So, it's almost time for the kids to head back to school...time to get ready to start saving in a pretty big way.
I have been meal-planning for well over a year now (after a brain-fog induced break of about 3 years), and the money I've managed to save has allowed for us to pay off a car, reduce the amount of our home equity loan by a huge amount, and upgrade some thing that we normally stick to the lowest level of (kids shoes, for example). A friend of mine recently asked if I was still working on saving money and then asked if she and i could sit down one day so that I could show her how to get her grocery budget under control. With 4 children, I can see where she's coming from, so I said that once the kids were back in school, we should get together and I'd sit down and show her what *I* do, understanding that it won't be exactly the same for her.
So, here's the basics to get going on meal-planning and saving money.......
Initially, it will require a little bit of time because one of the key components of getting this to work is knowing what you already have available to you. So, a couple of days before you are ready to shop, you should start taking a food inventory. Yes, I said a couple of days....if you try to do it all in one day, you will end up tired, frustrated, annoyed, and ready to trash the whole plan. Start with 1 of the following: pantry, fridge and attached freezer, cabinets, or...if you have one....a separate freezer. Just plan on taking the inventory of 1 of these...if you get to more than one, consider yourself in bonus-land! Since I've been doing this for a while, I can take inventory of all the places we store food in less than an hour. You are NOT taking stock of things like salt, herbs, spices, oil, etc., but instead are looking for the bigger ingredients, side dishes, etc. (soups, pasta, veggies) as well as main ingredients (beef, seafood, poultry).
Plan on your initial inventory day(s) to total about 3 hours of work....you need to be fairly accurate when taking inventory so that you don't find yourself in a jam later in the month. For example, instead of writing ground beef, write "3 lbs ground beef". For me, I tend to purchase the value packs that weight about 5 pounds and divide it into separate ziploc bags of 1 pound each (or thereabout since my small kitchen scale seems to keep hiding from me...just make the amount in each bag close to equal). This way, you can see that, depending on the recipes used, you can make 5 nights of spaghetti, tacos, hamburger stew, or other recipes that call for 1 pound of ground beef/hamburger.
Ok, now that you've gotten an accurate list of what you have (and hopefully you have like things grouped together - makes things MUCH easier! - try putting all beef together, all pork, all poultry, all seafood, all veggies, then misc), it's time to see what you have and what you need to purchase....well, almost......this is where you can take 1 of 2 paths. The first is to start planning meals based on what you already have without seeing what is currently on sale at the local grocery stores. The second path is to set your inventory aside and go through the circulars from the grocery stores, making a list of what they have on sale (which is what you are going to be buying more of than anything else).
I switch back and forth between these 2 steps depending on what we have on hand when I do my inventory (which, after you've done your first month of planning doesn't take anywhere near as long!). Currently, I have meals planned out through 8/23, mainly using what we had on hand, with minimal grocery purchases. Payday is coming up, though, so it's time for me to double-check what we have left and plan as far as I can, then go through the circulars and coupons to prep for the next grocery run.
So, say you want to go the circular route first. You need to have your inventory out as well because, if you have a lot of poultry, you don't really want to buy too much more, especially if your beef inventory is small or non-existent. Go through ALL grocery store circulars, even if they aren't stores you typically go to....if they are stores you pass in your daily travels, even if you haven't shopped there before, make a note of what they have on sale that you will use. That's a BIG thing...a bargain isn't a bargain if the item will just sit and not get used by the family. I tend to have a notebook with me when I go through the circulars and I have a page for each grocery store where I write down everything, including the price, that I'm interested in buying (it also helps if you note the brand...like NVgranola bars for Nature Valley instead of just writing granola bars - makes for easier coupon matching later).
Once you have your potential shopping lists done, do a quick read-through to compare the prices at each store - cross off the ones that are most expensive, but make sure they are identical items....don't cross of steaks at one when another store doesn't have steaks, but has roasts...make sense?? Now you start your planning. You should do your best to have a meat, veggie, and carb at each meal....sometimes it will be difficult (especially if you have picky eaters), but do your best.
By now, some of you are probably ready to give up because this is too hard or takes too long, or you have small kids and no time....baloney! Kids sleep, and you can do this in little chunks of time....or, it mustn't be important enough....Our grocery bills have been cut in half (if not more) since I started doing this on a regular basis....that's a decent amount of money (say, close to $500 a month) that I have been able to put towards paying off debts....your choice.
Ok....try to have a variety of meals during a week - heck, you can even start by just planning for a week to get used to meal planning. Also, remember that leftovers are our friends, not something to wrinkle your nose at, then toss when they go bad. If you have children, try to keep their tastes in mind, but do NOT cater to them. They need to learn to try new things, and in our house, the rule is that you must have at least 2 bites of something. If you don't like it, you are more than welcome to make yourself a PB&J...but nobody will make it for you.