Menu planning and grocery shopping
October 30, 2009 8:47 AM   Subscribe

I need help buying groceries.

I'm going to try really, really hard, oh yes I am, to stick to a grocery budget this month. Pretty much all of my end-of-month poverty is due to the fact that I'm stupid when it comes to buying groceries. Instead of shopping post-payday at the beginning of the month for staples and such, and developing a meal plan from that, I tend to end up at the store almost every day in order to buy foods that satisfy what I start craving while I'm sitting at my desk at 3:30. This needs to stop -- it costs me too much money, and it means that I start cooking at 5:30 or 6:00 and I don't eat until after 8:00.

What works for you? How/when do you buy groceries? How/when do you plan your meals? What foods or staples do you keep around all the time so that preparing a meal at the end of the day doesn't require a grocery list of more than one or two things? What meals are on your no-grocery-shopping menu?

Just for informational purposes, I eat very little meat (and no seafood), and almost no processed foods. Pre-packaged "convenience foods" aren't something that would help me. Some frozen stuff is okay, though. I also really enjoy cooking, so ease of preparation isn't really as important as not going to the store every day.
posted by mudpuppie to Work & Money (33 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Can you make and freeze soups and stews on the weekends? Helpful tip: Potatoes do not freeze and thaw well. Ugh that was the grossest texture.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:52 AM on October 30, 2009

For us I found it really is just making a menu for the week, and then making a list of the stuff I will need for that menu before I go shopping. I try and stick as much as I can to that list but I am not 100% about it if I see something at the store that's on sale that week or just looks good I will modify it.
posted by Captain_Science at 8:59 AM on October 30, 2009

I always keep on hand:

Olive oil (the best I can afford, and yes it makes a huge difference)
A variety of pastas
White rice
Baked beans
Kidney beans (can)
Crushed tomatoes (can)
Bread (frozen, mainly for toast)
Miscellaneous herbs & spices

Problem with being a non-meat-eater is that vegetables - no matter how good your fridge is and how fresh they were when you bought them - don't really keep for as long as you might like, so it's hard to plan more than a day or two in advance. I'm like the least interesting person in the world though and a bowl of baked beans with fresh cracked pepper and some roma tomatoes sliced in will keep me perfectly happy.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:00 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're thinking about shopping and then devising a menu from what you buy. I've just started doing weekly menu planning and then shopping only for what I need. On Saturday morning I figure out what I want to make for the coming week, figure out the ingredients, and then shop specifically for those things. By doing it weekly, you're able to configure based on weather, seasonal produce, and whim. Inevitably, I end up making a run mid-week for something I forgot or decide I need or wouldn't be fresh if I bought it the previous Saturday by the time I need it.

This has dramatically reduced the amount of food I waste. I usually make at least 1-2 things each week in an amount that leaves plenty for freezing (stews, chili, soup, etc). So that not only do I eat it for a meal right after I make it, I also have leftovers to eat the next day and some to freeze for future meals.

But really, sitting down and making a plan for what to eat and buy has really made my life better.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:02 AM on October 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

I sit down and make a thorough grocery list once a week and try to account for all of my needs in that list. I'll go through any recipes I want to make and write them all down, write down snacks (such as 10 apples, 3 oranges, 4 cups worth of popcorn). Then I do one big shopping trip (ideally during off hours so it's not such a hassle to walk around with an overloaded cart) and go for it. Getting into the habit of doing this saves a lot of money, calories, and frustration I find. The key is to be explicit in your list to avoid forgetting things.

I also find that keeping an ongoing list somewhere highly visible helps out. This is for things that are staples, like kosher salt and paper towels. It's essential to write it down immediately when you run out.

Finally, you say you don't eat a lot of meat but one trick that I find helps for when you do eat meat is to freeze some of it. Whenever I notice, say, london broil is on sale as buy one get one (happens about once a month) I buy 1-2 and just freeze them. If you remember to take it out of the freezer the night before it's no problem to cook it up. Bread freezes pretty well too, especially if you toaster it later.

Oh, I also freeze herbs in ice cube trays. Whenever I buy something like cilantro, there's no way I'm going through all of those leaves before they spoil. So I chop up all of it and put it into an ice cube tray in 1tbsp aliquots. Then add 1tbsp of water and freeze. Once frozen, pop them into a ziploc bag and keep frozen til you need them.
posted by sickinthehead at 9:03 AM on October 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

Don't grocery shop when you're hungry, have a snack before you go if needed. Also, make a list and stick to it.
posted by cestmoi15 at 9:05 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Get a crock pot - prep it the night before, when you're leaving for work, fire it up - a good one will have a removable interior pot that you can keep in the fridge both for prep and storage afterwards. You can make a meal that lasts several days this way. Leftovers are the key to not shopping for multiple days.

