How I Grocery Shop
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?