Thursday, June 7, 2012

How I shop

Since this week is apparently Food Week on this blog, and I want to write about this anyway.

There are three separate "threads" that go into making a grocery list.

1. I look at the ads for the various stores at which I shop. If anything is on sale for a good enough price and we need it, I note it down. (So, chicken on sale for $2.19 a pound would not get noted down because I can routinely get chicken for $1.77 or $1.87 a pound--it goes on sale once or twice a month. Chicken on sale for $1.77 a pound when we already have two packages of chicken in the freezer [i.e. about 6 weeks' worth] wouldn't get noted down either.)

2. I meal plan. I generally cook 3 meaty meals every week and 1 meatless meal every other week, though this varies depending on a lot of factors. Since Scott started work, I've also been planning breakfast and lunch, since we can't just scrounge through the fridge at our leisure.

(Yes, we eat meat with almost every meal. This is why I'll never halve my budget. This and our inordinate love of ice cream.)

Once I meal plan, I make a list of everything we need that we don't have. (Noodles of various types and tomato sauce are two things that I use often but don't keep on hand, just for example. Sometimes I wish I kept them on hand, but they're universally cheap and readily available so it hasn't been a priority.)

3. I make a list of all the staples of which we have run out. This includes stuff like milk, eggs, butter, orange juice, etc. (the kind of things we buy almost every week) but also includes stuff like baking powder or spices. A lot of these things will get caught during the "meal plan" step. I've also experimented with writing them down as they get low, which works when I do it but doesn't work when I forget. (Which I usually do.)

I know of a lot of frugal meal planner types who say "plan meals around the sales," but I tend not to do that. Sometimes we'll run out of, say, pork, at the end of the month, so pork won't be a choice until it comes back on sale in a week. But that's not intentional; my goal is to buy enough pork that we can eat it whenever we feel like until the sale comes back around.

Now it occurs to me to wonder. What does "planning meals around sales" mean? I mean, I don't think anybody says "Oh, look, Meijer has Kraft Easy Mac and frozen pizza on sale! I guess we'll eat those this week instead of our usual fare of lean meats and fresh veggies!" (No judgment here if you happen to like Kraft Easy Mac or frozen pizza. Processed cheese products are delicious. I'm just trying to give an example.) I have a teeny-weeny apartment and I can still stock up on sale items (though I can't go crazy with it), so I don't think it's a storage issue. Maybe carless people do this because they can't carry a lot of food?

I'm much more likely to plan meals around what I already have. Example: I buy spaghetti in two-pound boxes. Last week Scott and I had spaghetti and meatballs. This week we had chicken carbonara, which used up the rest of the box of spaghetti. (This might actually be why I never succeed in building a noodle stockpile...)

Even better example: We had stroganoff twice this month because it uses half a tub of sour cream and it's the only thing we make that contains sour cream. Dry spaghetti noodles will keep indefinitely, but half of an opened tub of sour cream won't. So we have stroganoff twice in one month and not at all the next month instead of once per month.

Oh yes: I also usually plan dessert. Because we're all about the meat and dessert here. This does not often relate to the sales at all. It's just whatever we feel like having. I do try to go for homemade baked goods or the super-cheap ice cream instead of, say, Ben and Jerry's ice cream and Godiva chocolates. (Now I'm all hungry...) I am not terribly strict about it, though.

Anyway. Once I have meal planned and looked at ads and skimmed the kitchen for empty containers*, I take the list and transcribe it onto actual paper. I divide it by store but generally don't further subdivide it. I can hold 3 or 4 things in my head at once, and usually my Aldi list is the only one with more than 3 or 4 things. When I get to Aldi, I'll scan my list and find the 3 or 4 things that are nearest ahead of me and get them and then scan the list again and so on until I get to the end of the store. This works because Aldi is small and I know where everything is.

(*Side note: I have been known to leave an empty container sitting on the counter instead of throwing it away so I see it during my weekly sweep and know to add it to the list. Because if I don't see it, it doesn't exist, and then I go to make cookies and don't have any baking powder and there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

The day of the week on which I shop tends to vary wildly. My ideal is Wednesday or Thursday, but last week I shopped on Friday because Thursday was still May and I didn't have any money. A couple months ago (I could look it up but I don't feel like it) I had been shopping on Fridays but the month had 5 Fridays and ended on a Sunday. So I didn't shop on Friday number 5 but instead shopped on Monday number 1. And then I shopped on Wednesday the next week and Friday the week after that to get back on my end-of-week shopping track.