Also, come up with a dozen solid 'recipes' that you like for lunches and dinners. Buy the ingredients for four or five each week. Prep ahead, anticipate ahead and use common ingredients.

Ideas: Crepes w/ fruit (make the crepe batter the night before), Bean and veggie burritos and fajitas, Barbecued veggies in the crock pot, Teriyaki fruit and veggies in the crock pot, Pasta Primavera (lots of ways to make this different), Soylent Green (just kidding).
posted by Fuka at 9:07 AM on October 30, 2009

I am a big fan of soups (well, now that Fall has arrived), so I get a lot of millage out of medium-sized pots of soup. I live alone, but I have a friend or two over once or twice a week, so it is pretty easy to make a medium-sized batch (12 oz split peas, 4-6 cups liquid, some additional vegetables). This makes a meal for 2-3 with usually two dinners left over (I usually serve with a hearty bread, but that may be too starchy). If I over-produce, there is always freezing. Good options:

Split peas and veg. broth, usually with onions, garlic, and a little curry powder (can also accommodate a ham hock for the meat-inclined -- ham hocks are cheap, delicious, no pig was ever killed for its hocks, and you know you are cooking an animal -- it makes one think). A stick blender is very nice for texture. 20-30 minutes of cooking.

Lentils and broth (maybe 10-12oz to 5 cups?), usually with carrots, celery, and carrot. Lentils cook a little longer -- maybe 50 minutes?

A pound of carrots and a pound a parsnips with about 6 cups of broth and some dill is nice. Curry would also work with this, and a stick blender for texture. 30 minutes or so of simmering.

I make a Japanese-themed soup with 5 cups fish stock (veg would do), plus a small leek, a medium turnip, 2 medium potatoes, a large carrot. Saute the vegetables with some salt, add the broth, simmer for 20 minutes, add a block of tofu, if you like. Top with sancho pepper.

Anyway, those are all things where the ingredients will keep for a week, and you can make them in small enough batches that you won't get totally sick of them before you finish the batch.

Burrito fill is cheap, especially with rice and beans, and you can vary the taste with cheese and different hot sauces.

I have an easy cheese biscuit recipe that makes 12, and they will last the better part of a week in a sealed container. Good for lunches or breakfasts at work as well as a side for your soup.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:15 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

My go-to staples that I always have around are:

- tortillas
- frozen peppers, spinach and corn from Trader Joe's (they taste GREAT and fresh, promise)
- shredded cheese
- pre-cooked chicken
- salsa
- canned beans

The above is a delicious, healthy, as-filling-as-you-wanna-make-it meal that can be assembled and baked at a high heat for dinner ~15 minutes. You don't even need to defrost the frozen veggies.

Also, apples keep for a long while in the fridge.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 9:19 AM on October 30, 2009

Turgid dahlia's list above is a lot like mine. I'd add to that, as a meal idea, just making a lot of vegetable soups and doling them out into single-serving containers and freezing them. That keeps the vegetables from going bad in a hurry, and is also great for quick meal planning -- you can pull out a container of soup from the fridge and heat it up, and then just make something to go with it, and you're set. Or, having a couple rolls. Or biscuits.

Speaking of biscuits -- learn a decent buttermilk biscuit recipe. Some of them are pretty friendly to you swapping out the buttermilk with yogurt instead -- plus, any biscuits you don't eat can be tossed into the freezer, and then you just need to pull out a couple biscuits when you want more and bake them at 350 for about 10 minutes to thaw.

Just the soup and biscuits could set you up pretty nice, in fact -- if you make a freezerful of soup and tuck a few biscuits in there, then dinner can become "grab a soup, then decide if you want to make something else to go with it or just heat up a couple biscuits..."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:28 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Previous AskMe questions that should help you:

What are your favourite ways to avoid waste in the kitchen? (The More-With-Less Cookbook mentioned in that thread looks really interesting, and can help you come up with meals from ingredients you already have in the kitchen.)

What's in your fridge? (The OP asks for suggestions for long-lasting foods. Miko's comment about how to stock your pantry is particularly helpful.)

How do I grocery shop and cook?

