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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tips for Easier Grocery Shopping and Dinner Preparations

Tips for easier grocery shopping and dinner preparations

I'm the kind of person that does not like to go to the grocery store more than once a week. It's not that I don't like my grocery store, I actually really like it, but I find grocery shopping to be something that takes away from my puppy-cuddling-in-front-of-the-tv-time. Therefore, to maximize my shopping trips (not to mention my budget) I am a planner.

This is how I feel if I go to the store without a list. Total brain wipe.
To give you an idea of how I plan for my grocery trips and my meals, here's some tips and tricks I use:
Use the weekly ads. I get several ads a week, but the ones I concentrate my attention on are Publix and Penn-Dutch. For those of you outside of South Florida, Publix is a general grocery store. Their prices are sometimes a little higher than other stores in my area (such as Winn-Dixie or Walmart) but I like their selection (so I don't have to go to a second store to complete my list), quality, service  (I can always find someone to help me locate items on my shopping list and they never balk at my load of coupon), and location. I have a Publix less than half a mile from our apartment, which is critical when bringing home ice cream in August. Penn-Dutch is a local grocery store with two locations in my area (I try my best to buy from smaller companies when possible… not Walmart). They have amazing prices on produce, meat, and seafood (wild caught salmon for $4.99/lb, sushi grade tuna for $5.99/lb!) a good wine selection, some more unusual items (goat meat anyone?), but they don't have all my normal pantry items.

When I get the weekly ads, I make a list for each store (Publix, Penn-Dutch, Costco) based on the items on sale, keeping in mind ideas for meals and what I already have in my pantry. I love buy-one-get-one (BOGO) deals for things like pasta, pasta sauce, frozen items, etc. When I write out my list, I make a note of the price (for meat and produce), if it’s a BOGO, 10/$10, and brand or item information. That way, when I go to the store I know that its Ronzoni pasta on sale for BOGO not Bertolli brand or that it is the Fiji apples on sale not the Macintosh.

Coupons in weekend paper. I get the weekend paper just for the coupons and ads. Every few weeks, I sit down and cut out all the coupons for the items I want. I cut out the coupons for things I know I buy regularly (makeup, shampoo, pastas, etc) and some items that I may be interested in buying if I see them on sale (frozen meal: if they're BOGO plus I have a two $1.50 off coupons, I can get two mea

ls for almost nothing). Keep in mind that companies put out a lot of coupons for new items, like new lines of soup or granola bars, and many times these items will be on sale at the same time. If you aren't sure if you'd like these new items, cut the coupon and decide when you get to the store if it's worth the money. Sometimes they are. However, don't just buy stuff because you have a coupon. Buy it if it is something you will actually use and enjoy.

To maximize your coupons, its handy to buy a coupon organizer with dividers (see here). I have mine labeled by item type (Frozen, Meat/Produce, Pantry, Snacks, Dairy, Cleaning, Toiletries) to help me find the coupons I'm looking for while standing in the grocery aisle. I also sort through my coupons when I add more to throw away expired ones.   

Example of a coupon organizer... no need for anything complicated!
Plan a list of meals for the week. I like to plan a week's worth of meals before I go shopping. I base my plan on the items I have to use up in my freezer and what's on sale, typically writing out what I want to make for each night, which lets me not have to struggle to come up with something for dinner when I get home at 6. I also try to keep in mind what I want to eat for lunches as well as various snacks. I then add any last items onto my list based on my meal plans, making sure I have all the ingredients.

Keep an ongoing shopping list throughout the week. Did you use up the last egg? Almost out of baking powder? Put it on the list. This is also helpful for other family members to add items they want throughout the week (honestly, when you're making your list just before going shopping, you never remember the items you had been thinking about all week).

Re-write the list based on the layout of the store. This may sound like overkill, but a few minutes of re-writing my list saves me a lot of headache once I am in the store. I'm sure we've all missed items on our list only to have to run back across the store to get it. I avoid that by rewriting my list based on the aisles of the store, and this becomes easier as you get to know the store. At first, I was grouping items by type, but now I know that there is a aisle of paper goods between the international/candy aisle and the baking aisle and I can plan my list accordingly.

