Budget Menu Planning 101 – how to REALLY shop & plan

There’s grocery shopping and then there’s frugal or budget grocery shopping. Regular old grocery shopping is buying what you want, maybe picking up a special or two here or there. But, if you’re budget minded, you’re going to want to maximize how far that dollar can go, buy more food for less money, and buy better food for less money.

To shop (and eat) cost effectively, you’ll need to take advantage of sales and manage your food. You’ll need a plan.

Want an easy answer for a complex issue? Dream on. While some may lead you to believe there is one, it’s just not gonna happen. I’ll try to make this as simple as possible, but it’s gonna take a bit of time and effort upfront on your part.


Don’t worry, though, this effort will pay off immensely and save you much time, effort and money in the long run.

The planning is really what is the most important stage – if you don’t sit down and plan things out, based on what’s on sale and what you have on hand, you will be stuck paying “retail” or resorting to other, more expensive options than eating home-cooked meals.

Step One, plan and shop weekly:

Shop and plan weekly to take advantage of the sales cycle at the grocery. Not monthly, not every other week, and with only a few exceptions, not more than once a week. It is simply the best way to save money.

While some “experts” say to step into the store as little as possible, maybe only once every month (or as some do, cooking once a month) they haven’t thought this through and apparently have not crunched the numbers. They assume everyone is a wishy, washy, nilly willy shopper who falls prey to every impulse and is not able to control themselves and their spending and that the less they visit the store, the less likely they are to buy tons of junk. If that is you, read hints, below.

For the rest of us, take advantage of the cyclic sales which are once a week, every week throughout the year, and maybe twice a week with great specials on holidays.

Step Two, shop for this week and beyond:

Use a three prong approach to make your grocery list and menu, utilizing:

  • What’s on sale – unless you are already stocked up on the sales priced ingredients (meaning you have enough to last you until the next big sale) pick up any items on sale at rock bottom prices.
  • Shop from your “home” by taking advantage of perishable items in your pantry and fridge that need to be used. Yes, this includes left overs. Don’t let them go to waste.
  • Figure out what you wish to make based on what’s on sale and what you need to use up and pick up any items you need to make meals from those items. Hopefully, if you are well stocked, you’ll be buying very few items that aren’t on sale, if any.

It’s very likely, if your pantry, fridge and freezer are well stocked, that your weekly menu will bear little resemblance to what’s in your cart at the store. More on all of this, below.

Step Three, do a quick inventory and make lists:

One of the keys to shopping frugally is to remain organized – it makes short work of tracking and knowing what you have vs. what you need. When I sit down to make my weekly grocery list and menus, I go through a little inventory process and make a couple of lists. They can be on the same paper, but each in its own section, for now.

  • List 1: Perishable items that need to be used asap and other items that need to be used soon, lest they languish.
  • List 2: A quick inventory of items that are running low. It’s not enough to add them to the list when you run out – you’ll be at the mercy of the store and have to buy at their selling price vs. your “buy price.” You’ll be checking this list against the grocery ads and picking these up if they are at stellar prices. Keep this list on hand, because if they aren’t at great prices this week, you’ll check next week and so on.
  • List 3: Items in the store ad that are at rock bottom prices (see step 4, below) whether or not you need them now. The determining factors are if they are at a rock bottom price, whether you will need the item before a better price comes along (generally once a quarter.)

Step Four, check ads and coupon matching sites:

Look at the weekly ads, check your coupon matching site, and determine what the best prices are. You’ll be planning both your weekly menu around these prices as well as planning on picking up extras of any items that are at a rock bottom price.

Pay special attention to the sales prices of fresh vegetables and proteins. If you have a freezer (and you should) you may be able to pull sale priced proteins from it if nothing great is on sale. Nothing frozen approaches the taste of most fresh vegetables, and often frozen cost more than fresh. Coupons can change that, though and some vegetables are just fine frozen. (Yeah, it’s a myth that frozen costs less than fresh – while sometimes true, it usually isn’t.)

