I've been asked to give more specifics of how to keep the grocery budget low. There are many things that we as a family do to minimize costs, so it's hard to blurt them all out in an organized way. Here are a few things to start off with if you're looking to cut back costs.
1. Track your grocery expenses. Take a couple of weeks and really pay attention to what you are spending. How much do you spend on meat each week? How much on produce? Sometimes just the simple steps of watching where you spend helps you to reevaluate your puchases.
2. Visit the store at regular intervals. This is a really important one. The most efficient way I've found for grocery shopping is to plan a week at a time. Some people shop one month at a time, which is very overwhelming to me, and also requires a lot of storage space. I know some people who do just day or two at a time. Figure out what works for you, and plan on visiting the store at regular intervals. If you run out of something in the mean time, see if you can do without it! There are a few things you really can't pass up...say, diapers, but many grocery items you can get creative with to hold off for a day or two.
3. Plan out your meals. This step is key to sticking to a budget. If you go to the store without a plan, you'll almost always overspend. Know what you need for the week and stick to it for the most part. I usually have a certain percentage of my budget for meat, a percentage for produce, a percentage for dairy products, then I reserve the rest for everything else, because I like to have a little wiggle room to buy up some of the good sales for the future. This isn't to say that I always stick to this plan. I always know what I'm cooking for the week, but if I decide to go over in produce that week, I'll make up for it with using less expensive meat. Have a master plan, but don't be afraid to adjust.
4. Keep track of what you're spending as you go. This really changed my grocery shopping habits. When I go to the store, I'll keep a running tally of what I'm buying on my calculator as I walk the aisles. If I'm going to go over budget, I reevaluate what's in the cart. There are almost always some non-essentials you can put back if you need to. Sometimes I come in under budget, so I splurge on something I wouldn't normally buy.
5. Know what things cost. It's really helpful to track costs in different stores. When I first really started to keep a grocery budget, I began keeping a small memo notebook in my purse, and as I happened upon a store, I'd write down the price of items I regularly use. It's amazing sometimes how much the cost of toilet paper can vary from store to store! Work out the unit price and keep it all on one page to compare. This also helps wave a red flag for you when something is really a great deal. There are a lot of 'sales' that aren't really all that much of a discount. Be a smart shopper; know the difference between a great deal and a gimmick...and by the way, Sam's Club and Costco aren't always the cheapest. Bulk isn't always a great deal, so take the time to calculate out the unit price. After a while, you'll just remember without writing it down.
6. Plan your meals around sales. Before I plan out a week's worth of meals, I always try to look over the store circular. It there's a great deal on chicken drumsticks, it doesn't make sense to pay full price for pork loin chops! Not every meal has to be on a sale item, but it usually pays to plan at least two meals based on the meat sales for the week.
7. Make a weekly meal template. When writing out your meal plan for the week, it can be really head- scratching to come up with something affordable, but not redundant. Rather than planning on the same meals every week, as some frugal shoppers recommend, I try to plan the same types of meals. On a weekly basis, we have some type of pasta dish, a meat dish, something using beans/Mexican, homemade pizza night, some type of special breakfast item, and something grilled (at least during the summer). That leaves a night or two to get creative, and you can choose lots of different things to fit into these categories. This is not set in stone, for me it's just a really helpful tool to thinking through what we're eating.
I'll try to post some follow up articles on more specifics, such as what we eat for breakfast, lunch, and snacks (I only specifically plan out dinners). I'll also try to get you started thinking about different simple ideas for using some of those cheap ingredients. Happy planning!