Keeping food on the table

Cooking more with yonder crockpot
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:28 AM on October 30, 2009 [15 favorites]

I asked this question a while back, and it might be helpful!
posted by nitsuj at 9:35 AM on October 30, 2009

On Saturday or Sunday morning we plan out our dinner schedule. First we look at the flyers to see what's on sale where. We plot out dinners by the number of days rather than monday. Lunches/breakfast are pretty standard and if we want to break standard we note it, or only use bulk items (pancakes from scratch). Then we go through the recipes and anything we need, we add to the list. Then we consider what bulk items are on sale that we'll stock up on. Then we go shopping, and buy nothing that's not on the list. Nothing.

Toilet paper here is usually $9.99 and higher for 12 double rolls. We never buy it for more than $4.99 per 12 double rolls. That's because about once a month or two someone will have a half-off sale on toilet paper, so we'll get 48 or more double rolls to last us. Similarly childrens cereal occaisionally have half-off sales on the ginormous boxes; we buy it then, and have the kids choose from what's in the basement. Chicken breasts are healthy but expensive, but frozen bulk boxes periodically go on sale. While we can't get half off on coffee, we can get 25% easily, and there are a number of sales that are quasi regular, and if you have enough freezer or storage space and enough room in the budget to buy ahead, you come out way ahead. It sucks for about the first 1-2 months while you're doing that because we come in over budget, but eventually you start coming in under budget, or when you need to by $30 of toilet paper it doesn't push you over.

The other thing is there's three main grocery stores in our area. One is cheapest, but has low variety, sometimes poor veggies/fruit and generally less helathy options. Another is more expensive, but better and healthier selection. The last is quite expensive, but if no one has some kind of vegetable in good quality they've never disappointed me. Naturally we go to them in the order that I listed; and scratch off what we buy, and keep going to the more expensive stores until our list is finished. Happily we usually don't hit the last store, and if we do we're in the express lane. Yes, you lose a bit more time while doing grocery shopping, but we easily save $15 on the things we buy at the cheapest place from the next cheapest, often the same brand (canned beans/tune are 0.20 to 0.60 cheaper each, add up quickly (and then you get homemade hummus!)), and it's a 5 minute drive and extra 5 minutes in line.

Lastly on the issue of not buying anything which isn't on your list, know your grocery store layout, and divide your list into areas, so you can glance at your list and know if you need to go down certain aisles or not. that saves time, and you won't be tempted to get something. Downside, you'll miss out on unadvertised sales. Admittedly we'll get bulk items when there's unadvertised sales, but only the bulk items that without a doubt we would have bought if we knew about the sales.

To save time, pre-cook the meats if they're not frozen (and maybe if they are). If I get tenderloin on wicked sale I'll get about $30-40 worth, spend 1.5 hours on the weekend to cut and cook it all, and then divide it into individual bags and freeze until needed.
posted by nobeagle at 9:38 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

We eat like you.

We DON'T make a meal plan for the week, however. We keep staples around that can be turned into a lot of different things, and plan more if we buy something special. It tends to work pretty well for us. Here's how we shop:

Once a month or so: Costco for true staples. We save a LOT of money buying stuff this way - pine nuts are $5 for an ounce bag at the grocery store, but $20 for a 2-lb bag at Costco - and they keep in the freezer just fine. It enables us to keep a lot of ingredients on-hand that we couldn't really afford to eat if we were buying them in smaller quantities. We don't buy everything in one trip, but when necessary so our pantry is always stocked:

- cooking goat cheese in a giant 1 lb log for $4, giant blocks of parm, other cheese that keeps for a while
- everyday flour, sugar, baking powder, etc.
- honey
- organic chicken stock
- pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, etc in giant bags we keep in the freezer.
- raisins, dried blueberries, etc.
- cage-free eggs (eggs keep for weeks with no noteable loss in quality for most things)
- butter (we bake a lot, so we buy the four-pound boxes of butter and freeze it)
- greek yogurt, kalamata olives for cooking, capers, etc.

We also go to the regular human-size grocery store once a week or so. There we buy things that don't keep in larger quantities and some produce:

- milk, cream
- sturdy/exotic produce: squash, onions, potatoes, shallots, garlic, citrus, ginger, grape tomatoes in the winter
- bulk items we can't get at Costco: cornmeal, polenta, semolina flour, steel-cut oats, different rices, dried beans, split peas, etc.

We go to the farmers market every week. There we buy local veggies and fruits for the week, salad greens, and occasionally, fancy eggs.

And there are a variety of specialty shops we go to when we're in the neighborhood or need something special - wine, cheese, fish, and meat at their respective places; dashi, Asian vegetables, rice noodles at the H-Mart; etc.

-T bakes our bread every week.

