We all know that shopping without a list is foolish and you end up buying things you don't need and might never use. Along the same line, I feel that shopping without a detailed meal plan is just as foolish. Simply stocking your pantry and cupboards with staples is never enough.
Twice a month my husband and I sit down together and go through recipes, food magazines, store ads, and even (and maybe especially) our family calendar. The first thing I do is get out my trusty planner.
I look ahead to the next two weeks and see what is on the calendar. What will be quick meal nights because of activities? When is Dad out of town or working late? When will we be going out or eating in for a special ocassion? Looking over the planner is CRUCIAL.
Then I grab my spiral notebook and write out dates and days for the next two weeks, allowing about two lines per day. Then the real fun begins as Cody and I go through and pick out what sounds good to us. At first we just make an unorganized brainstorm list in no particular order. If it sounds good, we write it down. The first thing I pull out is my recipe box.
Several years ago I signed up to the get the Kraft Food and Family magazine that came out quarterly. At the time it was free, but recently they have started to charge a small fee of about $7 a year. Still, totally worth it.
The magazine if chalked full of family friendly recipes that go with what's in season. It gives you ideas for what to do with leftovers, slow cookers, desserts, different kinds of meats, and they have chefs who write articles and give tutorials about food techniques. I started saving these magazines back in 2006 (I wish I'd thought to save them earlier on, but they always ending up in the recycling bin) and now we have a good collection to choose from. We use these every month to plan menus from. I simply write down the issue and page number next to the food choice in my spiral so I can refer back to it when making the actual menu and list.
I must pause her for a minute and acknowledge people who may read this and chastize me fro NOT couponing and shopping ads. I have done it in the past, and honestly, I don't like it. I find that it's way more of a headache than it's worth, and I have never found a way around feeling bad about myself for buying a bunch of stuff "on sale" that I didn't really need or like. And most of the time a lot of my food purchases are the generic or store brand anyway, and coupons are usually for the name brand. And after I've done the math, I never come out ahead even when the name brand products ARE on sale.
And making meal plans from ads does not work for us. What I do is make a menu and then shop around through ads to see if something in particular is on sale and a great place somewhere. But I will get to that later. I'm sure there is some trick to hard core couponing, but for now my way works great for our family.
Okay, back to what I was saying.
After I have searched the calendar, listed out dates and days, and we've brainstormed what sounds good and will maybe work with our schedule, I pencil in a rough draft of dinner plans. Like I said before, I keep it even between different kinds of meats, as not to have four nights of chicken in a row! The rough draft will look something like this-
Like I said, it's a VERY rough draft. It just gives me an idea of what our dinners could look like over the next two weeks. Oh, and you'll see that I included Family Home Evening treats for Monday nights. Can't forget that!
After I've gone through and finalized the main dishes for each night, the real headache begins. What to make for sides? Salads? What ingredients do we have, what will I need? This is where the real money saving happens. You will be amazed at how much extra money you spend on things like tomato paste or cream of chicken soup each time you are at the store. Staples like these, which we often times forget we already have in abundance, add up like crazy with each grocery trip. So I plan out to a tee what ingredients the recipe calls for and what I already have. You will be surprised to find that often times, you already have a lot of the stuff lurking in your pantry!
Once the plan is finalized, I find out if certain things are on sale somewhere. Pulled pork BBQ sandwiches are on the menu, given that pork shoulder is not ourtageously expensive everywhere. There is a good website called Deals To Meals but as far as I know it is only local to my region. Check it out to see if it's available in your area. For $5 a month you can view the grocery ads for most markets in your city. Plus, she also gives meal plans based on what's on sale. (The reason I don't use this part is because I don't want to be tied down to HER meal plans. I like to use more of what we already have in our freezer and pantry, plus there are many weeks where our family schedule doesn't match up to what she has planned for her menus...so I use her ideas only as light suggestions.)
If you are into price matching, using ads comes in handy. But again, big fat stinking headache and I have never ended up saving that much money doing this because I just shop differently. If it works for your family, more power to you!
I go through my whole pantry and take inventory of what we have and what we need. It is VITAL to inventory staples, as I said earlier.
When my meal plans are finalized, I make a rough grocery list that looks something like this (only showing the front side of the paper here)-
I should mention that obviously not everything can be purchased for a 2 week time frame. There are perishables which will have to be purchased at the beginning of week two like french bread or produce. So I make an additional list and call it "Second Week Perishables". I do hit the store again but as always, I STICK TO THE LIST for that week.
Through out the week, I keep a list on the fridge of what we are running low on and what we are out of. It could be grocery or non-grocery...just anything that we need from the store. I always refer to that when making my shopping list and is avoids all the "Uh oh, I meant to get this so I'll run back to the store and grab it." Then that $5 trip ends up being a $20 trip because you end up buying stuff you didn't really need.
I normally do most of my shopping at the same store, and I am very familiar with it's layout. Knowing the layout of a store is extremely helpful in making categories. For example, I know they they sell tortillas on the bread aisle and not in the ethnic aisle like some stores do. And yogurt is sold on two aisles over from milk. Crazy, I know! So the more finalized list looks something like this on one of the sides-
I also have a category for more household type items since the store I mainly shop at carries a lot of that stuff.
When I am at the store, I STICK TO THE LIST. Planning is the key part of grocery shopping. Once I'm at the store (or stoes in some cases) I race through at lightening speed. It's the preparation that takes the long part and causes the headache. My last bi-monthly grocery trip was on MLK day when Cody had the day off and was able to sit home with the kids. I got a TON of groceries that totalled $253 and I did it all in 57 minutes and I did not forget a single thing. (I have to add though, $250 is NOT our bi-monthly food budget. This trip included quite a few out of the ordinary purchases. My daughter's birthday was a few days later so a lot of this stuff was party related. LOL, I wish we had $500 a month for groceries! Normally is is about $300.)
Now the trick is going home, hauling it into the house from the van, finding a place to put everything, and relaxing for a few minutes. On our fridge is a calendar of what we are having for meals on what day. Each night I have a habbit of looking at it to see what I need to thaw for the next day. So before bed, I check the calendar and open up the freezer. Tomorrow is spaghetti and meatballs and meat is currently thawing in the sink. You'll be surprised what peace of mind feels like when your meals are planned out two weeks in advance. Aaaaaaah, it's a great freeling!
(Edited to add- there are some nights when things come up and we end up switching around meals on certain days, or flat out do not have time for anything more than grilled cheese. So we are flexible, but end up sticking to the plan on most nights.)