they’re pre-cooked so it’ll take very little to make a meal, but you aren’t stuck eating ‘sheperds pie’ for a week, can actually come up with a different meal everyday.
7. When you shop, think. I have divided vegs and fruits into two categories: short storage (i.e. lettuce, cucumbers…/melon, strawberries…) and long storage (i.e. cabbage, squash…/apples, pears…) if you shop for two weeks make sure you eat the short storage food on the first and long storage food on the second.
8. Shopping was a big part of my day, I was going to the store almost every night, I don’t have much of a social life, having only recently moved here, so going to the store was my ‘going out’. Deciding to shop only twice per month meant at first I really ‘missed’ it. Recognizing it and being able to find something else to do was absolutely something I needed to do.
9. Something very important…your food list. When you start go through all your shelves and cabinets and make a list of all there is. If you haven’t watched your grocery shopping before you’ll have cans of food you don’t even know you have. Make a list and see if you can combine any of them. Do the same every Friday night, or anyways the night before you go to the grocery store. This way there’ll be no waste.
10. At sometimes during the year I do meal planning, but not always. I’m a rebel, to myself as well, if I see something on my plan I won’t eat it just to not stick to plan, lol, yes I’m silly. So if I get in trouble and really don’t know what to eat I plan, otherwise, that’s the food in my house and I’m going to eat some of it.
11. Plan emergency. I’m a picky eater, and I’m able, if I am in a “bad-day”, to cook food and then to not eat any of it, because there is THAT to eat but I don’t want it. Good, plan emergency, I call that emergency. So I keep “something” into the fridge that will fix an emergency like that, it’s normally a pack of frankfurters for me or a pack of cheese, I can add them to any food to make it more appealing, and saving the situation.
12. Analyze your bill. Check your bill and know where you are spending more and if necessary find alternatives. Like, here the most expensive item is protein, I used to get meat…which to be honest didn’t even taste that good because prices are high and quality is low. So I found that frozen fish costs half of the meat (at least where I am) and is basically clean proteins, all what I needed!
13. Find new recipes, especially the vintage ones from 1940 to 1970, back then there weren’t fancy ingredients and people was living more simply, search for those recipes and you’ll make tond of good simple food.
Good luck!

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Nicole January 21, 2011 at 8:39 am

Make big pots of things that freeze well, that you have found main ingredients on sale – like chili when the burger was on sale. Then individually freeze portions. Do that with one meal a week and you’ll have a nice stockpile in the freezer.

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DebbyC January 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm

check out Judith Jone’s new book – Pleasures of Cooking for One – it would be expensive to cook from completely, but I think it has great ideas….and its nice to think of cooking for oneself as an art, not a heinous task.

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Dawn January 21, 2011 at 10:54 pm

You’ve gotten a lot of good ideas… the only thing I would add is perhaps you can find a friend or two who are in the same situation as you… if so, try these ideas:

1. Bulk shop – split the cost- and split the goods

2. Each of you cook up a few dishes – portion out single servings to go – and swap! You’ll only buy the ingredients for what you need for the dish you make, you’ll only have to cook a couple times a week, and you’ll still have a nice variety of meals!

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Me again January 21, 2011 at 10:56 pm

One more thought… if you have an elderly neighbor, perhaps you could take left overs to him/her… Won’t save you money, but you’ll make a friend!