So, we stay well-stocked. The variety comes in with the produce we buy every week - we'll build meals around what looks good at the market and then taper off to more pantry-type meals toward the end of the week, before we go shopping again. We'll start the week eating new fresh veggies every night, but by Friday it's pasta with sage and butter.

I would love to shop every day, but honestly, this schedule has made life so much easier. We cook with what's in the fridge, and that's that. And if you stay stocked, you can make pretty much anything at pretty much any time - bare-bones end of the week produce of potatoes and some sad-looking chard could turn into something aloo saag-ish to eat with rice and yogurt, OR a gratin to eat as a main meal rounded out with a salad and bread, OR a pizza with potatoes, a bit of blue cheese lurking around, pine nuts, and pancetta and one with wilted chard, caramelized onions, and goat cheese.

This only works if you're willing to spend a lot of time thinking about food and cooking it. If it's a big part of your life, though, this is one way to do it that lets you really put your money and time where it counts.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:02 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

We plan our menu for the week prior to grocery shopping. Then we buy the things we need to make the meals we selected. Ideally, we prep the grocery list Friday night so we can shop Saturday morning when the store isn't so crowded.
posted by larsks at 10:04 AM on October 30, 2009

My staples:

olive oil
various vinegars
kosher salt
black peppercorns
dried: oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram, rosemary
chili pepper flakes, ground chili pepper
curry powder
baking soda
baking powder
various flours (all-purpose, cake, bread)
brown sugar
real butter (both salted and unsalted)
sweet chili sauce
canned tomatoes
stock base (it's concentrated and you mix it with boiling water - NOT bouillion cubes)
sour cream or plain yogurt (depends on what's on sale when I go to the store)
chocolate chips (my kids like cookies)
dried fruits (cranberries, apricots, blueberries, etc.)
various nuts
canned and dried beans
various pasta shapes
various rices (arborio, long grain white, brown, etc.)
frozen diced potatoes (with nothing added - I make a potato hash frequently and they're so cheap and it's easier than using whole potatoes)
peanut butter
cheeses (all kinds, especially hard cheese like parmesano reggiano and romano)

I won't go into the meats that I keep on hand, since that won't apply to you. I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of stuff, but that gives you a general idea.

I go to the store once a week, usually (sometimes more). I tend to buy what's on sale and what looks good and I cook from that. I'm sure it helps that I'm a chef by training so I can generally look at an ingredient and say, "I'll make X or Y with this," but you can also get some really good cookbooks (Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything is especially fine) and just look stuff up when you get home with your groceries. This method keeps our grocery budget way down, and we're not always eating the same things every week. Then again, because I cook a LOT, I know how much food I need to buy to get us through a week. I also have several recipes memorized so on days I just don't want to think, I go to my staples and have a meal ready in no time.
posted by cooker girl at 10:19 AM on October 30, 2009

Oh! And our no-grocery-shop meals:

- we eat a lot of stuff based around noodles, rice, or grains. We make a point of always keeping eggs even if the fridge is completely bare, so we eat a lot of fresh pasta - with caramelized onions, butter, and parm; with just butter, sage, and parm; with a quick sauce of canned tomatoes and herbs; with dried mushrooms and butter. Always a little pancetta if we have some (we buy a pound at a time and freeze it in chunks). Same deal with arborio rice or over polenta.

- eggs for dinner - a frittata or Spanish tortilla with just potatoes and onions can be pretty satisfying.

- we keep stuff in the freezer - like, we spent a whole afternoon making Korean dumplings and now when we're really in a hurry we can have a meal in twenty minutes (and that's just so we can make a pot of rice to go with - sometimes we just heat them in some chicken stock with ginger and drizzle in a beaten egg for an insta-dinner). When we make soup, we make a huge pot and freeze some.

Something else you could consider is the fridge round-up meal. We do that occasionally to get rid of odds and ends that wouldn't make a meal on their own - we end up throwing very, very little away this way. Fried rice, omelets, and soup are really good for this - bits of vegetables and meat can get used up this way and the character can completely change if you've got an array of spices on hand.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:21 AM on October 30, 2009

