One of the ways that we save on our grocery bill is to create a menu for the upcoming two weeks. We shop on a biweekly basis- when we get paid, we shop. Makes life easier in ways. (Other than trying to get by on 4 gallons of milk, those last few days are so hard!) So when I sat down and created the menu two Saturdays ago, I decided that last night (Weds) we would have lasagna rolls (like you see in the Olive Garden commercials recently). I decided this because we had lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese, so it seemed like a good way to use it up. On Tuesday night, I was going to prepare the lasagna rolls as much as possible. Wednesdays are hectic because Alann has scouts, so he leaves within an hour of getting home from school, so we need meals that are quick. I try to place either crockpot or plan-ahead meals on Weds nights. Anyway, on Tuesday, as I was assembling the necessary ingredients, I discovered that we still had some jumbo pasta shells. That seemed a lot easier than rolling lasagna noodles, so I decided to make that instead. As I was finishing boiling the noodles, Alann walked in the door. He had midterms in class, so he got to come home when he was finished. At that point, he tells me that he will not be home on Weds, and swears he told me before now. Maybe he did and I need to keep better track. I will give him the benefit of the doubt. I am pretty sure he didn’t though. So I decide that we can have shells on Thursday night instead. I just get so proud of myself when I do things like make dinner before I get home. I did everything last night- I filled the shells, made the pasta sauce (I don’t buy jarred from the store, eww. It is so easy from scratch.), and I grated the mozzarella cheese. All I have to do when I get home tonight is pour the sauce on the shells, sprinkle on the cheese, and put it in the oven. I even went so far as to set the oven this morning so that it turns on at 6:00, which is just before I walk in the door. It will be hot right about the time the pasta is ready to go in. I am so proud of myself. Could I turn on the oven as soon as I get in and have the same effect? Yes, but this way, I won’t forget, or get sidetracked. When I get home, it takes me a good 10-15 minutes to get settled before anything gets done- dogs go out, cat needs food, dogs need food, pets need water, Becca needs water, Becca needs to go out (ok, to the bathroom), mail needs sorting. So even my best laid plans of starting something the minute I walk in the door seem to go out the door. With my super smart oven, that is one less obstacle between me and my dinner. MMM, I am excited.
I have learned a lot about controlling grocery budgets and menu planning through creating a menu. The first time I created a menu, I came up with a “fresh” meal every night- basically, every meal had some fresh or non-pantry item that was the star in the meal. This meant I HAD to cook what I planned within that two weeks, or something would go bad. Also, for some reason, the first few times I did the meal plan, all my meals were HUGE! There was SO MUCH FOOD! And we couldn’t have leftovers for dinner, because we had to make what was planned. I learned to budget in a few leftover nights. This has since transformed. Alann is not home for dinner on Tuesday nights, so I don’t plan a meal. I am pretty happy with scrounging- if there are no leftovers, I can always have some angel hair pasta, a little butter, and some frozen veggies and call that a meal quite happily. Alann isn’t so happy with that particular meal, so I don’t ever put it on the menu. And I have also started adding usually one meal a week that is a “pantry” meal- everything in it is something that we either have on hand, or if we bought it for this meal, will keep until later. This allows me to adjust. Like tonight was supposed to be twice baked potatoes. Potatoes keep, so that meal will happen in the next rotation instead of tonight, so that we can have the more perishable shells. This means less food is going bad, which means less money is being wasted. Before I started the menu, I would have to figure out what we wanted when I got home, and then put it together, defrost something, it was a pain. This way, I know ahead of time what is for dinner, I can pull stuff out of the freezer the night before, if there is something that can be prepared ahead, I can do it. We switched to brown rice, which takes about an hour to cook, instead of 20 minutes for white rice (it is healthier too), so this way, I can make rice the day or more ahead of time and reheat it when we need it. I like this. I also really like the menu planning. For a while, I would come up with a theme and most everything would revolve around that. I didn’t do this consciously, it just kind of happened. We had soup week, and Mexican week, and chicken week. I have gotten better about mixing in more variety. Also, I started doing my menu planning on a real calendar, so if I think of something I want, that doesn’t fit in, I can schedule it for the next two-week period and not worry about forgetting it, and not overdo one theme in our meals.
