When I first started grocery shopping more often with the intent of buying less food and reducing waste, I did it all wrong.
I tried to spread my shopping out so that each week, I’d spend roughly the same amount of money and bring home roughly the same sized haul. I knew I didn’t want to go to multiple stores every time I went grocery shopping so I’d randomly hop around depending on my budget or how much time I had available.
The problem was, of course, that my non-method method didn’t account for the unpredictability of life – that in a busy week I might go through more convenience foods, while in a slower week I’d use up all the flour and olive oil. And going to whichever store I felt like and trying to get enough food for a week or more meant I wasn’t shopping each store for its strengths.
By trying to follow a rote, one-week-fits-all shopping pattern, I missed a huge opportunity to save money, reduce waste and stock my pantry and fridge in a smart way.
So how am I remedying the situation? Here are my three basic strategies:
I now shop regularly at three different stores:
- ALDI, the national discount chain
- Meijer, a Midwestern “superstore” type grocery/big box chain
- A local, regional chain called Martin’s.
Barring special circumstances (upcoming parties, birthdays, etc) I only shop one of them at a time, once per week. How?
Generally I go to Martin’s once a month. Martin’s has the best meat department, a great deli counter and a really nice, well-curated wine selection. It also has the highest prices on all of the above, although I do appreciate that it’s not far from my house and I can get in and out very quickly (my time has value, too!)
Meijer has a huge produce department and low prices on our favorite “brand name” foods, so I go there either once or twice a month.
That leaves ALDI, where I shop the other one or two times per month for everyday basics, cooking staples, “filler” produce, lunchbox snacks, and the like. Plus I always hit the specialty cheeses, dips, etc to see what kind of a bargain I can score on a fun treat.
I no longer worry about getting “one week’s worth of food” from each store. I usually get a larger haul from Meijer, and make items from that shopping trip last longer. Since my ALDI has limited produce, fresh fruits and veggies I buy there can disappear in a couple of days, so I rely on a larger produce purchase from the other two stores to stretch.
We make regular use of the freezer and often buy frozen veggies during the winter to help with this process. During the summer we subscribe to a CSA so produce is not an issue. I also have a lot of veggies in the freezer from last summer’s CSA haul!
I also occasionally shop the grocery department at Big Lots. They have an amazing and unexpected selection of ethnic foods, unusual grains and other things I don’t find at the supermarkets, and the prices are awesome. But that’s more of a once-in-a-while supplemental thing than part of the regular plan.
Let me clarify. It’s not that I create a concrete, specific meal plan including 30 day’s worth of meals and snacks. Rather, I consider that we’ll eat roughly 2 meat-veggie-starch meals per week (stew, roast, chicken, etc), pasta or bean based meal once a week, leftovers for a couple of days, and takeout or convenience/frozen food the other days.
That gives me the ability to roughly estimate how much meat or produce I might need over an entire month, and allows me to take advantage of sales without food going bad in the fridge or lingering too long in the freezer. When I make a more specific meal plan at the beginning of the week, I already have many of the needed items on hand.
Looking at my shopping plan roughly a month at a time, I’m able to make the most of what each store does best without having to run from store to store on the same day. Now of course, just because Martin’s has my favorite meat counter doesn’t mean I never buy meat at Meijer; and I very often end up buying produce at ALDI. But in general, I try to shop each store for its strengths, stocking up on the stuff that particular store does really well and filling in the gaps where and when I have to.
Knowing that I probably won’t be returning to the store I’m in for a couple of weeks or longer forces me to slow down and take my time with my list. I’ve also gotten better at making what’s on hand stretch in the weeks between trips to the “superstore.”
Bonus tip: as a basic planning measure and sanity saver, I try to keep meals simple and interchangeable.
Brussels sprouts can nestle up alongside pretty much any cut of meat and a bag of Yukon gold potatoes can find its way into any menu. We also repeat a lot of meals. When deciding what to make I avoid planning many dinners that require a very specific combination of ingredients – I’d rather know that I can put together the foods in my pantry and fridge in a variety of ways.
One trap I used to fall into was trying to spend roughly the same amount at each shopping trip. But, I came to realize, that’s a good way to wind up with too much food one week and too little the next, or the wrong combinations of foods. I’ve started to look at my grocery budget in terms of the big picture: what, roughly, do I need to spend monthly in order to have just enough – but not too much – food on hand?
It took some adjusting as I figured out about what I’d need to spend at each store to make it work, and of course there have been weeks when we’ve had to make a Thursday run out to the market for milk, but now it seems to be working out well. When I hit produce sales at Meijer the fridge might be a little crowded for a few days, and sometimes the freezer is full of the Manager’s Special from the butcher at Martin’s, and the pantry is pretty much always abundant with lunchbox fillers from ALDI.
But over the course of the month I find that we have just enough food, even if I sometimes have to go a few days without fancy cheese and crackers.
And as it turns out, going without fancy cheese and crackers for a few days isn’t the end of the world, especially if it means I reach for a salad instead.
What “unexpected” or counter-intuitive strategies have you found for keeping grocery costs down?