Meal Planning Step 4: Purchase

It's life. #momlife.

We head to the store at any sparing second we can and grab the random items we know we need. We inevitably forget one or two things, so later on in the week (when our sanity or schedule allows) we make another pit stop to grab the remaining groceries.

But for most of us who have ever been like this, we have learned that we can't live like this.

It will make you crazy.

Not only do you have to schlep kids to and fro when you go, but you end up wasting a lot of time, money, and food with such a haphazard approach to grocery shopping.

That's why this the actual purchasing step is part FOUR in our five-part series on meal planning.

Instead of being the starting point as most people may assume, grocery shopping is most successful when it is done AFTER three more preliminary steps (being to plan, pick, and pair). That doesn't mean you can't work backwards from what you already have on hand, but that kind of thinking tends to come after the foundation for more effective meal planning is in place. This post will help you think through factors impacting your buying decisions. By the end of this post, you will have the resources and resolve to better approach your family's grocery shopping each week.

How to approach grocery shopping smarter:

1. Be organized

Based on what items you have planned for, picked, and chosen to pair with your meals in the week, you are now ready to make your grocery list. You can write your own on a notepad, or download the Veggies & Virtue grocery list that is arranged by each section in the store. The important thing is that you don't go to the store without one.

2. Be flexible

While I never recommend going into the grocery store without a list, it is important to make a note (mental or physical) of which items are needs versus nice to haves. I am not talking about, "I don't really need to get us ice cream." Rather, I mean which items (must you get regardless of price)? Compare this to which items could you possibly substitute should you find a sale on something else.

For our family, this usually applies most to produce and staples. Being mindful of which fruits and veggies are on sale is often the most obvious way to scope out which items are considered "in season." This not only optimizes the nutrition by buying items at their peak, but also it keeps healthy, real food ingredients more affordable than when shopping out of season. If you find that pineapple is on sale for $0.99 each and pears are nearing $3.00 per pound, consider serving pineapple more often this week then switching it up again next week based on sales. You don't likely need pears. Since balance and moderation applies to your family’s diet over time too, you don’t sweat serving the same fruit or veggie on multiple nights in one week if that is what saves you the most time and/or money. Just aim to get a different variety of fruits and veggies next week.

As for other staples, keep your eyes out as you walk the aisles. You may see non-perishable items like oats, rice, quinoa, canned goods, dried fruit, nuts, fruit and nut bars, cereals, granola, sauces, and condiments on sale. Another area where you can find decent savings is with meat and seafood that may be frozen. These items are the one and only area where I actually encourage you going "off the list" to buy an unintended item or two. Avoid stocking up excessively, especially if you don't know how many of an item you already have at home. Be mindful how good of a sale it is too, as sometimes a yellow sticker doesn't necessary mean it is a killer sale. A well-stocked pantry, however, is of great help when meal planning so much as you know what it stashed in your fridge, pantry, and freezer.

3. Be savvy

Most of us fall into one of two camps:

  1. We are the analysis paralysis type. We tend to scratch-make more of our meals because it makes us feel more comfortable about the ingredients we know we are offering. We take longer than normal to grocery shop as we read ingredients list and cross-compare several products against others. We develop brand loyalty, but usually for specialty products that are either more expensive and/or uncommon to every grocery store. We need easy options to keep on hand without being disappointed in an item being "lesser than."
  2. We are the convenience is king type. We would rather buy instant rice in convenient containers than meal prep on the weekend. We tend to prefer groceries delivered or at least available through curbside pick-up. We develop brand loyalty out of marketing, taste, and convenience, but tend to be moved more by marketing claims on the front of a package than reading the ingredients list on the side. We want to feel like we are making smart buying decisions and getting the healthy food we hope to be paying for, but we don't think it is worth stressing over. We need someone to tell us what to buy, and that's what we will get.

No matter which of these you fall under (or somewhere in between), most everyone wishes they had someone to decode the guesswork of grocery shopping -- even me! That's why I have started the "What I Buy and Why" section of this site. By featuring many of the grocery items we all use, these posts will help to decode some of the good, better, and best options for you to take back to your home. Each post will come with a free download of dietitian-approved options, including brand name specifics.

