A couple of years ago, I wrote a very popular post called Meal Planning for Busy Families, in which I outlined the exact strategy that my own family uses to plan and prepare meals at a reasonable cost.
But what does that strategy actually look like in the real world? I thought it might be interesting to show you exactly how we implement this strategy in our own life. I’m going to do this by walking you, step by step, through our entire grocery shopping experience this week.
The reasons for using our family’s meal planning strategy are numerous.
First, it saves us a lot of money. When I walk into a grocery store, I’m going to be spending money. Ideally, I want to be walking into that store with a great plan in my hand that I can follow as I’m walking through the aisles. This plan consists of a very clear grocery list that includes everything I need at home so that I don’t get distracted by browsing (and end up throwing unnecessary items into the cart).
Second, it saves a little bit of time, believe it or not. It takes some additional up-front time to get a good grocery list prepared, but the time spent on that grocery list is saved when I’m actually in the store – and more. I don’t have to waste any time at all making decisions in the store unless it’s deciding between two different versions of the same exact item. I don’t have to think about what meals need to be made, what staples we need, or anything else when I’m in the store.
Third, it makes evenings much more efficient. Our family is a busy one, with both parents having active careers, three children involved in a handful of activities, and the various additional community responsibilities that Sarah and I have, plus our own social and hobby interests. That can make for a very busy schedule and can make for very busy evenings. Meal planning helps a great deal with this, as we know what we’re having each evening without having to think about it. We can just take the necessary steps to prepare.
Here’s how I go about making all of this happen.
Step 1: Scour the Store Flyers
We tend to go grocery shopping roughly every seven to 10 days, depending on the exact situation at home. Usually, a grocery trip is triggered once we hit the end of our meal plan and there are no other leftovers to be consumed, as leftovers are a fairly regular meal at our house.
The first step in the system, though, is to simply check the sales flyer of the nearest grocery store. In our case, that’s Fareway, a discount grocer a little under a mile from our house. The next nearest grocery store is about 10 miles away, so Fareway gets a lot of our business. It helps that Fareway’s prices are pretty consistent across their whole chain and Fareway acts as though the stores in nearby towns are competition because, honestly, they are competition: Many people in our community work in the larger cities nearby and are completely willing to do their grocery shopping there.
I scan the grocery flyer for fresh fruits – which make for great snacks around here – and vegetables – which serve as the basis for a lot of meals – as well as other staples for meals that our family likes. Here are the items in this week’s flyer that stand out to me.
- Starkist chunk light tuna – $0.79 per can
- Store brand lasagna noodles – 2 for $3
- Mini sweet peppers – $1.99 per pound
- Lettuce – $0.88 per head
- Brownberry wide pan bread – $2.88 per loaf
- General Mills cereal (think Cheerio’s) – 3 for $5
This actually wasn’t the best week for the flyer. Many weeks, I’ll have a list of 10 or more items to buy, but this week was a pretty weak week overall.
The last two items on the list – Brownberry bread and General Mills cereal – aren’t necessarily items I would normally buy. Instead, they’re items that I would compare to the store brands that I normally buy. If the sale makes the prices comparable – especially if there’s also a coupon involved – I’ll try the name brand, especially in the case of Brownberry, which is pretty good bread.
Step 2: Build a Meal Plan
From those key ingredients, I’ll build a meal plan. What I try to do is identify meals that use the ingredients mentioned above and things that we have on hand. I usually use a mix of Paprika and Google for finding these recipes, as I’ll just search for recipes based on that key ingredient.
I write down these meals on a whiteboard in our home. This whiteboard hangs on a wall next to our kitchen so that we can quickly see our meal plan at any time as we walk through the kitchen. This keeps it accessible for both Sarah and myself and also makes it easy to modify, since modification just requires a quick erase and a new note with a dry erase marker (which is attached to the whiteboard).
As I make this meal plan, I often stick to a backbone of meals that I’m familiar with for the busiest nights and make more adventurous meals on easier nights, but it turns out that this entire upcoming week is pretty busy. Thus, we stuck to simpler meals.
