I’ve notice that a ton of people advise making a meal plan before you go to the grocery store. I tried this for years and never managed to stay on budget with it. It isn’t that we were eating steak and lobster every night. We eat simple things. It has taken me years to figure out why it didn’t work for us.
When I buy for my meal plan, that left no money to build up a pantry. That meant I spent too much trying to get ahead by buying things that were “loss leaders” or on sale. For me the only way to get the cost under control was to flip how I was doing things. I now meal plan after I shop.
The first step in my meal planning is to get a clear picture of what I already have on hand. I have a piece of paper on the fridge that lists what meats and leftovers are in the freezer. I also have a master grocery list on the outside of the fridge. Whenever the last of something goes into use (or low in the case of toilet paper) it is marked on the list.
Both the inventory and shop list can be cute as you like. There are tons of people offering free printables for both. I keep it simple and often reuse envelopes or note paper for my lists. Envelopes from junk mail are awesome for this as you can easily stuff them with coupons for your shopping trip.
On Tuesday I check my cabinets, fridge and freezer for what I have to double check if things are getting low. It is easy when things are busy to forget to mark something on the list. It also refreshes my memory to what I really have on hand.
On Wednesday (and Sunday) I check the sales fliers. I write down all the items we need and want on a sheet of paper with the store name and the price. Writing down the price is important because there have been so many times something is in the flier but not marked correctly at the store. It’s easier to either choose to not buy or have the cashier correct it or get a rain check if it is something you can verify the price and product.
I highlight the items we are out of on the list of sales prices I have written down. This lets me see that the cost of items we are out of and lets me know what I have left to spend. I then use another highlighter color of the sales things I would like to buy if the money is available. Those items we are out of but that aren’t on sale, get the priority over building up my stock on hand of sale items.
I also only use cash when I shop. It helps cut out impulse purchases knowing you only have so much on hand. I find it makes you a bit more discriminating. If the lettuce that week looks a bit dodgy you don’t want to part with your cash for something that is going to into the compost instead of eaten.
Once I am home, I use the receipts to update my inventory lists. Once those are complete, I know exactly what I have in the house. I then make my meal plan based on that. I do try to avoid serving the family the same thing over and over so I have themes for each meal.