In our home grocery shopping is not incidental, it is MONUMENTAL !
We have to take out a back seat in our 15 passenger van to fit a major grocery-shop, and even then we have to use a few seats as well, and then putting all of that food away takes a small army.
Thankfully, I’ve never been on my own in this endeavor. As in everything, the Holy Spirit has come alongside me to comfort, guide, and provide. He equips me with wisdom and understanding that far surpasses my own abilities.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
While I am grocery planning and shopping, I am praying, and I am expecting to find good deals wherever I go. Many times cashiers have been astonished by what I have been able to purchase with just a tiny bit of money, and then I turn right around and give God the glory!
Feeding such a crew three meals a day, seven days a week has forced me to think seriously about food in general. As I have studied and applied hours of concentrated thought, I have come up with some principles, strategies and solutions that have helped me keep meals and snacks from either taking over our lives or becoming a chaotic free-for-all.
Among the principles I have come up with are these:
One: Ignore the fads.
I have lived over half a century now so I have seen “official” dietary guidelines change numerous change numerous times.
Despite what scientists claim, we really don’t understand everything about how our bodies use and absorb nutrients. The Word says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” which to me means that we probably will not be able to totally understand all of the mechanisms God has put in place in our bodies until we reach heaven and will know “even as we are known.” What we thought we knew 10 years ago has changed already–consider this article on the health benefits of bacon, or this article concerning the health benefits of eggs, or this one on why it’s good to eat carbs and here is one that scientifically counters gluten sensitivity (who would have guessed?). Even the trend towards organics is questionable, as a blogger exposes in this post.
When I was growing up everyone talked about the “four food groups.” These consisted of 1. starches, 2. proteins, 3. dairy, and 4. fruits and vegetables. The idea was that eating a variety of foods would help ensure that a person was getting what he/she needed diet-wise. This really stuck with me, partly because it is so simple and easy to remember. This is what I keep in my mind when I am planning meals for my family.
When I think of what we will eat, my first consideration is nutrition, the second is cost, and the third is convenience.
Two: Spread Nutrition throughout the day.
Now, since I am in control of what everyone eats every day (one of the fringe benefits of homeschooling), I can pretty much decide what will be eaten and when, which means that I don’t have to include every part of the four food groups in each meal. For instance, if we have a huge salad or stir-fry for lunch I feel fine skipping veggies at dinner time.
Three: Don’t fight over food choices.
I’m also of the opinion that some people don’t need as much meat as they do vegetables, and vice-versa (interesting article here). Although I still try and provide both choices, I do not nag or chide people who are inclined one way or the other. There are also some vegetables that are universally accepted more than others, so I tend to concentrate on these and ignore the rest unless there is a special occasion.
I also don’t try and “specialize” according to specific tastes–if someone doesn’t like what is prepared, they can go without (for the little ones there is no snacking allowed if they did not eat the entire meal).
Four: Choose “universal” foods.
Actually, universality is important if one wishes to please a crowd as well as feed a crowd. I purchase loads of carrots, apples, and bananas because 1. everyone likes them, and 2. they are usually reliably cheap and available. Also, although there are some who love to eat oatmeal, there are just as many who do not, so I try and find ways to use this cheap, wholesome grain in ways that make it palatable to everyone, such as in granola or granola-type bars, or even in oatmeal breakfast cookies.
Five: Stock up on ingredients instead of prepared foods, even if you have coupons.
I am not a fan of prepared foods unless there is a family illness or emergency or there is a definite benefit (such as when I purchase pancake mix). This is partly why I don’t bother couponing since most coupons are for things such as dinners-in-a-box or can, frozen entrees, and the like. To my mind, it is better to stock up on the basic, flexible ingredients for all meals than to pay extra for packages that are filled with dubious ingredients.
(Note: there are actually times when prepared foods are cheaper than scratch. I’m thinking here of salad mix when it goes on sale, or now that skinless, boneless chicken breasts are less expensive than the bone-in variety, etc. Of course I weigh the nutrition of such choices, but this is just an example of being flexible and taking everything into consideration before making hard, fast rules.)