If you aren’t using a coupon matching site, you should be. If you are not using coupons, you should be. Period. Just do it.

Step Five, get input:

Based on what you have and what’s on sale, ask for input about what meals the family wants to eat. Why?

  • It’s tiring and discouraging to constantly come up with meals only to hear complaints.
  • If you’re discouraged, its harder to stick to planning, shopping and cooking.
  • The family is more likely to eat what’s prepared if they have input.

Hard to get cooperation? Plan a week of meals only YOU like: when the complaints roll in, answer with “Well, I asked and you didn’t have any input.” I only had to do this one time. The “fam” remembered the week of chicken liver terrine and radish and butter sandwiches for years.

Step Six, start your menu:

Make at least a weekly menu based on what you have on hand and what’s on sale, keeping in mind your family’s input, or better yet, plan a menu based on an 8 or 9 day roll. This way you’ll have food if you can’t get to the store on the exact day each week. This is going to save you time, money and stress and help you balance the budget, nutritional needs and tastes of your household.

Step Seven, keep these things in mind:

Make your weekly menu, using the most perishable items first and planning around schedules and the time you have for cooking. Post the menu, on a white board, bulletin board, or somewhere it will be seen. Add the items you need to buy to your grocery list.

Plan what foods you’re going to serve when. Choose the days when you’re around for the longer cooking items, easier days for the more complicated dishes, and have several flexible, quick, or even interchangeable dinners to serve on busy days. Have a fall back meal or two for when the unexpected comes up.

Plan for your left overs before they happen – for instance, if you have a small family and you make a large pan of lasagna, plan it in your menu for two meals. If you’re cooking a chicken on Sunday, plan for Chicken Soup or a casserole later in the week. Don’t be afraid to write a note on these types of items, “Do not eat, for dinner Friday.”

Plan smartly for oven time and remember, it’s time when you’re tied to the house, for the most part. While it doesn’t cost much to run the oven, don’t heat up the house on a hot day when the air’s on. Bake dessert and/or side dishes on the days you already have the oven on for the main course. Save the heavy, long cooking stews and braises for the winter months and your kitchen will be warm and toasty, and serve the light, fresher recipes in the summer. Think about crock pots, too for long cooking meals that don’t keep you tied down.

Step Eight, check your recipes:

Double check your recipes and make certain you have everything you need to make what is on your menu. Add any items needed to your grocery list.

Keep your recipes on the computer (backed up of course – I learned a hard lesson this way) or in a loose leaf notebook or box so menu planning doesn’t take hours of time. Pull those recipes out so you can make sure you have all the ingredients and they are on hand when it comes time to cook.

Step Nine, add in “stock up” items:

Add to the list any items at the store that are priced at their rock bottom pricing, even if they won’t be used in this week’s menu. Although I recommend doing the bulk of shopping at the store in your area with the best pricing for the items you buy, check the competitor’s ad, too, to see if there are items that could be picked up for a great enough price to justify a quick trip or stop in on a “drive by.”

Check to see if you need to stock up on these items. Hint: most items drop to a low once per quarter, some only once a year depending on seasonality and holiday sales.

You’ll need to have some idea of what a great price is, and a “price list” will help you get a handle on this. A price list can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like, but is really just a list of items you regularly use, how much they cost, and when/where you bought at that price. Regular, sales price and rock bottom prices are all helpful, here.

A price list can help you determine which store has the best deals on the things you buy. As the list builds up and you compare it to the ads, you might be surprised to find that the store you shop doesn’t have the best pricing for you, or perhaps you’ll be gratified to find it does. But you’ll know.

Step Ten, finalize your list & menu:

Organize your grocery list and menu. Rewrite neatly. I like to use a standard sheet of computer paper, folded in half. One side has the menu, the other the list. I pin this on the bulletin board – It keeps me on track, gives family an idea of what they’ll be eating and helps me keep track of ingredients, especially produce.