I've actually been thinking about how to get myself to cook more often. Growing up, we rarely ever ate out, my senior year at college, I cooked almost every night. I found that several things helped us keep to cooking:
  1. We planned our meals a week in advance, and shopped once or twice a week.
  2. We changed our menu constantly, we actually went for months without cooking the same thing.
  3. Eating was communal, though I cooked most of the meals, it was always shared among friends.
  4. We put together a dinner schedule and blocked out time to cook and eat.
  5. We kept a very well stocked pantry.
  6. Many sources of easy, but nutritious meals, even though I love to cook, sometimes I just don't have time. I've found that keeping at least a few quick to prepare, but good, meals keeps me from eating out or going to the grocery store for something specific that costs way too much.
  7. We had a long list of basic recipes that we could vary infinitely.
Our pantry is always very well stocked, and now have probably two weeks of dry and frozen goods at any time (not including the fresh foods). Here are a few things that are more useful in a pared down pantry:
  • Rice. I tend to keep Calrose white rice, and a japanese brown rice. I find they have better texture and flavor than American long grain (which I can't stand).
  • Potatoes. Useful for anything from hashbrowns to curry.
  • Sandwich bread. Shake it up. Use whole grain white one week and 12 grain the next.
  • Onions. Aromatics are to die for.
  • Mac & cheese. We usually have Kraft and Annies for lazy and busy days
  • Some sort of noodle or pasta. I usually have dried udon as well as spaghetti.
  • Broth. I use broth in everything.
  • Unsalted butter. I keep some in the fridge and freezer. Biscuits need frozen butter, and it's easy to thaw.
  • Chicken thighs. I buy almost all my meat in bulk, and split them into packs of three or four, which is the perfect amount for dinner and a packed lunch.
  • Frozen stew vegetables. Great for lazy stew (garlic, a protein, broth, stew vegetables, and whatever spices you feel like).
  • Frozen vegetable mixes. Stir-fry, fried-rice, bruises.
  • Frozen dumplings. Store bought or homemade (Video of recipe from the CIA)
  • Eggs. Powerfully useful.
  • Fresh greens. Always useful, sauteed in garlic, olive oil and soy sauce. on sandwiches.
  • Mushrooms and tomatoes. Full of flavor and unami.
  • Olive oil. turgid dahlia is correct, a good olive oil is a huge difference.
  • Canola oil. Flavorless, unlike olive oil, it has a much higher smoke point than olive oil which is necessary for asian-style cooking like stir-fry.
  • Garlic. I am a garlic fiend. I use too much everywhere
  • Good assorted dried spices. Seriously, spend a few more dollars for the good stuff. Your food will taste much better which which really makes cooking much more enjoyable. The best way to keep you from going back to bad habits is to make the new habit more enjoyable.
(full list here)

Out of these ingredients, you can vary meals pretty easily. If you have a good assortment of spices, you can even use the same basic ingredients, but cook vastly different meals (imagine onions + chicken with butter and basil one night, and a creole spice mix the next). During college, I found that even with eating salmon once or twice a week, we were able to keep our dinners to $2-4 per person. I was cooking for about 6 people a night, though, so our volume drove down the overhead costs and waste.
posted by thebestsophist at 10:25 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

This might seem a little wacky but using a crockpot overnight can be a good way to manage your budget/time.

Right after eating dinner, throw the next day's meals in the crock pot and leave it on low overnight (8-10 hrs on average). Take a portion of the completed meal for that day's lunch (giving you something to look forward to later), put a dinner portion in the fridge for that night's dinner and the rest is frozen for leftovers. Clean out crock pot. Come home and have a nice dinner, fix the next day's meals rinse & repeat.

For one person, you'd want a small to medium crock pot unless you really like leftovers. After a week or two of this, you should have a variety of portions in the freezer so if you don't feel like cooking, you won't have too.

(My old landlady really disapproved of leaving a crock pot unattended during the day because they were 'dangerous'. Another of her renters turned me on to the overnight usage trick. This was especially cool since Dear Old Landlady had been known to enter people's units during the day and turn off crock pots (!) and other electrical devices for 'safety's sake')
posted by jaimystery at 10:32 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Other thoughts came to mind, because this is something I struggle with as well (though in my house, we spend a lot of money on meat). Like you, coupon tips don't really work for me, because whole, unprocessed foods are rarely featured in coupons.

Like others have said, it's really important to plan ahead. Create a menu, then shop. It's ok to treat yourself now and then, but shopping by cravings leads to weight gain and more money spent, for me. Stick to those outside aisles at the store, too.

If it's not on your grocery list, don't get it. Seriously. Huge time- and money-saver. It's difficult, though, because I can totally justify food purchases. I'm so suggestible that I don't even look at the fliers in the store, because it gives me ideas. The fliers are good when you're at home planning your meals, though.

Condiments and dressings can get pricey, and you can definitely make your own. I like to make big batches of tomato sauce and freeze it in portions. Same for soup, stock, herbs and casseroles. Making your own mayo is kind of fun, too, and pretty easy if you have a food processor. When you separate the eggs, freeze the whites for later use in meringues, angel food cake, omelets, etc.

