Welcome to Menu Planning 101!
If you are new to the series, please visit:
- Part 1 – A Dinners Only Menu Plan
- Part 2 – How to Make A Grocery List
- Part 3 – A EveryMeal Menu Plan!
Shopping for an Every Meal Menu plan is not for the faint of heart, particularly if you are shopping with kids (as I am!). There are three things you need to figure out before heading out:
- The Driving Route
- The Route Through the Store
- How to Stay in Budget as You Shop
Just like your meals need a plan, the shopping trip needs a plan. Take a few minutes to think through your plan of attack before you head out, and it will save you time and frustration as you shop.
The Driving Route
What is the most effective and efficient route for you to travel to your various stores? I don’t follow a logical distance, as in furthest from my house and work my way back to my house. I use a cost-effective route (for my budget!).
I begin my shopping at Aldi which I know will have the lowest prices on every day items. Aldi has special buys each week which might allow me to pick up a seasonal item at a discount, which will save me money at the other stores.
Then I go to Meijer, our local supermarket chain, and I pick up all the items that Aldi does not have that week and additional less-common fruits, veggies, or international items.
My last stop is Costco. Costco’s offerings are usually the same from week to week, so I pick up our usual items (coffee, eggs, meat, crackers, toilet paper, etc.) quickly. The layout of this store rarely changes too.
The Route Through the Store
I have a different route through each store based on the stores layout. My goal is maximize efficiency and get myself and my kids out of the store as quickly as possible. As I mentioned before, I am not a grocery shopping lover. It is just a necessary evil to put food on the table. My goal is to make it as quick and efficient as possible.
I recommend thinking about the most effective route through your stores and putting your grocery list in that order before you leave home. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s each of my routes:
I think of Aldi’s layout like a maze. You enter at one end and exit at the other. The entrance is not connected to the exit which makes backtracking very difficult. I try to avoid backtracking in all stores, but especially Aldi.
Aldi’s layout also rarely changes, so once I familiarized myself with the store, I memorized the best order to shop in. Aldi is my fastest store. I am usually in and out in 20 minutes. Yes!
- Baking Items
- Canned Goods
- Fresh Vegetables
- Fresh Fruit
- Frozen Vegetables
Meijer sells evrything including the kitchen sink. I am purposeful to only walk down the aisles I need to. This store takes the longest to get through (for a reason! I’m know they have their layout to maximize sales!), so I take extra thought to attack this store efficiently.
In general, my method is back of the store to the front of the store so I end my shopping by the check-outs. If I need to pick up any toiletry items, I pick those up first because they are located on the opposite side of the store from the groceries.
My route through Meijer:
- Fresh Meat
- Produce (vegetables and fruit are all mixed together)
- Baking Needs
- International Items
I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase “shop the perimeter” of grocery stores to find the healthier items. I follow this but without planning to! I primarily buy fresh meat, fruit, and veggies which are on the perimeter. The only aisles I go down are the baking aisle for spices and gluten-free baking items, and the international aisle for things like adobo chilis and canned tomato products.
Costco’s layout is roughly the same too: household items on the right side, grocery in the back and left, and seasonal in the middle. If you can guess, I don’t go in the middle section. The middle section is a budget-breaker, in my opinion! It is filled with snack foods, candy, and all the household/clothing items you all the sudden think you need!
I walk through the store in a “U”: up the household side, through the back of the store then down the right side, ending at the check-out.
My route through Costco:
- Household items
- Fresh Produce
- Fresh Meat
- Frozen Items
- Baking Needs
- Pantry Items
How to Stay on Budget When You Shop
Remember back to Part 2 – How to Make a Grocery List, and I recommended estimating the cost of each menu item as you make the grocery list? Here is where that comes into use.
First, your entire grocery list should be edited to fit into your budgeted amount before you leave the house. There’s no sense in heading to the store with a list that is already $100 over what you have to spend. If that happens (and it will!), here’s some tricks to bring it down into the right range.
