Updated on 01.17.11

Using Grocery Flyers to Plan Meals

Trent Hamm

As I’ve mentioned many times on Google-X, one of our most frequently-used methods for saving money on food is to simply create a meal plan each week based on the sales found in grocery flyers. I then take that meal plan and prepare a grocery list based on it, which naturally includes many of the sale items found in the flyers.

For me, this approach to meal planning was vastly different than the way I once did it and, to be frank, it took some getting used to. I tend to learn such things through repetition and example, seeing what others have done and simply trying it myself until it becomes natural and normal.

With that in mind, this week, as I was working on my family’s meal plan, I decided to simply make a post outlining the entire process, from meal plan to grocery list, so you can see clearly how the entire process works and perhaps imitate it yourself for food preparation in your own home.

Getting the Flyers
Many grocery store chains carry digital copies of their flyers on their websites. If your preferred grocery store does not, you can often find a copy of that week’s grocery store flyer inside a copy of the Sunday newspaper in your area.

I tend to use digital flyers for the grocery stores I most often visit. I tend to split my grocery shopping between Fareway and Hy-Vee – the former has the best prices on many goods, but the latter often has a better selection for specific items I might need. Since I often do the bulk of my grocery shopping at Fareway with just a quick stop at Hy-Vee at the end of the trip to pick up what I couldn’t find at Fareway, I check the websites of both stores for flyers (hyvee.com and fareway.com).

Identifying Interesting Items
As I browse through the flyers for each store, I try to look for items that are either on sale low enough that they stand out to me or ones that stand out for flavor reasons, inspiring me to get into the kitchen and cook. I tend to particularly focus on produce deals.

In the current flyer at fareway.com, I found these sales worth noting:
Navel oranges, ten cents each
Fresh broccoli, $1.49 lb.
Baby portabellas, $1.29 lb.
Red potatoes, $1.99 for 5 lb. bag

In the current flyer at hyvee.com, I found these sales worth noting:
Asparagus, $2.97 lb. (expensive out of season, but sounds delicious)
Mild yellow onions, $1.39 for 3 lb. bag
Baby red potatoes, $0.69 lb.

Finding and Choosing Recipes
I know that I need to plan for five dinners in the coming week, as well as making sure that we have things on hand for breakfasts (like plenty of oatmeal, for example) and a few items for backup lunches in case we don’t have enough leftovers to cover our lunches.

I usually use a recipe search engine like allrecipes, putting in the interesting ingredients I found above to search for simple recipes I can make that the family would like (with an eye toward my own dietary needs, too). I often also go through our cookbooks and recipe box to see if we have anything interesting that matches well.

I wound up with several recipes worth using, including a portabella penne, an asparagus ratatouille that lets me use the leftover tomatoes from some cooking last week, and a recipe that I’ll be using in my Friday meal post.

Building a Meal Plan and a Master Ingredient List
I usually come up with an actual meal plan at this point, slotting in the various meals for various nights. The biggest reason for doing this is so that I can be sure to use the fresher ingredients as quickly as possible, to plan ahead in terms of tasks that need to be done (like soaking beans overnight), and to make sure I can roll over elements easily from one meal to the next, like having both meals with onions close enough together that any extra chopped onion doesn’t go bad in the fridge.

I also prepare what I call a “master ingredient list.” This is basically a list of all of the ingredients in this week’s recipes sorted by the place where I’d find it in our kitchen – refrigerator, freezer, top pantry shelf, etc.

I do all of this on the computer, usually using Google Docs. It’s much easier to just type all of this stuff out than it is to actually write it down.

Turning the Ingredient List into a Grocery List
When I have a “master ingredient list,” I take it around the house to each of the places I’ve grouped things by on the list, then I cross off the things we already have. This also makes me check up on the quantity of stuff we use frequently, like milk, and encourages me to add such things to the list.

Once I’m done hitting the spots in our kitchen, the grocery list is ready to go. Conveniently, it’s already pretty well organized, as I marked the sale items on the list so I know what store to buy it in, and all of the refrigerator and freezer stuff is already grouped together for me.

I simply hit the grocery store, unpack everything, and then just follow that meal plan throughout the busy week.

