Friday, February 11, 2011

Meal-Planning: Getting to the Grocery Store [with kids]

Just a quick reminder to check out all the comments listed under each Meal-Planning post.  From the beginning I've said I'm not an expert on all this and the comments prove this.  There are some really great tips in there that I never crossed my mind.  Plus I think it's so fun to take a glimpse into other family's routines.

So, on to shopping.  Admittedly, this is my least favorite part of meal-planning.  I would so love to make my list, check some boxes online and have all my items delivered to me that afternoon.  And there's actually companies that do that.  But it's not in our budget.  So at least once a week I pack up all the kids, load them in the car, play referee as we navigate the aisles, shush crying as I'm frantically bagging my items so the next customer can get through, loading everything into the car and then unloading the kids and all the items into the house and putting everything away in the cupboards, frig and freezer.  It's exhausting!

Some people actually like to grocery shop.  I used to be that person before I had kids and before my first baby turned into a toddler.  If you have kids and you still like to grocery shop, share your secrets in the comments.  Here are my top tips for a successful grocery shopping trip:

1.  Pick the right day and time.  There's nothing worse than trying to control the kids in an already chaotic situation.  So it's best to shop when the crowds are light.  In my experience this is always on a Monday or Tuesday morning.  After 11:30, things get dicey.  Thursday and Friday afternoons are usually the worst.

If you work during the day, I recommend shopping after 8:00 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.  When Lucy was a newborn I used to shop alone after both kids went to bed.  What a treat!

Every once in a while we will go shopping as a family on a Saturday.  The crowds are extremely heavy on the weekends but when Daddy's along everything goes much more smoothly.

2.  Corral the kids.  Lucy totally fights me when I try to put her in the shopping cart seat now.  But I force her in it anyway.  Two minutes later she's totally forgotten that we ever had a disagreement.  While I don't often like to force my kids to do things they don't want to do, keeping a toddler contained in a big store means a quicker trip.

Every once in a while I find a diamond in the rough: A two-seater cart!  William, ironically, loves to ride in the cart.  But if no two-seater is available I put him hard at work finding me items on my list.  He's usually extremely happy to help.  "OK, what's next, Mommy?!"

3. If there were ever a time for snacks...  I completely break our "no snacks" routine while grocery shopping.  Our store offers a free chocolate chip cookie to every child and my kids gladly accept.  Sample stations are also great!  But if none of that is available, simply throw a baggie of Cheerios in your purse before you leave the house.

I try to refrain from any treats or snacks until after the produce section.  The produce section takes me the most time and is the most tedious so if I can keep the carrot dangling that much longer I'm guaranteed a longer stretch of good behavior.

4.  Check your list.  Every time you leave a department (produce, non-perishables, frozen or dairy) check your list.  Did you get everything you need in that section?

Also check your list before you go down each aisle.  If you don't need anything in that aisle bypass it.  It will save you time and prevent any possible impulse buys.

5. Don't let coupons rule your life.  Don't forget about the list.  It's your Bible, remember?  Just because you have a coupon for something does not make it a good deal.  A good deal is having a coupon for something that's already on your list.

And this brings me back to my point about box cereal being expensive.  It is expensive.  But I've found ways around it.  Every few weeks my grocery store offers a deal where if I buy six boxes of General Mills cereal I will get $10 off my shopping trip + a free gallon of milk + a free carton of eggs.  It's a slammin' good deal and I stock up whenever I see this advertised in the weekly flyer.  But if your store doesn't offer this, don't worry.  Cereal is probably at the top of the list when it comes to "most printed coupons."

The problem with extreme couponing is that it becomes more about the shopping experience than it does about your end goal: providing healthy meals for your family.  Getting $1 off a $3 item that isn't healthy is a wasted $2, in my opinion.  A while back Laura totally hit the nail on the head about why I haven't gotten into the couponing craze.

Save coupons for staples, items that are already on your list or items that inspire a healthy meal idea.  But, and this is huge, keep in mind that most of the time generic items are still cheaper than the brand name even with a coupon.  Bringing me to my next point...

6.  Don't be afraid of store/generic brands.  Most of the time store and generic brands taste exactly the same and are just as healthy as their brand name counterparts.  There will always be some exceptions and each family's exceptions will be different from the next but even just a few generic substitutions will equate to big savings.

I buy generic for things like rice, beans, eggs, oatmeal, baking supplies, butter, milk, etc.  Our family's exceptions include: bread, cereal, ketchup and peanut butter, to name a few.  These are personal decisions.  Not rules every one should live by.  I'm interested to hear yours!

7.  Time to check-out!  This is my least-favorite step of my least-favorite activity.  Go figure.  If there is a bagger in sight, choose that aisle no matter the wait.  I can always find ways to play with and distract my kids while we wait but taking the time to bag all my groceries makes me a nervous mess.  I try to get everything bagged just so and I take way too long and the next person is trying to push me out of the way.  I hate it.

If there are no baggers available then I choose the line with the lowest sum of items, not customers.  That way I know I'll be able to start bagging all my groceries right away since the person before me only had a few items.

8.  Shop at the grocery store one or two times a week at the most.  If you only buy a few ingredients at a time and have to keep going back for meal recipes, you're going to dramatically increase your chances for impulse buys.  If you think of something you need mid-week, put it on your list for the following week and challenge yourself to get by without until then.

There are exceptions to this rule, in my opinion.  If you are out of something vital, like fruit for example, it's OK to run in and grab a bag of oranges or a bunch of bananas.  Likewise, if you're missing a key ingredient or two to a meal recipe, it's OK to make a short trip.

I typically shop at the big supermarket on Monday mornings.  But on Tuesdays I swing into Trader Joe's for a 15-minute trip.  Trader Joe's is on the way home from our Early Childhood class and, as I've mentioned, I'm totally in love with their produce prices and selection.  Plus Trader's is waaaaaaay more kid friendly than any other grocery store so I never get stressed out there.

9.  If you're a beginner, try not to focus on the end cost (at first).  Fun fact: Even though our family has doubled, I spend way less on groceries now than I did before we had kids.  There's no magic answer to this except that as I keep going, I keep learning new ways to cut corners to make my dollar stretch.

But if you're used to eating out or eating prepared foods most days of the week, my recommendation to you is to not worry about the end cost.  At least not yet.  Eating homemade food for six out of the seven days of the week is going to be such a radical change for you that you need to focus on the how-to part first.  The money part will come naturally over time.

As a family of four we usually spend $100 or less on groceries in a week.  And I'd say we do it pretty easily.  Some may think that's a lot.  Some may think that's ridiculously low.  It's all relative.

If you're ready to start cost-cutting, save your receipts and circle the most expensive items to see if they are something you are willing to do without or something you're willing to limit.  Meat, for example, is something we limit around here.  Instead I've learned to find dishes the incorporate brown rice or beans.  I've also completely converted my family from regular pasta to whole wheat pasta so that we're still getting plenty of protein.  (Whole wheat pasta also kicks in tons of other nutritional benefits.  Compare labels some day.)

What other tips would you add to make grocery shopping a success?

Up next: cooking it, eating it and cleaning it all up.

Previous Meal-Planning Posts
Breakfast and Lunch Staples
Have a Plan, Make a List

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