How To Meal Plan & Grocery Shop + Tips!

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It sounds funny that I should be telling you how to grocery shop, but I’ve actually gotten a lot of inquiries as to if I meal plan and how I shop – so I’m dedicating this post to it!

Background:

I plan out dinners for 4-5 nights a week and grocery shop once a week for ingredients that will feed Ben and I for 7 days – breakfast, lunch & dinner – on a budget of $50/week. The nights I don’t plan dinners we usually have “fend for yourself” nights, eat at his parent’s house or mine, or we’ll dine out.

Step 1: Meal Planning

1. First I start a list by writing down everything I know we’ll need for the upcoming week. Things we eat everyday or pantry staples that we’re out of, such as:

  • Bananas
  • Bread
  • Non-stick spray

2. Next I check out my grocery store’s online ad to see if there’s anything on sale that I can make a meal out of. If there’s something that jumps out at me – such as Pork Roast – I’ll decide that one of the meals for the week will be Shredded BBQ Pork Sandwiches. Then I’ll write down any additional ingredients I’ll need to create those (such as buns, etc.,) if I don’t already have them on hand.

Screenshot: On the left is my grocery store’s online ad and on the right is my list. Notice that at the top of the list is stuff that I already know we need – bananas, salad, apples, etc., and down below that is stuff that I’ve written down while flipping through the ad.

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3. Then I take a look at my pantry/freezer/fridge and see if there’s stuff in there that I can create any meals out of. This is what frozen chicken, frozen vegetables, rice, potatoes & pasta is good for. If I can create any meals out of what we already have, I just jot down anything I’ll need to make the meal complete (fresh vegetables, etc.)

4. Finally, if I still haven’t come up with enough dinner ideas for the week, I’ll take a look at any recipes I may have starred in magazines or online. If I decide to make any of them, I’ll write down the ingredients I’ll need to buy at the store.

Step 2: Grocery Shopping

At this point I’ll have a list of the meals I’m planning for the week and all the ingredients I need to buy at the store to make them, separated out by department. Produce is listed first because the produce section is in the front of the store, pantry items are second because I head to the aisles after the produce section, etc.

I write everything out on a paper list to take with me, because I’m gangsta and don’t own a printer at home :)

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Then I head to the store, where the list above turns into this:

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Usually I come back with 80-90% of the things I had on my original list and 10-20% things I didn’t, because things like this may happen:

  • My list above had cantaloupe on it, but when I got to the store I decided I didn’t feel like cutting up cantaloupe this week (hey, it’s messy!) so I got a pomegranate instead.
  • The Kashi cereal wasn’t on the list, but I found out it was on sale when I got to the store and I found a coupon in my purse, so I got it for $1.50…nice!
  • Sometimes I make impulsive purchases, such as the two mini pumpkins, because they’re just so darn cute! :D

My Tips:

1. When meal planning, always take a look at the food you already have on hand. Try to create dishes around those items so you can use up your supplies.

2. If you find staple pantry items like chicken broth, tomato sauce and beans on sale – stock up. For me, these are items that I can quickly and easily create meals around.

3. Buy items like bread, cheese and meats in bulk when they’re on sale – they keep wonderfully in the freezer.

4. There’s nothing worse than buying a specific ingredient for one dish and having to throw away what you don’t use, because you only needed it for that one recipe. Try and plan multiple meals during the week that utilize the same ingredients.

5. If your grocery store doesn’t carry something that you’re looking for, ask the manager to start stocking it. My grocery store didn’t stock Barney Butter until my Mom asked the manager to. Several months later – they’re still stocking the shelves with it!

6. At my grocery store, there is a flat screen that displays everything that the checker is scanning, as they scan it. PAY ATTENTION to what’s showing up on the screen as it’s being scanned, especially with produce. Every single grocery trip – 100% of the time – there is it least 1 item that the checker makes a mistake on. Most recently, I was charged for the wrong type of tomatoes ($2.99/lb instead of $1.99/lb) which saved me a whole dollar! Sure it’s $1, but this literally happens every single week – so it really adds up over time!

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So – clearly I am a type A person who seems to have a lot of time on hands – but honestly meal planning takes no time at all and has saved me hundreds upon hundreds of dollars. I can’t even imagine what I would come back with from the store, and how much it would cost me if I didn’t use my methods described above. Try it for one week and see how much you save. Good luck!