In case you are interested, I make my meal, and consequently grocery list, in a specific order. First, I try to think of meals that I want to eat, that we haven’t had in a while. (I started keeping a list of our favorite meals in my cookbook, so I can refer to it if I get stuck for ideas.) I can also look back at the previous month or so, and see what we ate, so that I can decide if I want that again or mix it up more. This usually fills in a good 60% of the meals for the two-week period. I make sure to observe certain schedule limitations for meals, and other obligations we have placed on ourselves. We are trying to eat salads on Mondays and Fridays, since we go to the gym anyway, and the salad is a nice light meal to end on. (I usually have a grilled cheese or quesadilla with mine, because for some reason, a hot something makes me happy after the gym.) Then I look or think through our pantry and freezer, and decide what in there needs to get used. (We have a pork roast in the freezer that is in desperate need of usage, but somehow every week, it gets bumped. So it goes on next week again and again.) This will fill in 2 or 3 more meals. Then I look in the ads from the stores. If there are any good meat or veggie sales, I put those into the meals. This usually rounds it out. If I get stuck, I ask Alann, but he seems to come up with the weirdest ideas, and I have no idea where he gets them. When the weeks are planned out, I ask his opinion, if he has anything special going on, if the meals sound okay. Usually he doesn’t mess with it too much.
Then I make my grocery list by going through each meal mentally and deciding if we do or do not have the ingredients on hand. Then I ask Alann for his input on the grocery list, and check on our other supplies, and the work is done. Oh wait, then I decide which stores we are going to, and what to get at each store. I usually don’t shop just one store. I also usually write the sale prices next to items that I think we will get at one store, but want to check at the other stores too. Honestly, this takes me probably an hour and a half of solid work to get this far. But it seems to be working for us.
I quit shopping at Reams about a year ago because it was always too crowded and the customer service was rather lame. I stopped at the one on 47th S and I-215 on Valentine’s Day because it was on the way home. I noticed that their produce section is a) nicer and cleaner and bigger than Smiths and b) CHEAPER! So the next time we went shopping, we went to Reams just for produce (and bologna, which happened to be on sale. The checkout lady must have thought we were vegetarians until the bologna came through. I still laugh about this.) We spent $20 and got first of all, 5 lbs of onions because they were on sale for .19 cents a pound (I cut and freeze them myself -much cheaper than buying the precut ones), plus enough other produce that I actually could afford to get fresh fruit too. Usually that is Alann’s domain. He likes to have an apple with his lunch every day. I usually skip getting anything for myself, beyond maybe an orange, because it is expensive at Smiths. But Reams is better, and the produce is nicer than Walmart’s and cheaper than theirs too. I shop Wal-mart for pantry goods- stuff that really can’t get messed up. But their meat and produce selection and price and overall wholesomeness doesn’t suit me at all. So I was stuck at Smiths, until now.
Our shopping day usually goes like this: I get up around dog-thirty (whenever they decide they need to go out, around 8 or 830 usually). I get the list done (I try to have the meals planned by Friday), make breakfast, wake Alann up. We go to the bank, to Walmart for basics, to Reams for produce and what’s on sale, to Smiths for everything else, and then home. It takes us about 3 hours, plus usually a stop at 7-11 for some DP. I find I am able to purchase more food using this method. We just recently branched out to Wal-mart, and Reams is new too. For a while we just did Smiths, because I thought that they had the best prices. Then I started looking more closely, and realized that yes, they have awesome prices on sales, but not on anything else. So we weren’t able to purchase all that we wanted. I don’t know why I decided to ramble on about this, but there you go. Maybe it will help you out too.