Check out a Mexican grocery or the "ethnic foods" aisle at your store -- I can find cheaper spices, beans and tortillas there. Don't be afraid of off-brand products. Buy things in bulk, portion it out and freeze or otherwise store it. Need relatively inexpensive bulk vanilla beans? Cheese sometimes goes on sale in blocks; things like cheddar and colby freeze well. (Also note that blocks are often cheaper than shredded, and then you don't have that weird powdery stuff coating your cheese shreds.)

Root veggies and squash store pretty well, so you can base meals around those, particularly at this time of year. This question has a lot of squash recipes. Here's a beginner's guide to beans, which are cheap cheap cheap. Shop for in-season produce; here's an interactive map to tell you what's in season in your area. If you have produce that's going bad, here's "How to can, freeze-dry, and preserve any fruit or vegetable at home" (beware the Comic Sans).

What foods or staples do you keep around all the time so that preparing a meal at the end of the day doesn't require a grocery list of more than one or two things?

I think that what a lot of people here are saying, and I second it, is that you need to re-think this strategy. Use what you already have. You don't need to run to the store all the time. Check out the back of a cookbook to learn about substitutions -- that might help.

What meals are on your no-grocery-shopping menu?

Everything. Seriously. By planning ahead and sticking with it, you avoid this problem, unless you forget something. And once you build up your pantry and freezer, you'll have all kinds of things you can work from.

Left Over Chef lets you enter the ingredients you have, and comes up with appropriate recipes. However, don't be led astray by recipes with ingredients you don't have; you can plan to make those another week. Make only the recipes with ingredients you already have. Super Cook does the same thing as Left Over Chef.

Here's a recipe for "Clean out the fridge pasta." This onion tart is super easy when you skip the crust (it's basically baked scrambled eggs), and you can add whatever leftover veggies you have on hand. I grew up in a house where anything could be added to scrambled eggs, fwiw.

The MeFi Wiki also has a section on cooking on a budget.

Maybe I should have just given you a link to my bookmarks?
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:36 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

One thing that struck me about your dilemma is that you get cravings and start daydreaming about dinner at some point in the middle of the afternoon. Even if you don't adopt a weekly menu planning approach, it might help you to just take a quick glance in the fridge/pantry in the morning and get an idea of what is available, and particularly what perishables need to be consumed soon. My hope is that even if you just go in to work armed with a vague thought like "I could do something curry-ish with that eggplant," when 3 o'clock rolls around and your mind turns to thoughts of dinner, you will be thinking about what specifically you can do with that eggplant, rather than some random food choice that requires a trip to the store.
posted by drlith at 10:41 AM on October 30, 2009

Develop a repertoire of dishes that taste wonderful as leftovers (soups, stews, and pasta sauces are sure-fire, but lots of other things work too). Do most of your cooking on weekends and eat leftovers most nights. Many people seem to have an emotional aversion to leftovers, but let me assure you there are lots of dishes that actually taste better on the second or third day!

Choose 2 or 3 recipes that will get you through a whole week, make a shopping list based on those, and shop once for the week. This may be too obvious, but keep a paper shopping list tacked to your fridge, and as you get low on staple items, put them on the list. It's very easy to forget about them otherwise.

Reheating yummy leftovers is way faster and easier than cooking from scratch every night. When I get home from work I'm usually so hungry I'd pass out before I could finish cooking a meal, and that leads to snacking and the horror that is junk food. I love to cook but I'd burn out real fast if I did it every friggin' day. Leftovers are my way of life!

If you need a little help getting your act together, there are even some websites that offer menu plans and shopping list guides (some are subscription-based). I've never used them because the recipes don't appeal to me, but they might work for you, at least until you develop some new habits.
posted by Quietgal at 10:48 AM on October 30, 2009

What foods or staples do you keep around all the time so that preparing a meal at the end of the day doesn't require a grocery list of more than one or two things? What meals are on your no-grocery-shopping menu?

Hi, pupps! Our staple items are olive oil, eggs, salad greens, tomatoes (or at least sun dried or canned tomatoes), peppers, onions, potatoes, various dried beans, rice, various pastas, feta, some other kind of cheese, and good black olives. (Greekmatic!) Based on this, some of our no-special-shopping standbys are:

Trahana, which is a Greek thing, but you might find it there. Comfort food. Easy, fast and yummy. I like it especially in cold or rainy weather.

Chickpea soup, which I make with turkey broth (I always have some frozen, because I boil a lot of turkey legs to make dog food), and onions and peppers sauteed in olive oil.

