Brief History

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When I first started living out on my own, one of the things I enjoyed (and still do) doing was cooking my own meals. If you are taking on the frugal lifestyle as a newbie, this might be a whole skillset for you to learn. Cooking your own meals is not only fun and relaxing, you will soon find that the food you cook in your own kitchen can be much better than most anything you can find at most restaurants. If there is interest, I will start writing more articles about cooking and grocery shopping in general, but I thought this might be a good starting point.

I knew there was a problem with my methods when I started having to clean out my refrigerator every week or two when I went grocery shopping. I would throw out lots of extras that I bought, lots of extras I bought without a game plan, and lots I bought without any sort of thinking whatsoever.

I found that my major flaw was that I was shopping sometimes without a proper grocery list, and many times, I was shopping without a list at all.

So, a few years ago, I decided to fix this, and come up with a proper plan for grocery shopping. Hopefully, you can adapt this to your needs, and do the same thing.

Do NOT Shop without a List

This is probably the most important thing you can do. Countless times, I have decided to just go grocery shopping on the way home from work. I was a good cook, and could plan a menu in my head, so why should I bother making a list?

There were some very good reasons to do so, I found out.

When you make your list, you do this at home, when you can look into your pantry and refrigerator, and check for duplicates. There are several things that every kitchen should always have in stock. I will write more about this later in the week, but obviously, these are things that you probably don’t need to buy.

I found that without my list, I would buy these essentials over and over to the point where I had many duplicates of them in my kitchen. Sure, it’s okay to have them in stock, but i probably didn’t buy them at a sale price, so I had lost hard earned money to stock my shelves. I found that I had TONS of:

  • Crushed tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Rice
  • Chicken Broth

All things that I could have saved money on by planning before I shopped.

I also found that if I wasn’t diligent in my planning, I would buy stupid things that didn’t make any sense while I was shopping. Cookies, ice cream, candy, and a whole list of things that I don’t even like to eat, but sound good when you are aimlessly strolling around in the grocery store.

So, rule 1. Make a list. But how do you make a list that makes sense?

Properly Planning a Grocery List

So, you realize your system is flawed. You start making a list, but you still have extras of everything at the end of the week that get thrown out. What you have to do is plan your menus that make sense.

Before I went with the high tech method, I was doing everything in my field notes . Here’s how I would break it down.

  1. On the left page, I would list the days of the week. Under each day of the week, I would list the menu items for the day. You should be specific, too. An entry like: Spaghetti with meat sauce, Garlic bread, Red Wine. This will give you a good starting point to plan that day’s meal.
  2. On the right page, start making a list of the things you need to make those dishes. This is where the art of the grocery list comes in. We will talk about this in a minute.
  3. On the right hand side, start making headings based on the departments in the grocery store. Things like: Dairy, Meat, Produce, Condiments, etc. You will have to do this a few times before it starts making sense. Although there is some grunt work here, this is a sure way to save time on your trips. You might even find that there are several specialty stores you need to visit. Put these items under an appropriate header.

Now, when you go to the grocery store, you can fly through the aisles, confidently buying all the things you need. That confidence in your planning skills will also go a long way in making sure you don’t buy extra bags of chips or cookies that sound like such a great idea.

Where is the art you promised?

Okay, grasshopper. Once you have gotten to this point, you will be saving a great deal of money on your food bill. This is where you might find that there is still one snag. On each grocery shopping adventure, you still have things to throw away: half a bag of carrots, half a head of lettuce, two tomatoes, and five nasty old potatoes. While you can compost this stuff, it would be better to be end up with none left at all.

Now, what you need to do is plan your meals strategically, so that there is as much overlap as you can muster in your list without having to buy extra that will spoil. Since there are no real rules to how to do this, and each family is different, I will demonstrate my line of thinking for a week. This week, in fact.

This week’s meal plan!

