How I Grocery Shop

By Catherine Shaffer on 11 February 2008 (Updated 16 November 2011) 20 comments

Being Frugal asks how we grocery shop, and I thought it was a pretty interesting question.

First, I will commit heresy by saying that I no longer write a full weekly menu. Pause for stunned silence. Yes, that's right! Instead of writing a menu each week, as I have done for several years, I recently switched to using the "pantry principle," an idea from The Complete Tightwad Gazette (affiliate link). The concept is that you fill your pantry with foods that you use frequently, then plan meals out of the pantry, rather than the newspaper fliers.

For quite a lot of years, I wasn't such a good meal planner. Being a Busy Mom, I would go to the store, often without a list, and buy stuff that looked good to eat, sort of putting together meals in my head. You can actually do okay with this, and I always tried to shop sales. However, I had a lot of trouble getting meals on the table in the evening, and it happened quite often that I was missing some crucial ingredient for a meal I wanted to make.

The next step in my evolution was being a meal planner. I planned a full week's worth of menus at a time, then shopped for what I needed for that week. I saved money by buying only what I needed, and by using the weekly sales to plan my menus. It also became easier to get dinner on the table each day, especially when I came up with the concept of the regular rotating menu. For example, Sunday was "chicken day," Monday was "spaghetti day," etc. One pitfall was that I tended to overplan. I would carefully plan seven meals, and then we would end up cooking and eating four or five of them. Sometimes that meant wasting fresh ingredients. I tried to compensate by leaving "leftover days," but the truth is you never know whether you're going to have leftovers until you have them, so it's hard to plan ahead for leftovers unless you are psychic.

Eventually, I wanted to save more money, and I had encountered by then Amy Dacyczyn's pantry principle. Frankly, I was kind of skeptical at first, so I continued planning weekly menus while making a bigger effort to shop loss leaders, use coupons, and stock up on frequently used items. It took a couple of months to fully stock the pantry and freezer, but we eventually got to the point where I had a good selection of foods on hand, it was all organized, and I was rotating stuff so that things did not go bad or get wasted. At the same time, a different thing happened. I started making much more of an effort to use up everything--everything--rather than throwing food away. I learned the art of leftover cuisine and began improvising and substituting lots of things in recipes. And it worked! When you are being very careful about using every bit of food, you don't need a lot of "de novo" menu ideas, because 3/4 of your dinners will be made with leftover bits of this and that. And that's when I converted to the pantry principle. Nowadays, I plan my dinner the night before or the morning of, based on ingredients we have in the house. If my family wants something different, or if I want to try a new recipe, I put the extra ingredients that I need for it on my grocery list and get it next time I go to the store. So, in a sense, I've come full circle. Except now I am "shopping" from my home pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, instead of from the grocery store.

One neat thing about this method is that it's a double bonus. Firstly, whenever I find something in the freezer or pantry that I forgot about, that's almost too old to keep, it's like getting food for free! Secondly, it takes some of the pressure off in terms of meal planning. I just rummage around and come up with something like spinach, mung beans, and mystery meat from the freezer. Okay, it's a meal!

So, with that as a preamble, here is how I'm doing my grocery shopping nowadays. I have a subscription to my local paper, so each Sunday morning I grab the paper and cut out the coupons that I want, erring on the side of keeping ones I'm not sure about. (Lately, the coupon inserts have been pretty lean.) At that time, I look through the Walgreen's and CVS ads, but I don't make any specific plans. I make a mental note of deals that look good. I also check out the Meijer sales. I put all three circulars in my magazine basket and wait for the other grocery fliers to show up later in the week, and I glance through them as they arrive. Meanwhile, I check various online sources to see if there are any really hot deals, especially at CVS or Walgreen's. At some point in the week, I'll make a run to CVS, Walgreen's, Rite Aid, a dollar store, or another store to pick up an advertised sale item or two. It's my personal rule not to go to every single store every week, so if two stores have equally good deals, I pick one and stick to my choice.