Tuna pasta: boil spaghetti, toss in some tuna, chopped tomato, chopped black olives.

Pita pizzas! Pita bread lives fine in the freezer and thaws quickly... So pita topped with whatever pizza toppings you have on hand, and run under the broiler.

Red Beans and Rice. Not fast, but we usually have the makings around, so no special shopping, but I usually like to put some kind of seasoning meat in it.

Potato and feta fritatta in the oven. A friend introduced us to this, and it's another no-shop wonder. Sliced potatoes on the bottom of the pan, egg/milk mixture poured over, feta sprinkled on top.

Potato soup. of course.

Stove top macaroni and cheese (we use only one egg with this recipe).

Greek salad, during tomato season.

Lentil soup... or our lentils-version of Shepherds Pie (which I think I actually picked up here): cooked, seasoned lentils on the bottom of the pan, mashed potatoes over that, topped with cheese (I usually use grated feta) and thin-sliced tomatoes over that. Pop in the oven.

Also, I really, really love those nine-bean or 12-bean dried bean mixes. They are hard for me to find here, so I buy quite a few if I find them... a package of that, simmered with a bunch of chopped veggies, some seasoning meat (and another use for my turkey broth, as a base) = heaven.

That's all I can think of at the moment, except for the obvious sammiches, scrambled eggs, etc...
posted by taz at 11:02 AM on October 30, 2009

Hey, have a snack at 3:30.

Just a few peanuts will fill you up for a while and make you more rational.
posted by amtho at 11:25 AM on October 30, 2009

I've just started doing weekly menu planning and then shopping only for what I need.

That's pretty much what I do, too. I start by thinking about what kinds of stuff I haven't had in a week or so, what I've been craving or thinking about lately in terms of flavors, what's seasonal, and what I already have on hand. Then I sketch out a menu for the "week," which actually means about four main meals. Leftovers or impromptu meals out or sandwiches or whatever fill in the gaps. I think about having some bean-based dinners, some egg-based dinners, some salads, some rice- or grain-based things, a pasta or two. I do eat meat, so a couple meals a week are built around the major animal protein. I usually have one or two of those meals a week. The key to avoiding the last-minute craving thing that makes one wander supermarkets at 6 PM is to have a food plan for the week that I'm actually psyched about - good stuff I'm anticipating making and eating.

Lunches are always dinner leftovers, so I cook generously.

On most Sundays, I tend to cook a big leisurely meal that is too ambitous for a weeknight. We enjoy it that night, and sometimes it's big enough that I package up an entire second family-size portion for another week and stick it in the fridge. Pot pies, mac and cheese, chilaquiles, enchiladas, stuff like that works well for that.

On Sundays I also make a loaf of bread in the breadmachine, and do some prep on food for later in the maybe make stock, make a cake or cookies for desserts, mix pizza dough and freeze it. I find that Sunday, or whatever your weekend day is, is a really important day to take care of the messier, more time-consuming tasks that will just not happen during the week.

My pantry-staples list is in this thread.

Also, have a late afternoon snack at work. A granola bar or fruit or something. I find whenever I don't do this, I feel ravenous at 5:30 and my impulse control goes right out the window. When I do, I manage to make it home and calmly remind myself how excited I am that it's broccoli-raab-and-roasted-red-pepper pasta-night (or whatever)
posted by Miko at 11:37 AM on October 30, 2009

When you're making something that requires prep time, do extra prep and freeze it. Does a recipe require a quarter cup of chopper green peppers? OK, I buy two and freeze as many quarter-cups as I can get. And eventually the freezer has lots of things I need -- and when I can ignore some of the prep work, I can choose from a wider variety of meals on busy nights.

Each weekend my wife & I figure out what our obligations are for the coming week, and then plan meals aeound that: quick things for busy nights, pre-made meals (I cook the night before) on crazy nights, and homemade pizza on Friday.

Compare that menu to the cupboard & freezer, make your list with the grocery store ad & coupon box in hand, and the shopping only takes one trip.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:52 AM on October 30, 2009

You can go for a lot longer than one week without shopping if you stock up on frozen veg - you can get peppers,mushrooms, fruit etc which have a limited life if bought fresh but last when frozen. By the time you have cooked the veg you won't tell them apart from fresh ones, same goes for turning that frozen fruit into a smoothie.

I have been known to do one bulk shop and then not go shopping for a month, until I had really run out of things other than flour and porridge to eat...I even run down the odd tins of stuff that accumulate at the back of the cupboard, because they seemed a good idea to buy but don't really appeal after all.

