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3 Tips for Reverse Meal Planning

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Guest post by Kirsten of I Still Hate Pickles

Last year, we put our house on the market. Keeping a house in show-ready condition with two kids meant that my house and my time needed some de-cluttering. Couponing seemed to be one more thing I couldn’t handle, so I packed up my coupon folders and stopped checking online for the best coupon match-ups.

I didn’t want our grocery budget to blow up, so I came up with a system of reverse meal planning. This meant hitting the store with a basic list, buying the best deals, and planning my week around that.

If you are think this type of meal planning would work for you, here are 3 tips that helped me:

1. Pick One Store and Know It Well

Each store has its own advantages in terms of savings, whether by great weekly deals or a valued customer program. Find a store that you are familiar with and know you can find savings without coupons. Become familiar with their shopping policies.

My store became our local Kroger, even though it doesn’t always have the lowest prices. It has separate clearance sections for things like organic, meat, frozen, produce, and general store items. Before I really looked, I never saw these areas!

I also discovered what days of the week tended to have the best mark-downs and planned my trips accordingly.

2. Make a General List

Rather than a specific list of items, my grocery list might look like this: fruit, bread, meat, cheese. When I got to the store, I would hit the clearance areas first. Most weeks, I could buy 90% of the list on clearance. Then I filled the list with the best non-clearance deals. In knowing your store well, you’ll already know what prices are really good.

3. Stockpile the Great Deals

Having a stockpile means that for some things, like meat and cheese, if you find a great deal, you can buy a lot and freeze them. This carried me through weeks or months where I found no good deals on items like deli meat or chicken. It’s also a good idea to note what you have stockpiled before you hit the store.

This method requires a little more flexibility than traditional meal planning. These general principles, however, work really well in conjunction with couponing — know your store, have some flexibility if you find an unexpected deal, and stockpile.

Now that we are in a less stressful situation, I can combine coupon savings with clearance savings to maximize our grocery budget. I still do like planning in reverse—it feels a little like a game to me, and sometimes makes me more adventurous with foods I might not have chosen otherwise.

Kirsten Oliphant is a writer, blogger, and wrangler of children at home. Several of her books are available on Amazon and her blog, I Still Hate Pickles, features an eclectic mix of life, faith, recipes, and roller derby.

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46 Comments

  • J says:

    I really love shopping the clearance sections and have found some amazing deals. Last week I purchased a 50% off roast and made 6 meals out of it. Total coast of the roast $7.47. Yay!

  • janel says:

    I’ve been charged wrong so many times in my life and only gotten the item free twice. The cashiers always pretend like they don’t know the policy, then want to just change it to the correct price, and act like you’re stealing if you bring up the policy which never feels worth it to me.

    • Stephanie says:

      go to the customer service desk with your receipt and they will fix it.

      • Cherie says:

        I was overpriced at Fred Meyer (Kroger) on a Easter Mug and Mascara. Plus, a package of salami had a cut through the seal and it was bad. I noticed these after I got home. I took my receipt to the customer service counter and they were friendly, apologized and gave me over $8 back. At checkout, it is difficult to watch every transaction, especially if you are still unloading your cart.

    • Kimberly says:

      Yes–about every third time we go to Kroger, we find an Overcharge before we leave the store….and we always take it to Cust. Service and get a 100% refund!

      At two other Kroger stores, the Cust Service clerk didn’t know the policy, but when we told ’em about it, they refunded our money right away.

    • scout says:

      Yeah, the cashiers are not who do it – the customer service desk is. That way they can correct the problem in their system. I’ve gotten many a refund that way. But they’ll only refund one of an item – if you have multiples, they’ll just correct the rest. They also won’t always do it if it is just an expired sale (especially if the shelf tag has the sale dates on it), but it depends on the person.

  • Shannon says:

    Reverse meal planning never occurred to me before reading this article. What a fun, different, and economical way to meal plan. I will look forward to trying out your techniques and I have recently become a regular Kroger shopper too. I didn’t know they had a clearance section for meat and produce.

  • Elise says:

    Reverse meal planning sounds like a super smart idea! We’ve kind of been doing that (in a way) with trying to use the last of our freezer beef. It’s a here’s-what-we-have-what-can-we-make-with-it game.

  • Ashley says:

    I love this idea, but I’ve yet to discover the best day for getting clearance stuff. It is always very hit and miss for me. I have gotten some great deals on meat though.

    I wish Walmart had that policy, their stuff is constantly ringing up a different price than what the shelf said.

  • Heather says:

    I always do this for fresh produce, among other things. It’s best to go to the store with an open mind, because you never know what the quality will be. For example, I wanted lettuce last week, but it was rather wilted looking so I got something else instead.
    I still do menu plan loosely before I go, as I keep a variety of meat in the freezer and other staples on hand, so I can plan my main dishes ahead. Things like veggies and snacks I add later after I see what looks freshest. Of course, some things like carrots are always good. If there is an unexpected deal, I have no problem changing my plan to accommodate that.

