How come the woman who writes the longest running real food Menu Mailer has never written one post on menu planning? Because I plan backwards to most people, and I do it purposefully so I can save a bunch of money at it. Using this method, I save even more than just shopping the sales, and today I’m going to show you how.
Shop the Sale… Or Not?
Instead of menu planning the normal way, I do something quite different in my own home. Most people recommend you look at the sale ads, find recipes based off of what is on sale, make a shopping list for everything you need and then go shopping while sticking closely to your list and ignoring anything with chocolate in it that calls your name from the shelves. But that’s not how I do it at all (other than ignoring the chocolate). In fact, the way I menu plan is backwards to most people, but it does save me money, even sometimes significant amounts of money, and time in the long-run. I’m not adverse to swapping money for time when needed, but this method has shown itself to be a win-win for me in saving both.
Shop… Then Plan?
Since most of my shopping is done at places that do not have ads, such as the salvage and the farmer’s market, I have no way of knowing what is going to be priced the best when I arrive. I go, only knowing what is in season at the time, how many meals I need to serve and the amount of money I have to spend for that week. I prefer to do all of my shopping in one day to save on both time and gas, so I only have one trip to get all of the produce I need for the week. So instead of planning before I shop, I shop for the best deals at these locations, then build a menu around that using my pantry once I get back home.
Keeping a well-stocked pantry means I have emergency food AND I never have to run out to pick something up so I can make the dinner I planned. Nothing gets forgotten. I don’t have to worry about having a list of everything for every meal, to make sure I get it all. I can be confident that I already have what I need at home.
I purchase the pantry items only when they’re on a good sale or I can get them in bulk at a significant discount. I plan meals assuming all of my staples are already in place and I plan around the well-priced, fresh items I can get in season. This method not only cuts my bills, but actually gives me greater flexibility, because I’m not having to worry about the cost of each individual item. It frees up some space to even keep around some luxury items and not feel the need to ration them when the budget is tight.
It does mean that my recipes are limited by what I normally keep in my pantry. However, since most real food pantry staples are easy to store, I don’t find that to be a problem. Grains, nuts, spices and seasonings all store well for at least a couple of months, and some will store for much longer. Home-canned food is happy to sit on the shelf. That side of beef I purchased isn’t going anywhere. The truth is that many things, when stored correctly, can last a year or more.
So, first I hit the Farmer’s Market, then the salvage, buying enough meat and produce for the week. From there, if I need anything else, I head stores that would have an ad for the week. I come home, plan my menu and add the needed pantry ingredients onto NEXT WEEK’s shopping list or my watch list. That way, everything I use in the pantry gets replaced.
So, yes, I shop the sales, but only for staples that I can’t get less expensively through bulk buying or online shopping. Examples include fresh items like Parmesan cheese and eggs. For everything else, I engage in other practices that save me even more money, which I call a watch list.
For example, let’s say I pick up some broccoli and lemons and I decide to make the best broccoli dish ever, my roasted parm broccoli. If I’m running low on Parmesan cheese, I put that on my watch list for next week, as it’s something I never seen on sale- I just watch for it to be available at the salvage for $2 a wedge when they carry it. If I get really desperate and the salvage hasn’t had it in a long time, I’ll purchase a small hunk at the health food store if there is space in the budget. But when I do find it at the salvage, I go ahead and purchase an extra wedge, so I’m always a little ahead as blocks of Parmesan cheese store well in the fridge so long as they are wrapped.
Or as another example, if I get some great looking chicken thighs and backs and decide to make a soup using diced tomatoes in with the other fresh vegetables, I place the tomatoes onto the watch list. Because I have several more packs of tomato in the pantry, that one tetra-pack missing won’t cause a problem until the diced tomatoes go on sale again. I found most pantry staples go on sale at rather predictable times. Of course, when in season I can my own and use those until they are gone, but this time of year, I’m back to using tetra-packs until the garden produces again. If I use eggs, I place those onto my shopping list and pick up more the next week. I always purchase those staples one week ahead.
The watch list is simply a list I keep of things I need to purchase at a discounted price. This is a very basic tactic used in couponing, minus the coupons, of course. 🙂 I keep an eye out at local stores for sales and online to find these items at the best deals. Normally, for me that means ordering from Green PolkaDot Box for the best prices, and I order from them once a month, as their normal prices can beat many local sale prices for my area. The Green PolkaDot Box even has sales regularly, and when they put a pantry staple I use on sale, I stock up. Sometimes, it means a trip to a local store when running errands if they have the item on a really good sale and buying 1-3 month’s worth, depending on how often the item goes on sale. Other times, it means ordering the item from Amazon, my Frontier co-op, or the like.
The only exception to this is things that are perishable, like dairy. I store raw milk cheeses to fill in when we don’t have fresh. We can only purchase raw milk every other week. Other dairy products are purchased the week they are needed so they are fresh. But eggs can normally sit a week or three in the fridge without a problem, so I buy ahead since we lost our flock to a predator earlier this year.
In other words, the watch list is used to list out how much of what I need when I find a good deal. I then purchase enough to get me through until I believe the item will go on sale again. The shopping list is used for items that are perishable &/or rarely go on sale. We’ll cover how I know something is a good deal in a future post.