  • Sunday – We are having guests for a late lunch, so I decided to make barbecued chicken sandwiches. This means I will have grilled chicken leftover, and a few nice buns. I will also need to buy carrots for the sandwiches (let me know if you want the recipe and why I am adding carrots), cilantro, and jalapenos. The rest of the stuff, I have in my well stocked kitchen.
  • Monday – Since I have leftover chicken, and some nice buns, let’s do chicken salad for lunch. Oh! And I have some turmeric in my well stocked kitchen, it will be an interesting salad. For dinner, I will be in a rush, so I am gonna make spaghetti. I will need a green pepper. I have some cans of sauce, and cheese, so I need hamburger and italian sausage. I will buy extra hamburger to grill on wednesday, and since I will be buying sausage, let’s make pizzas on thursday!
  • Tuesday – That spaghetti was good. I have leftover sauce, so let’s have rigatoni with that leftover sauce for lunch. For dinner, let’s go crazy and make chile verde, a pot of beans, and a pot of rice. So I need pork steaks, ortegas, and crushed tomatoes (but I already have these). I can make tortillas from scratch with the flour I have, so I only need to buy two things. Wow! Cheap!
  • Wednesday – Wow. I made a pot of chile verde last night. less than ten bucks later, and I have enough to feed an army. Let’s make a burrito for lunch. The rest of the chile verde is going into the freezer. I can eat that for several sunday breakfasts. I bought hamburger earlier in the week, so I will grill those. I need to buy buns, a head of lettuce, and I got some tomatoes from the neighbor. I have cheese in my well stocked kitchen, so, I just need buns.
  • Thursday – I have a head of lettuce, so let’s make a salad. I might as well make a big one, and have it for dinner tonight, and maybe tomorrow’s lunch. Tonight, we will make pizzas. I only need a few things for pizza: provolone, mozarella, pepperoni, and olives. I have parmesan, sauce, flour and yeast for the dough already. I will serve salad with dinner.
  • Friday – You guessed it. Leftover pizza for lunch. For dinner, let’s go nuts and make a pot roast. I already have the carrots, onions, and potatoes. All I need is a roast, and a can of beef broth (I used my last one last week.) That salad is still good, so let’s have that. I also made bread on wednesday for 62 cents a loaf , so let’s warm some up, butter it, and serve that too! Man, we eat so good around here!
  • Saturday – I have some potatoes left, and a small pot of mashed potatoes is so easy to make. I will mash those, and make open faced pot roast sandwiches for lunch. Hmm.. while I have potatoes boiling, I will reserve some to make a potato salad, since I have everything i need already. For dinner, I am gonna gamble. I will go to the butcher shop, and see what cuts of meat are on sale, and whatever looks good, I will buy it, and cook it up. Whoa! Pork spare ribs for $1.19 a pound. yes! I have beans left over from that pot of beans the other day, so let’s make bbq beans. So, we’re eating bbq spareribs, potato salad, bbq beans, and fresh bread. Less than ten bucks to feed my family a killer dinner. This would cost me more than sixty bucks if we went out.

Okay, I realize that this line of thinking is very much geared towards my situation and my family, but with just a little bit of goofing around, you can easily own this line of thinking and your family can eat like kings, on the cheap, and end up throwing away a very minimal amount of stuff at the end of the week. And, you should be composting anyway, so you can just put it on the pile.

The High Tech Method


So, I grocery shopped this way for years. I used my handy field notes book (which goes everywhere with me) for such a purpose. At some point, I started pursuing developing software for the iPod Touch. The reason I picked up the device was to practice writing an app to automate my grocery shopping style. It turns out that someone else had tackled that problem with an app called Grocery Zen. I purchased this app for $1.99, and it was everything I hoped it would be, so I ended up cutting my development teeth on another project.

Conclusions already!

So, yes, over the years, I transformed my grocery shopping into yet another adventure in planning, frugality, and creativity. I realize that some of these ideas might be a little daunting to newcomers to frugality, and that many of you might not have the cooking skills to hit the ground running, but please stick with me.

In the next few weeks, I will be posting a few hours that will make your leftovers much more interesting, and the smells wafting from your kitchen making your neighbors’ stomachs rumble.

Until then, let me know if you have any questions on cooking in general. Thanks!