Meal-Plan Your Way to Savings at the Grocery Store
We’ve all heard this sage advice: “Don’t ever shop for groceries on an empty stomach.”
It’s doubly true if you’re trying to cut costs in the face of inflation.
Plan-free grocery shopping can lead to mindless or even rushed, frantic purchases that drive up costs and don’t align with your health and fitness goals.
I’m sure you’ve been there: Your fridge is empty and you’re pressed for time, so you rush to the closest store and just start tossing items in the cart. You don’t look for items on sale, you don’t check prices at other stores, and you don’t pay close attention to quantities. You definitely grab a few things you hadn’t planned to buy from prominent displays.
- You spend more than you want to.
- You leave with high-calorie “convenient” items you don’t actually need.
- Your “anything goes” choices aren’t matched to your fitness goals.
- You buy too much food. This will drive up your costs if it spoils before you eat it or it will derail your fitness plan if you overeat to avoid waste.
Perhaps better advice would be this: “Don’t grocery shop without a plan.”
With a solid plan, you can make choices that support your healthy habits and reflect your budget. No mindless shopping, no food waste and no overspending.
The absolute best way to maximize your savings is to plan your meals for the month. This might seem daunting at first, but it’s actually simple: You can just reuse one week four times or you can swap some recipes in and out of a weekly template if you prefer variety. Every planned meal is going to help you with your budget.
With meals on the calendar, you can break down your grocery shopping into two manageable pieces: monthly buying and weekly buying.
Frequently used ingredients should be purchased in bulk at discount stores. These are the items that show up in many meals and won’t not perish if they’re stored properly.
A few examples: oatmeal, pancake mix, condiments, egg whites (keep an eye on these—they don’t last forever), canned food, frozen vegetables and fruit, and so on.
You can also look at buying meat in bulk if you have freezer space. Then package smaller quantities in freezer-safe bags that reflect the meals you’ll make in the month. Just make sure you plan for the week in advance:Get the frozen meat into the fridge ahead of time so it can thaw for cooking!
Some of these “monthly items” might even be purchased every other month if they’ll keep for a long time. And if you have a family member or friend who is on the same nutrition wavelength, you might find opportunities to make even larger purchases that reduce price further. You’ll then split the food—and cost.
Costco and wholesale-club stores are often great places to save money on monthly purchases.
Here’s an example—we’ll use common non-perishable items for simplicity even if we might not advise you to consume these exact foods in bulk:
Ketchup at a premium store might cost $4.28 for 32 oz. But the exact same ketchup can be found at a wholesale club in a Three-pack of 44 oz containers for $9.68. The price breaks down to $3.23 for one 44 oz bottle , so you’ll save about $1.05 with the bulk buy.
The savings add up as long as you’re only buying things you need and never letting bulk purchases go to waste.
A monthly purchasing plan also allows you to take advantage of sales that pop up. In some cases, savings can be significant.
If you know which items you’ll need in larger quantities every month, you can keep a lot of money in your bank account by buying in bulk and capitalizing on sales.
Some items—especially fresh, healthy choices—might not last anywhere near a month, and we don’t want food to go to waste. The USDA estimated food waste at 30-40 percent of the food supply at a cost of $161 billion in 2010. If you’re throwing food out regularly, you can save a lot of money with proper planning.
This is where weekly purchases come in. If you know what you’ll eat every week, you can make focused trips to get the required amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, fresh-baked items and so on. If anything goes bad before you get to it, adjust the list so the next haul is spot on.
If you compare prices and clip a few coupons, you can likely find significantly cheaper prices at certain stores. As you get into a rhythm of weekly shopping, you’ll be able to spot peaks and valleys in prices, and you might even make some clever, budget-friendly substitutions. Romaine lettuce is expensive this week but spinach is on sale? Maybe you can adjust a recipe and save a few bucks.
In some cases, you might also see a great deal on certain items that you want to stock up on and remove from your monthly list. Supermarkets often blow items out without a lot of warning, and you might be in the right place at the right time—just be sure you aren’t buying for the sake of buying. Stick to your meal plans: Only buy sale items if they’re already part of the plan.
With weekly shopping on a meal plan, your biggest saving will be found in three places:
1. You’ll waste less food because you’re buying the right quantities at the right time.
2. You’ll always have food in the house so you aren’t tempted to order a $50 pizza because you didn’t plan ahead.
3. You’ll be able to take advantage of unpublicized sales on items you already need.
Plan, Budget and Save
Everything starts with your meal plan. After you create it, you can make your monthly and weekly lists, and the longer you stick to the plan, the more precise your lists will be.
In short order, you’ll become a “routine machine,” and you’ll be able to dial in your budget.
For example, if you know you have $1,000 for food in the month, you might determine that you’ll spend $400 in one monthly trip and then $150 a week. With that data, you can then make adjustments when sales or bulk opportunities pop up.
Intimidated by a monthly meal plan? Start small: Plan out the next three days and then get only the food you need to execute the plan. You won’t get the maximum savings of a monthly plan, but you’ll have a reusable “three-day block” to drop into a work-in-progress monthly plan. Think of any period of planning as a LEGO block you can use to create a larger plan for healthy eating and cost cutting.
The keys to it all: meal plans and grocery lists.
You don’t want to sprint out of the store vegetable-free but carrying three overpriced, less-than-nutritious frozen dinners and a sugary pie for dessert. That could happen if you shop with an empty stomach and no plan.
If you need help matching up healthy eating habits with your fitness goals, you know we’re just a click away. Contact us!