Here is a list of items we try and have on hand:
- Rice–the big bags are cheapest, and I prefer parboiled to brown rice
- Potatoes–I buy the huge bag of baking potatoes from Sam’s Club, some frozen hash browns, and a 30 lb box of french fries each month
- Pasta–very big around here; we like all types, including ramen
- Flour–both white (which I supplement with wheat germ) and whole wheat
- Corn meal and/or cornbread mix
- Loaf bread and buns (whole-wheat)
- Taco shells
- French bread
- Chips (potato, plain)
Vegetables and fruits:
- Carrots–the large ones are cheaper than the baby ones, although we do go for the convenience at times
- Lettuce or salad (or cole slaw) mix
- Cucumbers, when they are cheap
- Fresh tomatoes–usually roma since they are the cheapest
- Sweet peppers–green unless the red ones are on sale
- Red onion–I buy about one a week since only a few of us enjoy fresh onion, and the red variety is so much easier on the digestive system than the white or even the yellow.
- Canned, diced tomatoes
- Tomato paste (I have found that tomato sauce is a waste of money)
- Canned green beans
- Canned corn
- Frozen veggies such as carrots and peas for soup
- Berries when in season and/or on sale
- Frozen fruits such as berries and cherries
- Melons when in season or on sale
- Canned fruit such as pineapple, peaches, and pears
- Whole milk–here is just one link which expounds the benefits of dairy fat
- Real butter–see the link above
- Sliced Colby or any other “orange” cheese
- Shredded “orange” cheese (we purchase our shredded cheeses in huge bags then repackage in smaller bags and freeze)
- Shredded mozzarella
- Yogurt for special or when on sale
- Sour cream
- Cottage and cream cheese when called for
- Hamburger (we precook it in bulk and the pack it in meal-sized bags in the freezer)
- Chicken (boneless-skinless breasts oven-roasted and in bags in the freezer)
- Hamburger patties
- Smoked sausage
- Hot dogs (we buy these in bulk, repackage, and freeze)
- Breakfast sausage
- Dried legumes
- Canned legumes
- Peanut butter
- Pork roast and chops
- Stew meat
Condiments, spices, sauces, and baking:
- Ranch dressing
- Barbeque sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
- Soy sauce
- Raw apple cider vinegar
- Lemon juice
- Blackstrap molasses
- Pancake syrup
- Jelly or jam
- Brown gravy mix (in bulk from Sam’s it is very cheap, otherwise it works out to something like $40 a pound in those little packets!)
- Chicken and beef broth cubes or powder
- Canned cream soup
- Onion powder
- Garlic powder
- Taco seasoning (again, in bulk from Sam’s)
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Instant, dry yeast
- Wheat germ
- Cooking oil
- Baking spray
- Curry seasoning
- Brown sugar
- Powdered sugar
- Cake mixes (only if they are $1 or less on sale)
- Chocolate chips
- Other dried fruit such as raisins, mangoes and cherries
I do occasionally purchase cookies if they are 9 cents per ounce or less, and these are usually packed in lunches for work (the rest of us enjoy home-baked or graham crackers).
Five: Keep a running list of dishes that may be fixed with the staples you keep on hand.
Here are just a few of the choices:
- Cereal and toast w/butter and jelly
- Cheese omelets and toast w/butter and jelly
- Scones with fruit and tea
- Waffles (with wheat germ and sometimes fruit) with butter, syrup, and milk
- Muffins with fruit and tea or milk
- Bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns
- Huevos rancheros
- Biscuits and gravy
- Egg and cheese muffins
Dinners (this means lunch or supper):
- Hamburger beef Stroganoff
- Taco bar
- Pizza (homemade with crust from scratch)
- Hamburgers and fries
- Beef gravy over mashed potatoes or rice
- Fried canned salmon croquettes and fries
- Beans and cornbread
- Mexican beans and sides (such as tortillas, salsa, cheese, sour cream, fresh tomato, etc.)
