4 Money Saving Tips for Meal Planning

March 22, 2011

fresh vegetable stand

I love the grocery store. I really do. I could push a cart up and down those neatly lined aisles for hours if not half a day in quite the joyous state. It's an exploration of new food, a search for menu inspiration, a chance to kibitz with kindly strangers about the unit price of cereal. I probably know the supermarket staff in an oddly intimate way. And having lived in four states in one year’s time, I know the price differences of product brands and markets so well that I should probably consider a trip to The Price is Right. I could really use a six piece dinette set. Think of me as a supermarket maven, if you will. As you can imagine, this supermarket love can veer dangerously close to an empty bank account. In recent years, I've gotten better at making a list, checking it twice, and...well, meal planning. Here are my 4 best tips to make your grocery haul budget-friendly:

fresh vegetable stand

1. Browse the sale circulars. The night before you plan to shop, browse several of your local stores’ circulars for sales. Make a quick list of sale items that interest you. Clip any coupons for products you frequently use.

2. Spend 10 minutes dreaming up 5 recipes incorporating those sale items. If chicken thighs are on sale, but you have never cooked them before, do a quick search online for recipes using them. Try to tap into what flavors or cuisines you’re craving and build a meal around that. You should also think about ways to connect these meals through similar ingredients, so that one food can work double duty- meaning less fuss and less waste when it comes time to prepare the meals. For instance, if I roast a small chicken, I’ll be able to use the meat in a number of recipes. And if I roast root vegetables along side the chicken, I can use those leftovers in a casserole, a pasta dish, or even a sandwich.

3. List the ingredients you’ll need. Put the list into your smart phone or write it on a sheet of paper. Having a list, and sticking to it, means that you'll spend only what you need to, and avoid any impulse buys.

4. Recycle Old Meal Plans. Save old grocery lists and meal plans and use them in a rotation every few weeks. You know what worked in the past, so likely it'll work again (and save you time and energy).

What are your best tips for meal planning? The Hunger Challenge is an exercise of empathy—to live in someone else's shoes for one week and learn how we can help fight hunger.

How you can help: volunteer, learn more about the Hunger Relief Now! Plan, encourage your friends and family and make your voice heard, donate to your local food bank. If you're participating in the Hunger Challenge, consider donating what you save this week on food.



Russell La Claire's picture

Geez, I do just the opposite. Buy whatever catches my fancy, then invent something with it. Wife doesn't cook and has complained only a couple of times over 20 years.

However, for most folks your way is a lot more sensible, and frugal.

Janice Harper's picture

Great suggestions, and I'm with you on draining the bank account on a grocery addiction. Two more tips: First, the obvious one, don't go shopping on an empty stomach -- and keep a power bar in the car for those last minute trips home when you don't have time to eat before a last minute dash to the store.

And second, instead of going up and down the aisles, do the perimeter first. That's where the healthier food is, the produce, meats/fish, baked goods. By then your cart is full and you realize you're already spending too much so any trips up the aisle are less likely to turn into impulse buys of what my dad used to call "dinky dainties." I love my dinky dainties, but half a dozen and the budget's blown! Avoid the inner aisles . . .

Chris's picture

I love when you said, "I could push a cart up and down those neatly lined aisles for hours if not half a day in quite the joyous state." LOL! That is so me! My husband hates that on a trip to Seattle I want to stop at Whole Foods, Pikes Place Market, Central Market and Iwajimaya-all on the same trip! ( I'm usually lucky if he has the patience for even one stop!) That being said, you have some great tips! Thighs are much tastier than chicken breasts and a whole cooked chicken is divine. Grapefruit are in season and cheap- which inspires some asian inspired dishes. A small tip for a special treat- try pork belly. For such a rich and succulent meat, it only runs about $2 lb at Whole Foods and you need such a small amount for each serving. (about 1/4 to 1/3 lb per person at most).And while we are drooling over the first run of Copper River Salmon- we'll sadly pass but for a rich and flavorful Jalapeno Cheese Grits topped with just a few Smokey Seared Shrimp and some sauteed chard.

culinaryneophyte's picture

Love this list. I, too, considered myself a supermarket maven; my friends are always calling/texting me from the market, saying, "Is this a good price?"

Another helpful hint is if you can wait for something to go on sale, do it; items/brands/products typically go on sale on a rotational basis, so if Lays potato chips aren't on sale this week [and you still have a few handfuls left in the cabinet], just wait; they'll almost definitely be on sale within the next week or two (especially if there's a party day coming up, e.g. Super Bowl, or barbecues.)

Love your site!

culinaryneophyte's picture

Do the perimeter first -- great idea!

Andie Mitchell's picture

Thanks very much! I agree, waiting until the products go on sale is helpful for budgeting. And then, when something like ketchup goes on sale, I buy a few to have on hand!

Andie Mitchell's picture

Great advice Chris!! We need to plan a shopping trip together!

Andie Mitchell's picture

It's so easy to just go to the store without much of a plan (I'm guilty too sometimes!), but I end up spending waaaay more money on impulsive ice cream treats and expensive cuts of meat, which never seem to go on sale :)

United Way of King County Blog » Blog Archive » 's picture

[...] me rethink oatmeal with her peanut butter banana oatmeal.  Andrea also gave us some great tips for saving money at the [...]

Doug Harper's picture

Try everything, lose nothing. Be adventuress with your meals!