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  1. Patti says:

    This is very similar to my system! I can only handle four meals per week, and on the other nights we do leftovers or go out. I do leftovers for lunch. It’s pretty hard coming up with recipes, because my husband and I are both picky. But when I find a great recipe we both enjoy, we just get so excited like we won the lottery or something. I enjoy the challenge of feeding our little family on a budget and ($100/week by the time I account for breakfasts, my daughter’s lunch, snacks etc.) I am not the world’s greatest cook, but when you take the time to find good recipes, it’s really not that hard.

  2. JC says:

    I’ve never seen Oranges for 10 cents! My wife could eat 3 oranges a day (more I bet) but they’re always so expensive. The cheapest I’ve ever seen is $.40/lb…Do oranges often go on sale like that there? I may have to move out that way if so. :)

  3. Sara A. says:

    I am a vegan and I have trouble using our grocery store circulars. A lot of the discounts are tied into “meal deals” that involve some kind of meat. Or, for non-food items, the coupons will be for name brand stuff that is more expensive than the generic even after the coupon discount.

    So, I usually just ignore the circular and stick to staples that I know are cheap and healthy all the time.

  4. Cheryl says:

    I mainly use the flyers to see if things we use all the time are on sale. Safeway lets you make a list and print it, but I usually just have paper and pencil to make my own list.

  5. PF says:

    I actually went through my process to write about it last week. My process is very similar. I’m trying to incorporate more couponing and sites like couponmom into my methods too.

    My list is 400+ items long right now, but I have a check box so the 60 or so items I need a week can be filtered on

  6. Mary says:

    In the past my boyfriend and I planned our meals (utilized allrecipes.com) and shopped based on what we needed, but never really used the flyers. After shopping and planning off of one store that had some huge sales for the week, this week I’ve collected all the grocery flyers and will decide from there which grocery store “wins my business” and plan our meals from there. I’m hoping we save even more money versus just picking a recipe, and more often than not, not having all the ingredients for it. An expensive example is chili. So many ingredients it’s ridiculous. Also the coupons I collect would be more effective. Plus we get to have fresher ingredients IMO. However, I guess one thing I don’t like when I have to get toiletries and what not, Walmart wins hands down, and I prefer to stick with just one store, saving gas. Idk – figure you don’t have to get toiletries as often I suppose.

    Speaking of oranges, the cheapest I’ve got is 19 cents an orange. Must be a Midwest thing (Eau Claire WI).

  7. valleycat1 says:

    My system is much less involved. Mainly because we don’t really have any choice of markets in our small town for fresh foods (veggies & meat). I usually figure out main dish options while at the store depending on what is at a good price or fiis seasonal. Then buy a wide variety of vegetables (we grow most of our own fruit other than bananas). Over the years, my spouse has taught me the fine art of putting together a good meal based on what’s on hand.

  8. chuck says:

    wow thats a great price on oranges!!!!!!!!

  9. Rebecca says:

    I tend to use the flyers to stock up on what is at a great price, but not for weekly meals. Last week Hyvee had bacon for $2/lb so I bought 3 packs, and cheese for $2/lb. Even in WI that is a great price on cheese so I stocked up and got 20lbs, all in the freezer. I do look for good sales for veggies and fruit, but I keep a well stocked pantry and deep freezer so I can buy at super low prices and meal plan around my stock, just picking up a few regular items every week and the odd end or two.

  10. Michele says:

    Trent, have you considered checking the website
    eat the seasons dot com
    This tells you what is in season in the US. I’d rather chose something that is in season to plan my menu, or something I’ve stored or canned from my garden. For example, I grow spaghetti squash and kabocha squash in the summer to eat all winter, and I can tomatoes and make apricot and berry jam. My friends who are hunters give me cuts of deer or elk to freeze.( We are not hunters) My husband is a fisherman so we also catch, clean and freeze fish to eat in the winter, too. To me, the cheapest is not always the best. If it’s in season in the US it should be less expensive and it is a sustainable type of eating and a little more responsible. I know not everyone will agree, but it’s worth considering.

  11. Gretchen says:

    10 cent oranges in Iowa is wrong on mutliple levels.

    I read the ads, but I ususally don’t shop around them. I don’t buy my meat at the supermarket and most of the things I do buy tend to go on sale in rotation.