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Do you meal plan and shop with a list? Or do you just figure out what to buy once you’re at the store?

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Comments

  1. Stephanie 09.22.2009

    I totally agree – meal planning is the ticket to (1) saving money, (2) following a budget and (3) eating deelish meals stress free! Your approach is like identical to mine too, I’m def a type A uber-organized kinda gal as well :)

  2. Stephanie 09.22.2009

    ooops meant to say (1) eating healthy haha… hey, it’s early :/

  3. Beth 09.22.2009

    I am like you and meal plan and shop with a list. I have been dividing up my shopping between Sam’s Club and the regular grocery store which is throwing me off when trying to stick to a weekly budget but at the end of the month it seems about the same. I buy all the meats, breads and certain veggies at the club and then do mini-trips to the grocery store for other items.

  4. angieinatlanta 09.22.2009

    You are SO crazy organized! Great job! Thanks for the tips b/c I really need to be better about meal planning.

  5. What a great idea to make your list according to the ad! I usually just go to the ethnic market and know that things will be cheaper.

  6. [...] Iowa Girl (who Eats) shared some tips about grocery shopping and meal planning. Grocery shopping is easy, but doing it well definitely takes some [...]

  7. Sarah R 09.22.2009

    I’m always meal planning. It drives my husband crazy, but saves us tons of money!

  8. Katie K 09.22.2009

    Do you ever go to coupon websites? coupons.com, afullcup.com, couponbug.com?? i save a lot cutting coupons!! also i love kashi products to and wal mart and target have cheaper prices then hyvee!!

  9. Holly 09.22.2009

    fabulous post! i have gotten questions about that too and was thinking of doing a similar post – obviously yours is so much more organized!

    have a happy tuesday dear!

  10. Leianna 09.22.2009

    I love all your tips and think you are awesome for sharing this!
    I make lists but don’t meal plan so I need to plan the 2 together so I can save more and have better meals for the hubby and I.

  11. Liz @ intheskinny 09.22.2009

    Great post. :) Our weekly budget is $75/week and I have been going over it – no reason to with only 2 people! I like your method and I might have to give it a try next week.

  12. Great tips! I am also a type A person who plans out meals. I tend to go through a very similar process when making a grocery list. I clip coupons, too, which helps!

  13. brandi 09.22.2009

    I plan and make lists almost the same way you do!

    check the sale sheets, check what we have in the fridge/freezer, go from there. It definitely saves us money instead of just going to picking out whatever looked good.

  14. Kara K 09.22.2009

    Hi,
    We meal plan every week for the simple fact that it eliminates the dreaded “what’s for dinner” question. With both of us working full-time and me in school part-time, we have plenty going on. Menu planning allows for us to prep the night before and set anything out that needs to start thawing.
    I also always try to have staple products on hand (chicken broth, diced tomatoes, frozen chicken breasts, onion, rice, etc) to make basic things. Man, I think I might be taking this to the next level – you should see my pantry!

  15. Missy B 09.22.2009

    I ALWAYS meal plan every week. Because we’re a family of 4, it makes it a little harder to go and only spend $50, but I cook meals at home 5-6 days a week plus breakfast, lunch and snacks. 2 boys are VERY hungry after school!
    These are great ideas and ones that can help “sharpen” my meal planning skills! Thanks! You are one smart woman! Where did you learn everything? Was your mom the same way and you learned it from her?

  16. Missy Maintains 09.22.2009

    Great tips! I don’t meal plan but really should because I think I spend way too much on food every week!

  17. What GREAT tips!! I can’t believe you are able to only spend $50 a week on groceries for the two of you, though!! We used to budget $500 a month for groceries and half the time that still wasn’t enough! Clearly we just didn’t do enough planning!

    I’m wondering about how much time it takes you to do the whole planning and buying process and what day of the week you do it??

  18. These are great tips! Meal planning saves me tons of money. If I don’t go to the store with a plan I spend at least double what I should.

  19. Laura 09.22.2009

    Totally loved your post today!!!