Stock up. This is not only for hurricane preparedness (I'm looking at you South Florida), this is good economic sense. There is nothing I hate more than buying a jar of pasta sauce full price because I ran out and I have a hankering for some spaghetti. When things you use regularly go on sale, but a lot of it. For me this includes ketchup, mayo, bbq sauce, pasta, sauce, canned tomatoes, and dark chocolate squares (I get two every day in my lunch bag. It is like an antidepressant for me). Also, if something catches your eye at the store and it's not on your list, buy it, just don't go crazy. I like being able to improvise my meals based on something I see in the store (yummy ripe peaches, a new marinade, etc).

Think outside the grocery store. Over a year ago, I joined an organic buying club (website is: which allows me to get fresh organic produce for a great price. I get their ¾ box for $38 and that lasts me almost the whole two weeks between pick-up dates. Not only do I get fresh organic produce, but they try to have as much of it as possible locally sourced, it makes me try new varieties of produce, and it saves me a lot on my grocery bill.

Store food in a way that makes it easy to use. If you buy a 3 lb pack of ground beef, don't just throw the whole thing in the freezer (unless you plan to make a huge pot of chili) because you'll never use it. Portion out the beef (or chicken, or pork) into freezer bags in an amount you'd used in one dinner. After putting it into the bag, flatten it out as best you can, mark it with the contents and date purchased, then freeze it. That way, when you get home from work and realize you didn't take any meat out of the freezer to thaw, you can take it out of the freezer, put it into a sink with water, and it will be thawed in under 30 minutes, not three days. This also works great with shrimp (buy them with the shells on, way cheaper, and then freeze them flat in a bag). I once bought a 50 lb case of boneless skinless chicken breasts ($.69/lb, normally $3.99/lb) and broke them up into bags with 2-3 pieces per bag. We ate off that haul for months. Don't forget to ditch anything in the Styrofoam plates because even small items will take forever to thaw with the thermal protection of the "foam." This all takes time up front, but will make cooking dinner on a busy weeknight much easier. You can also do the same thing with produce by washing and chopping everything when you buy it for easy use in lunches and dinners throughout the week.


Now, I use the above rules as much as I can. I plan meals and shop accordingly. But sometimes I don't. I get busy and when I get home I realize that I have no idea what I want to make for dinner, let alone have any defrosted meat. Therefore, below I've made a list of items I try to always have on hand to throw together healthy meals in under an hour.

Kitchen Staples to help you make dinner without a plan

·         Pasta (Spaghetti, fettuccini, macaroni, penne, farfalle, lasagna, orzo, etc)
·         Rice
·         Quinoa, couscous
·         Pasta sauces – marinara, vodka sauce, alfredo, pesto, clam
·         Frozen Veggies: peas, corn, broccoli, spinach, edamame
·         Fresh Veggies: broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, onion, garlic, carrots
·         Canned Veggies: Beans, Corn, Tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, water chestnuts/bean sprouts, bamboo shoots
·         Meat: Bacon, bags of frozen chicken tenderloins/cutlets (tenderloins are great because they can go straight from the freezer into the pan), Italian sausage, kielbasa, ground beef, pork, lunch meat
·         Asain: Hoisen, soy sauce, miren
·         Dairy: Cheese (shredded and block; Mexican and Italian blend, parmesan), butter, half & half, eggs
·         Baking: Flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa, brown sugar, powered sugar, chocolate chips, butter, vanilla extract
·         Herbs/Spices: Kosher salt, pepper, basil, oregano, cumin, chili power, garlic powder, onion flakes, thyme, sage, parsley, cilantro, mustard, ginger
·         Other: Honey, mustard, ketchup, bbq sauce, cornstarch, bread crumbs, mayo, panko, vinegar (red, cider, white), nuts, better than bouillon, hot sauce, jams/marmalades, salsa, tortillas

From this list, I can make 90% of my favorite meals. Here's a quick list: Stir-fry (both rice and noodle based, any meat you have), tacos (add corn and beans to the meat to stretch the meat), quesadillas (add veggies and refried beans for more nutrition), grilled chicken with tomato/peach marmalade sauce, cheesy noodle bake, casseroles, spaghetti and marinara sauce with ground beef,  vodka cream pasta with sausage, fried rice (with egg and kielbasa), bang-bang shrimp, rice pilaf (rice and orzo toasted, then water with bouillon added with frozen veg) etc.

I hope this list helps you out, even just a little. And PLEASE share your ideas for getting dinner on the table quickly with as low of a cost as possible!