Friday, October 26

How I Grocery Shop and Menu Plan

A few key things play into my grocery shopping habits.  First, as I assume it is for most households, finances are key.  When times have been very tight, I've taken grocery shopping on as a challenge.  I take notes of which stores mark down items that I use and on which days.  One grocery store we frequented when we lived in the city marked down produce on Tuesday mornings and I could pick up bananas perfect for bread or smoothies or a big bag of expensive mushrooms for a song.  Speaking of bananas, they mash and freeze in zip-lock baggies perfectly and it is easy to break off a chunk for recipes.  Anytime I find them cheap, I process them this way.

Tight finances also affected the way I wrote out a weekly menu, which I've been mostly doing for years and years because it saves my sanity with a busy household and busy days.  If you're watching your pennies, then scan the weekly ads and jot down which items are a steal and make a menu off of those items.  If I knew I had a chicken in my freezer that I had bought at a discount, I'd plan at least three meals off that one bird.  Even with our large family today, a whole chicken is good for at least two meals and then the carcass is boiled to make broth which I can and keep in the pantry for soup or risotto bases.

These days our pennies aren't quite so pinched, but as we're small business owners with a business directly tied to the housing market, I am still keenly aware of the finances I am spending, knowing that our income fluctuates from week to week, month to month and year to year.  Long ago I came to appreciate food bargains and quality and that affection has not dulled.

When making a weekly menu, I take into consideration the busy-ness of our days.  For instance, every Tuesday we visit the chiropractor at four, and so I know I need a made ahead meal or a quick to assemble meal on Tuesdays since we eat shortly after getting home.  I'll have at least a few meals or parts of a meal that the children can make by themselves.  When oatmeal is on the menu, which it is nearly every week, one of the older three children make it and serve it for breakfast.  Annaliese is adapt at making desserts and has been teaching Andrew how to follow a recipe, which saves me the majority of the teaching - I just hang around to supervise and add in any nuggets of wisdom regarding the recipe that are useful. :)

We're blessed to have a food thrift store run by our church that I shop at weekly.  The thrift store purchases near date or excess food items from the big chains for a discount and then sells those products at discount to the public.  The funds go to feeding the hungry in our city, so it is a wonderful enterprise to support and it blesses our family as well. This morning the children and I purchased 24oz. Greek yogurts at 3/$2.  Besides lunches, yogurt can be used in muffins and other baked goods and smoothies.  I also found a few packages of organic waffles for $1.50 and Finagle Bagels for the freezer for quick breakfasts post baby.  Some packages of organic salad greens with herbs were $1.50 and so extra salads will be added to my menu this week.  UDI'S gluten free bread was $3 a loaf and so I bought all the loaves they had, knowing they keep great in the freezer and Udi's is Sean's preferred gf sandwich bread.

Besides the quick list of items I jot down under each weekly menu of items needed for the recipes, I shop the thrift store for good deals which I add into future menus.  We also buy a few gallons of milk each week from a local farm at the cost of $2.50 gallon.  Sean sometimes helps out at the farm which provides a work/milk exchange.  Eggs come from our biddies out back most of the year.  We usually have to purchase eggs in December/January because our winter days here in upstate NY are so short and dark.  Hopefully this year we'll be able to move the coop closer to the house which will enable us to have a light inside for longer daylight for the birds, which causes them to produce more eggs.  For the staples of our groceries I shop at Aldi's.  Things like sour cream, fresh mozz, brown sugar, dried fruit, almonds, German sausages and muesli all come from Aldi's.  Organic sugar I purchase from Walmart because it it the best price I've found, even cheaper than ordering it in bulk through a food co-op we belong to.  Bulk organic rice, buckwheat and other dry goods are ordered through the co-op, which makes a delivery at a home not too far from here once a month.   Bulk means at least 25# at a time.  Bulk goods I store in these bags inside plain 'ol hardware store plastic 5gal. buckets with tight lids.  I have had no problems with pests or food going bad.  It costs $10 a year to belong to the co-op and usually there is some sort of gas surcharge each month for transport since gas prices have been so high.  I don't mind the surcharge because it would cost me that much in gas to drive to the health food store, where I'd end up paying more for the same products.  Belonging to this co-op cuts out the middle man and so saves a bundle.  Here is the website, if you'd like to see if there is one of these co-ops in your area.

For baking, I mostly use brown rice flour and buckwheat flour that I grind at home using this mill.  It is so much cheaper grinding our own grains for baking than it is to buy specialty gf flours.