    I did a similar one last weekend, see link below:

    http://findingahealthybalance.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/pizza-rainy-run-grocery-shopping/

    In which, I showed my Grocery List that I plan out and map out just like yours and then my purchases in my cart and at home! I have a very “strict” grocery budget for my family of “3″ that live on ONE income so planning ahead is important for that and also eating healthy!

    =) Laura

  20. Darci 09.22.2009

    Love all the great tips!! Def going to use some!!

    Oh and I loved your Iowa City posts!! When you mentioned the fun of seeing decked out cars on the way, I was so nervous our crazy vehicle was going to show up!! Luckily…it didn’t though!! My husband goes a tad overboard!! But it’s fun!! Go Hawks!!

  21. Great tips! You’re very on top of it all. I just go to Whole Foods and load my cart on up

  22. Ellen 09.22.2009

    Great tips Kristin! I meal plan and create a list, but always find myself making the same things week after week. Where do you get all your recipes ideas from?

    Since you are such a savvy shopper, I wanted to let you know about a contest we are running through work, called the Savvy Supermaket Cents contest. The “Savvy Supermarket Cents” contest opens on Sept. 22, runs for three weeks, and offers three different levels of prizes. Our panel of judges will choose five finalists from each of the contest categories: Family, Individual/Single, College, and Couples with no children, with contribution from YouTube user votes. The four category winners will receive a $250 gift card to the grocery, mass merchandiser, drug store or club store of their choice. The Audience Favorite, as determined by YouTube user votes, will receive a similar gift card in the amount of $500. The Grand Prize winner, chosen by our judges, will win a $1,000 gift card.
    Here is the link…please share this with your readers!
    http://www.youtube.com/savvycents

  23. Andrea 09.22.2009

    Thanks for the great tips, I’m impressed that you can do it all for $50.001 Makes me think I really need to start meal planning.

  24. Becca 09.22.2009

    Thanks Kristen, you know how excited I was for this post!! :) I’m so glad that you got to it. These are awesome tips and will really help me with my weekly menu planning!

  25. MyThy 09.22.2009

    Wow, thanks for the great tips. Here’s another one my mom taught me: Grocery shop on Wednesday because that’s the only day you get the benefits of last week’s ad sale and the current week’s new ad sales! You can even compare which market has a lower price on the same product! ;)

  26. Lauren 09.22.2009

    Great tips!
    I would be a complete mess without meal planning. I am much like you in organzing everything before I go. Planning is KEY for a healthy lifestyle and budget.

    Thanks for sharing your advice! :)

  27. sassy 09.22.2009

    Kristin, this is a great post! I usually get an idea of a few meals I’d like to make during the week and then go crazy. Fruit and veggies are always high priority on my list. And this past weekend I noticed how CHEAP some things at Target were even compared to the cheapest grocery store in town. It’s so true that keeping your eyes peeled will save you money. EIther on the price tags of items or at the checkout counter.

  28. RunToTheFinish 09.22.2009

    i have become a coupon queen and try to stock up when I can get really good sales. then it feels so cheap on the weeks i hardly need anything but fresh foods!

  29. I love this list – it has more than the usual standard tips! Checking on what you already have is something I strive to do – we are terrible about getting excited for new things and forgetting what we already have in abundance.
    Also, yes – I always make a list and meal plan for the week! God knows what would happen otherwise!

  30. Lisa 09.22.2009

    I agree too that meal planning is the best way to make the most of your money and to make sure you’re eating good for you foods. I try to plan as much as I can but end up not buying too much because my plans change often and I don’t want all the fresh foods I buy to go to waste. Luckily, I love the grocery store, so I don’t mind making a trip there almost every day!

  31. Devan G Newman 09.22.2009

    thanks for the post!! I should definatly start meal planning and grocery planning!! it would probably save me in the long run! :D

    what grocery stores do you usually go to??

  32. Tay 09.22.2009

    GREAT post!! I’ve been thinking about how I plan meals and grocery shop lately and want to change it. I’ve also been meaning to write a post on it. Thanks for the inspiration/reminder to do so :-)

  33. Krystal 09.22.2009

    This is great advice. Thanks!