- EZ, PZ chicken, cheese and rice (a recipe my oldest daughter made up that her children just love, and so do her younger siblings)
- Meatball soup
- Pasta with vegetable sauce
- “Cheezie brains”–essentially macaroni with butter and cheese, an absolute favorite with the little girls
- Cold pasta salad
- Roasted potatoes with sausage
- Fried potatoes with sausage
- Homemade chili
- Potato soup
- Mac and cheese
- Salad with meat, eggs, and cheese
- Chinese fried rice
- Sandwiches of every type (including pbj’s, baloney (yes, we eat baloney and we like it!), lunch meat, tuna, chicken salad, egg salad, etc.)
- Chicken pot pie
- Chicken noodle soup from scratch
- Meat, such as roast, barbeque-baked chicken, or chops, with stuffing or potatoes
Most of our meals are one-dish, but we do include fresh or raw veggies, salad, bread, etc.
Snacks and sweets:
- Homemade cookies and bars of all types
- Cheese sticks
- Fresh fruit
- Carrots and other fresh veggies
- Quick breads such as banana, pumpkin, and lemon
- Rice pudding
- Carrot cake
- Graham crackers
- Corn chips and salsa
- Cinnamon rolls
Six: Water is the best beverage.
As for drinks, we have a reverse osmosis system in our house (ours looks a lot like this one, only with two tanks for our large family), so our water is almost heavenly–which makes it the preferred drink at all times. Juice and pop are rare treats for us, which also cuts down on the cost of meals, although we do purchase bottled water and an occasional special drink for work lunches.
Seven: Make a master plan.
Now, I don’t know about you, but too many choices make my brain swim. I think it has happened more since I’ve been enjoying Pinterest, you know, all of those great photos of yummy foods that get your tummy rumbling just around meal times.
This is why I have a “master schedule.” This marvelous tool gives me a general idea of what I should fix for those times when I really, really don’t have even a clue. The wonderful thing is that, if I want to change it up at any time (such as when I discover an amazing recipe on Pinterest that is simply irresistible), I can!
Eight: Have a good attitude about shopping.
Instead of looking at marketing as a chore, I consider a blessing and a treat. There is simply something about facing the budgeting challenge, of ferreting out deals, of bringing home foods that are both delicious and wholesome, that feeds me.
She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
Eight: Know your prices.
Grocery stores are set up like a huge battlefield with grocery vendors all vying for our attention and your money. In order to make our money stretch we need to be armed with a list of the least amount we need to pay for each item (mine is largely in my head now that I have been shopping this way for over two decades). Of course, the rock-bottom can change over time, but you can adjust as necessary. If this is new to you, read this link about creating a “price book.”
Nine: Know your stores (and storekeepers).
Unless I am unable to shop efficiently due to extraordinary trials or blessings, I try and get the best deals by shopping multiple stores. Each grocer has its own personality; one specializes in loss-leaders, while another has overall lower prices, or one deals in bulk, while another offers smaller amounts but at cheaper prices. I try and get to know each store and its tendencies, such as:
- Where the mark-downs are located and the best day of the week and time of the day to shop for these items
- The cheapest store (based on both sale and non-sale prices) for things like bread and milk
- The layout of the store so that I can shop quickly and efficiently
- I also get to know the staff.
At Safeway I know the folks in the meat and produce departments by name, and it is often that they will let me in on deals and services that may not be obvious to others. One time this helped me to stuff my freezer full of marinated whole chickens for half the price of regular chicken!
At this store (since I spend so much money there) I also am considered a “preferred customer,” and I have the card to prove it! This means when they run out of loss-leader items I can substitute a comparable item for the same price. I also have the number to the manager if I have a question or problem.
At Sam’s Club I know most of everyone, especially since two of our children worked there. Just the other day I had a detailed discussion with the person responsible for the Club Pickup and was glad to hear some of my constructive input as to the whole process at her store. In return she helped me to understand the whole process even better than I did before.
Special tip: Whenever a price on at item at Sam’s Club ends in a “1” it means this is the lowest price. I have recently found specialty hamburgers, pickles, and salsa at half of the price of the regular brand by following this rule (notice the stack of cereal boxes in the photo below? They were items with a “1” and turned out to be half the regular price).
