When it comes to saving time and money in the kitchen, it pays to plan ahead. That means knowing what you need before you need it and buying when prices are rock bottom, rather than when you run out of something and have to buy it at full price. It also means carefully planning your meals so that you're not scrambling at the last minute to get dinner on the table. Here are a few tips to get you on the right track:
Track Grocery Prices with a Price Book or Spreadsheet
At Mommysavers, we've recommended keeping a Price Book for many years. It's a tool used to track prices of the groceries you buy most often at various stores and different times and places. If you've never considered keeping a price book before, here's why you should: you'll be arming yourself with the knowledge you need to make informed buying decisions – avoiding the confusing marketing tactics.
The traditional Price Book was a small, spiral notebook kept in a purse. In recent years, smartphones have made it possible to keep this information stored on your mobile device. You can create your Price Book in any spreadsheet app like the one pictured here.
Before you begin, it helps to save your grocery receipts for a month or so. That way, you're already in possession of the itemized records of exactly what my family had purchased when, where, and how much we paid. You can also grab the store circulars from recent weeks and record that data as well.
After you keep your price book for awhile, your outlook on grocery shopping begins to change. Sometimes you will realize that advertised sales aren't necessarily all they're cracked up to be, and sometimes they're not bargains at all. You'll be able to spot rock-bottom prices on favorite grocery items and add them to your stockpile without hesitation – knowing exactly how much to buy.
Create a Master Meals List
Take your price book one step further by creating a list of the ten frugal meals your family eats most often. Write down all the ingredients necessary to make those dishes from start to finish. Don't forget anything – if you make garlic bread to go with spaghetti dinners also include the bread, butter, garlic, etc. Come up with a master list of all ingredients. These are the items you should focus on when creating your Price Book.
Your master meals list will also give you insight as to how much meals actually cost when you're making them at home. This list will allow you to analyze the cost of what you're making to see if you're making smart choices. Sometimes certain meals (especially casseroles and one-pot meals with many ingredients) are more expensive than you think. A simple meal of broiled fish and a steamed vegetable often costs less than a casserole made with canned soup, cheese, and pasta and other ingredients. Also, pay close attention to the meals you make that require you to buy more of an ingredient than you need. For example, when you make a roast or a stew do you often have leftover celery, carrots, or other veggies? Do they often go to waste or do you incorporate the extras in your menu plan?
Create a Master Pantry List
Now that you have a master list of ten standby meals and the ingredients required to make them, you have a great start to your master pantry list. Now, add all the things you need for day-to-day cooking – basics such as milk, flour, eggs, sugar, onions, garlic, etc. Once you've added them, you have a master pantry list.
Organize your master pantry list by grocery store department (produce, canned goods, dairy, etc). Then, print out the list and keep it posted in your pantry. Write down the number of boxes/cans you have on hand and take special note when your supply is diminishing. When you take something out of your pantry, adjust your list accordingly. This will also help you see what you have on hand at a glance instead of rummaging through the shelves, making it easier to keep your pantry organized.
Create a Weekly or Bi-Weekly Menu Plan
Now that you've got a master meals list and fully-stocked pantry, the next step in keeping organized and on track is to come up with a menu plan. The cost-saving benefits of creating a menu plan are numerous. There is less waste because you're shopping for meals as opposed to buying individual ingredients, and not only that — you can plan your meals around coupons and what's on sale at the grocery store to help save money. Perhaps the benefit of menu planning is knowing what's for dinner ahead of time so there isn't that 5:00 panic about what you're going to eat that night.
View our tips for creating a menu plan and get started.
Want MORE advice on grocery shopping for less without going coupon crazy? Pick up a copy of my book, Instant Bargains: 600+ Ways to Shrink Your Grocery Bills and Eat Well for Less.
Using a price book has definitely changed the way I view grocery shopping. I use a price book app, PriceMouse, instead of a spreadsheet, but the idea is the same. Price books are great for more than just food; they can help you save money on anything you buy frequently, e.g., vitamins, toiletries, cleansers.