You could try for a month not to go shopping after work ever and allow yourself to spend 50% of your savings on some kind of treat!
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:19 PM on October 30, 2009

You need to come up with a list of pantry staples (as mentioned before) and also perishables that you go through every week.

Frozen vegetables are awesome. I always have them on hand to add to pasta, rice, baked potatoes, etc.

Have you thought about joining a wholesale club such as Costco? You have to be a conscious consumer, but you can save a bit of money buying bulk. Costco also has awesome non-bulk products, IMHO.
posted by radioamy at 7:32 PM on October 30, 2009

Kudos to the people who plan out their meals for the week. I can't do it - not much of a planner. That being said, I do really like to cook and I really don't go to the grocery store that often (once a week maybe?) Most of my staples I can keep on hand. My two cents:

- base for stirfry or other mish-mash of good stuff: oats (sooo versatile and they're breakfast!), rice, pasta
- bread (it freezes!)
- baking stuff: flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder/soda
- eggs (they generally last a while)
- frozen fruit and veggies (so versatile, and of course they keep forever)
- stock (or bouillion cubes/paste)
- various oils (olive, veggie, sesame), vinegars, spices, sauces
- frozen chicken (maybe not for you)
- canned beans, chickpeas, tomatoes
- tortillas
- yogurt (also, this keeps a remarkably long time)
- garlic, onions

The important thing for me is to go to the farmer's market every week and supplement with fresh stuff. And I don't drive, so I'm limited by how much I can carry. You would be amazed at how much stuff you can make just with the basics! Good luck!
posted by kookaburra at 7:49 PM on October 30, 2009

I try and plan two proper recipes a week. I buy any needed items for those, and while I am there buy fruits, vegetables and replenish any staples. I freeze the leftovers and eat them on the nights I don't cook.

What has worked for me this month in terms of saving money has been to ask myself the question 'can you wait one more day?' For example I ran out of fruit and was all set to run to the store when I asked myself 'can you wait one more day?' and decided I could, that I would pack frozen fruit in my next day's lunch and pack carrot sticks too. Avoiding the grocery store for that one day meant fewer trips, fewer impulse buys etc. It's so easy for me to stop on my way home for just one thing since it's on my way, then I wind up finding other stuff to buy while I am there. Deciding to wait one more day has helped me minimize the trips. At least once this month, the one more day strategy helped me put off the trip for more than one day :)
posted by JoannaC at 8:37 PM on October 30, 2009

I only go grocery shopping once a week, twice if I'm feeling decadent.

Years ago I made a master grocery list. This is a three-column list of everything that I buy on a regular basis (cereal, bananas, milk) or want to have on hand (the generic "spices", mustard, sugar). It's arranged in order of the store with spaces for other things. I print out the list, and on the back I plan the meals for the week. I transfer the ingredients onto the list, and circle the other things I need.

I not only plan out the menus for the week, I decide which day to have them, give or take a day. Things that require an ephemeral vegetable like asparagus get made right away, while things like chili and corn muffins can wait until the end of the week. I buy a lot of vegetables and it's rare that I throw any out.

It's also helpful if you double up on anything that freezes and have meals stashed away. Instead of running to the store in an emergency, you can ust thaw the curry and make rice.
posted by zinfandel at 10:19 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Never, ever go shopping when you're hungry. Go home and eat a bag of potato chips if that's what it takes, but don't ever go to the grocery store hungry.

That said, you didn't mention, is food going bad in the fridge, or are you just buying pricier stuff but still eating it all?
posted by talldean at 6:49 AM on October 31, 2009

Our method:

1) Make a week-long menu. I scour recipe sites and my books for old favorites and new experiments. I also use to make a list prior to going to the store. This way I can scour for specials on non-food items and make a nice list grouped by category. I really think making a list is the most important step and you have to be disciplined about not straying from the list too much. Want those cookies but they're not on the list? Skip them and put them on the list next week. Oftentimes they don't make it on the list. Your waistline will thank you.

2) Because it's just two of us, I try and re-use as much of the ingredients as possible when making the menu. ie a packet of arugula is usually stretched into a main dish one night and a salad another night. A side effect seems to be that sometimes our weekly menus get "themed" (ie a tomato, olives, onions heavy list results in Italian Week) but that doesn't really bother us.

3) About once a month we do end up with Budget Friendly Week - in which the challenge is to come up with the cheapest, most nutritious menu for our money. Funnily enough this week often coincides with the week before payday. It is very easy to do this nowadays with AskMetafilter and the rest of the web at your disposal.
posted by like_neon at 4:37 AM on November 2, 2009

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