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Brit January 22, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I’m a young, single professional as well and took steps to scale my spending back, too. All of these things may not work for you, but here is what I do to spend around $20-$25 a week:
1. Take a look in your cupboards/fridge/freezer and figure out what you might need to make a dish out of what you already have, and add it to a list. For example “chicken” to add to pasta, “red sauce” for spaghetti, etc.
2. Frozen frozen frozen! Frozen bags of stuffed shells and tortellini are often on sale for $3 and while perhaps not that economical for a family, they can be 3-4 meals for a single person. You can just cook a portion and put the bag back in the freezer. One bag of frozen pasta usually lasts me 2-3 weeks and can be combined with frozen veggies, any meat, pesto, white or red sauce. It’s pretty versatile and quick! Bags of hamburger patties, chicken breasts and vegetables are also great. You can take out what you want and leave the rest in the freezer. It was $6.99 for a bag of frozen hamburger patties (on sale), but it lasted two months because I only needed one at a time.
3. Rice, even instant, is cheap, filling and can be added to any dish as a side or made into a one-pot meal with meat and frozen veggies. 1 small bag or box of rice can last at least a week or two. Same with pasta! Even whole grain pastas are cheap and you cook whatever quantity you choose and create any number of dishes.
4. Plan for the week and don’t overbuy. Take a minute to make a list of everything you need (milk, cereal, fruit, pasta, meat, etc) and buy enough for the whole week, but don’t overbuy. Even if 6 lbs of apples are $3, are you going to eat 6 lbs before they go bad or would it be better to buy one apple at $.50? That sort of thing. Only going once a week or so will also reduce impulse buying and encourage you to “make it work” with whatever is at home.
5. Pick a store and check out their ad before you go. This will help you make your list and decide what you want/need. If you kinda wanted something but it isn’t on sale and you don’t NEED it, maybe wait until it’s on sale or look online for a coupon. For example, I LOVE Nutella, but I can’t justify its cost. Out of the blue, though, it went on sale AND I had a coupon and got it for not much more than $1! Can’t beat that.

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Rebecca January 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I recently decided to cut back my single person grocery budget as well. I didn’t do quite as well as you – $125 was as low as I got – but I learned several things in the process.
I cooked a lot on my off day. Aim to cook 3 meals, eating leftovers of it twice. That gives you one night to scrounge or eating out. I usually scrounged :)
Cook like style foods that can morph. For example, homemade marinara starts very similarly to homemade chili. Saute onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and canned tomatoes (diced & crushed) together. Scoop out half of the mixture into a second pot – this is now your chili pot. Add in spices, beans, and ground meat if desired. Season the sauce pot appropriately. You’ve now made 2 completely different meals in virtually the amount of time it would take to make one. This is just an example, but there are plenty of other meals with this same mentality.
I bought variety packs of things to spice things up. My supermarket sells 5lb bags of mixed fruit – apples, oranges, grapefruit, etc. I’ll buy 1 of those and it lasts me almost 2 weeks, but I’m not getting sick of the same old fruit every day since there are different options in there.
Morph foods from one meal time to the next. Roasted potatoes for dinner can turn into hash browns the next morning for breakfast. I almost never threw food away because I can always find a way to morph it into something else.
When you bring your haul home from the grocery store, break it down. It’s usually cheaper to buy ‘family size’ packages of meat, but us single gals don’t need 6lbs at once. Line up your freezer bags and split up that package into more reasonable portions. I also divide up my produce – I peel & chop carrots into carrot sticks (much cheaper than buying baby carrots), celery into celery sticks, cut up peppers into sticks, and if it’s a head of lettuce, I prep it into salad portions. When I pack my lunch for work, I already have veggie sticks cut up and ready to go. If I make salad, I divide it into lunch sized tupperware containers. Since the produce is prepped and ready to go, I am more likely to eat it and less likely to let it go bad.
I also divide up yogurt or cottage cheese into small containers to take to work. I can usually buy a 32oz tub of yogurt for about $1 with sales/coupons. Even if I get the single serve cups for $.25 each, that is only 24oz of yogurt for $1. Scoop the tub yogurt into small containers to take with you – you’ll get at least 1 more serving out of that container for the same price.

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Sheila January 23, 2011 at 10:49 pm

I am a “not-so-young” single working person. I feed myself and 12 cats and 2 dogs for about $120 a month (I will allow for extra spending in the grocery category if I find a good “stock up deal”).

My biggest weapons in keeping costs down are cooking in large quantities. I will cook for 4 or 6 or 8 and freeze some of the leftovers for later dinners or package them up to take to work for lunches.

Sundays are my big cook ahead day when I cook for the coming week and beyond. Today I made vegetable pot pie, pumpkin soup, vegetarian slow-cooker chili, baking powder biscuits, pumpkin bread, and twice baked potatoes. This will get me through the week for lunches and dinners and I have 2 dinners of chili and 2 dinners of pumpkin soup in the freezer.

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aurora1920 October 1, 2011 at 8:33 am

AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW ON THINGS:

I’m an OLD lady living alone and eat very well. I have no trouble at all planning/cooking meals that really approach gourmet at times! Love to fuss with herbs, new recipes, etC. What I do have trouble with is wasting food–buying too much, losing things in back of fridge or freezer.

