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Grocery shopping 101: Tips & tricks

After Andy’s Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis, meal planning and (subsequently) grocery shopping were integral to getting us both back on the road to recovery and health. Nothing set us back faster than being really hungry with nothing planned and no food in the cupboard. Pizza Hut was just a phone call away!

I’ve already shared my process for attacking the grocery store and the importance of a grocery budget, but I wanted to end this mini-series with a few more tips and tricks I’ve picked up that will make your entire grocery experience that much easier.

• Make a plan/list. Nothing will frustrate you more than milling around a busy grocery store trying to figure out what you want to eat. You’ll find yourself randomly throwing things into the cart that you’ll kick yourself for later. I’m looking at you S’mores PopTarts!

• Set a budget. I know I’ve already covered this in a blog post, but I really can’t stress enough the importance of a grocery budget. Keeping track of where and how you spend your money is good for your health and your bank account.

• Go shopping consistently. Whether you go once a week, once a month, or every Wednesday and Saturday, make sure that your house has the healthy food you need when a case of the munchies hits.

• Go early/late in the day. Mid-day at a grocery store is my personal definition of hell. So many people with baskets going every which way. If you can get there early, you’ll have your pick of the best produce and won’t have to reach around 10 people to get it.

• Be nice. Nobody likes grocery shopping. Everyone wants to be done. Pushing your way past people isn’t nice. Be as courteous as you can to fellow shoppers and staff (especially the staff!) and if you have to, sing a happy song in your head. I promise it helps!

• Make friends with the staff. The staff knows their product and they can help you find exactly what you want. If I ever have a question about how to cook a certain cut of meat the guys behind the counter are a great resource.

• Try something new. Don’t be afraid to try that strange looking vegetable or a new cut of meat. You may find a new favorite to add to your meal cycle.

If you have any tried and true grocery shopping tips, I’d love to hear them!

Grocery shopping 101: The budget

When Andy and I first got married neither one of us had experience keeping a budget. We made decent (enough) money and while we both brought some debt into the marriage we managed our finances fairly well.

After a few years, I started wondering why our savings account wasn’t growing as quickly as I felt it should. I looked at the numbers and realized we had been nickel and diming ourselves with our debit cards. A dinner out here, a movie there, midnight donut runs, and snack trips to the store all added up and we were throwing hundreds of dollars out the window a month. When I brought this to Andy’s attention, he had the brilliant idea of moving to a weekly cash system for groceries and other food-related items. If we didn’t have the cash, we couldn’t treat ourselves and groceries came first.

When Andy was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, the grocery budget became even more important. Good food isn’t cheap, and to commit to healthy eating requires some financial sacrifices. Plus, we had the added cost of diabetes prescriptions that we weren’t expecting. We knew that we couldn’t eat out as often, so we were able to reallocate some of that money into buying better meat from New Seasons. We stopped buying Mt. Dew, and those funds went straight into our apple budget.

Over the years, our grocery budget has grown and shrunk several times. Some weeks we have a surprising amount of money left over to use for “fun things”. Other weeks, I have to modify our meal plan on the fly because I know we’re running out of money. It forces me to be flexible, creative, and accountable. By setting a grocery budget and sticking to it, our overall household budget has become much easier to manage.

(One thing I must note: Our grocery budget does include non-food-related items like toothpaste, deodorant, toilet paper, and cat litter. But these items make up a very small percentage of our total grocery expenditure. The majority goes to produce, meat, and eggs.)

How you determine your own grocery budget is entirely up to you. Do you eat more protein-heavy meals? Your weekly amount is going to be higher than if you prefer a more vegetarian fare. If you don’t know where to get started, keep track of your spending for a few weeks. See where you spend your money, and what you spend it on. Do you see areas that can be eliminated? You may need to cut out all restaurant food until you get the budget under control. Do you see areas where you’d like to increase your spending? More fresh produce for the win!

I personally use a Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of our entire monthly budget, but there are other tools available online (both free and not) that are popular for tracking your funds.