The list side is organized by where the items are in the store. This list also has a notation of the coupons I’ll use so I can organize them, won’t forget them and so I can quickly compare at the store, the coupon items with similar, unadvertised items. (Stores are tricky that way!)

I write my list by aisle. As you shop, keep in mind where the aisles are and what’s in them and you’ll make shopping so much easier for yourself. Even if you don’t know the exact aisle, group things together on your list: Vegetables, Meat, Breads, Deli, Pantry, Pet, Bathroom, Cleaning, Frozen, etc.

On the menu side, list your menu by the days you’ll be making the items. Make sure you’re following your ideal of nutrition and including the appropriate fruits and vegetables.

Step Eleven, get coupons ready:

Do use coupons – the savings adds up when combined with sales. Don’t say, “No thanks, I’d rather pay more!” Print and/or cut the coupons you’ll be using, and don’t forget any coupons sent by the store in the mail or in their ads. Some stores have extras, and others don’t. I often see people in the stores with large binders stuffed full of coupons. Personally, I don’t really find any payoff in that. They take an enormous amount of time to organize, stuff and remove, and are heavy and bulky.

By doing a little research I can simply bring what I need. If it becomes obvious I’ve “missed” some great deal, I can consider whether it is worthwhile for me to stop back later. I keep coupons in a box organized by type and/or brand – I cut out the ones I wish to keep and file. It’s an easy task while I’m watching tv. Another way that makes sense is to keep coupons in file folders, labeled by the week. Coupon matching sites will refer to the date of the coupon. You can easily fetch the appropriate coupon when making your lists. Personally, I find the box method better for me because I often go to the store without a lot of time to search and cut out coupons.

Step Twelve, at the store:

While you may want to be on the lookout for some unadvertised special, for the most part keep to the list! It would have to be a pretty great special to make me deviate – a mark down pricing on proteins or produce, a new brand of heavily discounted olive oil that just came in and wasn’t advertised, etc.

Don’t shop hungry, and be careful at the checkout counter – this is where the very expensive and tempting items may be! A bottle of pop or water that costs more than a two liter, candy bars, magazines and expensive Rotisserie chicken!

If you’ve placed items in your cart in an organized fashion, you’re all set – if not, start putting them on the checkout lane with the heaviest items first, proteins together, then vegetables, and finally, at the end, the items easily damaged: eggs, soft fruits, bananas, etc.

Watch the checkout – and check your receipt before you leave the store! I find mistakes nearly every time I shop and they have varied from a few cents to once nearly $60.00. Often clerks are unsure what certain produce is and put in the code for something that’s more expensive. They don’t know what’s on sale, or forget to scan a coupon. I once bought two habanero peppers which should have amounted to about 30 cents, but the clerk was having a hard time getting her scale to weigh the small amount. She pressed down on the scale and tried to charge me $5.49.

A Big Don’t!!

Do not allocate an exact set amount every week for groceries – because the sales don’t happen with the same set of discounts and amounts every week. Instead, be very aware of sales cycles – they happen weekly, seasonally and on a regular cycle of sales around Holidays. Take advantage of these great sales prices even if it means allocating a little more money for a great sale week and scrimping a bit the other weeks of the month. Buy when the prices are low!! A monthly budget is generally a great idea.

Other Hints and Helps:

