Meal planning helped me cut my grocery spending by 50%, but I still struggle to stick to my system

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  • Grocery shopping for a family of five will always be expensive, but when I found myself shopping multiple times a day, spending a fortune, and never having enough food in the house, something had to change.
  • I started by writing out a week of meals for my family, then bought the items I needed for those meals.
  • It saved me a ton of time, but it also cut my spending from about $1,200 to $600 a month.
  • I sometimes find it challenging to keep up with the system when life gets hectic, but it's always there when I need to get my spending in check.
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Four years ago, drowning in babies and bills, I reached a meal-time impasse. I felt like I lived at the grocery store, but somehow, we never had anything to eat. I bought groceries on an as-needed basis, but with a family of five, as you can imagine, we needed groceries all the time.

This "system" led to frequent and unnecessary trips to the grocery store, which led to frequent and unnecessary food purchases. When the cashiers began asking how my day had been since they asked me that morning, I knew something had to change. But I didn't have the time or money for Pinterest-inspired food prep weekends or mail-order meal kits.

Getting the hang of meal planning

At first, pulling up the Notes app on my phone and writing a week's worth of meal ideas felt like all I could manage.

So, that's what I did. It was a simple list, something like:

Monday: Burrito bowls

Tuesday: Tacos

Wednesday: Pizza

Thursday: Omelettes 

Friday: Salmon 

Saturday: Chicken sandwiches

Sunday: Leftovers

But it helped me organize and focus our needs. I ran into the store, grabbed the groceries that corresponded with my list, plus a few breakfast and lunch staples, and we were set for a week.

This saved me so much time. I no longer found myself aimlessly wandering the aisles of the grocery store, grabbing the ground beef for tacos, only to return the next afternoon to grab hamburger buns to serve with the chicken I pulled for dinner.

My grocery spending dropped

Before long, I noticed another remarkable saving: money.

With fewer trips to the grocery store, my receipts became much easier to track. My total for a weekly grocery run based on a list of pre-planned meals came to around $150.

For someone used to several smaller grocery runs, this seemed like a lot of money. But when I calculated the cost of what I had spent when I bought $70 worth of groceries to stock the fridge on Sunday, $30 on Tuesday when I realized we were out of baking ingredients, $10 that evening when I wanted ice cream, $60 on Thursday because we were out of food again, and $100 on Friday to prepare for house guests over the weekend, the savings were clear. 

A list of dinner ideas didn't entirely keep me from the store, however. We still ran out of coffee beans and baking soda, and I never seemed to see it coming. So I began experimenting with more detailed meal plans. I included breakfast essentials, lunch, snack, and dessert options.

I recognized the potential this method had to help us make healthier food choices. If I went to the grocery store once a week and stuck to my list, there were no impulse-buys waiting for me in the cupboard. I could choose to keep a bowl of apples on the table instead of a box of Swiss cake rolls in the pantry.  

Falling off the wagon really helped me understand how much I'd been saving

Meal planning saved me hours of my life, but it still required a different kind of time. I had to set aside a half hour a week to think through our meals and build my grocery list. Like so many good habits, I eventually stopped taking this time, and I soon returned to my old habits of multiple shopping trips, frozen pizza for dinner, and rotting spinach meant for smoothies turning to soup in my crisper. 

This is when I really noticed the savings meal planning created. When my husband and I set up our budget, I based the amount I set aside for groceries on the $150 I spent when I meal planned.  This meant we allocated $600 for groceries, but when our budgeting app broke down how much we were actually spending at the grocery store, the number came closer to $1,200.

Budgets only work if you plan to make them work. Assigning a vague number to how much I thought we spent meant nothing. I had to base our budget on real patterns, and I realized I could track those patterns better if I controlled them.

Our numbers have changed. Our kids have gotten older, and prices have risen over the last few years and I've adjusted our grocery budget accordingly. I now budget $200 a week for groceries, but I have found I only hit this target if I plan everything we will eat for the week in advance. 

For me, this type of planning will always be a chore. Not to mention, things aren't as tight for us financially as they once were, so if I plan to make Buddha bowls for our Friday night dinner and later decide I've earned a take-out pizza instead, there's still a crisper full of vegetables I have to use in a hurry or risk wasting.

Sometimes these considerations mean I don't bother meal planning at all. But when the checker at my grocery store mentions this is the second time they've seen me in a day, I realize that, once again, it's time to get organized.

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