Keeping groceries within our budget can be a big challenge for us. We love to cook and eat and our grocery store spending can easily get out of hand. When we are really tightening our belts I can get our budget down to $200/300 per month but that isn't very sustainable for us. We set our budget at $450 which gives us enough to eat wholesome foods, create a couple recipes and maybe splurge on ice cream.
Top Tips for Grocery Shopping on a Budget
Buy everything you can at the start of each month.
When I make my monthly menus I also make my whole months worth (four in total) of grocery lists. I put everything I can on the list for week one. Anything non-perishable goes on the first shopping list for the month. That way I spend the bulk of my grocery budget up front and I can keep that in mind the rest of the month. This really helps be know approximately how much I have left to spend each week. You can read about this in depth here.
Only buy what is totally necessary from the organic section.
I used to buy all organic but our spending dropped significantly when I started buying conventional again and only buying what was totally necessary from the organic section. This summer we'll have a big garden planted and the local farmers' market will be up and running so we will be able to eat more organic vegetables then! I just can't afford to buy them from the store at this time in our life.
The most important things to buy organic are thin skinned fruits (apples, peaches, nectarines, grapes), thin skinned or exposed vegetables (bell peppers, celery, spinach, kale, collard greens, lettuce), potatoes, tomatoes, berries (especially strawberries and blueberries), red meat, high fat dairy (milk, butter). Organic dairy isn't in our budget so I buy the Sunshine brand which is rbST free.
Wash and store fruits and vegetables properly.
Always make sure to wash and store your fruits and veggie immediately. I soak leafy greens and fresh herbs in a cold water bath, wrap them in paper towels and store them in ziploc bags. Quickly rinse fruits and store them in the proper drawer or in a fruit bowl on the counter. When I do this I find that the veggies last longer because they're stored properly and I'm more apt to use them because they're already washed! Likewise when the fruits are clean and on the counter in a nice bowl I use them quickly because they look appealing and are at my fingertips.
Buy in bulk whenever possible.
I buy everything I can in bulk. Mostly I buy dried fruit, flour, olive oil, dried beans, corn meal, rice, spices and herbs, oats, nuts, vanilla and honey. Even buying the bag of organic potatoes vs. individual potatoes can save quite a bit! The cost per volume is almost always better when you are buying in bulk.
Be thoughtful about what you stock up on.
I used to stock up on everything... I'd just buy three of things when they were on sale. But I found that cans of this or that sat around forever so I was actually wasting money up front (rather than saving it). The main things I stock up on now are broths (I love the low sodium, organic Trader Joe's brand of chicken and veggie broths. I buy a case of each when we go!) I also stock up on cheeses like goat cheese, Parmesan, mozzarella and cheddar. As long as the cheese is sealed in it's original packaging it should last for quite some time. Trader Joe's is also a great place to buy cheese! Now when we go to Costco we only buy household products and skip the majority of the food. It's so easy to buy things you don't need because they're such a good deal!
Buy and freeze.
The main things I buy and freeze are whole grain bread and chicken. In fact I only buy bread when it's on sale. Often whole grain bread can be 50% off when it's close to the expiration date. I'll buy two and freeze them both. I try to only buy chicken when it's on sale, and usually in larger quantities like the "fryer packs", then I divide it up into dinner size ziploc bags, write the date on them and pop them in the freezer. Because the menu planning is done for the month all at once I have plenty of time to see what I already have and pull it out to defrost in the fridge.
Make one, freeze one.
One big thing I do is to double recipes and freeze one. I especially try to do this with meals that are inexpensive like my Tuna Noodle Casserole, Enchiladas, and lasagnas. But I also do it with Chocolate Chip Cookies, homemade pizzas... anything that will freeze well. This gives us convenient, inexpensive meals and it doesn't add much time to make two instead of one.
Skip the boneless, skinless variety of chicken breasts.
You can save a ton by buying bone in, skin on breasts instead of boneless skinless breasts and they cook so much better! A little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper roasted on a cookie sheet at 375 degrees F for about 45 minutes and you'll have the most tender, flavorful chicken breasts. Once they've cooled a tiny bit just remove the skin and cut the meat from the bone. I shred these for enchiladas and salads, dice them for chicken salad sandwiches, etc.
Use what you have.
This may seem obvious but it's easy to get lazy when making menus and not get up to look to see if you already have a can of tomatoes in the pantry or a bottle of red wine vinegar in the fridge. A few dollars here and there really adds up. Because the menu planning and grocery list making is all done at once (with my method) that means you only have to search through the back of the pantry/spice cabinet/freezer once each month!
