Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Party of Five: Groceries at Costco & Trader Joe's

I inquired via Facebook a couple weeks ago about friends' monthly budgets for groceries and was somewhat encouraged and somewhat disappointed by the responses. Turns out, we are right on track money-wise ($600-700) for feeding a family of five but I knew there had to be a way to do more real food on a real budget. Here's how we made changes this past month.

Before: shopping weekly at Walmart (price matching & Savings Catcher), 3-4 times/month at Costco, and eating traditional American meals - casseroles, pastas, PBJs, and eating meat at every dinner. I "ran out of money" by the end of the third week and we struggled the last 4-6 days of our month (which runs according to our credit card, resetting on the 15th). 

After: one trip per week at Trader Joe's and about 3-4 trips per month to Costco, eating lots of produce, less meat, and salads twice per week. Kids' lunches are about the same and now the only place we do pasta or bread. (P.S. When the hubs is gluten-free, this helps me work in cheap pasta meals without having to complicate dinner when he's home.) 

First, I created boards on Pinterest that helped me place meals for three weeks. It was a good start, worth the extra time up front and now I just reference the meals that were successful.

Here is an image of my week of meals so I can write down exactly what I need for the week and buy nothing more. LISTS ARE REQUIRED if you're trying to stay on budget. I sit at my computer for a couple hours each week to write down exactly what I need and where I'm getting it from, then email a copy to myself so it's on my phone. This is an Excel file I change/update each week. 

Strawberry-Candied Pecan-Feta Salad
Chicken Fried Rice
Pulled Pork on tortillas (corn & flour)
Fish tacos (with fried tilapia from Trader Joe's)
Coconut Shrimp (our new favorite, plus I use the coconut in granola)

Sweet potatoes (baked, with brown sugar & butter available)
Roasted red potatoes (with olive oil, seasonings, and parmesan cheese)
Broccoli, green beans, mixed veggies, and corn

Breakfast (this is still heavy on the carbs):
Homemade granola (with milk or yogurt)
Toast or English muffins with peanut butter or cream cheese
Honey-nut Cheerios (bulk buy at Costco)

New Lunches (still working on making improvements):
Tortellini with oil & parmesan cheese (TJ's)
Homemade pizza (fresh dough from TJ's)

Once I had my menu planned, I wrote up the grocery list and figured out what needs to come from Costco and what needs to come from Trader Joe's. Easy peasy and also Excel.

- I don't buy convenience foods or snacks.
- I do buy lots of small apples, bananas, pretzels, and a bulk box of popcorn from Costco for snacks. My kids also like mini bell peppers, cucumbers, baby carrots & hummus, and we go through about two watermelons per week. Summertime is the best.
- We rarely have desserts or sweets in the house.
- My kids only drink water and occasionally milk. 
- My kids love salad because I let them use whatever dressing they want. It's worth it to me for the gallon of ranch to be smothering their plate of real food. Pick your battles. 
- If I buy food, I have to use it that month. For example, I don't buy a 10 pound bag of chicken a week before my month runs out just because the price is less per pound. I get just exactly what I need for the meals that week and ultimately save money.
- We have our church small group about once/week so that eliminates at least three meals per month.  

Lessons I learned:
- Beware fresh bulk produce. For example, I bought a huge bag of fresh broccoli from Costco but it looked funny before I used the second half. Learned to buy frozen instead.
- My fridge is more organized and my pantry is no longer holding hostage random canned food or boxes from a month ago. That's the thing I learned: when you buy boxes or cans of food, there is no urgency to use them. Fresh food requires a plan and use.
- We spoiled some of our budget on 4th of July weekend and wine. Plan ahead and plan carefully for events like this. A random trip to Kroger/Tom Thumb to grab food for a couple days of fun meals and snacks can cost you more than 10-15% of your monthly budget!
- The samples at Trader Joe's are wonderful. And terrible. I often add to my cart what they're sampling which adds an additional several dollars per trip. Careful!

Share your tips with me! What are your favorite items from Trader Joe's? What have you learned about buying in bulk from Costco? 

Updated 07/17/14: Here's my favorite find at Trader Joe's. I eat them plain, as a great accompaniment to a lite salad, or I've heard they're amazing with honey goat cheese or a smear of brie. 


Farah said...

This is awesome! My fav things at TJ's include frozen fruit and kefir for smoothies. Their frozen veggies are also very cheap. Its also where I go for dry goods (rice, quinoa, flour, sugar, etc) and nuts/seeds but Costco may be better for this, not sure. I don't do much at Costco because of one does not need Costco. But when I still had a membership, I would get a beef roast and cut it up into steak-sized pieces (because I hate fatty steak and prefer it to be a bit chewy). Frozen meat for days. :)

Farah said...

PS: frozen figs are the key to awesome smoothies without adding sugar.