I've heard it said, "Those who fail to make a plan; are planning to fail." Other than self discipline, planning is the most important task in taking control of the household grocery budget. Five commonly used tools needed to take control are a calendar, an envelope, a calculator, a pencil and a small notepad.
Obviously, the calendar will be used for meal planning and scheduling "big cook" days. Big cook days are essential for many of today's very busy families, especially dual income families. When I was employed outside our home, scheduling our big cook day on the morning of my 1st day off each week worked best for our family. During my big cook day, I would prep the beef and vegetables for that week's upcoming crock pot stew, mix together the upcoming casserole recipe, pre-cook the rice for that week's fried rice meal, etc. If you incorporate help from your spouse and children, big cook days can be a free, fun and educational experience for the entire family.
When planning family meals, remember to do your homework by taking a quick inventory of the pantry, freezer and food storage areas. Reviewing the sales adds and using deeply discounted items in your meal plan will stretch your budget. Also, remember to be nutritionally minded. Good nutrition always provides the biggest bang for the buck. Meal planning doesn't have to mean that your diet will be boring and unexciting. By perfecting 2 chicken, 2 beef, 2 pork, 2 fish/seafood, 2 meatless, 2 main dish salads, 2 hearty soups, 2 casseroles and 2 outstanding sandwiches you will provide your family with a variety of 18 meals per month. Increase that to three each and your family will never eat the same meal twice within the same month. And having a repertoire, will keep your food costs consistent. In a previous post, Meal Planning 101 , I've outlined examples of 3 two week meal plans to help spark the creativity aspect of meal planning.
Laura Barfield, author of Feed Your Family for $12.00 a Day, suggests taking a reconnaissance trip to your local markets and recording the prices in a small notepad to determine which market has the lowest food prices. I personally found this nugget of advise to be invaluable during our lean years living in poverty. This is where I'd like to make two suggestions. The first addresses brand loyalty. I suggest anyone working to stay within a budget needs to throw brand loyalty out the window. I've personally found that there is little difference between name brands and generic, especially in dry good staples. The exception to this would, of course, be food allergies, real vs. imitation, or the rare exception of extremely poor quality. The second addresses the hidden shopping expenditure of fuel. Although I now have to drive 45 miles to the grocer, I am fortunate in that the two markets available to choose from are conveniently located across the road from each other saving me money on fuel. If store A will save you an average of $8 each two week shopping trip (or $192 annually) but it costs you $8 or more in fuel to get there - you are not saving any money. Remember to account for ALL expenditures when determining which market will be the most economical for your budget.
When comparison shopping it is vital to pay close attention to the cost per ounce/pound. For instance the large family size yogurt generally costs 20%-40% less than the same amount packaged in individual serving cups, the sale price of a two pound block of cheese is often up to 30% less expensive than 1 1/2 - 2 c. bag of shredded, a 25# bag of flour is often 35% less expensive per pound than the smaller 5# bag. For the wise consumer comparison shopping should also include the cost savings of pre-made vs. from scratch. Cooking from scratch is not only overall vastly less expensive, but the quality and nutritional value of the foods is much higher adding even more value to your dollar. Here are few tidbits to consider:
** Dried beans cost about 50% less per finished ounce/pound than canned.
** Bullion purchased in bulk is 50% less expensive per serving than canned or boxed broth.
** It costs an extra 10 minutes and less than $0.75 to make homemade pie crust (double crust).
** It cost an extra 15 minutes and less than $1.00 to make 2 dozen from scratch homemade biscuits.
** It cost an extra 10 minutes and only $0.62 to make homemade cake batter.
** It costs 5 minutes and less than $0.35 to make 6-8 oz. of homemade salad dressing / marinades.
** If you own a bread maker, using it will save you more than 65% per loaf.
** As long as you refrain from chips, sodas, etc., your kids can brown bag their school lunches for 1/2 the cost of the school's hot lunch plate.
To combat the amount of time spent in the kitchen, always think ahead. When preparing muffins or pancakes, double the recipe and freeze the extras for breakfasts on the go and quick snacks. If grilling, grill extra for another meal later in the week or month such as grilled chicken for chicken salads or an extra steak for steak quesadillas. If serving rice as a side dish, cook extra for a rice pudding dessert or a quick meal of fried rice later in the week. Because most baked goods freeze well, try incorporating a baking day and bake for the entire month. Also by including extra time to wash / clean vegetables, divide discounted family packs etc. into your shopping schedule, you will save precious time on busy weeknights.
I've addressed the calendar for meal planning and the pencil & notepad for list making and comparison shopping. The glamorous calculator and envelope are vital tools to staying within budget. The envelope will carry your cash. Yes, I said cash for grocery shopping; no checks, no debit or credit cards. I suggest that each pay period you place a budgeted amount, 10% - 13% of income, in an envelope for groceries. Take only the budgeted amount to the grocer with you. If you cheat and take the check book, debit or credit card, I promise you will fudge and blow your grocery budget. Having a limited amount of cash and no other resources for payment and using a calculator to add up the items from your list as they are placed in the cart will ensure that you stick to your list and stay within budget. I always recommend one reserves an extra $5-$10 for "just in case" purchases between shopping trips (i.e. need extra milk or another loaf of bread).
I assure you that by making a plan and working your plan you will be able to not only take control of the budget, but find more time to spend with your family over satisfying meals. I firmly believe that when we feed others, especially our loved ones, we are nourishing their souls. Although I do remember a couple tense conversations around the family meal table while living with my Aunt J and Uncle T, I cherish the vast majority of memories that included the family coming together at the beginning and end of each day to break bread and nourish each other's souls. I only lived with them for a short period of time, but family meal time left the most lasting impressions upon me and provided me with more positive influences than any other aspect of my childhood. I sincerely pray the information provided herein will encourage and enable you to gift your family with family meal times.