- Make simpler meals with in season vegetables and fruit. Out of season food always costs more (and is less tasty!) so try to use what is in season. Odds are it will be on sale too because the grocery store has a ton of it!
- Buy lesser quality meat and eggs. This is a hard one for me to say. I am totally against pesticides, hormone treated animals, etc., but the truth of the matter is, not everyone can afford it. Personally, we’ve downgraded the quality of our eggs because I buy 7+ dozen every time I shop. My budget cannot afford that many free-range, organic eggs. I believe (hope?) the benefit you get from eating fresh, whole foods outweighs the bad of lower quality meat/eggs.
- Buy less meat. Meat is expensive. If you are making chili and the recipe calls for 2 pounds of meat, try using just one and adding an inexpensive vegetable instead (throw in pumpkin puree as a thickener, cubed butternut squash, chopped zucchini, etc.).
- Repeat well-liked, simple meals. This is the one I struggle with yet fall back on when my grocery list is too pricey. I love variety, but at least for me, variety can be expensive. So I cross out the more expensive meal and replace it with a more reasonable one I already have planned. For me, spaghetti squash with meat sauce is fairly inexpensive, filling, and everyone likes it. Planning this meal for 2 meals out of my two weeks instead of just one would save my budget some $$.
Now as you shop, keep track of what you’ve spent. I do this by entering each store’s receipt into my YNAB (You Need a Budget) app as I leave each store. You could also do this by editing the grocery list (if you use my spreadsheet) as you go through the store. However you choose to do it, you need to be keeping track as you shop.
Then comes the hard decision. What if you are going to go over budget? Where should you make cuts as you shop?
Quick interjection: If you made your list fit your budget before you left home, any adjustment that might need to be made in the store should be minor, not major.
- Choose to buy the small sized item that will still fit your needs but may cost more per ounce. I just made this decision when I last shopped! I needed to buy vanilla, and I planned to buy it at Costco. I thought the price would be around $15 which I budgeted for. When I arrived at the store, it was $26! Yikes! Since Costco was my last stop, I didn’t buy the vanilla at all. I chose to wait until the next shopping trip (which I still couldn’t budget $26 for vanilla) and buy the small bottle at Aldi for $4. I know I am spending more in the long run, but I don’t think a larger bottle of vanilla is worth going over budget for.
- Choose the store brand. This will likely be cheaper than name brand, and yes, there is possibly a taste difference. You and your family will live though! I guarantee it! 🙂
- Buy the less convenient item. I’m looking at you canned beans! If you are really tight, buy the dried beans instead of canned. You will get SO many more beans from a $1 bag of dried beans than that 15.5 ounce can of prepared beans.
- Buy in bulk instead of convenience packaging. I’m not thinking about flour, nuts, dried fruit, etc, although that may save you money too. I’m thinking of fresh produce. Our store has a salad section that has lovely, washed varieties of salad greens in nice plastic bags or even plastic containers. This is the most expensive way to eat a salad! Look very close by there and you will see bunches of kale, spinach, lettuce, all manner of greens for $1-$2 a bunch. That bunch will have WAY more food than the entire bag of pre-made lettuce mix (maybe even two or three bags!). Learn how to wash and store these greens, and you will have way more salads/soups/sides for less money.
- Last, and most difficult, just stop putting items into your cart when you’ve run out of money. Now, this shouldn’t happen because you’ve estimated your grocery need when you made your list, before you ever left your house. However, maybe everything you planned to buy was more expensive than you guessed. To keep your budget and marital happiness on track, I suggest to you to just stop, go to the check-out, and leave the store. You can get your creative juices flowing at home with how to make meals with what you were able to buy. Just start searching on Pinterest. I’m 100% sure you will be just fine and not go hungry!
Whew! That was a lot of information! In summary, make a plan before you leave your home: know your route to the stores, through the stores, and how you will stay on budget as you shop. This will guarantee a successful shopping trip and the beginning of a two week (for me!) time period of delicious meals.
Do you have any wisdom to share on this topic? How do you optimize your grocery trip? Do you have tips and tricks to staying in budget? Do you shop every week? Every two weeks? Every day?