Last week, we talked about the frustrating reality that our families will always need to eat. All day. Everyday. For Eternity. I still don’t have any suggestions for how to avoid that reality, so today, we’ll be diving into saving money on groceries.
I know, I talked about this last week, but I can’t reiterate how important it is to have a plan. If you don’t have a plan you will buy too much or too little, waste food, waste money, and waste time running back to the store all week. A quick scroll through Pinterest makes me feel ashamed of my meal plan. I don’t have a handmade chalk board with beautiful calligraphy and associated cute pictures to display my meal plan to my family. I have a scrap piece of paper with a list of days and the name of a main course that we plan to eat on that day. For example – Monday: Spaghetti, Tuesday: Chicken Enchiladas, Wednesday: Stuffed Pork Chops, Thursday: Creamy Potato Soup, Friday: Date Night!
Your meal plan doesn’t need to be fancy or detailed, it just needs to be a starting point for your grocery list making and a reference point throughout the week to help you execute the plan. I created a document a while back that I printed out and keep near my scrap paper with a big long list of meal ideas. When I sit down to make a meal plan, I skim through the list and pick what sounds good. I have a friend who makes a monthly Pinterest board for her meal plans and pins new recipes each month. I’m not adventurous enough to try new recipes on a regular basis, but I do have a ton of dinner ideas pinned to refer to as I’m creating my meal plan. Another helpful trick is to get your family involved as much as possible. I hate being the only one to come up with dinner ideas, especially if someone complains about what we’re having (my four year old)! As often as I can, I create my meal plan with the whole family nearby and everyone has to come up with an idea to add to the list. That way I’m certain that at some point in the week, everyone will be satisfied with the meal.
One of my least favorite activities is making a grocery list, but it must be done, and it must be done right. Which means you physically need to walk through the rooms of your house and check for items that you need. Check the levels of all of your toiletries in the bathroom, check your diaper/wipe stash, check your cleaning supplies, dog food, and then the pantry, fridge, and deep freeze. From there, use your meal plan and calendar to make out your grocery list being sure to include everything you will need between grocery store trips. We only go grocery shopping every two weeks and really try hard to make sure we get everything that we might possibly need in this one trip. Nothing will kill your grocery budget faster than making several mid-week trips to the store for one thing you forgot. We all know that a trip for one thing always turns into a full basket of junk.
Bulk (Healthy) Meat Buying
We buy nearly all of our meat direct from our local meat market, in bulk. This saves us a ton of money! Usually once every couple months my husband stops by the meat market on his way home from work and purchases large quantities of ground beef, chicken breast and sometimes rib-eye steaks and Italian sausage. When he comes home he separates it all out in one pound (or whatever size I tell him) bags and throws it in our deep freeze. Someday, I dream of buying all organic, grass fed, pastured, super healthy meat direct from a farmer. We’re still working out how to make this dream fit into our budget, but buying a 1/4 cow or a 1/2 pig is extremely more cost effective than buying a pound or two here and there at your chain grocery store. Check around to your local meat markets, farmers markets, CSA’s, etc to find the best source for bulk meat prices for your family. You will pay more if you choose organic, grass-fed/pastured meats, but the cost savings for your future health is an important thing to keep in mind.
I want to mention something I learned from the book Real Food: What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck. She states that, “As toxins travel up the food chain, they become more concentrated, and then lodge in fat. A feedlot steer contains a great deal of grain, most of it grown with chemicals, which means you ingest more chemicals from a steak than a slice of bread.” This was a game changer for me in the way I prioritized our organic purchases. I now try to prioritize organic (or organically grown, but not necessarily certified) meat and dairy over organic produce (and other items). This is not to say we buy all organic meat and no organic produce (obviously this is not the case). But I try to buy as much organically raised meat and dairy that I can and focus my organic produce purchases on the Dirty Dozen.
Shop Around for the Best Deals
I envy the people that drive around to multiple stores on grocery day chasing the best deals. We just don’t have time for that in my household. But if you do have time to drive around for deals, then by all means, take advantage and save lots of money. Remember to head to your local farmers market, Aldi’s, Costco, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, and others to find really good deals on truly healthy foods.