Know what works best for me? When buying (try to do this only every OTHER week), make your lists based on 5 days a week, AND keep breakfast, lunch, daytime snacks ROUTINE. Eat perishable snacks weekone, rest week two.

I then self-indulge at dinner and make whatever I’m in mood for–simple if I’m lazy, experiment if I feel like cooking. I’m 91, and it is just part of my day to end with a nice dinner, couple glasses of wine or a martini, in front of cable news (I’m a political junkie) and with a book to read during commercials. Younger folks obviously go out at night–my social life is bridge lunches, or even early morning bridge.

Routine breakfast: oatmeal and handful of frozen blueberries
Routine lunch: large salad with cheap protein (hardboiled egg, tuna, cheese, cannellini beans)
Routine snacks for in-between as desired: apples, fruit on sale–but often just half an apple or
orange or grapefruit is sufficient–lasts longer (fruit’s expensive) and controls weight.
Raw carrots and celery, peppers and radishes. I routinely pur raw cauliflower in my salads.
Salami on sale, sliced thin; cheese cubes, cottage cheese on sale
Snacks (not perishable) I keep on hand:
Peanut butter, honey/jam
That Scandinavian crisp bread in packages–growing up Swedish we called it knackebrod!
The coarse rye kind with indentations in it, not the flat stuff that tastes like cardboard
and I use real butter on it.
Nuts from the healthfood store ONLY, cheaper than the market and fresher. Keep in freezer.
Great Italian bread from the bakery, sliced thin, in freezer plus butter in fridge.

Dinners? I USED to do the “casserole cooking on the weekend bit” for dinner and freeze leftovers– I don’t anymore. Really, all that storage! And I found I lost them in the freezer. Five days out of seven I have 4 oz or so of hamburger, steak, flattened chicken breast, a chicken leg, chicken thigh (my favorite), a thin pork chop (another favorite) frozen salmon (only thing I buy in a bag from Walmart along with radishes I can’t get anywhere else), shrimp on sale, fish from the market on sale.

I either roast/bake them in my toaster oven or saute (sounds better than fry) them in oliveoil with a bit of butter WHILE AT THE SAME TIME I either roast with olive oil or steam 2-3 vegetables, one of which may be a potato or yam. Cooking for one you CAN steam 3 veggies in one pot–longest cooking first. Spray with that Smart (healthy) butter spray. How much trouble is that? Less fattening than casseroles.

I DO sometimes take trouble to make a really good stir-fry and that often ends up (by the time you keep adding stuff) enough for two meals. I don’t freeze it — eat it two days later.

Know what happens for days 6 and 7? Well, you eat out once in a while, get invited to family, or somehow that routine 5 days a week is disrupted. What sometimes happens to me is I win at bridge (4-5 bucks) and treat myself to Wendy’s and french fries or some such self-indulgence. It invariably works out that there’s enough “stuff” around to get thru those days of UNPLANNED dinners.

Eggs are incredible–Take time to make a yummy omelet with leftovers.
Soup (boxed chicken stock ONLY BOUGHT WHEN 2 FOR PRICE OF 1 is a godsend). Again can use up leftovers, add rice or a potato you ought to use up, or handful of pasta. Whatever!
Tuna melt. Or I have frozen chipped beef bought on sale and have that in a baked potato or over a boiled potato.

I find if I consciously make effort to live over the weekend out of stuff left over in fridge or freezer, in pantry, have 2 big meals instead of 3, et cetera. there always seems to be ENOUGH.

Amazing how satisfying is a large plate of bits of this and that–2 slices of leftover salami, couple olives, radishes, pickle slice, last piece of cheese–can always add a hardboiled egg for protein– with GOOD BREAD AND BUTTER and a glass of wine.

The older I get the more I’m thinking to simplify further (when not safe for me to cook anymore) — cold cereal with blueberries and milk for breakfast, once-a-week home-made veggie soup and a good bread meat/fish sandwich for lunch AND dinner! Forget the salads and eat as part of healthy snacks to fill in rest of nutrition. No cooking at all!

Beats going to assisted living.

But I’m not giving up daily red wine, maybe limit martini to the weekend as a treat.

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