  • Anne says:

    I finally have have a name for my favorite kind of meal planning! Reverse!!

    I’ve been reluctant to increase our grocery budget with all the rising prices these past months. Using a variation of the reverse technique described here is the single best reason my budget stays intact.

    Never thought of learning one store very well. During the busy seasons in our family, I’ll have to give this one a try.

    Thanks!

  • jennifer says:

    Great ideas! Do you shop one clearance section or several? Like meat, bakery, canned goods?

    • I shop clearance first, then will hit the rest of the store to fill in the gaps. Some weeks I really score, and some weeks not as much. Which is why I stockpile when I find the good deals!

  • Alyssa says:

    This is way more up my alley for meal planning!! I have a premaid list i print off every week for basics with spaces to add things or i can always cross things off ahead of time if i know i don’t need it! Great post!!

  • Stacy says:

    Where do you find the policy about the wrong price item being free? I’ve been all over their website, and the only policy I can find deals with digital coupons.

    • If you look right where they have that little check-writing “desk” by the credit card machine, they have that policy printed. I always point to it politely if they give me hassle. I do agree with most comments–the cashiers often don’t know about this policy.

  • Kimberly says:

    Great post–thank yous!

    Another wonderful policy that Kroger doesn’t advertise is this: On an item that’s BOGO, you can buy just ONE and get it for half-off!

  • C Kirk says:

    I think this is great. Makes more sense to me than messing with all those coupons.

  • I do a mixture of reverse meal planning and conventional meal planning. In general, though, conventional meal planning saves me the most money. When I have tried only reverse meal planning, I have stocked up on too much, relied too heavily on processed foods, and ended up in meal ruts that made me bored, frustrated and wanting to eat out! Of course, this is just me–everyone is different. I tend to save more money when I have specific meals in mind and a list of the ingredients I need. That said, I do stock up on certain items that I know we use all the time, and it is really good being able to head to the cupboard or freezer to make meals based on what we have in, especially if I’ve accidentally gone over budget during a previous week.

  • stephanie says:

    I knew you could freeze cheese, which I do, but I didn’t know you could freeze deli meat! Seriously!?

    • Sherri says:

      Yes, you can freeze deli meat. Just make sure to really squeeze the air out and put it in a freezer baggie.

    • Jeri says:

      Yes, you can! I accidentally put deli meat–sliced turkey– away in the freezer instead of the fridge. When I found it a week later, I defrosted it and it was fine. Now I do it routinely if we’ve bought extra. But it’s never occurred to me to freeze cheese–thanks for that idea.

    • WilliamB says:

      Absolutely! I bought 8-10 lbs when it was cheap and have been using it up over the past 4 months. It’s damper than it was before freezing but a towel takes care of that soon enough.

  • Thanks! I love this idea!

    Kate

  • Judy says:

    This is the way I have always shopped and planned meals. I learned it from my mom. My sisters do the same. I seldom buy anything not on sale or clearance and stockpile really good deals. When I first heard people talking about planning meals and then shopping I thought they were going about it backwards. Love your blog and FB page.

    • WilliamB says:

      Same here, it’s how I learned to cook when I was broke. Works best for produce – what’s inexpensive also tends to be what’s in season and therefore the tastiest as well. With the occasional inexplicable occurance such as last week’s $1.50/lb strawberries, which tasted like straw, not berries.

      I find this version to be less work than pouring over weekly circulars, figuring out what’s cheap, planning a menu around that, then shopping. Probably helps that I like to cook and have a well-organized cookbook library.

  • Bonnie says:

    I can plan several meals quick on my feet in 2 mins when I have little money doing this. In fact, I shop more this way than doing meal planning before I go to the store. I almost always buy marked down bananas and other produce. There are many weeks I have to simply take what money we have, go into the store, and come out with what was in the clearance sections. I am always amazed at what I bring home and how my money has stretched. I have saved TONS more money shopping this way than I ever save with coupons.

    • debbie says:

      Really? Wow. Thanks for sharing this comment. You sound just like my sister. Sometimes after bills she has $10 to stretch for the week and manages to come up with ways to feed her family. Amazes me.

  • Susan says:

    One thing that makes it really difficult to check prices at my local Kroger is how they show up on the screen when you are checking out. It shows the regular price and then at the end it changes it to whatever the sale price should be. I have a hard time keeping up with it, but to get food for free, I’ll get over my frustration. Has anyone else noticed that Walmart has started removing many of the prices from the shelves?

    • Jessica says:

      Ugh, YES! I’m constantly running to the “check the price here” thingy – sometimes with a cart full!