If you haven’t noticed, I put a huge focus on feeding my family truly healthy, real food, which can get expensive. If this is something you want to do, then I encourage you to spend a little time shopping around to find the best prices for the best options. Even if the best “shopping around” you can do is shopping around your usual store. My husband does the majority of our grocery shopping (he is the bestest husband ever). But he will only shop at Meijer. I don’t have a problem with this, because I’m not doing any of the shopping! However, this limits our abilities to shop around for the best deals. But, we do shop around within Meijer. What I mean by this is that I closely watch the food labels and occasionally take over the shopping for the week so I can scope out our options. Meijer has a great line of store brand organics and store brand “naturals”. By reading the labels, trying stuff out, and checking the prices, we’ve been able to determine the best value in regards to taste, health, and price for the national brand, organic store brand, or “natural” store brand.
Buy Local Often
Local food is fresher, healthier, and usually cheaper. If you can buy direct from the producer (farmer), then you cut out any middle men. If you buy local you cut out excessive transportation costs because it costs a lot less to ship your strawberries from down the road than it costs to ship them in from California. You can also get your produce at the peak of ripeness when it doesn’t have to travel far which makes it tastier and healthier. Many chain grocery stores carry local foods (like Meijer and Whole Foods), however, you can find the best deals at your local farmers market, produce stand, and even the farm store if you happen to live in or near the countryside where farmers live. Obviously it will take more time to drive all over town to find the best deals, so do what you can with this one. There are many local companies that offer home delivery services or convenient pick ups for fresh, local, organic produce. You might also consider joining a CSA with a friend and trade off who picks up the box each week. Or hit up the farm stand on your commute home once a week during the summer.
Buy food online? Yep, I know, this seemed weird to me initially, but if you regularly purchase specialty items or hard to find health foods, you can often find them cheaper online. And there are lots of products (coconut oil, specialty flours, etc) that you can buy in larger quantities than you can find in the store, which equates to a great money savings. My favorite place to shop online is Amazon because you can find just about anything you could ever want and with our Prime membership, we get free 2 day shipping. I can barely find time to go to the story in a 2 day period, so it’s amazingly convenient to pop online for a minute and have the things I need delivered to my door in a couple days. Saving money and time is a huge win, win.
For the most part, I’m not a fan of coupons, but they work amazing for some people. When I tried to use coupons I found myself buying a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally buy, simply because I had a coupon for it. Not a great way to save money. I also tend to buy more fresh produce and meat and less packaged items. Most coupons are for the packaged, processed items. However, there are still coupons for things I buy, like cleaning products, toiletry items, etc. So, if you have the self-discipline to not buy things simply because you have a coupon, then definitely give couponing a try. You can start with your Sunday paper, but also check out sites like Money Saving Mom, Coupons.com, and Smart Source. There are literally hundreds of online coupon sites, so start with a quick Google search and get clipping. Also, be sure to take advantage of any in store savings plans and coupon programs that are available. This means using your membership or loyalty rewards card every time you shop and paying attention to the available deals. Other stores offer a more coupon like program like Cartwheel at Target or mPerks at Meijer.
You know what’s better than farm fresh food? Homegrown food! I love walking out to my garden when I get off of work and snipping a handful of cilantro, grabbing a couple peppers and a few tomatoes and then heading in to make a fresh and delicious meal. We have two 8×8 raised garden beds in our backyard. This year we used the square foot gardening technique to maximize our gardening space and my garden is overflowing with fresh, vegetable abundance. For a very small upfront investment of money and a little hard work, you can save a lot of money and eat some really great food by becoming your own farmer. Once you get your garden going in the Spring, it doesn’t take much time at all to keep it up and harvest what you produce.
Can and Freeze
Whether you garden or just stop by your local farmer’s market on the weekend during the harvest season, take advantage of the cheap in season prices and buy lots of food and then can and/or freeze it to use for the winter. This does take some time, but you can pack a lot into a lazy summer Saturday afternoon. Freeze strawberries, blueberries, herbs in oil, and many other things. Then get to work canning pickles, tomato sauces and salsas, jellies and jams, and anything else that sounds good to you. The health benefits of canning your own foods are tremendous when you control the ingredients and the processing, and the money savings benefits are huge. Why pay $7 for a tiny bag of frozen fruit in the winter when you can freeze your own in the peak of the summer season for a fraction of the cost?