  • AllRecipes.com has a nifty little feature that allows you to enter in ingredients you have and find recipes.
  • Food for “this week” should be mostly fresh items, vegetables, proteins, dairy.
  • When planning your menu, make sure to use the most perishable items earlier in the week, especially if you have items from the prior week.
  • Check out a coupon matching site. These savvy shoppers go through the ads for the store on a weekly basis, tell you what coupons to clip from which paper, give you a link to printable coupons and find sales items and deals using information that even a savvy shopper can’t know about.
  • Why shop every week? Because the sales are priced on a weekly cycle. When someone offers you something for less than normal, take advantage of it. Don’t say, “Aw, gee, no thanks, I’d rather pay twice as much next week!”
  • Limit your shopping trips, though – save your time and gas. Every time you step into the store, especially with kids or when you’re tired, pressed for time or stressed, you run the risk of spending on spur of the moment purchases. This does NOT mean you should only shop once a month, though.
  • Leave the kids at home.
  • For fewer crowds and lines, shop odd days and odd hours.
  • Do not shop at only one store! While one doesn’t want to run all over town, know what store normally has the best sales prices and stick to it, but scan the competitor’s ad for a quick drive by if there is something worthwhile. The coupon matching sites can help with this, too.
  • Do not set a weekly amount and stick to it. I know, I know, everybody says to. They haven’t thought it through. Why not? You want to allow extra for those cyclic changes and the sales that come with them, especially around any holiday week. Some weeks sales are great and you’ll spend less per meal, but you’ll want to buy extra of great sales and “bank those items.” I do think it is reasonable to operate under a monthly budget.
  • One caveat about the weekly amount – if you have a spending issue and literally cannot control the amount you spend or what you spend it on, you may wish to only put a certain amount of cash aside and use it, leaving the cards at home.
  • Know your prices and how to figure a good deal! I was proud when I took my to the store to pick up a few items for him and he pointed out to me that two smaller jars on sale cost less than the one large jar not on sale! He said, “Look, Mom, they’re trying to trick us!”
  • Know when the best time to buy an item is, when it is at the rock bottom price and when it is likely to drop to that price again. Stock up. Many items are on sale at a rock bottom price once a quarter, others maybe only once a year.
  • Make a list and stick to it!
  • Shop the outside aisles, for the most part, because this is where you’ll find the healthiest, less processed foods. When “going in” simply pick up the items you need on the list, ignoring everything else.
  • Eat more vegetables and less meat!
  • Leave notes on food that you may need for another meal – I just write on things with a sharpie:  “Do not eat – for dinner Fri. nite.” “Don’t touch this cheese.” “Save a cup of orange juice for the orange chicken.”
  • Keep track of the menu so special items you’ve bought don’t end up later in your cupboard or rotting away in the fridge, and leave you wondering what you were going to do with them. Check off a menu item when you’ve made it, and rotate ones you haven’t made. Cornell University’s study indicates 12 percent of all pantry items bought are wasted, and the majority, 54 percent, were bought for a recipe or a purpose. How much do we waste on other items: meats, produce, left overs?
  • Refer to any lists and notes necessary to assist in all of this planning. My lists are on the whiteboard/bulletin board combination, and includes things like my freezer inventory, my produce inventory – which is actually the receipt pinned up with the produce section prominently on top. I can easily be reminded that I have some item lurking in the drawer that needs to be used.
  • Never, never, never put an item on a grocery list when you run out of it. This is very often recommended. Instead, you should have several of each item you normally use stocked in your pantry, bought at low sales prices. (But don’t go overboard.) As you see your pantry item running low, list it (a white board is great for this) and start looking for great sales prices long before you need the item and have to pay full price or go without.
  • Crunch the numbers on your recipes when you buy your ingredients, jot it down on the recipe and you’ll know which are you’re best low-budget ones.  Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how much a recipe you thought was “cheap” actually costs.
  • Think about your time. Gauge how much time you have for cooking each day of the week based on your family activities on those nights and plan for easy or make ahead meals on those nights.
  • Consider your family’s taste and variety in your planning. Wasted food or two meals, one for adults and one for children is generally a waste of time and money. Life is too short to fight over food.