Here’s the meal plan I came up with:
Dinners & lunches
- Wed. – Tuna noodle casserole / vegetables / salad (uses tuna and lettuce)
- Thu. – Vegetable chili (uses sweet peppers)
- Fri. – Pizza & movie night (uses sweet peppers)
- Sat. lunch – Leftovers
- Sat. supper – Spaghetti, breadsticks, and salad (uses lettuce – might be an “eat out” night)
- Sun. lunch – Leftovers
- Sun. supper – Grilled black bean burgers and grilled vegetables (uses sweet peppers)
- Mon. – Slow cooker lasagna / salad (uses sweet peppers and lasagna noodles)
- Tue. – Vegetable soup (uses sweet peppers and leftover lasagna noodles)
- Toast, jelly, and tea (uses bread)
- Cereal (uses cereal) x 2
- Oatmeal x 2
- Scrambled eggs and toast x 2 (uses bread)
As you can see, I noted which ingredients on sale at the store are used in each meal. This week, we’re having a number of side salads and I’m also looking for a lot of ways to use those cheap sweet peppers, too.
We’re not doing anything unusual for us or anything extravagant because, as I noted, this is a pretty busy week for our family. There are soccer practices, soccer games, taekwondo practices, and several other little things going on, too, that make it much harder to prepare anything exceptional for meals this week. However, it doesn’t look like we’re going to have to rely on any of our frozen meals, which is a great thing.
A quick note on the frozen meals: When we have a free weekend afternoon, we’ll often make some complete meals and stow them away in the freezer for future use. In fact, this week, I might actually make some extra tuna noodle casseroles when making the normal ones and stow them away for the future, as that’s a meal that my children really like. So I’ll probably get quadruple ingredients for tuna noodle casserole, as I’ll plan on making four batches of it.
There is a little bit of flexibility here. I’d say there’s some likelihood that the Saturday and Monday dinners get swapped depending on what our Saturday schedule ends up looking like. There’s a very good chance that dinner on Wednesday night is a “leftovers” dinner, allowing us to wait until next Thursday for our next grocery shopping trip.
Our “breakfast options” list exists to give our kids a number of options for breakfasts in the morning. Since we’ll have ingredients for all of those things, we let our kids choose each day which breakfast they want and cross off that breakfast once it’s consumed (or erase the “x 2” part).
For lunch on weekdays, Sarah and I usually just eat leftovers, so there’s no additional meal expense or meal planning cost there.
This whole process took about six minutes from start to finish. I had to look at our family calendar while planning out the meals and also come up with a few ideas based on the ingredients that were on sale.
Step 3: Build a Grocery List
Now that I have this meal plan, it’s time to build a grocery list from it. I basically just go through each planned meal and check whether or not we have the ingredients for it. I’ll look in the refrigerator and go through the meal plan while looking around, noting anything that’s missing, then I’ll do the same with the pantry. This takes maybe five minutes at most.
While I’m doing this, I also look for staple items that we’re running low on. Do we have adequate amounts of milk, for example? Our children drink milk with many meals. Are we running low on any spices, especially salt and black pepper? I put black pepper (and hot pepper sauce) on a lot of the foods that I eat. Do the children have granola bars or other items for their after school snacks? If I don’t think there’s enough, I’ll add a box of granola bars to the list.
Once that’s complete, I’ll go through our house looking at the state of various household supplies. We usually buy most of our household supplies during a monthly trip to a warehouse club, but sometimes we’ll buy small packages at the store if we’re running low on any one item. I’ll check under the sink for things like garbage bags, dish soap, and dishwashing detergent. I’ll glance in the laundry room and check the state of our laundry soap. I’ll check all the bathrooms for toilet paper, toothpaste, and other toiletries. Anything that’s running low gets added to our grocery list (and also to our other list of items to get at the warehouse club). This takes maybe five more minutes>
This little routine catches so many items that I wouldn’t have thought about at the grocery store.
I build my grocery list on my phone using the Paprika app. I actually do the meal planning on my laptop near the whiteboard so I can add the meals directly into the app (all of the recipes are saved from previous weeks) and that puts the ingredients automatically into a “shopping list.” I then go through and remove the stuff I know we have on hand and remove a few more while I’m looking through the cupboard and pantry. This leaves me with a grocery list that’s organized by section, which matches up really well with Fareway’s layout. I can almost always just walk from section to section in the store, following my list, and find exactly what I need in each section.
Step 4: Look for Coupons
Both of those sites essentially allow you to page through a small flood of coupons. I simply save every coupon that I think might be relevant, then print off all of those coupons at once. I cut them out quickly, usually by just cutting the sheet into eight or so pieces without really trimming them, and I take the ones to the store that I know I’m going to use this week.