On Thursday night, I plan the grocery outing. My favorite way to make a grocery list is to include the prices of the items, either exact prices from my price book or memory, or estimated prices. I find that for me the best way to stick to my grocery budget is if I actually know how much I'm spending in advance. That way, I can do my cutting on paper, rather than getting all confused in the store. I don't always have time for this, though. I pull out coupons I know I'm going to be using, but I also take my coupon organizer into the store with me, in case I see unadvertised specials or clearance deals.

First I go to Sav-a-lot, which is our local low cost grocery, and get produce and some other things at this store. I have mixed feelings about Sav-a-lot, because my hubby once found a cockroach in a package of cream cheese. I decided to give them another chance (roaches happen to the best of us), but if it happens again, we are out of there. After Sav-a-lot, I usually go to Kroger and get sale items, there. Lastly, and this is the step that gives me trouble, I try to go downtown to a butcher that carries locally raised, organic meats and get a couple of chunks of meat. This ends up being pretty inconvenient, usually, especially after I've been to two stores already.

Once every two or three months, I'll go to Sam's Club and stock up on flour, yeast, olive oil, and other select items. A couple times a year, I drive to downtown Detroit, which is an adventure, and buy meat in bulk at Detroit's Eastern market (I promise to blog it next time I do). We get a great deal on the prices, and although I don't know much about the history of the meat, we choose a lot of lamb and goat so that we know at least it's grass-fed, not raised on a feed lot. I also patronize Trader Joe's on occasion (although it's so seductive in terms of impulse buys), as well as some of our nice local markets.

Lately, I'm really feeling like I spend too much time going to multiple stores, so I'm experimenting with limiting myself to two stores per week, and buying more from each one, so that I can be more efficient. I've also joined our local food cooperative, which was a chunk of change up front, but should save us money in the form of member rebates and discounts on the purchase of dry goods in bulk. It will also allow us to add more organic foods without stretching the budget.

Our monthly grocery budget is $350, and our "eating out" budget is about $150 (that includes every trip to the vending machine, every lunch, every pizza, every bag of movie popcorn), for our family of three. The grocery budget also includes about $90/month in dairy products we have delivered from Calder Dairy, which costs a bit more than grocery store prices, but not as much as you think. (About $5/gallon for glass-bottled, hormone free, gently pasteurized, amazingly delicious milk.) Also in the "grocery" category are all of our toiletries, OTC meds, personal hygeine products, soaps, shampoos, batteries, plastic bags and wraps, paper products, beer and wine, etc. So it is a pretty challenging budget.

And that's it! It's pretty complicated, really, but the more I get into the swing of it, the less time consuming it is. How do you shop for groceries?

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Guest's picture

Your grocery budget is amazing! That's what I'm working toward, but I'm still a ways off. I'd love to shop from my pantry, but I haven't perfected the technique yet. It's my ultimate goal, though. I really do believe that's the least expensive way to go.

I'm going to have to check into my food co-op, too. I know there are good deals to be found there, especially on healthy foods. I'm just rarely in that neighborhood, so it never occurs to me to go there.

Guest's picture
Jazmin

I knew that there had to be someone else out there who shopped as I did, but in the sea of careful menu planners, I was starting to feel like a lone little island. I have a well stocked pantry and freezer. I stand in front of one or the other and wait for inspiration. We stock up one or both when the sales happen, and then on weeks (like this week) when it seems like /nothing/ is on sale, we just eat out of the backlog. Or when the grocery budget ends up partially funding a video game. *coughcough* The fresh stuff gets purchased every week like clock work, but by and large, menus are 'what looks good today'.

Guest's picture

I do something very similar at home. We still plan out menus, though, because we don't have a freezer big enough to really stock up on ingredients. Anybody know a place to get a good deal on a freezer?

When we buy in bulk, in stead of shopping at Sam's Club or Costco or some such, we visit www.bulkhome.com

It's easier than driving somewhere.

Guest's picture
Amanda

David -- A couple of years ago, we bought a small upright freezer from Sears that fit nicely in our apartment closet. Though it's small, it holds a great deal.

Catherine Shaffer's picture

Lynnae: don't be too impressed. I went through my whole $350 in the first 8 days of February. That was two regular shopping trips, plus the monthly milk bill, plus $60 for the new food coop, plus one grocery bill from January, debited at the very end of the month, that actually falls on the February statement. I am hoping to make it through the month without buying anything else. Ha!

