I do meal planning and one primary grocery trip a month, and I’ve been doing this since 2014. That means:
- Fewer trips to the store
- No grocery budget surprises
- Fewer leftovers that get thrown out
- Less stress—I never have to think about what’s for dinner before 4pm on any given day
I do pop into the store to pick up some produce (because I haven’t yet figured out how to make lettuce last a full month), but I don’t consider that “grocery shopping” as it requires no planning and doesn’t take more than 5-10 minutes (compared to hours).
Want to make your meal planning and grocery shopping more efficient? Pull up a chair, I’ll tell you all of my secrets.
Why I Started Grocery Shopping Less
This all started out of sheer necessity when my twins came along. Any mom of twins (or really anyone with eyeballs) could understand the logistical nightmare of two newborns accompanying you on a grocery run. Two car seats take up the entire shopping cart—there’s no room for food! When I would go grocery shopping, I’d end up pushing a cart full of children and pulling a cart full of food.
It didn’t take me many rounds of this real-life game of Tetris to realize it was time for a better solution. I tried grocery delivery after I’d been given a gift certificate, and I was determined to make those groceries last as long as possible. I started doing grocery delivery regularly (and then grocery pick-up when it became available). Each time, I’d get a little better at planning our meals for the month and using up all the food we bought. I’ve learned a few things since I first started, and I’ll tell you my best tips for grocery shopping once a month.
How It Works
We plan out four to five dinners a week. Sundays dinners are with my in-laws or parents, and on Friday we get take-out. Lunches usually consist of leftovers from the night before or we have a short list of regular lunch options stocked (salad, pasta, sandwiches, soups, and quick instant pot options). When we don’t feel like cooking, we’ll have a quick pasta, salad, or cheese and crackers. We’ve found that planning out four to five dinners per week is the sweet spot for us. Here’s how I do it:
1. Plan Out the Meals
On the 25th of the month, I have a reminder set to plan my meals for the next month. This is my family’s chance to put in their requests (to stock up on or never make again). Then, I start by building a monthly list of meals that we want to eat, usually a mix of interesting things we’ve found throughout the month and of course some old favorites.
We use Plan To Eat to store all of our recipes and meal plans, and there’s an easy drag-and-drop feature to do this—but you could also use any calendar of your choosing. I open my real calendar simultaneously and make sure that I don’t plan meals requiring a lot of prep on a day that we have swimming lessons, PTO, or other evening commitments.
2. Make the Grocery List
Plan to Eat has a built-in shopping list generator, but you could also do this manually. Also, I realize this is starting to sound like a sponsored post, but I promise you it’s not! A lot of us here at YNAB just swear by Plan to Eat and it comes up whenever we talk about grocery shopping.
The shopping list generator is a great feature, because it puts the pieces together for you. Say you only need half an onion for one recipe and half for another, Plan to Eat keeps that tally. You can quickly see where your cost savings come into play—it’s quite magical when you see these efficiencies come together!
We also use our favorite handy devices (Echo Dots) to add to our shopping list throughout the month for things that wouldn’t necessarily be on the recipe list like condiments, spices, and snacks.
3. Order Online
Once I’ve got my grocery list, I order online. I bring up the website of my online grocery store of choice, fly through the list, and add everything to my virtual cart (except for produce and the things I’ll pick up at Costco). Before I place my order, I’ll add in the produce for the first week or two, depending on the item (well-stored vegetables will last longer than you may think).
4. Pick Up Groceries
On the first(ish) day of the month, we’ll pick up our groceries or get them delivered. The same day, we’ll run to Costco to supplement our dinner needs and pick up lunch and breakfast food. Here’s what a typical Costco list might look like.
We have a pretty standard set of options we’ll eat for breakfast and lunch so this list stays relatively the same each month. These options are actually listed out on laminated menus that our kids choose from each night before bed to pick out their food for the next day. My husband then preps lunches before bed (or well, he did when they were still going to school).
5. Quick Replenishing
Once our fridge is full, we usually wind up popping into our local market a couple times during the month for fresh produce, eggs, bread, and dairy. I don’t consider these stops as “grocery shopping” as they take a few minutes (rather than hours) and don’t require any of the pre-planning or mental decision making of true grocery shopping. These stops typically take no more than 5-10 minutes and cost around $20-$30 each.
In our grocery budget in YNAB, we have three category lines:
- Monthly Costco run: $250/month
- Monthly grocery shop: $150/month
- Grocery replenishing (for those quick market trips): $100/month
Benefits of 1x/Month Grocery Shopping
I don’t love grocery stores, and I don’t love grocery shopping. I’m not a person who is relaxed by a stroll through the aisles, and I’m not a person who thrives with on-the-fly planning (as you can probably tell by this system!).
For me, there are three huge benefits to grocery shopping once a month:
I can easily swap one meal for another in my meal plan because I have so many choices! If the weather is nice and we want to grill, I can swap burgers with soup and be confident I have everything we need.
Control Over Grocery Spending
When you grocery shop online, you see exactly how much your total will be. If things get a little crazy in your online cart, you can easily remove an item or rethink a meal to drop the total cost. You can also add a few treats (and not share with your family unless you want to) when you have a more budget-friendly month. Having a separate Costco line is really helpful for giving us a super clear framework for spending when we go.
I spend two to three hours total per month to meal plan, order, go to Costco (eat at the food court), and pop into a local market for milk. Many people might spend that much time each week on groceries and and meal planning. Here’s how it’s broken down per month:
- 1 hour: meal planning and ordering groceries (often with the TV on and my favorite beverage in hand)
- 1 hour: Costco trip and food court dinner (we get relatively the same things each trip, so it’s quick)
- 30-45 minutes: replenishing (we have multiple market options that are on our normal school/work routes so each trip ends up being no more than 15 minutes and we usually stop two or three times a month)
We spend about $500/month for a family of five on groceries. We eat mostly vegetarian, and at the end of the month our meal options are a bit more limited, the fridge is empty, and our shelves are nearly bare. On the upside, we haven’t thrown away produce or stale/expired food in years and have virtually eliminated food waste in our family. We’ve found this setup to be smoother and tastier than frozen meals, and it doesn’t take up as much space in the freezer.
My husband and I split the cooking half and half, and this method helps us share responsibilities (you just check the app for what’s on the menu).
Reducing your grocery budget is a slow process. And, like we talk about all the time at YNAB, how you spend your money is truly unique to your family! The number of people you’re feeding, the area you live in, your personal eating habits, etc. will all factor into your grocery budget and you shouldn’t feel bad about that at all!
While our setup might not be enticing to everyone or fit with your specific needs, we have found it useful for dialing in our grocery spend and freeing up time and mental space every month.