Sunday, November 18, 2012

Meal Planning

A few of my friends have asked how we can live on around $50/week for groceries, feeding our family of 2 adults and a toddler (who eats about 1/2 the amount of an adult). So I decided to publish it on my blog and tell you what I do. I'll give you the "in a nutshell" version at the end, but all the gory details are up front:
1. I started by listing out our family's favorite meals. It took a while as I kept remembering meals I made a while ago that we liked. And I only put meals on our list, that were both yummy and fit into our diet. Preferably easy meals too, though I was ok with a couple more time-intensive ones. I keep this list and use it for reference when meal planning for the week. I typically go grocery shopping every Monday.

2. I take a few minutes every Monday morning to sit down and plan for the week. I always shop at Walmart, which does price-matching, so I sit down with the sales papers and pick some meals or snacks based on what's on sale. Then when I go to Walmart, I bring the ad and get super deals, like 99 cents (.10 cents/lb) for a 10lb bag of potatoes advertised at Aldi's. I pick 5 meals to make for the week. The other two days we eat leftovers or eat out. I include at least one vegetarian meal. I like to include at least one soup/stew as well. It is cheapest to only buy 1-2 types of meat each week, so we don't eat more variety than that weekly. Also, cuts of meat vary greatly by price. I can get way more chicken for the $ if I buy legs, thighs & wings than if I buy boneless skinless tenderloins. And bone-in chicken makes the best chicken broth, which takes only a couple minutes to make, plus boiling time, and then you have broth (that also freezes well) to use in recipes. But I digress.

3. Next, I make my grocery list, writing out everything I need to make the meals for the week and omitting anything I already have on hand. I also check our cabinets for staples I know we'll need, like raisins, rice cakes and cereal (I have a toddler, can you tell?). I maintain the shopping list on my phone throughout the week, so if we run out of a staple, like hummus, it goes on the list as soon as we're out. Much easier than trying to remember what we're out of at the end of the week. And when I'm shopping, I STICK TO THE LIST. It's hard sometimes, but it pays off in the end. The easiest way to do this is to not shop while hungry. I also keep a running approximate tally in my head and use my calculator a lot to figure out price per ounce (which is actually listed on most labels at Walmart) to figure out the best deal. But the best price per ounce isn't always the best deal. If you pay 20 cents/oz for a $5 big package, then throw away half of it because it went bad before you could use it, then you would have saved money buying the smaller, $3 package (even though "per ounce" it was more expensive), because you used all of it. One more thing. If I think I may be able to afford extras, I put them at the very end of the conveyor belt, and if I have money left over in my budget, I can get the optional item, but if I don't, then I have to put it back.

4. This is a big one: Cut all unnecessary food expenses! You do not need to buy desserts of any kind, soda of any kind, sweet tea or punch, chips just for eating (they're ok for recipes), or any highly processed foods (especially high-sugar ones) such as poptarts, "fruit" snacks, little debbies, etc. Also avoid "convenience" foods, such as pre-cut fruit and microwave meals. Cutting these things will not only make you healthier, it will greatly help your budget! Pre-made instant oatmeal packets run about .29 cents per bowl, whereas the big container of quick-cooking oatmeal is around .12 cents per bowl. It is pennies difference, yes, but if you pay more than double day after day to have someone measure out your oatmeal for you, is it really worth it?

5. Make homemade whenever possible. I have quick (5 minutes of prep time, tops) and easy recipes for chicken broth, yogurt, iced tea, microwave popcorn, pumpkin bread, cookies, flavored instant oatmeal packets, etc. and these recipes are pennies on the dollar to what you would pay for them in the store.

6. Be smart about breakfast, lunch, and snacks. A pack of M&Ms costs around a dollar, but a piece of fresh, seasonal fruit costs maybe a quarter, and is much better for you. Even if you jazz it up with peanut butter or caramel sauce, you're still getting many more vitamins & nutrients than M&Ms would give you. Cereal is more expensive than oatmeal. Microwave popcorn packets are more expensive than popping corn and a paper bag. Being smart about these substitutions will help your budget tremendously. Lunch can, more often than not, consist of leftovers from a previous day's meal. Sandwiches are inexpensive too, and can fill in between times. Packing a sack lunch for work instead of eating out will save you hundreds of dollars.

7. Cook from the list. I like to plan the more time-intensive meals around the days that I have more free time, and the quick throw-together meals for the days I have less time. The list is also helpful when you're running around and asking yourself, "What's for dinner?" Just check your list!

In a nutshell:

1. List out all meals your family likes so you have a starting point.

2. Each week, pick 5 meals with related ingredients from your meals list, using the sales papers to help get the best deals.

3. Make a grocery list of everything you need and stick to it at the store.

4. Cut unnecessary expenses (junk food, pre-made or sugary drinks, desserts or other treats).

5. Make homemade when possible: chicken broth, yogurt, iced tea, cookies, etc. All of these things are easy and CHEAP to make!

6. Be smart about breakfast, lunch and snacks.

7. Cook from the list.

Hope this helps some of you! And feel free to add more tips to help me stay under $50/week for groceries as well.