David: A freezer is a big investment, that's for sure. I recommend saving up for a new freezer, rather than buying a used one, because of the difference in energy efficiency. Now in Miserly Moms (affiliate link) by Joni McCo, the author writes that she actually got rid of her chest freezer due to the energy cost, and successfully stockpiled food in the freezer on the top of her refrigerator. She did this by taking everything out of its box and putting it in ziploc bags. She would also freeze foods that she cooked in a ziploc bag, laid flat, so that she could stack as much as possible in it.

Thanks for the bulk food shopping link!

 

 

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor

Guest's picture
Amy

Sears carries a smaller size chest freezer that is half the size of the standard ones. I think we paid around $200 for it during one of their sales. It was the perfect size for a smaller family and much more energy-efficient than buying used.

I love menu planning and will admit that I spend a lot of time doing it, but it is a hobby for me. I enjoy trying new dishes and the variations give me things to write about and experiment with. I know it isn't for everyone so I appreciate this great idea too!

Guest's picture

I am on a fixed income and shop the way my mom shopped for a family of 7, Buy as much as you can that is on sale and is something that everyone likes and just try and keep the pantry and freezer full.
Our upright freezer we got 5 years ago really made a big difference in our food budget, and we use a food saver machine to really make sure it last a bit longer and doesn't ruin the food.
I always have the staples on hand, flour,yeast, beans,pasta,rice sugar, well you get the idea.
I also shop at the scratch and dent stores. I am extra careful with what I buy there and make sure I get stuff I now is not bad. I trust the people who run it, it's a small mom & pop business.
I used to do coupons but frankly I never saw the value on a regular basis. Most of the coupons were for stuff that was way to expensive to begin with and the store brand was always cheaper and I never notice the difference.
I try and by the best meat and poultry I can because I know we will eat it all and enjoy it.
I don't find savings in by a bad piece of meat that is so tough you can't chew it and you end up tossing it out.
The only problem I have is in the middle of the month I tend to run out of the diary or fresh produce.
And because I only get a check once a month I have decided to buy a $50 grocery store gift card and hold on to until I need it in the middle of the month.
I spend about $350 a month on groceries and that too includes food, and litter for 7 cats, and our toiletries and cleaning supplies.
Some times its more and sometimes it's less depending on the sales and if I have any room in the freezer.
Great article, thanks!

Guest's picture
overthirty

i live in a rural state and my dh and i actually own some cattle so we get our meat from ourselves - but before we got into the cattle business, we would purchase half a beef from a farmer or rancher. A large investment up front, but we have always had burger and steaks in the freezer. So once a year we pay $350 for meat to be processed then avoid the meat section of the grocery store for the rest of the year. (We have friends who process their own pork so we do a lot of swapping chops/bacon/sausage for burger.)
This is a really great way to save on meat AND know exactly where that meat came from :)

but, you do need that large freezer for storage....

Guest's picture
Rex

I have my groceries delivered by a service in town. The prices are reasonable and the delivery fee is more than worth the time saved.

I pay $125/week and have enough groceries for 7 dinners (and some leftovers) for a family of 4, staples & breakfast foods.

Grocery delivery has been a godsend with my busy schedule. No coupons, no ad reading, no standing in lines and no last minute store trips where I always spend more than I should!

Catherine Shaffer's picture

As usual, I'm loving all the ideas and tips from readers. My father-in-law raised beef cattle for a short period of time. He only ever slaughtered one, but while it lasted, it was great to have such high quality meat for free. (They were kind enoug to give us all we wanted.)

The grocery delivery plan sounds great. $125 is a great deal for a week's worth of food.

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor

Guest's picture
BigRed

While I try to do the weekly planning, I also keep my eyes open for "reduced for quick sale" produce and meat/fish to supplement our usual weekly supply of fresh produce with the also-rans.

