How to Plan Ahead for Next Week’s Meals (And Save Significant Money): A Step-By-Step Guide

supermarket by fazen on Flickr!My wife and I shop for groceries on a weekly basis (with the exception of a rare mid-week stop for more milk or other pure staples). We shop from a grocery list, usually nail the sales, and focus almost entirely on buying produce. The end result is that we usually save quite a bit at the grocery store compared to what we could be spending. This has enabled us to buy higher quality foods, like hormone-free milk and free-range chicken and eggs, but it could also go to help us pay the bills.

When I tell this to people, they usually sigh and say, “Doesn’t all that planning take a lot of time?” Frankly, it doesn’t take that much time at all, and since it saves us from making multiple grocery store visits in a week, it might actually save time in the long run in addition to the money saved.

Here’s exactly how we do it.

Step 1: Get a Flyer
The most important step is to get a flyer from your grocery store – or perhaps flyers from two or three local grocery stores. There are a lot of ways to get these – in a local newspaper, in the mail, or online, for starters. I usually download the flyer from the website of the grocery stores we visit – Hy-Vee and Fareway.

Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Once I have the flyers, I go through them and mark any sales on fresh ingredients that they have. For example, as I write this, I’m reviewing Hy-Vee’s ad for October 14 through October 20, and I’m noticing several things on sale: fresh zucchini for $0.89 a pound, fresh yellow squash for $0.89 a pound, sweet yellow onions for $0.99 a pound, yellow bell peppers for $0.99 a pound, tons of apple sales, ground turkey for $2.18 a pound, hormone- and antibiotic-free cageless chicken for $1.99 a pound, and so on.

I ignore the sales on most prepackaged items. We focus on buying fresh foods and staples like flour for our meals. Over the long haul, the fresh items are cheaper and healthier.

Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
This week, I know I’ll be working with ground turkey, whole chicken, zucchini and squash, yellow bell peppers, sweet yellow onions, apples, and the other meat we have in our freezer from bulk purchases. What recipes can I find that utilize these ingredients?

I go to a recipe search engine like FoodieView and just enter combinations of the on-sale fresh ingredients that sound interesting. My first attempt was searching for “turkey, zucchini, onion” and I immediately found a turkey and zucchini meat loaf recipe from Epicurious. Searching for “yellow bell, chicken” gets me an interesting chicken bell pepper recipe (which I’ll use, but modify a bit). Chicken-apple-bacon burgers? Yum. Plus, you can easily grill sliced squash (dipped in olive oil and ground pepper) for a wonderful vegetable side dish.

These ideas provide the backbone for several meals throughout the week, so I start planning ahead.

Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
I usually start off with my blank meal-planning worksheet and fill in the dinners first based on the above recipes. For us, breakfasts are usually quite simple and lunches usually consist of leftovers, so those columns are quite easy as well.

I usually try to make most weeknight meals pretty easy. I usually attempt one difficult recipe during the week and one on a weekend, with the others being simple. Whole chicken roasting? That’s a difficult one. Chicken-apple burgers? Easy.

We usually have homemade pizza one night a week, often Fridays. We also often have pasta one night a week, often Tuesdays (for some reason). So I’ll pencil those things in, too. We have plenty of ingredients on hand for both, so I don’t really need to shop for them – buying flour in bulk makes crust easy, and we keep tons of tomato sauce and ground beef on hand at all times.

Given all that, it’s pretty easy to fill in the rest of the squares on that meal plan. I usually only need to come up with five suppers per week and two to three lunches per week (for meals where leftovers from the night before don’t carry over). Often, these are just simple sandwiches.

Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Once the meal plan is in place, I go through and list all of the ingredients for all of the recipes I’ll make and then cross off the things we have as I find them in the cupboards or refrigerator. Most of this is very easy, but it saves us money – we don’t accidentally buy things we already have on hand.

I also check the staples – flour, milk, yeast, juice boxes, and so on – and add replenishments to the list.

Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List
Once you have the list in place, it’s simple. Take it to the grocery store and stick to it. Don’t toss stuff that’s not on your list into the cart. Since you’ve already planned your meals, you know that you don’t need it.

Using this path will also make grocery shopping itself substantially quicker. Most of your purchases will be around the edges of the store, in the produce and meat sections. You won’t have to go up and down every aisle to find the items you need. This will shave significant time off of your shopping trip.

In the end, though, when you go home, unpack your groceries, and put that meal plan up on the fridge, you’ll find that overall it hasn’t taken you any more time than a grocery trip without planning would have taken, plus you now have a clear plan for meals for the week and you’ve saved significant money at the grocery store.

Good luck!

This has been a guest post from Trent Hamm who writes about personal finance at The Simple Dollar. Please visit his blog for even more articles like this one.

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