Let’s ignore coupons and sales for a moment. Let’s think about the basics of grocery shopping.
How not to shop…
I once shopped with a neighbor/relative who had some car trouble and needed a ride to the store. She had a food stamp budget of $600 for the month for a household with 6 people. The youngest child was an infant whose needs were taken care of with the WIC program. The other three children were in school. They received free breakfast and lunch there through the week. The other adult in the house worked and ate out five days per week. This was a month where there were no vacations from school, so let’s tally up the meals she was going to prepare, shall we?
Dinner for 2 adults, 4 children x 31
Lunch for 2 adults, 4 children on weekends x 8
Breakfast for 2 adults, 4 children on weekends x 8
Lunch for herself and 1 infant on weekdays x 20
67 meals to prepare for. She’s got $9 per meal to spend here, which I think is awfully generous considering that 20 of these meals are just herself and a baby. One could spend $15 per dinner meal and still have $135 leftover for cereal and lunch meat and bread for breakfast and lunches and eat really, really well.
This family, however, did not eat really well. They did not even eat decent. To be honest, they often ran out of food and had ‘borrow’ things from my house, or spend more money on food.
The reason? My sister-in-law could not plan ahead. She bought crap. She lacked the ability to see that food was a necessity every.single.day. I joke with my kids when they tell me they are hungry. I sometimes respond, “Didn’t I just feed you yesterday?” They get to laugh along because they know they aren’t going to go without a meal. Some kids don’t get that joke because the adults in their world can’t plan past today.
You can easily assume that the house was void of food when the first of the month rolled around when we did this shopping. I didn’t use coupons back then, but I had a strict weekly budget (I didn’t have food stamps) and lived tightly within it.
The first stop in the store was at a display with Pepsi two-liter bottles for .59. This was quite a loss leader! The limit was 10, so I piled 10 into my cart. My sister-in-law looked horrified. For a brief moment I thought that maybe she had a much healthier household than mine, but then I remembered that in fact, drank Pepsi. I had looked after her children while she ran to buy some in the past, as well as picked up some for her when I ran to the store. She made Pepsi runs all the time. She placed one in her cart.
It was my turn to be horrified. One? Really? When I asked her if she’d read the sign that said .59, just to be sure. She nodded. I quickly explained that this was going to be like a 3-4 week Pepsi supply for our house. I didn’t quite understand, but we moved on.
We walked down the cereal aisle and I was thrilled to find store brand cereal on sale for $1. One dollar per box! Oh, this was awesome! The limit was 10, so I bought 10. I had store brand crisp rice to make cereal bar treats, store brand chex to make snack mix, and several boxes of my son’s then-favorite, which were the generic version of Cocoa Puffs. I would be set on cereal for weeks to come, plus, I was a bag of marshmallows and a bag of pretzels away from a few low-cost treats.
My neighbor asked her six year old son which box of cereal he’d like. He chose Lucky Charms. She tossed one single box into the cart. Small box, not on sale, $3. I quietly pointed out to her that for the $3, she could get 3 boxes of the store brand Lucky Charms and have enough to last a while. She didn’t really say anything, but I am pretty sure she rolled her eyes at me behind my back. I took the mental note that not everyone appreciates the store brand. I can respect that, though I can’t wrap my mind around why, with this many children, there was only a single box of cereal in the cart anyhow. I knew that at best, her children could decimate this box within three mornings with carefully poured bowls. At worst, also known as reality, the children who would have to fend for themselves and this box would last about half as long as the latest Harry Potter DVD.
Did I mention our distance from the grocery store? We lived nearly ten miles out. I had no comprehension of her resistance to stock up. Really. I had a Lewis Black moment of pound-fisting inner rage, followed by a screwed up angry face, followed by the blank look of a total lack of understanding. I wanted to scream, “HELLO! You don’t have a car to drive currently so, um, this may be it for a while!” while swatting her with a rolled up sales ad.
I attempted to console my inner frustration by thinking that maybe I’d watch her stock up on frozen waffles or boxed pancake mix or even a loaf of bread for toast, but I didn’t see her buy any of that stuff. She did, however, grab two bags of Hostess mini doughnuts at $2.50/bag. I often went to a Hostess outlet store that was literally a three-minute drive from the store we stood in. I casually mentioned to her that I’d been planning to make a stop there this week anyhow, and asked if she’d ever been there. She said that she had. I mentioned that we could make a stop there after we left this store. Despite the $1/bag doughnuts that awaited us at the next store, she left the pricey ones in the cart.