(I don't like Mondays and Tuesdays because they don't work as well with when the ads come out. And I like Fridays less because they tend to be more crowded. Lots of old ladies get their Social Security checks on Friday, I think. I have only been doing this shopping thing for 6 1/2 months, though, so I am still getting the hang of things.)

As I alluded to above, I will usually shop 4 times per month. If there are 5 of whatever day of the week in a given month, I'll go 1 1/2 or 2 weeks between trips. Or I might go out and just buy a handful of things, like milk and eggs. It depends.

ANYWAY. I keep going off on tangents. So, I have made my list and settled upon the appointed day for the shopping trip. Since Scott got a job and can't come shopping with me anymore, I have started asking for his bank card the night before. Yesterday I even managed to remember to ask for his Kroger Plus Card. Go me!

Then on the appointed day I will try to collect everything I need: The shopping list, a pen (to cross things off), the quarter for the cart at Aldi (I usually keep a quarter in the cupholder in my car for this very purpose, but not always.), the reusable grocery bags for Aldi, my apartment key, my car key, my driver's license, some form of payment to be exchanged for the groceries... There are probably other things that I'm forgetting. (Ha. See what I did there?) Usually I forget something. This is why I always try to carry a bank card AND a fair bit of cash, because I am prone to forgetting things and money is the one thing you don't want to forget*. (I don't carry $90 or $100 worth of cash, but when I spend $100 it tends to be at multiple stores. So I'd have the $40 or so necessary to finish my Meijer transaction and slink home in shame if I ever forgot my bank card, but not enough to actually finish my shopping trip. It's a fine line between "I don't want to run out of money" and "My poor situational awareness already makes me easy to rob; I don't want to make it worse by carrying $100 in cash.")

(*Well, you don't want to forget your keys either but you'd notice those as soon as a) you tried to lock your apartment and b) you tried to start your car. Whereas you might not realize that you forgot money until the cashier has rung up all your stuff and you are awkwardly rifling through your purse.)

Sometimes I get gas or something while I am out. I always note this down on the list so I don't forget. Because I will forget.

(Like this: "Meijer: Pork, chicken. Aldi: Milk, eggs, butter, celery. Speedway: Gas." Except with line breaks and more food.)

Then I come home and put all the food away. I usually separate the meat into smaller packets as I'm putting it away.

Then I sit around like a slug for the rest of the day because shopping is hard work.


Melanie B said...

That actually sounds a lot like how I shop. Except I only go to one grocery store a week. With four kids there is only time for one trip. And a couple of years ago I stopped going to a bunch of different grocery stores altogether because it stopped making as much sense for us. Which means I probably spend a bit more money, missing a few sales; but, yeah, the logistics change when you have to budget in the time for getting kids' shoes on and buckling them in and unbuckling and answering 5 millions questions and stopping by the bakery counter to get everyone free cookies. Amazing how much more time that all takes in the aggregate.

I also don't get meal planning around sales. I buy meat I know we eat when it's on sale and then shove it in the freezer and use when I want it. I wonder if that advice is for people who don't have enough freezer space? We have a small chest freezer in order to keep enough frozen meat on hand.

In the last year or so my meal planning has slipped quite a bit and so I work harder to keep pastas and beans and stuff stocked so I can decide to have stroganoff on the spur of the moment. But I use sour cream for that and enchiladas and if I have part of a container leftover I'll smother it on my baked potatoes or Dom will add it to salsa and use for a dip.

And I agree about vegging out for the rest of the day after going shopping. I try to just flop on the couch but usually these kids try to demand that I actually do things. I usually plan a lazy dinner for shopping day like buying a piece of fish I can just bake in the oven and frozen veggie sides I can microwave. Nothing that requires chopping and prepping and making a sauce.

Anyway, good for you for taking the time to do the meal planning and live within a budget.

The Sojourner said...

I have only a normal-sized fridge with a normal-sized freezer on top, and I still manage to cram a good 20-30 pounds of meat in there at times. It gets a little hairy when we have meat and a bucket o' ice cream and frozen bananas and stuff all in there, but it can be done. If I had a bigger family, it'd be harder, but if I had a bigger family I wouldn't live in a 1-bedroom apartment. Of course, since I'm a packrat, then I'd probably have too much child paraphernalia to have room for a chest freezer. I guess we'll see.

One of the reasons I'm trying to shop on Thursdays is because I don't cook on Thursdays. (I cook Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, and every other Friday. It sounds complicated but it's not. Relatedly, homemade cheese pizza, once frozen, can be easily reheated in the toaster oven and tastes even better than fresh.)