Going out to a restaurant or buying pre-cooked food is fun and easy, but it’s also much, much more expensive and typically much less healthy than preparing your own meals at home. Also, by cooking your own meals, you gain a strong sense of independence and satisfaction that comes from knowing that you can meet your own needs.
Shopping for groceries certainly requires more planning than picking up some fast food, but it’s well worth the effort and it gets easier as you get more experienced. Before you step out of your front door, you should have a meal plan, a shopping list, and a budget.
A meal plan is very simple. Think of it as a high-level strategic plan, free of detail or technical specifications. All you have to do is figure out what you want to eat for each meal of the day for however many days you plan to shop for. Typically, this is a week’s worth of meals, but it can be any number of days to suit your life.
Detailed Meal Plan
Once you’ve worked up your high-level meal plan, it’s time to break it down into more detail. Go through each meal and choose a main, a side, and a drink. For example, my detailed meal plan for Monday looks like this:
Once you have your detailed meal plan all worked up, you just need to go through it and make a list of all the main, side and drink item(s).
Before taking your list to the store, you should go through your fridge and cupboards to check off anything that you have left over from last week. Chicken breasts typically come in a bag of 5 or 6 so you don’t have to buy a new bag every week.
It’s really embarrassing to be standing in the checkout line with a shopping cart full of groceries and not enough money to pay for them. You can avoid this situation by knowing in advance about how much money you need to spend to buy the things on your list and how much money you have available.
Remember that unless you’re starting with an empty fridge and cupboards, you won’t be buying everything on the list every time you go to the store.
Go through your list and guess at about how much each item costs. Guess high. As you get experience, this will become an easier task and your estimates will become more accurate. You’ll begin to learn the rhythm of what you need and when and you’ll come to depend less and less on this process.
Also, it’s a good idea to add fun money into your shopping budget. This gives you permission and a limit to make impulse purchases.
Now that you’ve narrowed down your shopping list to just the things you need to buy to replace the things that you’ve eaten over the last week, it’s time to go shopping.
At first, it’s best to just go to one store, but as you gain confidence, you might try branching out to other stores. You’ll likely find that different stores offer better quality and prices on different items. For example, you might be able to buy your meats at a butcher and your soups at a warehouse store.
Most stores offer many different types and brands of the same item. Milk, for example, comes in whole, 2%, 1%, fat free, almond, soy, chocolate. There are also likely several brands of milk from local, regional and in-house brands. If you don’t have a preference for which type or brand of an item you want, you can let the price decide for you.
In addition to the item’s price, most price tags have a small, standardized per unit price listed somewhere. If your store offers Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs in different sized bags, find the per ounce cost for each. Typically the larger bags or boxes cost less per unit. This allows you to stretch your budget and saves you time since you’ll have more of the item available.
Check for Sales
It’s easy to get in a routine of always buying Brand X butter, but maybe this week the store is having a sale on Brand Y. Make sure to avoid tunnel vision and check to see if the box next to the one you always grab actually costs less this time.
Don’t Shop Hungry
If you shop when you’re hungry, then everything you see will sound like a good idea. Eat a small snack before you go shopping to ward off this temptation and stick to your budget.
Be Smart About Your List
It’s tempting to buy things that you might need or are on sale this week even though you’ve already got two at home. Keep in mind that canned soup will last a long, long time. If the store is having a blow-out sale on canned soup and you’ve got room in your budget, go ahead and grab a few extra.
If, however, the store is selling salads at half-price and you’ve already got your meal covered, you might want to hold off as the shelf-life of salad is pretty short and by the time the next salad meal rolls around your leafy greens may be wilted.