If you have a specific item you would like me to feature in this new section of the website, please shoot me a note here so I can get it in the cue of products to cover.

4. Be conscientious

Call me overly frugal, but it literally pains me to think about how many items majority of people over spend on. If you follow my weekly #whatIbuyandwhy posts on Instagram, you know that I often splurge on wild caught salmon, organic produce, minimally-processed dairy products, and an array of other plant-based foods like whole grains, nuts, and seeds. But with that, I know I need to make up for the added cost elsewhere.

The first place is to cut the crap. A principle my single-mom taught me early on as a teenage was that we would always buy high-quality, good for us foods. However if a food didn't have any nutritional value, there was truly little value in spending any amount of money on it. That has stuck with me so much, especially now as I act as the nutritional gatekeeper to my own kids. The more crap we have at home, the greater the cost. I am not willing to crowd out those higher quality items that I am splurging a bit more on with crap. No one has the cash nor real estate in their kid's tummies for that.

The other key point here is don't be diligent in what you buy and yet not as careful about how much you spend. Since almost every camp above still cares about the bottom line of their food budget, majority of us aren't looking to spend unnecessary amounts of money on "healthy food" just to go broke doing so. Instead, learn you terms, compare your costs, and pursue sales. Do you know what a unit price is? Do you ever price compare what weekly items like lunch meat, bread, and eggs costs at a big-box retailer (like Costco or Sam's) compared to an average grocery store? What is a decent sales price on something, or which store has the best deal on a given item on a given week?

You can buy quality ingredients and products without having to always eat a high price tag. It just takes being a bit more deliberate about where you assign value and how you go about claiming it in your shopping behaviors.

5. Be intentional

Although the "What I Buy and Why" section will grow as a beneficial FREE resource, it still may not be enough. Know yourself, know your questions, and know your health goals. Then make intentional grocery habits accordingly.

If you know you fall into the first camp and are killing yourself trying to scratch-make everything with ankle-biters on you 24/7, take a deep breath and reevaluate where you might be willing to choose a path of more ease without compromising the nutritional standards you want for your family. If you fall into the second camp, choose your authority on the subject and assign me to "just tell you what to buy." If you are somewhere in between, maybe consider a Mom's Night Out at the grocery store to let other's the pain points about grocery shopping help bring to light some of the things you loathe (and love!) about being the nutritional gatekeeper for your family.

For any of these, I am your grocery store guru. I offer grocery store tours for individuals and/or groups that allow you the individual attention and/or collective engagement you desire. While I suggest focusing on the meal that you are most eager to transform for your family, we can also do an overview of all of your meal time questions in one visit. This decision depends on how much you desire to know the items you buy, how they fall into a realistic, achievable weekly meal plan, and the role they play in helping you achieve your family's nutritional goals. Contact me to discuss what grocery store tour options are available and which one might be right for you or your next girl's night out.


A reoccurring chore no more

Even for families who barely or rarely meal plan, grocery shopping is a chore on everyone's weekly to do list. Hopefully as you walk through the steps from this meal planning series, you are able to see how much more streamlined grocery shopping can be. It doesn't need to take you forever to make a grocery list nor to peruse through the store. The experience can be what you make our if it, highly-efficient or thoroughly-vetted for only the best items. The important thing is that you are mindful of the what basis will best set you up for grocery shopping success. Turn it from a dreaded, reoccurring chore to something you find great value in getting to own as the nutritional gatekeeper of your home.

Here is a recap as to how:

  1. Be organized. Download your free grocery list using the link above.

  2. Be flexible. Adapt your weekly menu where possible to save.

  3. Be savvy, Learn the good, better, and best grocery items to buy.

  4. Be conscientious. Stick to your food budget by becoming smarter about the way you shop.

  5. Be intentional. Know when it pays for itself to invest in an expert.


In the comments, I would love if you would take a minute to share with me: What are your greatest struggles with grocery shopping are?