Also we always have a couple of "pantry meals" towards the end of the month when we try to use the other half of the jar of pasta sauce, the half used box of pasta, the milk that's about to expire, the vegetables on the edge of perishing. They aren't always the most creative, fun, or prettiest meals but it feels good to know that we used everything we could and didn't waste anything!
Keep the season in mind.
It's always less expensive (not too mention better for the environment) to buy what's in season and grown locally. During the fall and winter our grocery spending always goes up since it's harder to buy seasonal/local during the colder months. I try to pinch pennies but using hearty herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary in the fall and using dried herbs in the winter. I avoid buying things like fresh tomatoes, tropical fruits, etc. in the colder months. In just a few weeks we will be planting all of our vegetables in the ground and then we'll be counting the days until our garden is in full bloom!
Edit your recipes.
I always try to edit recipes by omitting things that I don't feel are totally necessary. I cut out things that are expensive or specialty items that are hard to find or will cost too much. I do this each month when I'm making the grocery list... when I come across an item I know is pricey I simply make the choice whether or not we can afford it within our budget. A lot of times I cut out the fresh herbs like basil or mint during the fall and winter, and if it's appropriate, I substitute with less expensive options like flat leaf parsley. I also substitute expensive items like Gruyere cheese for a little blend of mozzarella and Parmesan. It does effect the recipes to some extent but I can't afford to spend $2.50 on a handful of fresh herbs that are a garnish.
Shop at more than one grocery store.
I have to admit, I hate this step, but it's a necessary one. For some reason I hate going to Safeway but they often have items that are less expensive than our favorite grocery store. I get everything I can from our main store but set aside a few things on our list from Safeway or another store... I buy all of our wine at the drug store where it's usually a couple dollars less! To be honest I usually make Kyle do the Safeway run because he can do it on his way home from work and I don't have to drag Gigi to another store.
Skip the processed foods.
Processed foods are expensive! The only things we buy from the middle of the grocery store (where processed foods are kept) are bread, canned/jarred tomato products, frozen berries, wine/beer, vinegars, mustard, coffee and tea. I never buy crackers or cookies or things like that. You can save a lot of money by making your own salad dressings, dry rubs or marinades. My favorite salad dressing is the Caesar Salad Dressing in this recipe.
Top Tips for Fun and Efficient Grocery Shopping (with kids)
Make it as fun as possible.
I don't always look forward to going grocery shopping. In fact, sometimes I dread it. But I try to keep in mind that grocery shopping is something I will be doing every week for the rest of my life so I may as well make the best of it. Also, if I'm not having fun, neither will my kids. When I am in a good mood about it, organized, and upbeat, it usually ends up being a pretty fun errand. It's a chance to teach Gigi about food, interact with other people, and do something that benefits my family.
Plan menus by the month.
By menu planning by the month (as opposed to week by week) I save a ton of time. The time is spent in one big chunk up front at the start of each month and the first grocery shopping trip is the most time intensive, but the rest of the month the trips are short and sweet. I just pick up fresh fruit and produce, meat, eggs and dairy. After the first big trip we usually go out for a little lunch or I plan something simple like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We always come home hungry and since I'm spending the time putting away our groceries and washing our veggies it works best if I have something simple planned. You can read about monthy menu planning in depth here.
Don't give kids food at the store.
With the exception of a slice of apple which Gigi's favorite produce guy slices for her, I don't let her have any food at the store. I know a lot of parents who give their kids treats upon entering the store, or at the end of shopping as a bribe and I don't doubt that it works well but we stick to our French Kids Eat Everything ways and I don't let her snack and I don't use food as a bribe or reward (sometimes I wish I did). Because I've been really consistant about this Gigi doesn't usually ask for food while we are shopping. Occasionally she'll spot a squeeze packet of baby food and will say, "I need dat! Peeeeeease Mama? I ask nicely." But I stick to my rule and tell her, "No but as soon as we get home we're going to have _________ (something fun) for lunch!" She usually handles this just fine. If she gets frustrated, I talk to her about how great lunch is going to be, how I got strawberry jam for her sandwiches, etc. Just talking about food she's going to get to have is enough of a distraction.
Give kids a food related activity.
A great activity for kids at the store is to give them their own list. Gigi was always grabbing mine and didn't want to give it up when I actually needed it. So I make her her own list with little drawings of items are on our list for the week/month. I draw little pictures and write the names of the foods next to them... I try to focus on new foods that we're introducing. Then I give her a pen and she "helps". The list usually gets tossed aside or torn into pieces by the end of our big trip to the store but it buys quite a bit of time and it gives us a chance to talk about new foods we are introducing that month! (You can download her March list below but I'm not exactly an accomplished artist)
Illustrated Grocery List...