Pantry vs. Meal planning and Local Eating

There are two major camps in the frugal home kitchen debate: meal planning vs. pantry stocking. After reading this article on stocking the pantry, I realized that I actually do a combination of these two methods. This is one of those (thankfully rare) weeks where we need to spend as little on groceries as possible. A lot of people ask me how I cook meals from scratch, eat such a high percentage of local foods, and stay on budget. This is the system that works best for me.

Most weeks I visit the farmer’s market and do the grocery shopping on Saturday morning.

1. Make a list of what’s already in the fridge and pantry, concentrating on what needs to be used up first like open packages or left overs.

2. Go to the farmer’s market. Buy whatever looks good and has a good price. Keep in mind how much your household can eat in one week. It’s really easy to over-buy and end up with produce that goes bad before it can be eaten. My weekly budget for the farmer’s market is $40-$50, about 1/3 of our total food budget.

This week's basket: onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, baby zucchini and yellow squash, rosemary, and lots of beets. All of this plus pastries for me & my daughter was $25.

3. When you are done at the farmer’s market, add the list of what you just bought to the list of what you already have. If you have the time, go get a cup of coffee or breakfast somewhere and plan a rough menu for the week. Look at the two lists like a puzzle. The goal is to use up all the pieces. What can I make that will use all of both lists? How do they fit together best? What absolutely must be used first? What can wait until later in the week?

4. Then write down the menu, and if you need to, make a third list of everything you need but don’t already have. Here is where I do a combination of the two methods. There is a small list of foods that I always like to have on hand, either because we eat them every day or because they’re good “emergency foods” that I can whip up in a hurry if the meal plan for that night has to be cancelled. Sometimes I forget to take the meat out of the freezer, or forget to turn the crockpot on in the morning.

I keep that basic pantry list in my head, but if you’re just starting out then you should write it down. Some of the items on my pantry list: milk, eggs, butter, whole wheat tortillas, Irish Breakfast tea, whole rolled oats, spaghetti, jarred marinara sauce, canned tuna fish, sugar, flour, salt, and a bottle of wine. A huge help is also participating in cow pools a couple times a year so the freezer is stocked with beef, pork, and venison. The only meats we buy weekly are fish, chicken, and sometimes specialty items like bacon or smoked sausage.

Notice, no long-term meal planning. I only plan for a week at a time. I’ve never done longer-term meal planning or shopping than a week. We don’t have room in our tiny kitchen for more than a week’s food for our family of 5.

Here is my notebook with lists of what we have, what we bought, and the resulting meals to use everything up.

5. Now that you’re sufficiently caffeinated, you can finish the shopping. I usually visit 2-3 stores each week to complete my shopping because I am cheap thrifty.  Certain items are cheaper at certain stores, and Walmart is not always the least expensive. For instance, the prices on ethnic foods at stores like Publix and Kroger (and Wards!) are extremely high. If you want ethnic foods, go to the ethnic food store. Not only will you get a better selection at a better price, you’ll probably find a bunch of interesting foods you’ve never tried. Since ethnic grocers are independent local stores you’ll also be pumping money directly into the local economy and, if you’re lucky, making new friends. There are items that quality will win over price, too. If you want fish, go to a fishmonger if you can. Try out the Latin butcher shop for meat (look for “carniceria”), or the halal butcher if you’re lucky enough to have one. Some weeks we visit the Indian grocer, the Asian grocer, the Russian grocer, and the regular grocery store. I like shopping for food; this is a chore I enjoy.

My total budget for groceries is $150/week including household items like shampoo and toilet paper. This week, because I had a well-stocked pantry and freezer, I spent $25 on fresh produce and $30 at Publix on the few things we needed to fill in the holes, and we won’t have to shop again until Saturday because of the combination of meal planning and pantry stocking.

So how do you grocery shop?

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