There's nothing quite like that sinking feeling in the checkout lane when the cheery cashier tells you the total for your groceries is $248. Especially when you feel like you hardly bought anything and you know you'll be back at the store in a few days for another gallon of milk, more eggs, another couple boxes of cereal — all for probably another $83.
Meal planning is my tool for keeping our food budget under control, but I also keep these 12 things in mind when planning and shopping for groceries for my family of six.
1. Keep breakfast and lunch simple
I try to save most of our food dollars for dinner, and keep breakfast and lunch pretty streamlined. I buy oatmeal in bulk and stock up on cold cereal when it's on sale. I also usually have homemade muffins or granola available. We also pack pretty simple lunches (fruit and veggies, PB&Js, string cheese, reusable pouches of yogurt or applesauce, and some pretzels).
2. Ditto for dinners
I don't have the time for or interest in making complicated meals most nights for dinner. I try to find recipes that don't have too many ingredients and I don't pick recipes that use tons of ingredients I'll have to buy new. I'll look specifically for things that use up ingredients I have that are perishable, like feta cheese or bell peppers.
For side dishes, I usually just do fresh fruit and a salad or sautéed vegetable. I'm not saying dinner has to be boring — I try lots of new recipes — but if you're staring down the barrel at a 90-minute dinner recipe on a Tuesday night, chances are good you're going to bail.
3. Skip or substitute pricey ingredients
Spices can be a budget killer when you have to buy a four-dollar bottle for one teaspoon in one recipe. Check to see if your local grocery store has a bulk spice section, which can save you a bunch of cash. If you need 1 tablespoon of something, google a substitute or just leave it out. If a recipe calls for a cut of meat that's way more expensive than a similar one on sale, I go right ahead and swap it for the cheaper one.
4. Make a grocery list and stick to it
No good has ever come of walking into the grocery store without a shopping list. You'll buy things you didn't need and forget things you did intend to buy, and then you're back at the grocery store the next day to do it all over again. Figure out a system that works for you (I divide my grocery list into six parts — produce, meat, dairy, frozen, dry/can, and miscellaneous — so I don't miss a fruit I needed that was hidden between two dairy items). Most importantly, stick to your list. I am pretty firm about not buying things that aren't on my list unless I see something I legitimately meant to have on the list.
5. Don't buy things on sale that you wouldn't buy anyway
I'm guilty of this too, but if you wouldn't have looked twice at some fancy yogurt or drink, don't buy it just because you have a coupon. A dollar off of a $3 item is still $2 you didn't plan to spend. And $2 adds up fast.
6. Don't go to the grocery store too often
I am fairly religious about only going to the grocery store once a week. If I forgot something, I deal with it. If we run out of milk a day before shopping day? We can drink water. I google a substitute, skip that ingredient, or eat something else. Every extra time you swing by the grocery store, your budget will suffer.
7. Rethink your warehouse membership
Are you buying things in bulk and then throwing lots of it away because you can't get through it in time? If your family legitimately uses everything you buy, great! But if not, cancel your membership and save the cash by buying what you actually need and can get through, even if it's more expensive per ounce.
8. Go to one grocery store
Grocery shopping is kind of a production for me, what with four small children, so I'm definitely not looking for ways to do more of it. When I go to multiple stores in order to take advantage of sales, it doesn't really save me that much money because I end up buying more because I feel like I have to justify having gone to another store. Plus, it costs more in gas and takes a ton more time. To save fifty cents on a tub of yogurt just isn't worth it to me. If your store does price-matching, all the better.
9. Look into grocery pickup
Many stores are offering free (or very cheap) grocery pickup now, and if you are a shopper who picks up a bunch of impulse items, you might save yourself a ton of money by not going into the store at all.
10. Go easy on the expensive things
Look at what items on your grocery list are costing a lot and see if you can figure out how to reduce them. Can you use less meat in a recipe and add vegetables instead to bulk up a main dish? For instance, you might be able to halve the amount of chicken in butter chicken and add chickpeas.
11. Try really hard not to waste food
The worst thing is to pay for food and then bring it home to go bad. I eat leftovers for lunch most days and if stuff starts to build up over a few days, we have leftovers for dinner. I try to freeze items before they go bad, like tablespoons of tomato paste so I don't have to buy a new jar every time I need a spoonful or half blocks of cheese.
12. Eat similar kinds of things so you don't end up throwing things away
If you have some consistency in your meal planning, it makes it easier to use things up. For instance, we have pizza every week, so I'm never throwing away pepperoni that's been sitting in the fridge for six weeks or a moldy block of mozzarella. We eat salad several nights a week, so it's rare for a head of lettuce to go bad and it's a great place to toss in half an avocado, a leftover tomato, or the last of some almonds.
Read more: Why My Week Always Includes a Pizza Night
This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: The 12 Tips That Keep My Grocery Budget in Check