The only great match this week was a coupon for $1 off any two boxes of General Mills cereal, which means that it stacks perfectly with the store sale, taking the price down to three boxes of General Mills cereal for $4. That’s definitely in a price range that’s competitive with the store brand and probably lower, so it’s likely that my cereal purchases this week will be the name brand cereals because they’re cheaper, and my kids will like it because there will be more variety in the options.
I found several more coupons that might be useful in the coming weeks but don’t match up well with my list right now, so I print those, too.
This process takes maybe another five minutes at most. It really doesn’t take very long to do this at all. I usually wind up printing off somewhere around $15 in coupons.
What about the other coupons, the ones for items that I think I’ll use soon but don’t actually have on my list? I put those in an envelope, but before I do that, I go through the coupons that are already in that envelope, trash the expired ones, and grab the ones that are useful this week. I usually find two or three coupons that match up with items that are already on sale. This takes maybe one more minute, and I found two coupons that match up – one for Brownberry bread and one for Starkist chunk light tuna. Both of those help lower the price on those items to the point that they’re going to be notably cheaper than the store brand, so I’m happy to take them with me.
At this point, I have three coupons in hand and a grocery list on my phone, so I’m ready to go to the store. This whole “prep” took me about 20 minutes, all told.
Step 5: The Grocery Shopping Experience
So, what’s the benefit from all of this prep work? It happens in the store.
I walk in the door with coupons in hand and a grocery list that’s organized by store section on my phone, so I can get right down to business. There’s basically no backtracking – I just go from section to section, grabbing the things I need from that section and putting them in my cart.
What’s amazing about this is that it seems like all of the items that are on my list just happen to be on sale in the store. It’s like I walk from sale to sale to sale, putting tons of discounted items into my cart.
It’s planned that way, of course, but it’s really hard not to see the savings become tangible when you’re going through the store.
It’s also really quick. I can just completely trust my grocery store list, so I don’t have to dawdle or wander around or look for particular items or think about meals or anything like that. It’s pure business when I’m in there. I’m just grabbing the items that are on my list and moving on.
That means that unplanned items very rarely make it into my cart. I just don’t have any reason to look for things that aren’t on my list.
The end result is that the time spent in the store seems very short. It’s really hard to say how much shorter it is, but I know I’m saving at least 15 or 20 minutes on this shopping trip, which means that the time I spent on planning for this trip is recovered by the reduced time spent in the actual store.
When I get to the checkout, the savings become real, too. Items fly over the scanner, with the total bill going up nice and slow thanks to all of the sales that I hit. There aren’t that many items, either, so the total is pretty low at the end of the trip – just over $100, in this case, which is pretty good for a week’s worth of groceries for a family of five. When I hand over the coupons and they’re scanned, the total goes down to just ba handful of nickels over $100.
Step Six: Cooking Meals
Of course, the final step is actually preparing the meals, but that becomes pretty easy. All I have to do is look at the whiteboard to see what’s planned for each day, then hit Paprika if I need a recipe (usually, I don’t), then start cooking.
I usually check the whiteboard in the morning in case a slow cooker recipe is on order for the evening. It also helps me to estimate when I’ll need to start working on meal prep (I usually make a note of this on the whiteboard, too). I also check it in the evenings and look ahead a couple of days, because if we’re having a meal from the freezer in two nights, I’ll go ahead and pull it out and put it in the refrigerator to thaw.
Most evenings, this all comes together really smoothly because we’ve thought about all of this in advance. All I have to do is trust that whiteboard and make the meals on the nights that it suggests. The ingredients are already there because of the smart shopping list, and it’s a meal that’s appropriate for the time available to me for preparation.
It all just works out like a well-oiled machine.
This system is one that Sarah and I have polished for our needs over many years. We put a high priority on family meals at the dinner table with as many of us together as possible (most nights, that’s all of us), even if it means a quick dinner.
That doesn’t come together without some planning. Ordinarily, this kind of planning would add time to the equation, but it seems to me that the planning done here saves time. The time spent on the planning is actually recovered in the grocery store, and then on busy evenings everything runs smoothly, so even more time is saved.
Of course, the big reason behind all of this is saving money, and a lot of money is saved by this procedure. I don’t buy many unplanned things at the store, I’m putting a lot of sale items into my cart, and I end up buying a lot of lower cost store brand items or name brands when a coupon and a store sale stack together to make it very cheap.
It all just works out, but it only works because of the time spent on advance planning. Without spending that 20 or so minutes at the start of all of this, none of this would work out.
The time invested here pays a lot of dividends, both in terms of money and in terms of time later on.