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Five Steps to Budget-Friendly Grocery Shopping

May 11, 2020
Homemade Chicken Stock
Pictured: Brian's homemade chicken stock

Written by: Brian Dix '16

About the Author: Brian Dix is a 2016 graduate of York College of Pennsylvania and currently serves as the Assistant Director of Digital Communications at YCP where he does video and website work for the College. At home, he enjoys spending time in the kitchen, gardening, and the power struggle with his 3-year-old black cat, Salem.

Hi, I’m Brian. I am in no way a food or grocery expert. My “training” is limited to a ridiculous amount of time watching The Food Network and seven years at a “very large” grocery store chain.

That said, over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a system of sorts that has proven very effective for me and my roommate. Below are the five steps to budget-friendly grocery shopping and cooking.

Step 1: Plan ahead

This is step number 1. It is in no way earth-shattering or a huge secret. Whether it’s a surprise birthday party for your best friend or an elaborate jewelry heist (looking at you Sandra Bullock), everything is easier with some effective planning.

In an ideal situation, you’d be starting with a clean slate and bare cupboards. However, unless you’ve recently moved or have been sustaining yourself via photosynthesis, you probably have some lingering grocery items. No matter! Just be sure to look through your pantry and make sure you don’t buy something you might already have.

By now, I’m sure you’ve read many articles in regard to how to eat a balanced and healthy diet. While the general guidelines remain mostly the same, my biggest piece of advice is to tailor it to your tastes. No food item will do your body any good if you hate it and won’t eat it before it goes bad. Stick to vegetables you like (or tolerate) and don’t deprive yourself of things you genuinely enjoy, in moderation.

The most important part of the planning process is making and sticking to a list. There are tons of apps to help you do this but I make a plain ‘ole list in the notes app and it does the job just fine. Another tip that will help once you get to the store is to organize by department and include the perimeter departments first i.e. produce, meat, and dairy.

The following sections will help you with the list-making process as well.

Step 2: Consider “unconventional” options

There are a lot of choices out there when it comes to grocery stores and I’m sure you have a favorite. We all do. And as appealing as a literal one-stop-shop is, don’t fall into the trap of spending more than you have to simply because it is convenient. Take some time to scan the flyers from area stores and identify sales on items you actually need. No percent off savings beats saving 100% by not buying an unnecessary item.

Have you looked at Aldi, Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, or a similar discount grocer lately? If you haven’t, boy are you in for a treat my friend. Both of the aforementioned stores are a goldmine of deeply discounted food and household items. Check there first and you’ll be surprised how much of your list can be knocked out for a fraction of the price. Not to mention they aren’t most folks’ go-to and hold onto their stocks long beyond when others run out. Does the phrase toilet paper shortage ring a bell? Not at the Grocery Outlet Bargain Market!

These outlet/discount stores are also a great opportunity to expand your palate with a lowered risk of loss. A new-to-you-item that you may or may not like is a lot less daunting when it’s 75% off. Weird fruit? Try it. Organic cereal normally out of your price range? SCORE.

So when you’re planning your next masked, socially-distanced, limited-contact, sterile grocery run, consider a discount grocery store first! Thank me later.

Step 3: Choose versatile dishes

This might be my favorite step in the process. Remember that copious amount of Food Network “research” I mentioned earlier? Well, this is where that comes in, dear reader. Cooking can be so much fun when you look at it as a hobby and less of a chore (or when you haven’t seen sunlight in 12 days, thanks quarantine). Again, pick food items you like but do your best to avoid overly processed foods and always include a vegetable. Some of my favorite vegetables are frozen and are quicker in the microwave than pizza rolls.

I say versatile in the name of this step because I like to work smarter, not harder. It’s difficult to cook just one or two servings so I often make a full-size recipe and use the leftover portions for next-day lunch or dinner. Make a versatile protein like baked chicken, and you can have it for dinner one night, make chicken salad for lunch, and shred it in the crockpot for dinner. See where that planning thing comes in handy?

Personally, I think a lot of things get better the next day. I love reheated mac and cheese or chili, for example. Make it once when you have the time, and it becomes a quick no-brainer the next day. We love food items you can spread over a couple of days. Your wallet does too.

Step 4: Challenge yourself to get creative

Every week, I survey my pantry supplies and try to identify an item or two that has lingered for a while. Is there a reason it hasn’t been used yet? Did my mom send it home with me last time I visited her? Is it expired?* Regardless of why it’s there, I try to incorporate the item into my meal plan for the coming week. Food waste is a huge problem and we can do our part to reduce that by getting a little creative.

*Author’s note: many food items have best-by or sell-by dates. That simply means the food will be at its best and as the producer intended, guaranteed, by that date. It’s also a way for the supplier to determine how long something will be safe on their shelf. However, most items will be just fine long beyond this date. Dry or canned goods are usually good for weeks and sometimes months beyond that day. Trust your judgment when determining whether something is still safe to consume. Your eyes and nose will tell you if something has gone bad, don’t worry. Also, take into account any food items that you have “allowed” to go bad. We eat our favorite things first. If you weren’t able to get to something before it expired or rotted, consider not buying it again, you clearly didn’t like it that much.

Step 5: Repeat!

After a week (or two) of home-cooked cuisine, bask in the glow of your accomplishment! Treasure what worked great and also note what wasn’t the best. Did the baby carrots you were so totally going to snack on get smelly in the bag? Don’t buy it this time around. Did you end up loving that weird pasta side? Make it again!

During these uncertain and, quite frankly annoying times, it’s nice to have a daily meal to not only look forward to eating, but also to making and customizing as well.

Now you can brag to your friends about being a real adult!

Happy cooking!