The Grocery Game [Updated]

Originally published January 13, 2016. Updated July 11, 2018.

From extreme couponing to urban foraging, there are numerous ways to save money on groceries. Just Google it sometime, if you haven’t already. I did, and I found that a good many of the suggested options required a whole lot of effort to see even the most minimal results. Sure there are folks out there who can spend hours sourcing coupons and get an entire cart of groceries for $2. I, on the other hand, could spend hours sourcing coupons just to arrive at the store without them. Or worse, walk out with 3 bags of free mustard.

We play a different kind of grocery game. Simple shopping.

The basics of simple shopping are:

Make a Stock List: The single best way to improve grocery spending is to make a list of your favorite meals and snacks. From this selection of menu options, make a second list of all the ingredients and/or products required to create those meals. Only purchase the items on this list and always keep at least one of each of your most used stock item in your pantry reserves.

Shop Less Often: Keeping extras of your favorite items in the pantry means fewer trips to the store and fewer trips means fewer spending opportunities. Create a schedule for grocery shopping, one that fits the way you like to eat. We like to shop once a week, usually on Friday evening or Saturday morning. During the spring/summer season, we also visit the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.

Cut Down on Convenience Foods: In most cases, frozen convenience meals are significantly more expensive than making the same meal from scratch. And let’s face it, scratch meals taste better and are better for you. There is one caveat to this though; it’s not a bad idea to keep a frozen pizza or box of veggie burgers in the freezer for those times when you are just too tired (or too interested in doing something else) to cook.

Forego (Most) Couponing: Coupons often promote spending rather than helping to reduce grocery costs. A lot of coupons are for processed foods and many are offered to encourage you to try new items. Sometimes that new product is great but more often that item will just sit in the cabinet or fridge until it goes bad. By only buying from a list, it’s easier to resist the temptation to use coupons for the latest and greatest new food fad (and it also helps cut down on food waste). That being said, I do spend a few minutes each week checking the digital coupons for Kroger. Occasionally there’s one we can use (usually it’s just the Friday Freebie).

Shop Sales: Grocery stores have sales for a reason – to get you into the store. They know that the majority of folks who come in for those few bargain items will also do the remainder of their shopping there, making up their loss. The real discounts go to those who only buy the bargain items…the bargain items that are on their stock list. To supplement our regular grocery trips (and to pick up items at a better cost), Angie scans the weekly ads from Food Lion and Kroger. If an item that we have on our list is on sale at a greater savings than ALDI, then we’ll get it. If the item can be stored, we’ll get several of them.

Make it Fun: Grocery shopping really can be fun and there are a lot of different strategies to make it so. Set a target goal – like $50 – and see if you can get all the items on your list for that amount. Wager with your significant other (or child) to see who can find the best overall deal. Loser makes dinner. There are even a few side hustles that will pay you to mystery shop your favorite grocery store and last year, we discovered the Shopkick app, which is a great way to earn gift cards just by scanning items as you walk the grocery aisles.

Minimalist Meal Planning

One of the first things everyone does when adopting a minimalist lifestyle is to declutter, and one of the first places we start this process is in the closet. We get rid of everything we can’t, won’t, or don’t wear and give all that stuff to someone who might. What we’re left with is a wardrobe that consists only of items we love (or at least like) and in most cases, each remaining piece can be mixed or matched rather easily. So why do we almost always start with the closet? Because having too many choices in clothing complicates our ability to…well, choose…and doing something as basic as getting dressed becomes an ordeal.

The same holds true in the kitchen. We all need to eat and we should be eating foods that are good for us, but with more than 42,000 items in the average grocery store, making the right food choices can be tricky. How many times have you been lured in by a “new” or “improved” product strategically placed right in your line of sight? And how many times has said product sat in your pantry uneaten because it really wasn’t all that great? It used to happen to us all the time, especially when we were clipping coupons, but now we have adopted what we like to call minimalist meal planning.

Step 1: Declutter the Pantry

Just as we decluttered our closet, we now need to declutter our pantry. Get rid of anything and everything that you know you are never going to eat. And by get rid of it, I mean donate it, give it to a friend, feed it to animals (if possible), or compost it. If you have to throw it away, at least recycle the packaging. Most importantly though, write down (or remember) what it was that you gave away because from this point forward, you’re never going to buy that item again.

Step 2: Make a Favorites List

Next, make a list of meals and snacks that you and your family enjoy eating. This is going to be a flexible list. As you try new foods or get tired of old ones, it will change. Angie and I made our list about a year ago and have since made several changes. Our dinner list now consists of 12 meals that we could eat all the time, including homemade pizza, steamed veggies with rice, mini tacos, our own version of a Chinese noodle bowl with a veggie eggroll, and soup or chili.

Step 3: Create a Staples List

After you have completed your Favorites List, look at each recipe and jot down what ingredients you need to have on hand to make it. Also look in your pantry to see what items you use regularly, though not necessarily in one of your favorite recipes. Oatmeal, dry cereal, dried fruits, granola, rice, dry beans, bread, crackers, condiments, spreads, cheeses, popcorn, coffee, tea, honey, flour, cornmeal, and spices are always on our Staples List.

Once you finish your list, you may notice that many of your favorite meals are just a different combination of the same ingredients. This is great because it can save both time and money. We use a lot of ingredients for multiple purposes. For example, we use whole wheat spaghetti noodles for our Chinese noodle bowl as well as our pasta dishes. We use black beans in our mini tacos and in our chili. Because of this, we buy dry beans in bulk. We buy rice in a 25# box. We buy spaghetti noodles every time we see them on sale for less than 50 cents a box.

Step 4: Set up a Weekly Meal Calendar

A few years ago, we bought a magnetic chalkboard calendar for our refrigerator. Last summer, I spent a week cutting pictures of food out of magazines and laminating them to make our meal planning more of a visual experience. Usually on Friday afternoon before we head to the grocery store, we plan our meals for the week with the help of a few dozen little food magnets. We try to utilize items we already have, especially foods in the freezer, to create the meal plan. We also try to leave one day as a “flex day” in case we’re invited to eat dinner elsewhere or are perhaps too tired to make that night’s meal. The flex day can move about the week as needed and in our house is usually denoted by a sandwich magnet.

Step 5: Go Shopping

If you’ve made your lists and planned your meals from them, shopping is now going to be a breeze since you only need to purchase the missing ingredients to make your selected meals for the week. Try not to stray from the list – you don’t want to clutter up the pantry again – but do leave room for substitutions. We generally write down generic names on our grocery list as a placeholder (like “salad” or “fruit”) so that we can choose specific items by what’s in season or on sale when we get there.

Simply having a game plan for meal planing has helped us understand ourselves, what we will or won’t eat, and even how we like to prepare our meals. It has also helped us maximize our grocery budget and minimize our food waste. When you only buy what you will actually eat, there’s very little reason to create waste.

Do you plan your meals each week? Has it helped to reduce expenses and food waste?


Food Waste Update

The grocery store where “our dumpster” is located is expanding. They have knocked down the side wall and construction workers have been present all week. On the occasions when we have checked the dumpster this week, it has been full of construction debris. 

  • Wasted Food this week: 0 ounces
  • Total Wasted Food in 2018: 38 ounces
  • Rescued Food this week:   0 US pounds
  • Total Food Rescued this year:  184.39 US pounds

Keep up with our food finds in real time by viewing our Food Find Gallery.