So, you have your list of what is on sale at the local stores. By the way, now would be a good time to mention that I typically shop at 3-5 different stores, depending on if the savings is worth the little extra drive (little because 4 of my favorite stores are located right near each other and the 5th is located close to the elementary school my children attend).
There are many meal planning calendars available for free online. The ones that I use (I have a weekly and a monthly that I fill out and keep for referring back to) came from http://organizedhome.com, but there are others out there (MealMakeoverMoms.com has a weekly one for lunch and dinner). Since I only plan our dinners, I use the sections for breakfast and lunch as "buy" or "have" sections - based on what recipes I choose to use for each dinner.
Figure out your schedule and the meat rotation, and then add in vegetables or other sides, making a note of what you already and have what you need to buy. It is easy to plan meals based solely on what the stores have on sale, but you also want to add in your coupons (also found in the Sunday paper and at various online sites, including ones for specific stores - sometimes).
Ok, are you scared yet?? Did I mention that our family was spending in excess of $1000 for groceries and my last run (last night) only totaled $266?? Hopefully, that savings makes your fears go away. Does it take time?? Yes, the initial month takes a good deal of time...but you can do it over a few days....inventory the freezer/fridge one day, the pantry/cabinets the next day, and shop the circulars on day 3...shop on day 4...whatever works best for you. When I restarted shopping like this (last year), my first month took me a total of about 6 hours, including matching coupons up to everything that I had on my list. It now takes me about an hour.
Here's where the savings start. Say you see whole chicken on sale for $0.89/lb. Buy 2 if you have the room. Even if you think there's NO WAY you and your family will eat an entire chicken, go ahead and get one. Now, the first time you have chicken (btw, it takes about 2 days, sometimes more for a frozen chicken to completely thaw out, so be forewarned), you will have a roast chicken - seasoned the way your family likes it. For us, it's an olive oil rub with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper and sometimes a squirt of lemon juice. Cut off as much meat as you can, eat what you want/need. The next step is to boil the carcass for broth (and to remove the little bits of meat still on the bone). Keep all the meat in a storage container in your fridge or freezer and the broth in a pitcher (I add seasonings while cooking the broth, but you don't really have to). With me so far?? You have 1 chicken meal and 1 pitcher of broth. Next, plan to use the leftover chicken in at least 2 different meals. One that goes over well in our house is chicken with red beans and rice. You are probably thinking I'm nuts to do this meal from scratch....I don't. I buy a Zataran's family size box of red beans and rice (less that $2 and it not only feeds my family at dinner, but also gives my husband at least 1 lunch to take to work), and while it is boiling, I shred some of the leftover chicken into the pot - this way the chicken also absorbs some of the seasoning. That makes 2 meals from 1 chicken...not too bad, huh??
Now, since you have the broth, why not make some homemade chicken soup (especially in the winter months!!). Again, you already have the main ingredients - broth and meat - leftover from that one whole chicken you bought. Another option is chicken stir-fry....fast, easy, and filling and will use up a good amount of remaining chicken meat. Just add cooked and cooled rice, whatever vegetables you have on hand (we've used shredded carrots, cabbage, broccoli slaw), soy sauce, and if you choose, 1 egg. Now, remember that whole chicken you bought at $0.89 per pound?? You just got 4 meals from it, with some leftovers for you or your spouse to take to work (cutting down on the expense of eating out). Pretty cool, huh??
The same can go for pot roasts, though not exactly the same recipes. I do our pot roasts in the crockpot and let them cook all day...house smells great and they end up SO tender! One meal is pot roast with whatever sides I chose (usually potatoes and salad), one night we have a simple meal of beef and gravy over either rice or noodles, another night, I make vegetable-beef soup, and the final night could be beef stir fry or beef eggrolls (another great recipe I found in a cookbook...details later). Again, 4 meals from 1 cut of meat. These are actually bargains that are made even better when the store has a "Buy one, Get one free" deal going on (one of mys tores does this regularly).
Value packs...are they really worth it?? Yes and no. If you and your family don't like pork, it makes no sense to save $.20 per pound for a family pack of pork chops when they will just sit there and get freezer burn. However, if you can handle pork chops once a month, it is a good deal when you can find them on sale (my family doesn't really like pork, but after a month of nothing but beef and chicken, I wanted something different). Value packs of hamburger tend to be pretty good deals. Remember, hamburger isn't just for burgers and meatloaf, it can be browned and used in stew instead of stew cubes, spaghetti, lasagna, egg rolls, shepherd's pie, etc. Really, it all depends on your family and your eating habits.
But what about breakfast and lunch???
Well, since both children are in school, they eat breakfast with me every morning, and we have discovered that generic cereals and pop tarts are actually less expensive and taste just the same as the name brand ones - even if we DO have coupons!! So, I make sure to have at least 3 different cereals and 2 different kinds of pop tarts on hand, plus we have store brand pancakes and waffles that can be heated in the toaster or microwave. Ok, not very healthy - well, not as healthy as cooking every single thing from scratch, but hey, we ALL have busy lives, and this is about saving money on food, not anything else.
Lunch is typically PB&J with fruit and a juice box, however, sometimes they want something else. That's when coupons and such come in because both children like to take hot soup in their thermoses when it's cold outside and my son has started taking ramen noodles to school (always VERY cheap). I also make sure we always have lunch meat, cheese, and bread on hand and lots of fresh fruit for them to choose from. Yogurts are bought on sale and with coupons and are a hit with both kids. The key to kid's lunches is to make them both healthy AND fun...and by no means should you completely restrict sweets. Just don't make sweets a regular part of your shopping or lunch-packing routine, and it will all work out. When the holiday candies come out, every now and then, drop one in your child's lunch...you can make a bag last for weeks and weeks by doing this, and it won't really add to your grocery bill, but it may make your child believe that you think they are special (c'mon, we all think our children are special, but kids being kids, they often need tangible proof).
I did forget to mention one important thing...pay your mortgage and any other major bills BEFORE you do your grocery shopping!!! This way, you won't fall behind on payments and you will know exactly what you have available to spend on food and still keep some in the bank for emergencies.
Feedback is always welcome...and if you have tips you'd like to share, by all means, send them to me and I will make sure to mention them and give you credit!!