  • I’ve heard many families who say they don’t cater to kids, and have been to dinners at their houses where the kids are eating chicken nuggets or cereal while the rest of us have something else. That seldom pays off unless maybe the adults are having something expensive and the kids having something cheap – but is that what you want to teach your kids? We have a generation who prefers this kind of stuff over other foods.
  • Grocery stores know we thrive on variety, that’s part of the psychology behind why they offer so many kinds of each item they sell – we Americans love choice! But be sure to look beyond the dizzying array at eye level for lesser brands that might not be as expensive.
  • Consider if down grading can help your budget. Canned Salmon instead of fresh. Canned tuna instead of pouch. The lesser grade of wild rice that has some broken bits.
  • Generally the less processed an item is, the less you’ll spend on it. Don’t pay the store $3.29 to cut up a 10 cent onion for you!
  • Unless a pantry item is on sale with a coupon, consider generic or very large bags – check the unit price and compare. Don’t over buy, though, and waste later.
  • Look in different sections of the store – dried beans and rice may be less in the ethnic sections, nuts and fruit less in the bulk aisle, etc.
  • Shop ethnic stores.
  • Shop discount stores like Aldi if you have one in the neighborhood.
  • Be wary of the big stores and the big box stores. Regular grocery stores often beat their price on sales, especially if a coupon is involved.
  • I have never seen a good deal on a Rotisserie chicken unless it was for sale at a huge discount if one bought another item. $4.99 is NOT a good deal for a 2 1/2 to 3 pound chicken. Do not buy them thinking they are a good deal – if you buy them, be aware you ARE paying more for a convenience food, and be aware it may be a better deal than other options for picking up something ready to eat.
  • Be careful of buying too much of an item and having it go to waste, or getting a lot of an item at a slight discount, but running through it like water, thereby negating any savings.
  • Be especially careful if above item is not good for your health.
  • Look for the carts or area of the store where specialty canned and jarred or other items are discounted. Check for orange tags or discounted prices on dated meat. Look for large bags of cheap produce at a discount – avocados, bananas, lemons are often sold this way – consider if you can make lemonade, guacamole or banana bread.
  • Try new budget recipes on a regular basis, once a week maybe, and allow yourself a little extra time on those nights. Explore other cultures for wonderful dishes that use less meat, more vegetables, great spices. Inexpensive doesn’t have to mean beans and rice.
  • Vote on all new recipes, mark them with five stars on the top if everyone loves it. Four stars if everyone likes it and it has redeemable qualities, like ‘very easy’ or ‘very cheap’ or ‘very good for you.’  Make meal and planning a family affair – life is too short to eat mediocre food, and meal time should be a ‘coming together’ of the family, an enjoyable experience, and that has intrinsic value in itself! In a very short time, you’ll build a repertoire of ‘go to’ recipes everyone loves.
  • Put thought into nutrition when you plan. I’ve done it so long, it’s almost second nature, but make sure to include different grains and starches, vegetables and fruits, balance out the proteins and watch the fats and cholesterol. I like to think about the colors and textures that will be served on each plate – when you do that, you’ll almost automatically be including a variety of healthy foods.
  • Remember, food and groceries are often the one area where we have the most flexibility in our budget, and it’s one of our largest budget items. Give it the respect it deserves. Insist on the cooperation of the whole household in planning and utilizing that plan. We work longer hours and probably ‘wear more hats’ than any other previous generation. Whether you’re a single person or part of a household, working or stay at home parent, time is always your most limited resource. Think of it this way, we all have a limited amount, and we don’t know how much that is – make the most of it, everyday. You can always make more money, but you can never replace wasted time.
  • The responsibility for the planning and execution should not all be thrown on one person with the rest of the household sitting passively by expecting to have their needs met, or even possibly undermining efforts. Generally the more the household helps in the planning, the prep, the cooking and cleaning up, the more they’ll buy into the plan.
  • Teach your children, too, how to plan, shop and cook as you go along. Today, it may not be necessarily fair to raise our children to “assume” the roles we might have grown up with when those “roles” are often not valid today, let alone sometime in their future.  (I’ve been hearing that for over 40 years, and my daughter, a stay at home mom, just told me something to that effect today, so maybe it bears repeating!)


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