  12. Jamie says:

    This method takes too long for me. I have 26 menus already pulled together. I pull a menu based on what meat I already have in the freezer and other food in the pantry and plan to buy whatever I don’t already have but need. Otherwise, I use the flyers to find the loss leaders and other inexpensive stuff to stock up on, using coupons to make the deal sweeter where I can. I also buy whatever fruits and veggies are on special. I cook four dinners a week and hubby grills on Saturday (our big splurge). Otherwise it is leftovers or frozen pizza/tacos/spaghetti. I take leftovers for lunch.

  13. Janis says:

    Other than the occasional organic chicken, we don’t eat meat. And we don’t eat highly processed foods or much that isn’t organic, so the conventional store flyers rarely have any deals for us. When I do find a deal, I’ll stock up and will then “shop” my pantry when it’s time to plan menus.

    My favorite meal planning tool is a site called Mealfire (dot com). I mentioned this in another thread about recipes, as Mealfire is a kind of online recipe aggregator that lets you collect recipes from various sites (often with one click of a button) or input your own recipes. You can drag and drop recipes onto a calendar and then use your meal plan to generate a shopping list that is cross indexed to indicate which recipe the ingredient belongs to. Recipes are easily searchable and you can tag them, too, to make it easier to find all your main dish, vegetarian, slow cooker recipes, for example. I like that I can edit the recipes that I’ve imported, changing ingredients or cooking method to suit my preferences. I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I really like this FREE online resource and highly recommend it.

    (I’ll add that I have absolutely no affiliation with Mealfire; I’m just an enthusiastic user of the service.)

  14. valleycat1 says:

    #13 Janis – Mealfire sounds like the perfect site for me – I’ll check it out! Thanks for the reco

  15. Kerry D. says:

    We only use new recipes occasionally… with three teens and a busy schedule, we use about a half dozen dinners almost all the time.

    So, meal planning is EASY, even working off the circulars. Each week I stock up on whatever we use that’s on sale. By the time we did this, we saved about $300 a month on groceries! (Originally $1,000 most months, til I lost my job.)

  16. Kandace says:

    Like other readers, I start with what I already have on hand and buy the fresh fruits and vegetables I need to complete my dinners. If I find a great sale, I stock up too.

  17. This only works if you own a car. If you are on public transportation, you have to shop at one place and take a taxi home. I shop for 4 of us, and I have no car, I ride a bus, so going to different grocery stores all over the city is not a viable option.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t shop the circulars to plan my meals–I shop the circulars to stock my pantry with the items we use regularly.

    Then I shop my pantry to create my meal plan each week.

  19. One way to break up the list is to spread out your errands during the week.

    If you see two or three stores that have groceries you want, then book those around your existing errands. You are spending less time in each store, and carrying fewer bags home when you do that.

  20. Lise says:

    I liked the recommendation above of Mealfire – I think I’ll try it out. I was actually going to recommend an app for the iPhone/iPad called MealBoard, which does the same thing, but which is not free, and where you have to enter all the recipes manually! I guess if you normally shop with your iPhone/Ipad, MealBoard might be better?

    One of my resolutions for 2011 is to lose weight, and planning my meals ties in well with that – so I’ve been doing this since the beginning of the month. Besides the fact that the kitchen is always dirty and I’m spending more on groceries, I love that we always know what we’re going to eat, and that eating healthfully is automated. I also try to tie in with the flyers from my local Hannaford, and I’d like to think we’ve saved a little money, even if we’re dropping ~$100 a week in groceries. Overall, I feel like it’s well worth the time it takes me to construct a menu on Saturday morning.

    Also, I’m not sure I understand all the comments on the thread about “this only works if you buy processed foods!” I’ve found that to be true for coupons, but not for weekly specials. The things that go on special regularly at my Hannaford are meat, deli stuff, and produce (which includes tofu in my supermarket). Maybe it differs by region, dunno.

  21. littlepitcher says:

    Do know when your market marks it down. Sunday mornings, Monday mornings, and Thursday nights are prime for markdowns, but I walked in one market on Grocery Ad Day to fill a Rx, and found the entire stock of mushrooms marked down. The large boxes had mildew spots, but the small boxes were pristine, and I walked out with four boxes at the amazing price of fifty cents each!

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