For most families, food is one of the three or four biggest expenses each month. (The other two, for military families, are housing and transportation. Civilian families also have to factor in health care.) There are many different ways to save money on food: extreme couponing, very limited diets (think beans and rice and rice and beans), shopping sales, once a month cooking, and more. I’ve tried most of them, and while I can save a lot of money, sometimes it’s also lot of work, or makes food that we don’t want to eat. I still use aspects of each strategy, but I’ve basically distilled it down to three simple steps.
Inventory Your Food
Before I go grocery shopping, I do a quick inventory of what we have in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. I take note of anything that is going to go bad, or expire, or that has just been hanging around a long time. I also check out the leftovers, and do a quick tidy and clean of the fridge.
Inventorying is easier if you have some sort of organization system for your food storage. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated or involve buying fancy gadgets like you might see on organizing television shows. Basically, just keep similar things together in your freezer, fridge, and pantry. For me, that includes a diary shelf in the fridge that has yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, etc. In the pantry, I keep all the beans in one row, all the tomatoes in one row, and all the breakfast foods on the same shelf.
But your way doesn’t have to look like my way. You do whatever works so that you can keep an eye on what you have in the pantry.
One other thing I do is to go through the whole pantry twice a year. In January and in the summer, I go through ever shelf. Dates are checked, shelves are wiped, and things are re-organized.
A Note About Food Dates
It is important to know that the dates on food are NOT expiration dates. These voluntary dates are “best by” dates, indicating that the manufacturer expects the product to have the best quality if used by that date. (The one exception is infant formula.) Most foods are safe to eat well past the listed “best by” date, sometimes even years later.
Make A Meal Plan
The next step is a meal plan. When my kids were younger, it was more elaborate, with a plan for three meals and two snacks each day. Now, I just plan dinners.
I start by listing meals that use the things I’ve identified in the previous step. Perhaps I have leftover grilled chicken that should go into quesadillas, or maybe there is a whole chicken that has been in the freezer for too long. Once I’ve plotted out the things that we already have, I fill in the rest of the menu. I find it easier to use certain themes: Meatless Monday, Taco (or Mexican) Tuesday, etc.
Write the meal plan down. Maybe you like to use a whiteboard, or a printable sheet, or even the back of an envelope. Many families like to display the meal plan. It cuts down on the “what’s for dinner?” questions.
Build Your Shopping List
Finally, I make a list of the ingredients I need for each meal. I double-check that list against what’s already in the house, and figure out exactly what I need to buy. When I go to the grocery store, I make sure I buy the things on the list. That way I’m ready to feed people!
To Shop Hungry, or Not To Shop Hungry
You’ve probably heard the wisdom, “Don’t shop hungry.” The idea is that if you are hungry when you go grocery shopping, you’re going to buy a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t need.
While that makes sense, there is another side to that story. If you shop when you are full, you are more likely to think, ”
Bonus Step: Buy A Bargain
This isn’t part of the regular steps because it’s optional and I only do it when it works out. This step is stocking up on stuff when you see a great price. For example, for several weeks, the Commissary had my husband’s coffee at about half its usual price. Each time I went shopping, I bought 6-8 bags at a low price.
Or, maybe you get to the store just as they’re marking down chicken breasts that have a sell-by date in the near future. Grab a stack of packages and put them in the freezer as soon as you get home. These items will make up the bulk of step one, making an inventory.
Obviously, this step only applies to freezable or non-perishable food items. You don’t want to stock up on something that will go bad in a few days, even if it’s a bargain! When you’ve had good luck finding these bargains, you can often make up the bulk of your menu with the things you already have in the house, and your necessary shopping will just be fresh items and a few fill-ins.
Keep Your Pantry Ready to PCS
However, this can be dangerous when you’re a military family. You don’t want to have too much food in the house when you PCS. Follow my PCS-Ready Pantry system to make sure you don’t overbuy. Even the most amazing deal isn’t a deal if you end up giving it away when you move.
This seems so simple, but many people tell me that they’ve never considered shopping this way. I promise you that you will save money when shopping, and be more likely to cook dinner at home, if you follow these three steps.