The best laid plans…only work when you actually make them.
I don’t care if you have the fastest route around the grocery store.
It won’t matter if your list is color-coded and organized by aisle.
Even if you have all your coupons perfectly arranged in a 3-ring binder and know how to save $67.82 on every receipt…
Your grocery routine won’t work for you unless you do these three things right:
- You have to have the right stuff on your list at the right times.
- You have to actually GET to the store – and if it can be in an efficient manner that doesn’t interrupt family life, all the better.
- You must have some rules once you’re inside the store so that point number 1 comes out on your side.
This post is sponsored by Blue Apron.
The Foundations of a Grocery Routine
In this post I’ll lay out exactly how to achieve each goal with as much time saved as possible so that your family can eat healthy, real food, from-scratch meals every day – plus what you can do if your routine breaks down so you DON’T have to rely on takeout pizza.
In a 6-week period this winter I think I only went to the grocery store once – and we didn’t starve, even for fresh veggies and fruit. Right now it’s been six days since I last saw the inside of a store carrying food, and we’re out of cucumbers (which I’ll start hearing complaints about soon) but still have plenty of fresh food to eat for a few more days.
1. I have a system for getting things on a grocery list.
There are two reasons you might need to put something on your grocery list – either you ran out or you need it in the next week for a recipe you’ve chosen. Your staples should be simple and may even be in your head, and anything you just “want” to buy or try should be incorporated into your meal plan anyway.
- My staples are things like bananas, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, and some salad toppings. When I go shopping, we’re always out of all of them, so that’s easy. I can just buzz through the produce section and I’m done.
- When I put a new recipe on my meal plan that might use an ingredient I don’t always have on hand, it’s easy to add that to my shopping list – which is a very average-looking piece of paper (ok, it’s quite scrappy-looking) in the front pocket of my purse, stored with a pen for easy access and quick additions.
- And when I run out of something? I won’t let my brain stop saying its name until I’ve written it down! My purse is always in the same spot, near enough to the kitchen that I can grab it, write down the used-up ingredient, and get back to cooking.
- Many people also meal plan using the sale ads for the week, and that’s a great idea too. Same strategy though – you plan it, and it goes on your list. You’re just starting with the circular instead of the recipe, but the end result is the same for your list.
2. I have rules for what I buy when I’m in the store.
This ensures that my list actually has meaning, will result in proper meals when I get home, and most especially that I don’t spend more money than I should. My rules include:
- Shop the perimeter – I don’t even go down a middle aisle unless something is on my list there, usually if salsa or spaghetti sauce is on sale and sometimes because we’re out of something we use often that rarely goes on sale. (see next rule)
- Choose sales – With non-perishables, I very much try to stock up on the sales so I never even have to bother writing them on my list when we’re out. We don’t run out. (Costco is an exception – as things I buy in bulk get low, I write them on my list to make sure we have a backup.)
- Avoid impulse buys – It’s good to remind yourself not to be tempted. Frequenting ALDI can often help with this, too, because there are simply fewer distractions and shiny objects to attract your attention and get you to spend unnecessary money. Although I seem to find temptations there too…
3. I have had a routine about what day I grocery shop.
For years I had a grocery routine that was tied to another event – every Wednesday, I went to Bible study, and on the way home I went shopping. My route took me right past both of the best grocery stores, which are a 10-minute drive from my home and not somewhere I passed often. (Costco was still an exception and needed special planning.)
However, this year when I started going to a different Bible study, I lost my routine altogether.
I never go anywhere regularly that passes the grocery stores I like anymore!
So…we kept running out of cucumbers. And bananas. And grocery shopping was suddenly a huge pain the schedule! My routine had completely broken, and we were feeling it.
It used to be such a relief to know exactly what stores I would be able to hit on Wednesdays, and that Wednesday was a “gimme” for groceries. If we were getting low on something, as long as Wednesday was coming, I never felt like we’d run out of fresh food. Plus I knew it would be exactly a week until my next shopping trip, so I always knew just how much to purchase to last us until the next shopping day.
That 6 week period when I didn’t go grocery shopping that I mentioned at the top of the post?
We survived because of another routine:
My in-laws visit for dinner every Tuesday. And their route to our house goes right past ALDI, which happens to be my MIL’s favorite store. It wasn’t uncommon to find me texting her on Tuesday afternoons:
Could you pop into ALDI on your way over today pls? I only need bananas, cucumbers, lettuce, oranges, and onions.
She totally saved me, but I’m guessing that’s not advice that can extrapolate onto everyone’s experience.
When your systems break, there are other “real food insurance” options.
When everything falls apart and you’re not grocery shopping well, you can still get fresh food in the house by using a meal service. We recently tested out Blue Apron, which saved me that week after Easter when I didn’t want to go to the store for anything just before spring break anyway. We got two meals delivered to our porch and had leftovers to fill in the gaps – total score.
How Does Blue Apron Work?
A service like Blue Apron, which delivers exactly the right amount of all the fresh ingredients you need for a meal right to your door, is perfect when you don’t know if or when you’ll get to the store – whether it’s a busy season of life, or everyone is sick in the house, or your kids are on vacation from school, or you’ve had a new baby, or just during a huge change in your weekly routine.
