Kitchen Tips and Budget Eats: Making a Menu and Using a Grocery List

6 Oct

Image sourced from

This weekend, I — like many of you — will be heading to that mecca of munchies, that forum of food, that headquarters of hunger-quenching, the grocery store. (Did you like that one? I did, too. Hehe.) And while I love to head to my local Giant Grocery to stock my kitchen, pantry and fridge, I don’t love a recent trend: the steady, upward crawl of grocery prices.

Have you noticed this, too? Due to circumstances like the recent Midwestern drought, increased costs of shipping and/or production, and that pesky little inflation thing, food costs are continuing to rise in the U.S. (Granted, they’re still often lower than costs elsewhere in the world — Europe, I’m looking at you — but for us American consumers, it’s still noticeable.) Less rain = fewer harvested veggies = animal feed becomes more expensive = meat & dairy, inevitably, become more expensive. All this adds up to a bigger and bigger impact on your wallet every time you step through that produce section or frozen foods aisle.

Image courtesy of Ack! Okay! Just take my money!

So what’s a budding, budget-conscious chef to do, besides coupon-clipping like crazy? (For tips on all things coupons, check out this link. Or this one. Or this one. Lots of wise, lovely folks with better tips for coupon hunting and usage than I could give you.) Behold, friends: my top 3 tips for keeping grocery costs low.

1. Menu plan

2. Shop once a week (no, seriously)

3. Make a list, and stick to it. (With a little room for error.)

Now, lovely readers, I know what you’re probably thinking: “But GKG — It’s not like I have 2.5 kids, a picket fence, and a German Shepherd. Do I seriously need to do this? My only roommate is my collection of books / albums / vintage food advertisements.” Or, you may also be thinking: “GKG, C’mon now. I’m busy living my awesome / busy / sweet-young-20-something life, and a grocery list puts constraints on my freedom. Pshaw.” Or, most likely, something along the lines of: “Woman. I’m busy. Can’t I just grab and go after work? I don’t have an hour to spend at the store on a Saturday afternoon. Oif.”

However, these tips will a) Save you time, b) Save you money, and c) Encourage healthy eating. If you plan your (healthful) meals in advance — even if you’re just making one big batch of something tasty — write out your ingredients, and only buy what you need (with a few indulgences, especially if something you love or use frequently is on sale), I guarantee that you can shop for two people for around $75 per week. If you live alone, this could easily be done for under $50 per week. If Teacher-lady can, so can you.

Image sourced from Cute chalkboard list! Even your errand-running can be aesthetically pleasing. Though I wouldn’t recommend walking into the store with this bad boy …

1. Menu plan

  • Each week, take 10 minutes to map out what you’ll make for dinner on paper (or your smartphone, my little techies). For sanity’s sake, allow for a night out or dinner with friends. This menu plan is a chance to try new recipes, plan big batches of goodies, and work in those veggies and lean proteins. (If you plan it, you will eat it. Trust me. It’ll be all you can find in the house.)
  • If you live with roommates, you can alternate who cooks on which days. The History Teacher and I often switch up food duties, depending on schedules. (The other person, having been given the gift of a delicious meal with no labor required, dutifully washes the dishes. It’s a good system that works for us.)
  • If you live alone, think about cooking a few big batches, or just buying ingredients that would be versatile in a number of meals. A large pkg. of chicken breasts or chicken thighs, for example, could be adapted to batches of chicken parm, chicken tikka masala (rock that jarred sauce hard), and/or a chickeny stir-fry.
  • Try to plan meals that could use some of the same items. For example, if you’re buying a large package of chicken thighs, plan to use them in two or three meals.

2. Shop once a week: This seems difficult, but is actually pretty doable when you take the time to perform step 1. I’d advise avoiding the following times: Saturday afternoons, Sunday afternoons, or weeknights between 5:30 and 7:30. These are prime “ZOMG I have nothing in the house, so I’ll just shop with the rest of my entire local community” times of convenience, so if you plan around them, you should be fine. I like early Saturday mornings, myself. (Then again, I wake up at 7am on a Saturday. What can I say? Teacher-lady sleeps for no one.)

Image sourced from Listy List McListerson.

3. Make a list, and stick to it. (With a sliiiiight margin for error.)

  • Once I know what meals I’ve planned, I list the major ingredients that aren’t already in my pantry or fridge. Things that usually make this part of the list are particular veggies, cheeses, ground turkey (for meatballs, meatloaf, burgers, etc.), and other items that I wouldn’t usually keep in stock. Add ’em to the list.
  • Then, I scan through my staples — salad veggies, fruit, cereals, milk, bread, eggs, crackers — and see where I’m also running low. Add ’em to the list.
  • Finally, when I get to the store, I stick to the list when I pick up items. I know, it’s tough. So many tasty things! Just don’t shop when you’re hungry, and use the list as your guide. Be disciplined — your wallet will thank you!
  • I do, however, give myself a $5 wiggle room buffer. If there’s something random I’ve been looking to try — silken tofu for a stir-fry; some new seasonal veggie that looks fetching in the misty glow of the produce section lighting — I go for it. Or, if I want to indulge a little (cough cough, plastic container of Giant-brand Brownie Bites, I’m looking at you), and it’s within that $5 range, I do it. Why? “All things in moderation, including moderation” — some wise person. If you never indulge, you’ll just feel deprived and lash out later with a giant tub of tater tots at the local bar. Boo um, I mean YAY? to that.