If you can eat these items first, or process them for later consumption, you can stock your pantry/fridge/freezer and continue to build up items for use. For example, I buy up a couple of packages of overripe bananas every month, then peel and freeze them (I also do this routinely with the bananas we don't eat fast enough in the summer, when they ripen quickly). These are either added to smoothies, or pureed/smashed with a fork for addition to quick breads or pancakes. I also buy quantities of mangoes when they are on sale, and make Crockpot mango-ginger chutney for curries and as a side dish or addition to rice. This lasts forever in the fridge, but can also be canned.

Peppers can be roasted (remove any funky spots first), and then skinned and preserved in olive or other oil. They are also very nice as a puree or added to a sauce. Buying roasted red peppers in oil (with whole garlic cloves) is an expensive proposition. These also make lovely gifts for people (a la Mason jar gifts).

Guest's picture
Yvonne

I have come to know a few people well in the grocery store that I use. I get the inside scoop on when items will be on sale/or marked down. I recently bought ham (boneless, already sliced) for $5 a package. I bought 4. Various cheeses were marked down to .99 each. I bulk buy my turkey meat (I make my dogs food). So I know what goes into their food. I've done this for many many years. One of the ladies called me and told me that children's cough medicine was being marked down to $1.00, only because one bottle broke and cough medicine was on the bottoms of the other bottles, and some were normally $8.99 each. Wal-mart will match grocery ads if you bring in the flier. Keep in mind that they won't do percetages or BOGO offers. They also won't mark items down like I've mentioned, let alone call me. Our freezers are full, and my pantry is decent. I buy fresh frozen vegetables from some farmers. And I'll say this, I oouldn't find it any better in taste or cost! They have my business. I buy steaks on sale at an older grocery store, the building is paid for, so they say they can save us even more money.
I enjoyed the article.

Guest's picture
jess

you are braver than me to shop at a store that has had cockroaches long enough for one to get inside a package. ICK!

Guest's picture
redsoxmaniac

I am trying to do this more and more. I try to shop for the most part every two weeks. It forces me to scan the pantry and the freezer. I often use on-line menu planning where I can input ingredients I have on hand and come up with something new to cook (works great). The other huge saver for me is vacuum sealing. Whether it is stuff I buy or stuff that is leftover. If something isn't eaten in a day or two. I vacuum seal it and it is a quick meal for someone within minutes. This saves the urge to pickup takeout on those crazy days. Some people complain that the bag prices are too high, but they can be washed (although I don't bother doing that myself) what I save on food that would have spoiled is the reward. I also use mason jars to store, rice, brown sugar, croutons, homemade mixes such as hot chocolate. They stay fresh longer and I always know by a quick glance what's on hand.

Guest's picture
Dawn

I work at a grocery store as a cashier, so I'm at the grocery store almost every night.

Basically, my shopping consists of watching what people buy for a few days, then near the end of the week buying things I absolutely need to get-- mostly perishables-- and looking through my coupons and seeing what's on sale that I have coupons for (I get lucky surprisingly often) and what's on sale that I don't have coupons for or what I have nearly-expired coupons for that's not on sale. My store will also match other stores' advertised prices, although I don't usually bother with it, and I've seen people do amazing things by combining price matching and coupons.

(Well, that's the ideal, at least. In practice, I tend to go 'ooh, that looks tasty!' and grab a few groceries after my shift. Every day. Maybe I should start leaving my debit card at home....)

My meals consist of me looking around the kitchen and finding something reasonably tasty. Tonight I had mushroom ravioli-- with plain pasta added to stretch it to several meals-- with extra mushrooms and alfredo sauce, and a little feta cheese on top. Tasty. :)

Guest's picture
Meredith

I really appreciated this detailed history! I'm overhauling my own menu planning technique.

I found that I had gotten a little too comfortable in my pantry principle. If I didn't have the energy to rustle something up, nothing got eaten at home!

I've resigned myself to menu planning and using a portion of each budget to stock the pantry and freezer for future weeks.

Guest's picture
Elizabeth

Great post! I'm in the meal planning/shop sales stage but I've been pulling off more pantry meals myself, I need to work harder in that area.

Oh, and we moved away from Ann Arbor in August and one of the things I *really* miss is my Calder dairy deliveries... really, such a treat and worth the $$ to me. *sigh* And I loved that they picked up the milk bottles. I could get "similar" milk here from the grocery store but I'm terrible at returning the milk bottles so I don't bother.

