Saturday, February 26, 2011

Groceries Pt. 3: Making (and Sticking to) a Plan

In Groceries Pt. 1 we asked the question "How Much Do You Spend?" Our monthly budget is $800, which government data suggests is pretty reasonable for a family of 5 (plus 1 dog and four cats) that tries to eat local/organic/humanely-raised as much as possible. Some months we're right on target, other months ... not so much.

One thing that really helps is making (and sticking to) a meal plan. Each weekend we check to see what's left in our fridge and pantry and start planning a week's worth of dinners from that. We then make a grocery list and try really hard to stick to it.

When the kids were younger, and we weren't spending endless hours toting them to gymnastics/theatre/soccer/girls scouts and helping with homework, we had the meal planning down to science. We even did Once A Month Cooking for a while -- it's a great way to save money and time.

In our highly-unscientific survey of Facebook and Twitter friends, we uncovered some other Grocery Store Rock Stars. We asked them to share their secrets to meal planning.

Rock Star #1: Jessica

She's a single working mom with two kids and two dogs. She spends $250 a month on food.
  • I usually choose 3 main dishes each week and make enough to have leftovers the next day.
  • I make spaghetti sauce once a week because I can do so many different meals with it (i.e.: lasagna, ziti, meatball subs, any kind of pasta). My sauce is loaded with pureed and diced veggies. 
  • We reserve one day for “snack trays.”  The kids can choose between the 12 cup muffin pan or the 6 cup jumbo muffin pan, and they fill each cup with whatever they want to nibble on. I started doing this when they were toddlers, so I always got all food groups involved. They have kept it up even though they now make their own choices. I let them scour the pantry and refrigerator for whatever they can find. Often it's nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruits, cut veggies w/ homemade dips, yogurt, cheeses, crackers, etc. They love it!
  • My favorite cookbook is The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl and one of the best recipe websites is Epicurious.
  • Typically, I power cook on Saturday or Sunday, making 2 meals. I divide and freeze them for later in the week when we are just too busy with our schedules to fix a real meal. 

Rock Star #2: Danielle

Danielle is my sister. She's a teacher who lives in San Diego with her three kids and husband, who's in the Navy. They spend $360 a month on groceries.

  • We generally only shop twice a month (usually right after payday on the 1st and 15th). We plan enough meals to get through to the next payday.
  • I use sales and coupons to stock my pantry with the basics and then I base my meals around what we have. Sometimes I have to get a little creative!
  • We stick to a routine. Each week we eat:
    • "Breakfast for Dinner".  We make pancakes lots of different ways based on what's on sale (add fruit, applesauce and cinnamon, chocolate chips, etc. to mix it up).
    • Mexican -- quesadillas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas.  I'm trying a frittata recipe next week. 
    • Salad.  I buy the salad kits when they're on sale and we add meat to it to make a meal. If it's a BOGO (buy-one-get-one free sale) I can spend a little more on the meat. 
  • I crock pot at least once a week (sometimes multiple times!).  It saves time and money because I can use cheaper cuts of meat and from what I've read, using the crock pot is more cost-effective than using the stove, which heats up the kitchen.
  •  I double duty meat for, what I like to call, Meal Maximization. I'll buy whole chickens when they're on sale (I can get them as low as $3/chicken and I stock up). I boil the chicken till the meat comes off. I separate the meat into two containers. One can be used for enchiladas and the other for chicken salad. I strain the broth and I use it when I crock pot. By doing that, I'm able to use one $3 chicken for three meals! 

Rock Star #3: Krista

Krista is my other sister. She, her husband, their infant son and 75 pound lab Jack spend just $250 a month at the grocery store.  Krista's husband is a firefighter, though, so he eats at the firehouse 10 days a month.  And when he does, Krista and baby Will often eat at our parent's house. If you can keep your food expenses down by visiting the folks regularly, maybe these tips from Krista will help:

  • I'm an inpulse buyer. Shopping once a month helps with not buying unneeded items, especially if it's a "good deal".
  • I have about 10 cook books I regularly cook from. I woudl say on average, I cook the same meal twice a year or so.
  • I do alot of substituting based on what I have on hand or what I can buy real cheap in bulk at Sams. Different types of pasta, rices, sauces, cheeses, and even sometimes spices. 
  • I am almost always willing to try the store brands (just not for toilet paper!).

Jessica, Danielle and Krista all leverage their buying power with coupons. They may not be Extreme Couponers, but they swear by coupons to save 25-50% off their food budget. And sometimes more. In "Groceries Pt. 4: Queens of Coupons" they'll share their secrets.  


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