  • Heather says:

    I only wish I knew where the clearance sections (other than non-food) were at HEB. I never see anything like that!

    • Kirsten says:

      I agree! I saw a clearance section ONCE at HEB, with HUGE packages of a few random things, but other than that I feel saddened when I read about people’s great grocery stores! HEB is sure cheap, but with the no double coupons/lack of clearance 🙁

      • Kirsten says:

        PS not the same Kirsten who wrote the article (obviously! Haha).

        • Hey, other Kirsten. 🙂 I have found that HEB has weird carts set up with clearance in my store. In weird places like the frozen food aisle. Each HEB seems different, just as the Krogers are all different. There are two Krogers within a mile of my house and they each have different kinds of clearance in different areas. It does not seem consistent with ANY store. That’s why once I figure a store out, I’m loathe to switch.

  • I’ve found I had to adjust my menu planning to a similar strategy since moving over seas. Even the Walmart in the fairly big city I currently live in runs out of so many things so much more frequently than in the states, that I have to see what I can get first and then make a menu with that.

    The good things that this has brought out of me though are increased flexibility (like Kirsten mentioned) and eating in season and learning how to make lots of new things with whats available.

  • Donna says:

    The clearance rack at our local Cash-n-Carry got me 4 of the #10 cans of applesauce for $4 (each) this month. Happy happy kids! 🙂

    We have a local store that I often can find mark-down produce and I will bring it home, chop it up, and freeze.

    Awesome tip about Kroger!
    Thank U!

  • Jessica says:

    I used to do this all of the time. Now I plan my meals for the week based on what I have in my stockpile minus fresh fruits and veggies. Then I go to the store with an idea of what I would like to have for the next week, but mostly buy what is on clearance and then build around that. That way I can still plan out most of meals in advanced, but still take advantage of store clearance items.

    • This is mainly how I meal plan. I typically do one week at a time, go with a general list and see what has the best prices, particularly with produce, snacks, and meats (I am a vegetarian but the rest of my family is not; a good deal on meat goes a long way in our house). I have a small stockpile of pantry items but since we don’t have a lot of room for storage in our house, I try to keep that under control.

      I can’t imagine shopping another way than this. I’ve been doing it for years and it definitely works.

  • Jaz says:

    This is similar to what I do sometimes. I prefer a less rigid version of meal planning so this is extremely useful. It lets you buy up the really good deals and make room for the non-advertised sales that come our way without feeling guilty.

  • Kate says:

    I really like the pick one store and know it well strategy. Especially with young kids it’s hard to travel around town with a price list, and sometimes it’s not worth the gas. And often when you know your store well and can wait for its regular sales, you end up spending the same as if you shopped all around.

    • Sheila says:

      I love using the ALL RECIPES website and then entering in the ingredients that I have to use. They also allow you to list items you do not want in the recipe. If you do a search on the website, just click ingredient underneath that area and it will allow you to list the items. I usually shop for good deals and then menu plan in reverse for that week- along with stockpiling for other weeks. This is how you save a lot of money.

  • Tiana says:

    I’ve done something similar to this for years. We live in a small rural area, so it definitely doesn’t pay in terms of gas money to run around to 3 different stores on grocery day. I do shop our small local grocery for “loss leaders”, but my major grocery runs are always at the same store in a nearby city. I plan my menu around the in-store sales (available online). The goal is to have all the main meals planned around good deals in “whole foods” departments (meat, produce, dairy). We stock up on staples as they go on sale. If you pay attention, you can sometimes start to predict when things will go on sale again.

  • Shauna says:

    Thank you! I feel validated! I have done this for more than 20 years, but when reading posts and blogs about meal planning, I always felt like I was “doing it wrong.” Now I can hold my head up and continue my fantabulous method of saving money and planning meals!!

  • Nachelle S. says:

    Late comment on an older post, but this is definitely the way to go for me. Couponing is often hit and miss, and I love going to Fry’s (my Kroger affiliate) and stocking up on those clearance items. We eat much better this way, and my kids get the pricey things they love (and normally don’t get) for cheap (like apples pre-packaged with their own little dip).

  • Nina says:

    I just had to come back, 3 years later, and comment that this method of meal planning (plus using my stores’ sales circulars) has saved me TONS of money on my weekly meal planning. I start with what I have, go over the weekly ads to see what’s on sale, then make my meal plans using those two things. Then I pick up clearance and marked down items as I’m going through the store to fill in my side dishes and stock up on meats for weeks ahead. It seems so simple, but I see sooo many example meal plans on youtube and Pinterest where these women just decide what sounds good and go buy the ingredients regardless of if they’re on sale or not. (Now I can do this with some things because I stock up when things are on sale so I usually have what’s required to make our favorite meals on hand). Thank you so much for sharing! xo

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