I haven’t always known how to shop smart when it comes to groceries. For years, I just went to the store and started piling items in my cart – no list, no menu, no plan whatsoever. I’m also pretty darn confident that, half of the time, I did my shopping while hungry (which, of course, you should never, ever do).
Right after I left college, I had no clue how to cook or even where to start. I bought a lot of pre-made boxed dinners (or those frozen, make-in-one-skillet deals), frozen pizzas and “no-cook” items and called it a day. Eventually, I decided to branch out and at least try to make something different; let’s face it, there are only so many times you can eat “Chicken and Dumplings” from a box before you just need a change. So I began looking up recipes online and buying “value” cookbooks from Barnes & Noble, scouring through different recipe sites and the pages of those books until I found dishes I wanted to try. I wasn’t very confident in my cooking skills back then, so I’d find one recipe that I thought sounded good (but easy) and take my chances, keeping a back-up box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese just in case I somehow messed it up. Hey, we all have to start somewhere.
As time went on, I began to try more recipes. I would print out the ingredients needed for each dish and bring the list with me to the grocery store on my way home from work…where I would promptly add way too many “off the list” items that I didn’t need. This became a daily routine until, eventually, I came to the realization that I was spending so much on unnecessary junk that I was going to go broke. I had to make a change to my shopping routine. Now, I’ve got a method that works wonderfully, and I thought I’d take some time to share it with you. Here’s what I do:
1) Shop the sales. My grocer’s weekly ad comes out every Sunday, and it has become my routine to check it each week to see what’s on sale. This helps me with step #2, because I can plan a menu around what’s going to give me the biggest bang for my buck. I am a big fan of mixing and matching “4 for” or even “10 for” deals; just be careful to only buy what you’ll really use. It’s not a “deal” if the food just sits in your pantry or fridge until it goes bad.
2) Make a menu. This is absolutely the most important step to avoiding all of those “extra” items that we convince ourselves we have to have while we’re shopping, especially if we make the mistake of going before we have the chance to grab our afternoon snacks. I sit down every Sunday and make a menu of the dishes that I want to serve throughout the week, accounting for lunches and breakfast items as well. One of my tricks is to consider utilizing the same ingredient several times in multiple dishes; this will not only save you money, but will ensure that none of the food you buy goes to waste. This is true even of more expensive ingredients; take asparagus, for example. It isn’t cheap, and comes in large bundles that you more than likely won’t entirely use when making a 4-serving side dish. However, planning properly to use this ingredient in several dishes (whether as a side or as a component of the main entree) will allow you to use everything that you’ve purchased.
Once you’ve made your menu, make a list. Check your pantry and fridge for items that you already have (and therefore won’t need to buy) and remember to make note of the quantities that you’ll need for each ingredient. While making my list, I also take a look at the available snack foods in our inventory and any household items that we need so that I can add them to my list as well. Once at the store, stick to the list! Remember, you’ve accounted for everything you need. Don’t give into the temptation to add items to your cart if you haven’t already planned to buy them.
3) Learn to love leftovers. This last step is particularly applicable if you’re normally cooking for one or two; recipes are generally written for a total of 4 servings, so unless you adjust the ingredient ratio for the amounts that you need you should end up with enough for more. For those of you who are “scared” of leftovers, don’t be; I promise, there is nothing scary about pre-cooked, properly stored and refrigerated food. Of course, some recipes are better re-heated than others. If you’re not a fan of leftovers, start off with a lasagna or casserole dish (like chicken tettrazini). These dishes are as good as if not better the second time around as they are the first time you make them, and are easily re-heated in your oven. This is also true of almost anything you make in a slow cooker (pot roast, pulled pork, etc). Think of it this way; let’s say you spend $10 on a 2 lb pot roast and $3 on the vegetables to go with it. Throw all of your ingredients into the slow cooker and, if you’re cooking for two, you’ve got at least 3 dinners (the initial dinner, followed by two rounds of leftovers). The total servings come to 6, making the cost of each plate only $2.17. If every night was like this, you’d only spend $65 a month on dinner. I don’t know about you, but my husband and I easily spend that much on ONE dinner at a restaurant. Incorporating leftovers into your weekly menu is very similar to the tip I gave you in step #2 in regards to stretching your ingredients by utilizing them in more than one dish; the idea is to stretch not only the ingredients you buy, but the money you use to purchase them as well.
This month, I challenge you to set a monthly budget goal for groceries…and stick to it. The pointers I’ve given you should be a great start to helping you meet that goal and, ultimately, helping you put aside more of your hard-earned money to spend on other things…like vacation. Who can complain about that?
Good luck, and have fun shopping!