I've spent a lot of time over the past month and a half sharing my meal plans, food budget and grocery store purchases with you. Today I decided to share the process of how I figure out what to buy at the store and which store to buy it at.
I've tried many different ways of shopping over the past few years. I've come to learn that a lot depends on what season of life you're in. When I had one child, I shopped differently than when I had two. When I had a baby in a carseat in the back of the cart and a young toddler riding up front, I shopped very differently than I do now. I've tried monthly shopping, weekly shopping, bi-weekly shopping, shopping the sales, meal planning based on the sales, etc. You name it and I've tried it.
Last year I put together a big spreadsheet of all the food that I like to keep on hand in the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator. I coded it based on the best place to buy (I pretty much buy the same things over and over so I know the prices.) This was a great useful tool to keep myself organized, and although I don't use it every week anymore, it's nice to have. We've also started moving toward a more natural and clean way of eating, so things have shifted a bit. But the general staples are still the same. I think making that master list was a great way to start getting myself organized.
***I've heard from several people that they are too busy to be organized in their food prep/shopping, they just don't have the time, it's a lot of work, etc. I do admit that when I started shopping and planning with a strict budget I had to put in some leg work. But now it's pretty seamless and happens rather quickly. I think it's worth it to take the time, and I consider it part of my job as the home manager of my family. I might not bring in any money, but part of my job as a stay-at-home mom is to save money wherever possible.
During the week, as food starts to run out or get low, I keep a running list on the refrigerator of what I need to buy the next time I shop. I jot down the item and a code for which store has it for the best price. (TJ for Trader Joe's, SS for Stop & Shop, etc.) On Sunday I sit down to meal plan. I have a handy magnetic note pad for my planning. After I fill out our meals, I make sure we have the ingredients we need. (We tend to eat the same 10 or so meals over and over again, so I just know off the top of my head what we need. If it's a new recipe, I have to take a little more time to cross check the recipe with the things I have on hand.) If I need to buy something for a recipe, I add it to the running grocery list on my notepad. Once this is done, I look at the ads for the stores I go to. If I have to change the store I'm purchasing an item from (because it's on sale cheaper than where I normally buy it) I make a note of that. Then I go through my coupon booklet and pull out any coupons that correlate to my list.
Finally, I rewrite my list. I do a separate column (on the same piece of paper) for each store. Sometimes, if it's the end of the month and money is really short, I will jot down the approximate price of everything and add it up. If it vastly exceeds our budget, I go through and figure out if there's anything I can put off buying.
Ideally I get all of my shopping done one day a week. If it's a week that I need to hit 4 stores though, I will split it up because that's a lot to do in one day.
As I re-read this post, I realize it sounds like a lot of work. But it's actually pretty quick and simple, and my Sunday planning/list making only really takes about 20 minutes to half an hour! If anyone has tips on how they plan and shop, I'd love to hear them. I'm always looking for ways to simplify the process and save money where possible.