This week, I’m starting a series on meal planning and how I save money on groceries. I thought it would be helpful to provide some tips on how to do this. Really being strategic about planning out a weekly menu, shopping with a list and managing leftovers can seriously save money on groceries. When you consider that the big 3 household expenditures are housing, transportation and food, learning how to better manage your kitchen is a great money saving opportunity. Of course, it’s not all about money. Just think of how much healthier food you prepare at home can be for your family. For much less than going out to eat, you can put whole, nutritious foods on your table that will be a benefit to everyone.
Here are my methods to save money on groceries. If you have some ideas to add, post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!
Plan to cook meals at home
Going out to eat is great for special occasions. However, going out often wastes more money than you think and negatively affects your health. Even when trying to choose healthy options, there is more fat, salt and preservatives lurking than you realize. When you go out sparingly, you’ll feel like it’s a such a treat!
Make a meal plan each week
Before making your meal plan, check what you have already in the freezer and pantry. Then, check out the sale ad(s) to find out what this week’s specials are. You can combine what you have with what’s on sale for a much cheaper shopping trip.
Try shopping at more than one store
I like to sit at the table when the sale ads come in the mail. I spread them out and look at what each has to offer. Grocery stores will usually offer a couple of loss-leaders each week. Those are items that they sell so cheap that they’re likely not making any money on them. These items are used to lure you in – like a moth to light! But why not take advantage of these deals? Stock up!
I have been shopping at the same stores for long enough to know what normally cheapest at each. I like to buy certain things at certain places because of this. Make your list by store and you’ll save a lot of money.
I know this can sound time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. I don’t spend all day running around to 12 different stores. I have my 3 favorites and I stick to them. I spend about an hour meal planning and making my list. Making your list the night before is really helpful. Maybe you could do it while watching TV or listening to your favorite podcast. It will be ready to go when you are. It takes me about two hours to shop. I do it all at once, but you don’t have to. If you only need 10 items from a particular store, stop by on your way home from work, the gym or some other errand. If you’re driving by anyway, it will only take a few minutes of your time. Break it up if it suits your schedule better.
Keep track of leftovers…and use them up!
Regularly go through the refrigerator to check in on your foods. If you notice something may be about to expire – plan on using it in a dish right away. If you have too many leftovers in there, freeze them and eat them later rather than letting them spoil.
Have a leftover night
We do this at least once a week. Sometimes, there isn’t enough of a leftover meal to feed everyone, so we all have something different. That actually works out really well because it adds variety. It may be the weirdest dinner combo ever, but who cares! It saved time, effort and money.
Transform leftovers into something new
This is kind of related to the last two suggestions, but slightly different. I’ll give you an example – we had a Mediterranean feast one night with hummus and fresh sliced vegetables. I knew I couldn’t leave the veggie tray in the refrigerator for long, so I made veggie wraps for snacks. I was able to use up all the hummus, the vegetables and some flour tortillas from a taco meal earlier in the week. Being creative with leftovers can stretch your grocery budget and turn up some pretty tasty new recipes. I recently did this paninis too.
Cook Smaller Amounts
This one is aimed right at me. I have 4 children, but only 2 live at home now. The amount of food we went through when they were all living at home was astounding (3 were boys). Now, I sometimes struggle with cooking too much because that’s what I’ve always done, but there is no way we can eat all of that anymore! I’ve had to intentionally scale back how much I make so nothing is wasted. If you find yourself having too much food, whatever the reason, consider halving the recipe. Or…
Divide the recipe: eat half now and freeze half for later
This is one of my favorite ways to cook. I don’t know about you, but, as much as I like chili, I don’t want to eat it for the next 4 days. It’s nice to rotate meals so you have some variety. When I cook a big pot of something delicious, I divide it up. We eat half right away. I keep disposable aluminum baking pans and plastic food storage containers or Ziploc bags for freezing the rest. Pastas and enchiladas do better when frozen before baking, while soups and stews don’t mind either way. When you’ve burned dinner or gotten home late (or just aren’t feeling it), these emergency meals will save the day.
Do some prep-work ahead of time
If you’re chopping up 5 pounds of onions for chili, why not prep some things for your upcoming meals while you’re at it? The mess is already being made; the chopping board and knife are dirty, your eyes are watering, the counter is littered with vegetable trimmings. Just dive in and prep what you need for the next few days. Most of time spent cooking is the slicing, dicing, chopping and peeling. If you stumble in the door one evening, tired from a long day, the last thing you want to do is slave away in the kitchen. But, ahh, if you’ve prepped ahead, the hard part is done; throw it in the pan and go!