Limit your Drinks
We live in the County. Our water is completely, 100% free (well, except for the tiny cost of the electricity to run the well pump). A few years ago we installed an under the sink water filter to make our well water cleaner and tastier. But otherwise, pure, delicious, refreshing water is always available and always free in our house. Did you know that you can’t survive without water? Did you know that you can survive without every other drink on the planet? That’s right, you don’t need soda, you don’t need Gatorade, you don’t need tea, you don’t need milk, you don’t need coffee, you don’t need juice, you don’t need beer, you don’t need wine. You need water. Fresh, pure water that I’m going to guess for most of my readers comes freely (or cheaply) from a sink near you. I’m not advocating cutting out all of your other beverages (I personally pay a lot of money for a lot of farm fresh, delicious, super creamy milk), but pay attention to the amount of money you spend each grocery trip on beverages alone. Do your really need all that pop or you could you survive with one 2 liter a week? Do your kids really need the industrial sized box of juice boxes or could you buy a can of concentrate and when it’s gone, it’s gone?
DIY Your Snacks
There’s been a recent surge in 100 calorie packs and other properly portioned snacks. You can even buy perfectly portioned apple slices with a tiny container of dipping sauce. These may be helpful if you have a problem with portion control. Except that a lot of these snacks are cookies and other junk. Junk is still junk, even in small quantities (getting off my soap box). The big problem with these snack packs though is that they are generally much more expensive than the snack itself should be. A 1 pound bag of carrots could cost you 79 cents, but if you get the pre-portioned snack pack of washed, peeled, and chopped carrots, you end up paying $3 for a whole lot fewer carrots. Again, this suggestion might take you a little more time and energy, but until we find that elusive money tree, I’ll put in a little time and make my own snack packs. This is a great project to get your kids involved with that can help them learn about the value of a dollar, healthy eating, and good quality time with mama (or daddy). I’ve made my own granola, hummus, trail mix, and more. If you can buy it in a package, you can probably make it yourself for less. Figure out what you have time for and get busy. It will taste better and provide more nutrition all while saving you some green.
Every single week we buy a box of salad greens, and every single week I throw the box away barely touched. Learn from me, stop buying stuff that you won’t eat, even if your intentions are really, really good. I’m just not a salad person, but I still want to add more vegetables to my diet. I could skip the slimy salad mix and buy a bunch of leafy greens and make green smoothies, or I could buy other vegetables that I actually eat like zucchini, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, and celery and just eat those instead. Figure out what you like and just buy those things. However, sometimes produce that we like still goes bad. In these situations, remember these tips:
- Out of sight, out of mind. Skip the crisper drawer if you have a problem remembering what fruits and veggies you need. Put your produce on the lower shelves instead (everything tends to freeze on my top shelf, so produce should not go there).
- Don’t wash until you’re ready to eat. Mold and slime grow with moisture, so keep things fresher longer by only washing what you are about to consume.
- Use paper towels for wet/pre-washed items. Sometimes you grab that soggy bunch of herbs at the store and throw it in the bag. When you get home, move it to a dry container or bag combined with a paper towel to help soak up the excess moisture. You can also line your crisper drawers with paper towels to remove excess moisture. And if you buy pre-mixed salads or make your own ahead of time, put it in an air tight container with a paper towel on top to absorb the extra moisture.
- Keep flours and raw nuts in the fridge or freezer. Flour will go rancid, so if you don’t use your flour very often, or if you buy in bulk, keep the extra in a freezer to keep it fresher longer.
- Freeze stuff that you know you won’t eat in time. Did it rain on your cookout day and now you’re left with a package of brats you don’t know what to do with? Throw them in the freezer so they’ll still be fresh for the next sun-shiny day. Did you forget about the your healthy fruit buying binge last weekend? Before it all goes bad, wash it, slice it and throw it in your freezer.
- Learn where and how you should store your produce to keep it fresher, longer.
- Understand expiration dates. Did you know expiration dates refer to a food’s freshness, not to it’s safety? My husband won’t touch a food that is near it’s expiration date, but my mom has food in her fridge that expired three years ago. I’m kind of in the middle. The milk I’m drinking today “expired” three days ago, but I know I still have a few more days before it actually “goes bad”. Often, when a food is unsafe, you can see and/or smell that it is bad.
There are lots of subtle ways to start saving money on groceries. Some things take a little extra time and effort, some just take a change of habit and a little knowledge. Start today. What can you do to implement some of these ideas for your food budget? Even if your budget isn’t super tight right now, I think we are all looking for ways to save a little money so we have more to spend on things that are a little more exciting than groceries.
What other ideas do you have for saving money on your weekly groceries?
All month long we are talking about various ways to save money. You can see the other posts in this series, so far, here and here.
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