Guest's picture

I save tons of money using coupons. 1. I clip them from the Sunday paper and swap ones I don't use with a few friends. My mother and an aunt send me coupons since they don't use them at all. I also use mail in rebates and other "instant" rebate coupons in stores. These are usually available in the section where beer and wine are sold. It's fun to get $10 and $15 checks in the mail. 2. I plan our meals based on what's on sale at the stores I drive by regularly. By sale, I mean significant markdown, or even better BOGO. For example, one of the stores I shop at offers double coupons up to .99 cents. Today, huge jars of Smuckers grape jam are $1.00 each. I have three coupons for .35 off each jar. With the great sale and coupons, I got three 32 ounce jars of jam for a total of .90 cents. I stock up on everything when it's on sale and I have coupons. We rarely run out of anything. I also buy meat if it's the last day of freshness and put it in the freezer. 3. Once a week is Refrigerator Banquet Day, usually Fridays. If it's in the house and you can fix it (or I can help you since my kids are young), you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. If eggs and biscuits have been on sale that week, that just might be your dinner Friday night. 4. Shop where they offer bonus bucks. Like CVS. Buy an item on sale using a coupon and get bonus bucks back that you can use to buy other items in the store. Use the bonus bucks to buy stuff that's on sale and use more coupons. You end up getting free stuff ultimately. 5. A good shopping trip for me is when I save at least as much as I spend. for example, I was very happy this morning when the register rang up $144 worth of groceries. I paid $71.74 for them. 6. Here's another tip. Always scan your coupons last, AFTER you have scanned your customer card. This way, you make sure that you get the coupon discount deducted from the store's sale price and not the full price. The way I like to do it is to have the clerk scan the groceries first, then scan my customer card, then scan my coupons. 7. Use a coupon organizer. Here's a video about how to select and organize one. I love saving money!

Guest's picture
steve

I use my pantry extensively as well. I have several mental categories for my shopping:

1) pantry stuff
2) fresh vegetables
3) milk and cheese.

Right next to this on the fridge is my shopping list. As I use ingredients up, I immediately put them on my shopping list unless I have a good backup stock in my pantry. Then, about once a week (when I start to get low on veggies, typically) I look over this list and add anything else I need (usually, vegetables or milk or eggs) and take the list with me. I take the list with me to work so that I can pick up the groceries on the way home. (this works for me because I am used to this routine, and as a result I don't tend to be tempted by stuff that is "off the list")

Every week I get vegetables, not always sticking strictly to my list. I just make sure I get enough dark green leafy vegetables, root vegetables, and other vegetables to last me the week or a little more. I go with a list of veggies, but can vary my selection according to what's cheap or good at the store.

Then I get anything else on the list.

Then if I see something that I normally stock in my pantry or freezer and it's a deal and I could use some, I will buy some of that item. I have a good sense by now of how many of an item is reasonable and won't go to waste, so I can just ballpark guess the quantities of sale items to buy. Right at the moment, even if I came across a stunning deal on something, I wouldn't buy it because the pantry is fully stocked. I have enough sardines in cans to last the year, for example. They're on sale for 11% off at my local stop and shop, but I won't buy any more. ditto for tomatoes in cans.

Once I get the groceries home, I, too, focus on not wasting anything. To accomplish not wasting any food, I use a second list that I also keep on my fridge with a pen holder next to it:

This list is all the foods in the fridgethat should be eaten next because they've been opened or would go bad soon if not eaten. Anything that I cook that goes into the fridge goes on this list as soon as it goes into the fridge, as well as any vegetables or other stuff that is getting long in the tooth. (As a backup system, anything that goes in a container on the fridge also gets a slip of masking tape on it with a description and the date it went in, as well. The tape and the marker are on the top of the fridge ready for me to use at all times. Having a label on the food gives you more confidence that it either is or is not ok to eat. For example, I sometimes make my own ketchup. The batch will last months, and it's kept in a mason jar, so it needs a label so two months later I won't wonder, "Is that ancient tomato sauce that could be bad or ketchup that I can eat??)) This way I make sure that I eat what is there before making anything new or buying anything new. I put a "c" next to the cooked items, I put an "R" next to bare ingredients in the fridge and I put an "F" next to stuff in my freezer that I need to use soon. Anything that needs to be eaten in the next two days gets an asterisk!

