Thursday, October 15, 2009

Making a (Cheap) Meal Plan!

One of the hardest parts of feeding a family of 5 is planning ahead, and getting what I need when I grocery shop. For a while, I fell into a bad rut- go shopping, come home, and realize almost every day that I didn't have everything I needed for specific meals. It was an expensive time, because of all the side trips to the store for something else.

With the economy what it is, people are looking to lower costs all over the place, any way they can. Here are a few tips to help you get the most for your grocery money.

  1. Get coupons- get the Sunday paper, ask friends, family, and coworkers for unwanted coupon ads, and learn your way around the internet if you have a printer.
  2. Learn the sales- take the ad you got for the local supermarket in your Sunday paper, and read it cover to cover at least two times. Scan everything, and look at the prices.
  3. Get out a notebook, and a calculator, or use a word document and the calculator on your computer.
  4. Go back to the ad, and starting on page one, write down ideas for meals on the notebook- complete meals, not just portions. If you want a pot roast, write in the veggies you’ll add to the meal. As you scan the ad, write down the sale price for the items. Your goal is to find as much of the meals as you can on sale.
  5. Once you have some complete meals listed, try to figure out the costs for the total meal, and the cost per serving. Here’s an example:
    • Spaghetti Sauce is on sale for $.99 per can.
    • Rotini noodles are on sale for $.79 per box.
    • Garlic Bread is on sale for $1.99 per package.
    • Green beans are on sale for $.66 per can.
    • You now have all the items needed for a spaghetti meal. First, add up the total cost for the items. In this case, the meal will cost $4.43. Then, divide it by the number of people it will serve. For me, that’s 5 people, making it $.89 per serving. Now, there are ways to get that cost down. If you are only serving 2 people, for instance, you probably don’t need to use the full box of noodles, or all the garlic bread. If I were to only use 5 slices of garlic bread, that would be $1.25 instead of $1.99.
    • Last, factor in coupons. For the meal listed above, I had 3 coupons- $1 off 5 cans of sauce, making each can of sauce only $.79. $1 off 2 boxes of garlic bread, making each box only $1.49. $1 off 3 cans of vegetables, making each can only $.33. Once you factor in the coupons, figure out the bottom line price: $3.40 for the meal, or $.68 per serving for a family of 5.
  6. When you have an idea of how much each meal will cost, figure out how many times you want to serve it. Is it something everyone likes? Do you often serve it once a week, or more? If so, plan to stock up on enough while it’s on sale, to last you several meals worth. Why go back to the store for the exact same items next week, and pay more for them? Here’s a break down of the same meal, not on sale.
    • Spaghetti sauce is $1.29
    • Rotini noodles are $1.19
    • Garlic Bread is $2.39
    • Green beans are $.99
    • The total price is $5.86, or $1.17 per serving for a family of 5.
    • In buying enough of the makings while on sale, I’m saving $1.43 over the sale price, and $2.46 over the sale price with coupons. It’s not much, sure, but let’s say you make that meal 5 times a month, and only buy it on sale 1 time per month. If you buy the items 5 times, and only once on sale, you are spending $5.72 more per month for the same items. Factor in the coupon savings, and you are spending $9.84 more per month. Those savings are easily another 2-4 meals, paid for.
  7. Now that you have a basic idea of which meals will cost more, and which will be cheaper, write down your grocery list, listing all items needed for each meal. You want to make sure you have enough meals for your time frame. If you grocery shop once a week, you want 7 dinners, enough food for breakfast 7 days, and if you eat lunch at home, or take lunch from home, 7 days of lunches.
  8. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to stick to a set day. Just having a plan in place before you go grocery shopping, will save you money and time. Often, people are running back and forth to the store several times during the week, because of little forgotten things, or needing to grab something for dinner. Those little trips add up- fast! How often do you run into the store for 1 or 2 things, and leave with a bag full? With a meal plan in place, the likelihood of doing that is much smaller.

The bottom line is this- shop smart. Use the sales to get the best deals. Take a calculator with you, so that you can add up the costs of items NOT on sale. Figure out if the item is cheaper in a larger or smaller quantity! Just divide the price by the weight (ounces, or pounds). Do it for 2 size packages, and you will get the price per pound or ounce.

For instance:

Let’s say a 10 ounce can of soup is $.89, and a 15 ounce can of soup is on sale for $1.29. Which is cheaper? Well, the 10 ounce can comes out to $.089 per ounce, and the 15 ounce can comes out at $.086 per ounce, making it slightly cheaper, though since both would round up, it would be the same- $.09 per ounce. However, now you know that on a regular day, when the 15 ounce can is NOT on sale, and is $1.39, that the 10 ounce can is the better deal.

Bigger is not always better. Years ago, product designers realized that if they sold a bigger container for a slightly cheaper price, people would buy it for the deal. Somewhere over time, however, they also realized that now we’re conditioned to think that if you buy more, you get it cheaper. So, while most of America is still buying into bigger is better, the savvy shoppers have realized- no, it’s not!

Your calculator will become your best friend at the grocery store. Don’t feel dumb or in the way when you stop to check the price. Your fellow grocery shoppers might get annoyed, but your bank account won’t!

One more piece of advice- always plan for at least 1 "quick serve" meal per week- something you can pop in the oven, microwave, or stove top with almost no prep time, or cook time. For me, this is soup & sandwich night. I reserve those for the nights when I have no desire to cook, and want to "cheat" by ordering in, or grabbing drive-thru meals. If I get everything on sale, I can provide soup & sandwiches for 5 for under $.40 per person, and it takes far less prep time than waiting for a delivery, or driving to McDonalds!

Good luck!!

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