They say menu planning is a sure way to save money on groceries. Having a shopping list ensures that you won’t spontaneously buy unneeded items and that you will stay within your budget. However, menu planning alone does not take advantage of weekly sales and therefore doesn’t maximize your savings. More seasoned couponers make it sound so easy: plan your meals around the grocery store circular.
Easier said than done, at least for me. I follow recipes. I can’t improvise. I can’t look at a pantry and a fridge and whip something up on the spot. I suppose this ability improves with time, as I become more experienced and as my pantry fills out more, but I’m getting a little impatient. I miss the days when I could randomly select a few recipes and generate a shopping list from those recipes without worrying about what I already had on hand and what was on sale that week.
Here’s my current approach. It’s not ideal and it will need quite a bit of improvement, but it works for now.
1. I look at that week’s deals for several of my favorite stores (Hy-Vee, ALDI, CVS, Walgreens, and Hen House) and select the absolute best deals on items I use on a regular basis, such as meat, produce, dairy, cereal, snacks, soda, cleaning products, and health and beauty items.
2. If it’s something I could use more of right now, it goes on the shopping list. If I still have enough of an item, I consider if the deal is too good to pass up and if I have enough storage space for it.
3. I then go back through the circulars and pick items that may not be the best deals but that I need right NOW to tide me over until the item is on sale.
I try not to do this too often and make do without items that are not great deals, but every once in a while I cave. Just last week I bought a humongous 10 pound bag of chicken breasts at Costco. I had been watching prices ever since moving here in March and not once had chicken breasts dropped to $1.99 or below. I was getting impatient. Guess what’s on sale this week at Hy-Vee for $1.88/lb? That’s right, boneless skinless chicken breasts. Don’t I feel like a fool now? Yup.
4. I (try) to make a menu. Here’s where I fail most of the time and where I need to improve the most.
I make a barebones plan for the week that includes a few chicken or turkey meals, some beef meals, some fish/seafood meals, and some vegetarian ones. Once I pick the protein or main ingredient, I start scouring AllRecipes, Recipezaar, and SparkRecipes in search of highly rated recipes with that particular ingredient. I usually find something that fits the bill.
If I come across an amazing recipe that uses an ingredient I don’t currently have, I make a mental note for the next time that ingredient goes on sale. If I’m feeling ambitious, I even write it down on a “Dear Santa” list I have on the fridge. Hey, it works and I already had it. If I’m feeling a little adventurous, which doesn’t happen often, I may even attempt to improvise and exclude an ingredient I don’t have if I don’t consider it essential. I’m getting better at this, but I do fail quite often. Live and learn, no?
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that you don’t have to be a natural at menu planning to make this work for you. Even a little bit of planning works better than none at all. If the best you could do is get cereal and lettuce on sale this week, that’s more than you were doing before. Don’t feel like a failure if you can’t come up with five course dinners for every single day of the week using only items that are on sale. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way here. The FlyLady says that housework done incorrectly still blesses your family. That applies to more than just housework.