When my grocery routine broke, we got by, but I wasn’t doing well getting a variety of fresh food in the house, so having a service to do it for me was a breath of fresh air. Plus, there was no waste or leftover ingredients for me to worry about when we left for a little spring break time away.
Here’s what the experience feels like:
1. Choose your meals.
You can choose 1-4 recipes for each week (the menu changes every week and is different for 2-person or 4-person plans). Here’s an example and you can browse all Blue Apron’s recipes here:
You can click through on each recipe to see full ingredients, time needed, step-by-step instructions with photographs (which is what you’ll get on a card when the meals come), and sometimes background on the seasoning and tips for prep and techniques.
The ingredients you receive aren’t organic, but Blue Apron is working to develop a sustainable food system and chooses high quality ingredients.
2. Choose your delivery day and await your package!
You can’t exactly say, “Hey Blue Apron, I forgot to meal plan today and need some dinner now, please,” like you can with takeout, but if you can plan ahead just a bit, you can have the meals on the days you need them (and they can be refrigerated for a few days before serving too). The tradeoff – and it’s in your favor – is that these aren’t processed meals. It’s real food, prepared by you – but planned, portioned and delivered by someone else.
Note that the ingredients are measured – “portioned” – but not cut for you. This is good because you avoid loss of nutrients, although you need to understand that you don’t get a “bye” from the cutting board and chef’s knife. Pictured above is everything we received for 2 meals for 4 people.
3. Check out the recipe instructions.
We got a Shepherd’s Pie and a Middle Eastern spiced chicken with tabbouleh, roasted cauliflower and tzatziki. The instructions are clear, but our only complaint about the card information was that the meals took a little longer than the listed time: my husband made the meal on the right in the photo above, and it took him nearly an hour 20 minutes (half an hour longer than the card stated), and I pulled together the meal on the left in about 55 minutes, which was exactly as listed, although the long end of the time range.
4. Follow the instructions to create your meal.
You’ll need only simple supplies like a knife and cutting board, a pot, pan and baking dish, and salt, pepper and olive oil.
It’s still a little amazing to me that my husband made this meal below, and the best part was that I actually didn’t have to do anything – not find or adapt the recipe, not show him where ingredients were hiding, not send him a special email about what to do. I just handed him the card and told him everything was in the fridge.
And that spread above isn’t even all of it – the roasted cauliflower was divine:
5. Do it all over again the next night.
Both meals we chose were quite delicious, rated highly by nearly all Kimball family members (except the 4-year-old, who doesn’t count IMO!).
Our second meal was Shepherd’s Pie, which the kids wanted to help with – they decided that shelling peas was great, but eating them was better. We actually threw some frozen peas into the casserole and served the shelled peas raw with dinner. So, so yummy and such a treat in winter!
The other tweak I made was to bake the Shepherd’s Pie in a cast iron pan instead of transferring it to a baking dish, thus saving time and dishes! Hooray! (And the toddler seriously loved it, even though it has a ton of flavor and lots of seasoning. He ate like four helpings!!)
See that tzatziki sauce in the lower right corner? That’s from meal one and the biggest surprise I got from the whole process. I figured that with our family of 5.5 eaters, we’d have no leftovers and may in fact run out of food. I was wrong! We had a bit of leftover chicken and enough tabbouleh and tzatziki as sides for a few more meals, and the Shepherd’s Pie fed a number of us lunch for days! Pleasant surprise!
Another nice surprise was how much my kids liked the food. Just this week my daughter asked, “Mom, does Blue Apron cost money?”
I grinned and said, “Yes honey, they’re a business, and they sell the food and deliver it, and they send the instructions too. Why do you ask?”
She gazed off wistfully and said, “I was just thinking about that Shepherd’s Pie…that was so good.”
My kids do like the recipes I make, most of the time, and every so often I get my praises sung at the dinner table – but to be fair, I can’t recall anyone ever waxing poetic about my cooking weeks later! Score one for Blue Apron!
And finally…recycle a lot of your packaging from Blue Apron. Details here on how to return packaging to Blue Apron for recycling and reuse, following USPS existing delivery routes so there’s no additional carbon footprint.
Two Free Meals for You!
I’m so thrilled that Blue Apron is offering you a chance to test out the service! The first 50 readers to click here and begin the process of signing up will be sent to a special page just for Kitchen Stewardship readers, where you’ll receive two free meals with your first order.
Details: On the Family plan, save $17.48 on your order, a 25% discount. On the 2-serving plan, save $19.98 on your order, a 33% discount.
A Little More About Blue Apron
- Each menu is between 500-800 calories per person.
- Ingredients are incredibly fresh and sourced from quality suppliers and artisans.
- All meals can be prepared in 40 minutes or less. (ideally…but you may want to leave a little more time just in case)
- Fun Benefit: Blue Apron lets you learn to make new recipes and cuisines so you can get out of your dinner rut of making the same old dishes or relying on take out.
- Why the Name? Chefs in training around the world wear blue aprons – it’s a symbol of lifelong learning in cooking.