  34. Looks great! I’m like that, too, most weeks … I like having a plan and then getting only what pertains to that plan. Of course, that doesn’t stop my husband from asking where the “insert not-great-for-you food here” is … I just tell him it wasn’t on my list. Most of the time I’ll even ask him if he wants something and he says no, so you snooze, you lose.

    This is a great reminder for me to get back into my meal planning! Thanks!

    K

  35. I’m a list freak. I have a list of what I have in the pantry and freezer and fridge that I update before each planning session. Then I try to make meals out of what I have first and just buy extras and the stuff we run out of like milk, fruits, and veggies. And I have a great list tool that I got at Target made buy real simple for groceries. I can check stuff on it during the week and then add to it when I make my dinners list.

    I try to only go major shopping every 2 weeks and just pick up milk and produce on the off week. Saves me time and energy. I even plan dinners for a month in advance sometimes so that I don’t have to take the extra time planning meals.

    ***Note: I do have OCD so this is normal to me but probably not to everyone else.***

  36. Jenna 09.22.2009

    Mucho impressive chica. I am very impressed with your mad skills :)

    I do try to meal plan for at least 2 to 3 meals. I have seen my grocery expense decrease considerably since I started do so. I find that I am less apt to throw in the random foods.

  37. jules 09.22.2009

    great post – glad to hear there are other meal planners out there. thanks for the tip on checking what gets scanned – I never bother but definitely will now.

    can’t believe you think pommegranite is less messy than canteloupe

  38. Lynne 09.22.2009

    Thanks for the great post. I actually recently wrote about my need to get my grocery spending under control. I do meal plan every week, but I find myself planning meals that have ingredients I don’t generally stock in my pantry. I’m putting myself on a strict budget in October.

  39. Lizzy 09.22.2009

    this post is amazing! Grocery tips are the best, and i really want to utilize them. I’ve been getting real good with coupons, so hopefully with these tips i can really do good next time i’m at the store! thanks girl! :)

  40. Murtuza Charania 09.23.2009

    Hey this is a great post full of fantastic ideas. I like the idea of stocking items when on sale and then plan your meals with items in the freezer.
    I am just not as meticulous but will start planning my week with a list for starters. I do a lot of implusive shopping and at times just plan the week in the grocery store.
    Regards
    Murtuza

  41. Stormy 09.23.2009

    I’m curious to know how you organize your recipes? You eat so healthy, I have to imagine you get inspiration for these great meals in a lot of places. And to only spend $50 and eat so many fruits and veggies – that’s amazing! I’m also curious as to what your husband does? Mine is in construction so many times I have to find more filling meals for him, even though I could live on fish and veggies. How does he do with all of this?

    Thanks so much for the information!
    Stormy

  42. Stormy 09.23.2009

    Oh – and one more thing…www.allyou.com is a great resource for coupons. You can easily page through and only mark and print the ones you want and they update often.

    Another good resource!

  43. Johnboy 10.05.2009

    I’m doing an essay on meal planning. You and your readers may want to check out the meal planning organizational tools at Meals Matter website. No ads or gimmicks. Just helpful information and tools for planning meals.

  44. Emily 10.05.2009

    I am going to have to start doing that because money is tight, and we can’t afford NOT to plan! :D

  45. Mich 10.06.2009

    You are a gangsta.

    I’m totally jealous of your ability to stay organized. I obviously have a hard time managing my life since 1. my grocery bills are usually $200 of crap I don’t really need and 2. I’m still at work after 12 hours because I took a two hour break to hit up a yoga class earlier in the day. Oh, and I spent a decent amount of time trolling the net. Nice work, me.

  46. lala n. 10.14.2009

    Great tips here! You should enter this contest… totally sounds like it’s right up your alley: Savvy Supermarket Cents Contest
    http://www.youtube.com/savvycents

  47. Alicia 10.26.2009

    Great ideas! I try and do this as much as possible however I am working on a monthly budget… darn school teachers salary :(

  48. [...] For more grocery shopping tips, visit this site. [...]

  49. [...] How to Meal Plan + Grocery Shop Tips from Iowa Girl Eats [...]

  50. Elisa 04.05.2010

    I like the advice about asking the manager to start carrying a certain product. My poor mother is always hunting from store to store for the honey wheat biscuits. I will pass this info to her.

    Saludos,
    A Mexican chica living in Europe

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