Trying to save money on groceries is a challenge. It can be so easy to walk into a supermarket and fall into the trap of buying with your eyes, coming out with everything but your shopping list.
Shopping smart and to a budget can be achieved though, and you can still enjoy high quality meals while saving money. This can be especially helpful if you live on an irregular income. In this article, I teach you how to build a menu the way a professional chef would; how to take inventory for that menu; and how that translates to your shopping list.
Step 1: Your Budget
The first part of creating your meal plan is the longest: Setting your grocery budget. It’s also a vital step then attempting to save money when buying your groceries. This will vary based on your situation, like if you’re a parent, if you’re single, etc. But don’t worry, the underlying principles remain the same.
I allocate $40 a week to my groceries. Most weeks, I shoot for spending only about $30; but that extra ten dollars is for when I want a little luxury (more on that later).
Most important of all is you spend no more than 10% of each paycheck on food. Sounds pretty spartan? It is. But that’s how you save. I like $40 because even if you’re a full-time student, it’s a solid number to work with. Again, your situation may vary, but keep the 10% rule in mind. In fact, try to spend even less!
Okay, so you’ve set the budget. Now you need that budget to cater to your needs; so let’s put our catering chef hats on.
In the world of banquets and catering, clients usually have a price limit for their events. These limits — the budget — can range from luxurious to frugal, and catering chefs have to craft menus within those limitations. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.
$40? No problem! I can make that work. But first, our menu needs guidance. It needs a format.
In banquets, menus are built on three categories: Protein, starch, and vegetable. This foundation is great for your meal plan too, because you can visualize your budget in terms of a pie chart:
- Protein is expensive, and since we’re trying to save money, we want the best value for our dollar.
- Starches are cheap and physically fill you up, but generally aren’t as nutritious as non-starchy foods.
- Fresh vegetables are the most-valuable-player, being super affordable and extremely nutritious.
Now we’ve set aside money, and we’ve given our meal plan some structure. Great! Let’s decide what’s for dinner!
Step 2: Taking Inventory
With this format of protein/starch/vegetable, we can plug items into our weekly meal set. The go-to at my house is a rotisserie chicken, rice, and a ton of green veggies:
- Protein: The famous underpriced grocery store rotisserie chicken is an insane value, because after you clean it dry of meat, you can boil the bones into chicken stock that can feed you another week with soups. I also always have a carton of eggs, for my other source of protein.
- Starch: Rice is life. Enjoy it fresh, or use it as the end-of-week fridge clear out — Stir-Friday, baby! I also live in Texas, so a bag of tortillas is always kept on-hand for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And it never hurts to have a brick of ramen or two, for emergencies (and that aforementioned chicken stock).
- Vegetable: Veggies are cheap. A big carrot, a bag of Brussels sprouts or broccoli, a bulb of garlic, and some onions will about $5, all together. Being so inexpensive, vegetables should form the bulk of your meal plan — which is good, because they should be the bulk of your nutrition.
Now that we’ve filled the fridge, let’s fill the pantry with our essential seasonings.
- Soy sauce, because I’m a quarter-Japanese.
- Sriracha because it adds some spice variety.
- Coffee because how the heck else do you think I woke up at 4am to write this article?
- Sugar to put in my coffee and to make teriyaki sauce with the soy sauce.
- Salt and pepper for seasoning.
- And lastly, canola oil to cook with.
(I’m not going to include toiletries, since for me those are monthly expenses and not weekly. But be mindful of them.)
Step 3: Putting It All Together
At last, we bring everything together. We’ve set our budget, and we’ve decided on what we want to eat. Let’s take a look at what we’re working with:
There you go, I cleared my $40 limit. This will comfortably feed me for a week — I could blow that much money in one lunch, let alone six or seven days!
The first week you implement this will be the most expensive, because you’ll have certain things carry over to the next week. Unless you’re ravenous, your pantry essentials will last at least half the month if not longer, so you might be spending well less than $40 (I just spent $15 on mostly vegetables today). Stick to this process, and you’ll be sure to save money on your groceries.