The next time you head to the fridge and see, well, nothing of substance (note: Diet Coke is totally something of substance. GKG don’t judge), keep these tips in mind. How do you folks budget your groceries? What do you do to save money? Are you coupon-clipping wizards? Do you have the storage space to buy in bulk? Share your tips here!


8 Responses to “Kitchen Tips and Budget Eats: Making a Menu and Using a Grocery List”

  1. Emilee October 6, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    Menu planning, list making, and grocery shopping are my favorite “chores.” We do most of our shopping at Wegmans, which has an online grocery list function, so I can see ahead of time what’s on sale. It also adds up the prices which is awesome (It’s a little fuzzy around the edges because some prices are listed by weight, but still a good predictor). We’re Saturday morning shoppers too!

    • galleykitchengal October 7, 2012 at 8:38 am #

      Ooh! Way to be up with the Interwebs, Wegmans! That’s awesome — thanks for sharing, too, for any other Wegmans shoppers out there. And seriously, Saturday morning? The best. Get my coffee (my Giant has a Starbucks inside … which is AWESOME), find my veggies and random other items, and I’m a happy lady. 🙂 It’s barely a chore!

  2. Erin October 7, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Saturday morning shopping for sure. We’ve created a routine of shopping stops that totals about 1.5 to 2 hours depending on traffic – Farmer’s Market for fresh veggies and raw honey, local co-op for fresh fruits and organic products, Joe Patti’s Fish Market for fresh fish, and Walmart for stocking up/snack foods and such. Some (I repeat, *some*) weeks, I’ll go so far as to plan meals specific to the night of the week, keep the list on the fridge and put a nice little check mark next to the meal of the night once we’ve eaten it. It saves time when I make my actual grocery list, and I just love checking things off of lists in general…I am not crazy about coupons, mostly because of the amount of time it takes, but our co-op actually puts the coupons right by the products on sale (immensely helpful for the lazy…) and I will occasionally look for coupons online if I have a few free minutes during the week. I have to say though that I am impressed you can keep your budget to around $75 for two people! Our budget is a fair bit higher, and we’re always cutting it close. But I also have a husband who’s like a kid when it comes to groceries…”Oooooo, can we please get this? and this? and this? Pleaseeeeeee!” And we tend to stock up on various non-perishables every week to help tie us over on weeks where we just don’t have time to shop.

    • galleykitchengal October 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      For sure! I understand all of those points — and granted, when I hit up the farmer’s market, the $75 per week gets a bit more … flexible. 🙂 Thanks for your tips! I love anything that involves local eats and supporting small businesses.

  3. Amy October 7, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    I do something pretty similar. I keep a pad of paper either on the fridge ($1 at target) and keep a growing grocery list throughout the week so I can write things down as they get used up. Chris can also add whatever he thinks we need too. Then, when the store add comes, I go through (usually on a saturday or sunday) and see what’s on sale. From there I decide what to make that week. I usually stock up on thing like chicken breasts, sausage, beef, when its on sale (CHICKEN FOR UNDER 2.50??? BUY ALL THE CHICKEN!!!). From there I decide what to make for dinner. I list all the meal ideas on the next page of the list.

    Then, and this is critical for shopping sanity, I reorder my shopping list by the store’s layout. This is great once you know where this are in your favorite store because you can list out all the item to go with the flow of traffic and then you don’t have to loop back after missing something on the list.

    I also arrange my coupons by store section, and pull out the ones I know I’m going to use based on the sale item.

    Last, when I get home with a ton of chicken, shrimp, or beef, I repackage it into meal sized portions. This also helps with defrost times because I NEVER remember to take things out the day before to defrost and those foam packs that chicken comes in never let the food defrost. I peel my shrimp, or portion the meat, and package it flat in a ziplock bag to freeze. That way I just throw the baggy into the sink with water and 10 minutes later its ready to cook.

    • galleykitchengal October 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      YES! I’m so glad you do the “meal-size portions” too. I can’t stand freezing and thawing and re-freezing the extra meat — I’m big with doing that or ground turkey, chicken thighs / tenders, or whatever else happens to be Giant’s “special and way cheaper than normal meat” of the week. For realsies. Kudos to memorizing your store’s layout! They just redid my Giant’s floor plan (boo? Still reaching a verdict), so I have to re-memorize where my essentials are hiding …

  4. Cheryl October 7, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    I admireorganization of your list as the store is laid out. I tried it a couple of times, but wasn’t that dedicated. Meal planning is definately the way to go when shopping. Sometimes I change my meals when I look at the store flyer, but I plan with those changes before I head out.

    • galleykitchengal October 8, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

      Good call — I should check our store flyer more to see what’s on sale. Even if it’s a random cut of this or that, it could be the key to a whole new recipe. Thanks for reading! (AND! I found a recipe today for pumpkin-oatmeal bread. Apparently it goes really well with turkey on Thanksgiving. Iiiiinteresting. 🙂 )

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