Ten: Shop according to your pantry list.
Having staples on hand is vitally important for consistent home cooking. Before I go out I go through both my pantry and my weekly meals list to make sure I have everything on hand for our meals. I have also created a printed master list when I am deciding on my choices for each shopping trip.
Eleven: Check the deals online before setting out.
Most grocers have online ads, even Sam’s Club has a listing on their discounted items. I use these ads very carefully, however, since a deal is not a deal if it is for items that don’t stretch very well (such as frozen dinners, etc.) or on things we don’t normally eat. This is why I check my meals list and pantry first.
Twelve: Weigh the savings with the time and gas it will cost.
Frugality is great as long as it does not become a slave-master. For instance, what does it matter that a grocery store offers chicken at 15 cents cheaper per pound if it takes an hour and an extra tank of gas to get there?
It doesn’t matter that stay-at-home moms aren’t paid by the hour; our time is valuable, too. The deals I look for are ones that can be snatched up while I’m on other errands or on the driving circuit of my regular shopping day.
Thirteen: If at all possible, try and shop early in the day.
This is important for a number of reasons, one being that many of the markdowns are readily available at this time. Another reason is that I am fresh, and, when I was shopping with a lot of tiny ones, they were fresh, too! Shopping during this time of day means that there aren’t as many people around, so it is less stressful and easier to get to know the shopkeepers and the shelves are fully stocked and not picked-over.
Fourteen: Keep a tally of what is spent.
My grocery budget is not open-ended; it is very finite! This is why, even though I know my prices and have a target as to what I want to spend, I also keep a tally as I am shopping. When I am planning I try and leave a little bit of cushion for a few impulse-items and unexpected deals as well.
Fifteen: take advantage of services such as Sam’s Club Pickup and Walmart Free Grocery Pickup.
Back in the dark ages I used to throw all the kiddos in one cart and haul another behind, often while big and pregnant. Boy, did I get some stares, even some really rude laughter, but I counted it as a fun time together with my sweet ones. Still, it was a lot of really hard work. I’m glad there are more options for moms these days.
Actually, I have been doing what was originally called “click n’ pull” at Sam’s for almost 10 years now, and it has been marvelous! While it takes an hour or so to do a good, thorough order online, the savings in time and energy the next day is worth it. Sam’s has made it even easier since you can scan your membership card as you enter the store and they have it ready to pick up as you are ready to exit (just look for the kiosk at the entrance to the store). Some Sam’s locations allow you to drive your vehicle up, wand your card, and have associates meet you at the curb. Walmart meets you at the curb and loads your groceries up for you as well!
Oh, and if you forget to pre-order some items, Sam’s Club has developed an app that allows you to scan the barcode of items you wish to purchase with your smart phone, pay for them, and then show the electronic receipt to the attendant at the door, allowing you to skip the cashier line altogether. What a boon for those times when you have a fussy, nursing infant and a toddler or two!
Sixteen: Above all, shop in faith.
This is probably the most important element to my shopping. My whole life belongs to God, even my groceries. I trust Him to lead and guide me, and I believe that He is more than willing to meet my physical needs.
The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing.
While I am shopping I am praying and talking with Him, and when I am blessed I am praising Him, and when I return home with a van full of blessings the whole family rejoices!
I also look for opportunities to witness, encourage, and help others as the Lord leads. This has resulted in prayers, hugs, and even sometimes tears when someone is grieving. One day I was able to share the entire Gospel to a young cashier who had never, ever heard about Jesus and was absolutely amazed by the story. Stay-at-home moms have some of the greatest opportunities to witness, especially since we don’t have to worry about what the boss may or may not think about sharing our faith!
So, there you have it, albeit an incomplete compilation of everything I know about grocery shopping, but neither you nor I have time for a complete mind-dump!
(Oh, and just for fun you really should watch Jamerrill Stewart’s YouTube video on grocery shopping–it looks very familiar!)
In fact, I’m sure I have forgotten a number of things, so feel free to share what you have learned, too, since I am always looking for new ideas…