Meal Planning: A Primer (Part 3)

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Menu planning saves time, energy, and money. You don't have to wait until you are an accomplished cook to start. This is the couch 2 5k of feeding yourself healthy, budget conscious food.

Dear Home Ec 101,

I need to get our food budget under control. We spend a ton of money eating out. It’s starting to cause fights. I can’t cook, I can’t plan, and even if I could, I wouldn’t know where to start.


Hopeless in Hopeswell

Welcome to the third installment of our first series on Meal Planning.

Today’s focus is on cost-cutting through pantry building.  In this case, the term pantry refers to the pantry itself, the freezer, and refrigerated items that have a reasonably long shelf life (think condiments).  Pantries are incredibly personal and dependent on your diet.  What works for me may be a complete waste of money for my vegetarian neighbor or my friend whose son has celiac disease.

A little work now will save a great deal of money over time.

Gather your frequently used recipes and the sales flyer(s) for the stores you frequent.  With the rising cost of fuel, I cannot recommend leaving your usual route *Edit – This was written when gas was approaching $4 a gallon.* Some stores will match competitor prices, which can be extremely handy if you are willing to be patient with your cashier and possibly the manager.

List each ingredient for your recipes by section of the grocery store: Bakery, Dairy, Non-Perishable, Freezer, etc.  As each recipe’s ingredients are added to your master list, some will be repeated.  Place a hash mark beside those items each time they are needed.  Once you have finished, it will be fairly obvious which foods are staples in your household.  In my home, a sale on canned tomatoes or butter cannot be ignored. I’ve had more than one cashier look at me as though I have lost my mind. When butter is more than fifty cents less than its usual price, I stock up.  I don’t care if I may appear to be a rabid Paula Dean fan. It’s six or more dollars I can put to better use.

Examine the flyers and look for your staples. After you have budgeted for your current week’s (or two’s) food, take any leftover money and use it to purchase items from your list. Some weeks you may only have enough to buy an extra bag of flour, a box or two of noodles, or a few cans of tuna fish. This is perfectly fine.

Each time you purchase on sale, you prevent a future purchase at full price.

Additionally, use sales as an opportunity to try out new recipes.

Super savvy shoppers create a price book of their pantry items.  Each item is listed with its lowest sales price and the dates it has appeared on sale.  Over time the cycle becomes clear, and purchases are limited to just enough to make it until the next sale. This prevents the habit of overbuying any particular item.

Each week (or two), as you plan meals and make your grocery list, don’t forget to shop from your pantry first. This helps keep items rotated and prevents any full-price purchases of items already on hand.

Pay special attention to spices and remember to investigate sources other than the grocery store’s baking aisle. Personally, I have lots of luck buying herbs at a nearby health food store, some spices I pick up from the ethnic section, and the ones I use the most frequently are purchased from the Indian and Mexican grocery stores that sell them in bulk, much more cheaply than the brand name versions.

Next week we will examine when buying in bulk makes sense and when it can be a waste of time and money.

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2 thoughts on “Meal Planning: A Primer (Part 3)”

  1. Love the series Heather!

    I have found that by looking in the ethnic section of my local grocery store I am able to save some $ (as you mentioned) I have noticed (for Publix at least) that the spanish labeled items in their brand cost less.

  2. Don’t forget that certain condiments, or specialty items (capers, mustards, sauces, etc.) may seem expensive upfront, but lend a sense of plenty to cooking. Often, you don’t use much, & they also don’t spoil in the fridge. In our house I don’t consider Tabasco to be a luxury, & the same goes for the aforementioned capers. When people start cooking at home, perhaps for the first time in a LONG time, I believe it’s a mistake to begin with a “bread & water” mentality. That only creates frustration for the cook, as well as the recipients of the meal….no one wants to eat bland, unexciting food!



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