It might take a few months to really get into the groove of your grocery budget, but I promise you that your bank account will thank you if you stick to it as much as possible.

How about you? Do you have (and stick to) a budget? I’d love to hear your grocery tips!

Grocery shopping 101: How we shop

If you’re anything like me, the thought of grocery shopping makes you think about the pleasures of a root canal. I hate grocery shopping. I hate the crowds; trying to find that last ingredient that was here last week, but has magically disappeared when you need it most; the lines to check out. The list goes on. Last week I talked about where we shop. This week I want to talk about how we shop.

Over the years, I’ve developed a system to help me get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. When you prepare 95% of all the food you eat, shaving 15-20 minutes off a grocery trip can be a lifesaver.

Did you know that every store has the same basic layout? Your fresh food—produce, seafood, meat, dairy, baked goods—are all located along the perimeter of the store. The middle aisles contain all the canned, boxed, and bottled items—the “processed” food. Before I understood this, I would make one gigantic list and end up popping back and forth from dairy to produce to the bakery and back again—it took forever! Now, I organize my list by department and only occasionally forget something that requires me to sprint across the store and back. It’s such a time saver. It also helps Andy when he does the shopping for me–even though he might have to spend more time searching for things on the list, at least he’ll be in the right section.

You’ll notice I divide my weekly meal plan/grocery lists into the following categories:

Bulk (not technically “fresh”, but it’s on the perimeter right after produce)
Meat & Cheese

This takes me clockwise around the perimeter of the store, ending with the checkout lines. Getting out of the parking lot unharmed is another story.

All told my entire weekly grocery  experience typically lasts 1 1/2 to 2 hours total, but if you take into account that I make 6-7 stops that really isn’t too bad. I spend around 45 minutes at my primary grocery store, and all other stops (including the bank and gas) usually average 10-15 minutes each.

Do you have any grocery shopping tips? I’d love to hear them. I wouldn’t mind shaving another 3-4 minutes off my weekly visit!




Grocery shopping 101: Where we shop

Some people I know shop solely at New Seasons and Whole Foods, and I totally get it. Those places are great sources for healthy food. They have beautiful produce sections, solid meat and dairy, and let’s face it, bakeries to die for. I do the bulk of my shopping at Winco, with stops at New Seasons, Trader Joe’s, and Fred Meyer to supplement what Winco doesn’t have. Why don’t I do all my shopping at these other places? Because we have a grocery budget and the way we eat now isn’t cheap.

After Andy was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes the way we shopped for groceries changed, and our weekly grocery expenses went up. Sticking to a budget has always been important to me, and I didn’t want our budget to suffer because of our health (or vice versa) in order to afford an $8/lb. bunch of asparagus. I knew we wouldn’t always be able to afford organic produce (thankfully, we have a garden full or organic veggies), but incorporating more fruit and veggies into our meals was a necessity.

I don’t want to start a political discussion about the virtues of eating locally sourced food, but I wanted to share where and how we shop for groceries because I know how expensive it can be to start living a healthy lifestyle. Good-for-you food isn’t cheap—that’s another discussion for another time. I grew up in home that didn’t have a lot of money to spare. There were weeks when I know my mom had no idea how she was going to put food on the table for a family of five. We ate a lot of beans and rice.

In this economy, not everyone can afford to shop at the local high-end natural foods market. And that’s okay. Winco’s produce isn’t always the best around, but they do have a fairly new organic section, and if you buy what’s in season you’ll be okay. Plus, they have an amazing bulk section full of dried fruits, nuts, spices, and other goodies that I have on my list on a weekly basis.

If you’re just starting out on this lifestyle journey, don’t feel that you have to take out a second mortgage to put healthy food on the table. By making small changes where you can–swapping out that bag of chips for a new vegetable to experiment with in the kitchen–and adding in the freshest ingredients possible, you’re already making a step in the right direction.

Next week, I’m going to share how I navigate the grocery store, and give you some tips and tricks for making the process easier and healthier.