I decided I could no longer butt in and just let her shop without my scrutiny. Box upon box of snack crackers, bags of chips, tubs of ice cream, Lunchables. One dozen bakery made chocolate chip cookies for $5.99! $7/lb. deli meat. $6/lb. deli cheese. Cans of aerosol cheese flavored product at $4 a whack, in 4 different flavors. Nothing really tops a cheez cracker like a fake bacon flavored cheese turd out of a can. Yum. She spent more on fake cheese than I spent on meat to last for 3 weeks.
At the checkout I allowed myself to glance over her loot: I saw one pound of hamburger and one package of hot dogs. I tried to hide the quizzed look on my face because I regularly had her children over for dinner and I knew that one pound of hot dogs was just enough for the kids, if the adults weren’t eating. And one itty bitty pound of hamburger? WTF are you going to do with that for 7 people over the course of a month? No flour, no sugar, no cans of vegetables, no frozen vegetables, no fresh fruit, no canned fruit, no family sized cans of soup, no pasta, no rice, no chicken, no buns… I couldn’t see any food staple item. Seriously, I couldn’t make a single meal of out what she’d bought, unless you chop up hot dogs real small and make a bun out of cheezy crackers and serve with a side of ice cream. That might make a mighty fine meal on Friday, but what will you eat the rest of the week?
The total at the checkout was over $400. Two carts, and nothing to prepare a single meal. After we loaded up my van and unloaded it all into her kitchen, she glanced at the clock and picked up the phone and told her husband to bring home a pizza for dinner.
Lo and behold, two weeks after eating their fill of crackers and ice cream, the inevitable knock on my door came … not for a cup of sugar, but asking if we had an extra loaf of bread to spare. I was also asked on several occasions for a quick ride down the street to the store where she could pick up a 2 liter of Pepsi (for $1.89) and a cold deli sandwich that was allowed on food stamps so that she could eat lunch. The $10 she spent on a single lunch would be enough to buy an entire pound of deli meat, a week’s worth of gourmet crusty french rolls and toppings to last an entire week.
I remember this shopping trip well because it was a huge inspiration for me of how not to shop. Ever.
She is an extreme case, but I think we can all learn something here. Her lack of planning was extreme and her spending was far out of control.
Grocery Shopping Basics…
1. Determine the length of time you are shopping for. Are you grocery shopping for a week? For a month? For a day or two?
2. Plan meals.
Make a list of what you would like to make for the period of time you are shopping for. This doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to have a 3 course meal each night. It’s okay to have a soup and sandwich night, but you can’t do that if there’s no soup or sandwich items in the house.
3. Make a list of ingredients.
It sounds elementary, but if you want to have hot dogs on Wednesday, write down everything you need to have a hot dog meal. Buns, mustard, sauce, relish, chips on the side, raw veggies, etc.
4. Take inventory.
Open your refrigerator, freezer and pantry and cross any items off your list of ingredients that you have. Be sure to check for common ingredients like condiments, eggs, butter and milk.
Ask yourself, beyond meals, what do you need? Are you making lunches for the kids to send to school? Do you drink coffee every morning? Need to replenish a bowl of fruit for quick snacks? Is it your turn to bring in a passing dish for a potluck at work? Determine what you need and add this to your list. If you want to control your grocery spending, you really want to avoid extra trips to the store. For this same reason, you want to avoid making unrealistic declarations like, “No snacks this week!” Be realistic. If you almost always have a dish of ice cream on movie night, then buy the ice cream.
5. Go to store and buy items from your list. Avoid putting anything into your cart unless it has a purpose.
If you don’t have these basics down pat, you can’t lower your grocery spending over time, even with coupons. It’s impossible.
My favorite recipe site is www.allrecipes.com. I love the rating system so you can get an idea of what the recipe is like by reading the reviews. Also, there seems to be a lot of food company recipes on the site as well. I find results from Campbell’s, Kraft, magazines, and, professionals and everyday cooks.
Another great resource is http://www.supercook.com. You tell Supercook what you have, and it displays recipes for you to explore.