Then when I am deciding what to make for dinner and lunch, I check the list first and make a strong effort to use those foods before they go bad.

Then when I am deciding what to make for dinner and lunch, I check the list first and make a strong effort to use those foods before they go bad.

This has made a difference in my food bill. I used to throw out a good $20 worth of food a month that spoiled in the fridge. No more. It also keeps the fridge pretty uncluttered and clean, and because there are no "mystery items" clogging up space it's easy to get things in and out of the fridge.

Sorry about the long post, but I hope it's interesting and useful to someone. That's how I manage my food shopping and my fridge and pantry!

Guest's picture
steve

Hi, here's a revised and improved version of my post above, which got a little garbled with my cut-and-pasting!

Thanks for the great post! I thought I would share how I do my shopping and pantry/fridge management as well.

I use my pantry extensively and it is well-stocked. In order to organize my shopping and to prevent food wastage, I use two separate lists: a shopping list and a "what to eat next in the fridge" list. I keep both of them next to each other on the fridge, and have a pen holder right next to them so they're easy to use.

Here's how the shopping list works (most people will be familiar with this one): As I use ingredients up, I immediately put them on my shopping list unless I have a good backup stock in my pantry. Then, about once a week (when I start to get low on veggies, typically) I look over this list and add anything else I need (usually, vegetables or milk or eggs) and take the list with me. I take the list with me to work so that I can pick up the groceries on the way home. (this works for me because I am used to this routine, and as a result I don't tend to be tempted by stuff that is "off the list")

I have several mental categories for my shopping:
1) fresh vegetables
2) milk and cheese
3) meat and stuff for the freezer.

Every week I get vegetables first, not always sticking strictly to my list. I just make sure I get enough dark green leafy vegetables, root vegetables, and other vegetables to last me the week or a little more. I go with a list of veggies, but can vary my selection according to what's cheap or good at the store.

Then I get anything else on the list.

Then if I see something that I normally stock in my pantry or freezer and it's a deal and I could use some, I will buy some of that item. I have a good sense by now of how many of an item is reasonable and won't go to waste, so I can just ballpark guess the quantities of sale items to buy. Right at the moment, even if I came across a stunning deal on something, I wouldn't buy it because the pantry is fully stocked. I have enough sardines in cans to last the year, for example. They're on sale for 11% off at my local stop and shop, but I won't buy any more. ditto for tomatoes in cans.

Once I get the groceries home, I, too, focus on not wasting anything. To accomplish not wasting any food, I my second list, "things to eat next in the fridge".

This list is all the foods in the fridge that should be eaten next because they've been opened or would go bad soon if not eaten. Anything that I cook that goes into the fridge goes on this list as soon as it goes into the fridge, as well as any vegetables or other stuff that is getting long in the tooth. (As a backup system, anything that goes in a container on the fridge also gets a slip of masking tape on it with a description and the date it went in, as well. The tape and the marker are on the top of the fridge ready for me to use at all times. Having a label on the food gives you more confidence that it either is or is not ok to eat. For example, I sometimes make my own ketchup. The batch will last months, and it's kept in a mason jar, so it needs a label so two months later I won't wonder, "Is that ancient tomato sauce that could be bad or ketchup that I can eat??)) This way I make sure that I eat what is there before making anything new or buying anything new. I put a "c" next to the cooked items, I put an "R" next to bare ingredients in the fridge and I put an "F" next to stuff in my freezer that I need to use soon. Anything that needs to be eaten in the next two days gets an asterisk!

Then when I am deciding what to make for dinner and lunch, I check the list first and make a strong effort to use those foods before they go bad.

This has made a difference in my food bill. I used to throw out a good $20 worth of food a month that spoiled in the fridge. No more. It also keeps the fridge pretty uncluttered and clean, and because there are no "mystery items" clogging up space it's easy to get things in and out of the fridge.

Sorry about the long post, but I hope it's interesting and useful to someone. That's how I manage my food shopping and my fridge and pantry!