Certain recipes lend themselves well to being made ahead of time. For example, if you’re making spaghetti or pizza sauce, try doubling the recipe and freezing in single portions for later. You’ll save serious time and money doing it this way. Making homemade pizza? Pull the sauce out of the freezer the night before. It will be thawed and ready to go when you need it.
Grow your own herbs
Have you ever cringed when buying one of those tiny packs of fresh thyme or chives for a meal? They often cost $3 or $4, which is crazy when you think about how little you’re getting. For that price, you can buy 2 packets of seeds that will provide hundreds of plants! You don’t need space or a green thumb for growing herbs. Spend a few minutes sowing a pot or two with your favorites and set them in a sunny windowsill. Water once a week and you’re done. In just a few weeks, you’ll have tasty herbs to add flavor to a meal. There is no waste this way because you can trim only what you need from the growing plant. It really adds a pretty element to your home too!
Make “themes” for your weekly meal plan
My family likes all kinds of ethnic foods. Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, or Greek? We’ll feast on it! I find it really easy to use up our ingredients most efficiently when we eat a couple of meals a week that use common ingredients. If you have an Italian pasta and salad dinner, plan an Italian soup the next day. If you make fajitas or enchiladas one night, plan quesadillas the next. This will ensure you use up all the things!
Make sides ahead
An example would do best here: When enchiladas or tamales are on the menu, we like having rice and beans with them. Making a whole recipe would be too much, so I freeze small containers and pull them out for the next time we have those meals. This saves a ton of time. Try this out on some of your favorite sides and see how it goes. I’ve found that potatoes don’t freeze well, but most things do.
Buy on sale now to use later
If you can buy it today for $2 less than next week, why wouldn’t you? I do this with all kinds of things. Perishable things like meat, bread, tortillas, cheese and milk work really well for this. Of course, staple items can be bought ahead for later too. If I have room in my budget to buy sale items ahead, I certainly do.
Experiment with new recipes
Adding new recipes to the line up keeps things interesting. Eating most meals at home can get mundane easily if you get into a rut. Try out one new recipe each week and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, the trusty freezer can come to the rescue yet again! Go ahead and resurrect that frozen pan on lasagna now!
It’s a great idea to experiment with tried and true recipes too. Maybe something you’ve been making for awhile will freeze really well. Try putting a small amount in the freezer and getting it out later to try. How did it fare? If it’s just as tasty, you’ve go yourself a new freezer meal. If it warmed up truly awful, you’ve only lost a little bit.
Mushy fruit? Make deserts or smoothies!
Do you have mealy apples, brown bananas, squishy peaches? Fruit is really forgiving when cooked or baked. Maybe it’s time you made that pie, quick bread or cobbler.
If baking isn’t your thing, try putting the fruit in morning oatmeal or smoothies. I like peeling the bananas and freezing them in a Ziploc to be used in smoothies later. They make such a delicious, slushy-like treat!
Coupons or not?
That really depends. I tried being one of those extreme coupon people, but it just didn’t work for me. Since I cook most meals from scratch, I found that there just weren’t many coupons I used on the food items I used. I do use coupons when it makes sense on cleaning products and household items, but that equals out to be a few times a month. Using coupons may work out better for you though, depending on the meals you prepare; everyone cooks and shops differently. Caution: don’t let coupons dictate what you buy!
I do use rebate apps, but I don’t shop based on rebates offered that week. I check them when I get home and always find a few items that have rebates. It only takes a few minutes to scan those while I’m putting away groceries.
Buy in Bulk
Explore the bulk department at your local grocery store. Many grocers now have a pretty wide selection of items available. Buying items this way can save you money since you aren’t paying for unneeded packaging. I’ve found that you can watch for sales on these items and get them really cheap. I store mine in mason jars to endure freshness. You can eliminate excess salt and preservatives from your diet by cooking with simple ingredients too.
I will caution that this can be highly addictive behavior. It’s hard to pass up a bargain on things that keep in the pantry for a long time. I have to have an intervention on buying bulk foods for awhile.
Be reasonable when planning your weekly meal plan
If you know the week ahead is going to be killer, don’t plan on making a five course meal for dinner on a Wednesday night. Being overly optimistic can get you into trouble. Consult your calendar when putting together your list. If there will be a crazy day or two, it may be a good idea to pull out a meal you’ve put in the freezer for just such an emergency purpose. Be kind to yourself – know when to take the easy way.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list and I’m sure I’ll think of more later (probably in the middle of the night). If I do, I’ll let you know!