Keeping and supplying a full pantry whenever deals are available or products are in season also saves us a bundle on food.  I bought organic paste tomatoes from an certified organic Amish farmer and canned sauce and crushed tomatoes to suppliment what we grew.  Most of our tomato plants got a blight, which has been a big problem in our area the last few years.  As soon as we saw signs of it, we picked the fruit, roasted the green tomatoes with lots of garlic, onions, hot peppers and cilantro and canned jars and jars of green salsa from them.  It is delicious and it is a good thing we all like it because there are about ninety jars of green salsa in the pantry!  We use this with nachos for snacks and in Mexican dishes.  Whenever I come across a great deal on produce or fruit that can be canned I make time to can it.  Our apple trees were hit by a late frost this spring and produced nearly nothing, but we were able to pick and can sauce, apple slices and cider from scrounging in nearby fields and hedge rows for apples that would have gone unused.  You can contact local CSA's or famers and ask if they have any produce in excess or that is left in the fields.  Always offer to pay, but many times you may be able to pick what is left to rot but still in usable condition for minimal cost or no cost at all.  We have quart jars on our pantry shelves of nectarines, green and yellow beans, sauce, salsa, beets, cider, dried fruit, beef jerky, vinegar, chicken and beef stock, honey, apple cider vinegar, applesauce, pie filling, jams and maple syrup - that we've been blessed to produce here on our wee homestead.  Excess sweet peppers were stuffed and frozen for meals and the rest chopped and frozen for stir-frys, quiches, curries...  Hot peppers we chop and drop into a jar with vinegar and water and a pinch of salt that we keep in the fridge.  These last just about forever and are a great addition to stews, curries, Mexican dishes, rice dishes or whatever else you desire a kick of spice in.

Meat for our family comes from yearly butchering of a cow, pig and chickens.  Sean also hunts so venison often rounds out our meat supply. We're short of pork and chicken this year because the hens we tried raising for meat turned out to not be the best birds for meat (barred rocks) and our pig was raised off site and butchered a month or two too early because the person raising it for us was tired of raising it.  I'm looking for a good supply for grass raised chickens since chicken is my favorite meat to cook with.  After Thanksgiving I'll also stock the freezer with an extra grass raised/hormone/antibiotic free turkeys that our local grocery store has at discount.

Feeding six growing children and a hardworking husband is a daunting task, especially since the kids easily out-eat me nowadays.  The trick I've found is having a *filler* available at each meal.  I collect recipes for rice dishes, potato dishes and salads since those seem to be the best and most nutritious fillers at a reasonable or low cost.  Whole grain gf biscuits, the recipe quadrupled are also a great filler as are recipes which use cornmeal, like breads, cakes or polenta.

Mexican meals like quesadillas or tacos are plumped up with lots of Spanish rice or black beans, soups are filling with plentiful sides of cornbread, pasta dishes are filling of themselves but go well with side salads.  Potato dishes go well with meat dishes and usually, meat in our home, even with freezers full, are served as a part of the meal and not the main attraction.  Chicken might be sliced and served on a huge salad, ground beef can be made into a stroganoff and served over pasta and rice, steak sliced and served in fajitas with lots of beans, onions, peppers and rice and so on...

I hope this answers the questions I've received lately here and on facebook.  For more reference, you can search the search box on this blog's sidebar for "meal cost" or "menu cost" will bring up some posts from September 2009 when I tracked how little I could spend on our meals for the day.  Any tips to add in?  I'd love to read your suggestions in the comments. :)



Raising Trees said...

Thanks, that was a great blog. We have a huge freezer that I use when we find, especially meat, on sale. We miss Aldi and the Grocery Thrift store! Learned a lot about canning this year! I have strawberries, peaches, apples and oranges canned right now. Haven't tried my hand at veggies, great idea. We are headed into a wonderful winter growing season here... basically all that we could grow in a NY summer! ;-) Miss you guys too! K

Anonymous said...

wow great post, thank you for sharing.

Kim said...


Wow! I will have to chew on this for awhile, a lot of information to digest and glean from.

Thanks for all your wisdom on how to save money yet provide good food for your family.

I think I will print this one off for beside reading. :)

By Grace Alone,

Mrs. B said...

Hi Hannah! First, I miss you! Second, love this post.

One recipe we like that is meatless is lentil sloppy joes. Pretty sure I found the recipe on vegweb.

I think we have spoiled our kids by catering to their taste buds way too much. Now that we find ourselves Needing to be a bit more frugal, I sure wish I had workd harder to broaden their palate. For example, it would save a lot to be able to make meals with beans as the main ingredient, but 2/3 of the family won't eat it.

One thin I would like to know is, How have you dealt with finicky eaters? Do you have any in the family?

Abbey said...

Thank you for sharing! I was not able to go to the link to see what bags you were using to store bulk grain. what were they called? Thank you,


Anonymous said...

One question.. you mentioned beef Jerkey. How do you make it, recipe please? and do you have a de-hydrator that you like?

I know you mentioned Aldi. I used to love them.. but we got a Bottom dollar down here.. and LOVE IT ! the prices are better than aldi.. and they do not seem to use as much salt as I noticed Aldi does.

sue in NJ