February Grocery Challenge: Weeks 3-4 & Wrap-Up

Posted March 4, 2020 / Food & Drink, Goals & Planning, Personal / Information / Etc. / 0 Comments

You saw recently how I made a February Grocery Challenge to use food up that I had on hand and stick to a $20 per week (sometimes $25 if needed) grocery budget for the entire month of February. I shared my reasons for doing it, the rules I developed for the challenge, and tracked ALL of the things we ate and bought throughout February from a food perspective. The post got quite long as a result so I thought I would split my posts up a bit and share the overall results and lessons learned in a separate post.

The Results

Week Three (2/17 through 2/23)

Monday

EATS: As I mentioned in the last post a couple weeks ago, we had leftover meatloaf with green beans and mashed potatoes for lunch. I decided to actually do a planned Meatless Monday for dinner with some of the new groceries I bought. I found a recipe for an eggplant caprese (I didn’t grill the eggplant but I did use the grill pan on the stove instead, which was fine!) and made an Italian-style quinoa (including fire-roasted tomatoes, zucchini, and sun-dried tomatoes) to get some protein and more veggies on the side.

SHOPPING: Okay SO I decided to go rogue and do my final two grocery shops for the month in one fell swoop. I wanted to keep close to the budget, get everything at once, and do Walmart pickup instead of going into a store and spending too much money. Their minimum for pickup is $30 so I just said screw it, I’ll get all the groceries at once. I ended up spending $42.01 on everything for two weeks, which is basically my budget!

Diced tomatoes – $0.67
Crushed tomatoes – $0.67
Frozen peppers and onions – $2.33
Sweet potatoes (3 lb.) – $2.64
Grape tomatoes – $1.98
Mozzarella pearls – $2.97
Eggplant (2) – $3.55
Frozen chicken breasts – $5.94
Frozen broccoli – $1.00
Sun-dried tomatoes – $2.97
Zucchini (2) – $1.52
Carrot chips – $1.88
Russet potatoes (5 lb) – $2.97
Beef stew meat – $6.46
Bagel thins – $3.48

I was able to plan out 10+ meals using these groceries pretty easily! I usually like to plan for five homemade meals a week. The vast majority of my dinners yield leftovers because they’ll make 4-6 servings in total. We’ll end up with 1-2 days of lunches as a result. We also tend to eat out a few times a week/weekend. Traditionally this will be Friday night dinner, and maybe lunch and/or dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Here were my meal ideas from these groceries and a few others left in the fridge:

You’ll see some of these recipes, at the surface, have very similar ingredients. One package of beef will go multiple places. The frozen ground turkey in the fridge can probably make at least two meals, maybe three. I bought a big bag of frozen chicken so I could use that for at least three meals, combined with the potatoes and veggies I bought for sides, quinoa/rice/pasta still in the pantry, and whatever seasonings or marinades I have on hand.

Tuesday

EATS: Chris bought a pistachio loaf the night before so we’ll be eating that for breakfasts. We had leftover meatloaf with beans and potatoes again for lunch! I planned to make something different for dinner but I thought it would make more sense to cook some chicken with seasoning and balsamic glaze to go alongside the leftover Italian-style quinoa from the night before. That quinoa side dish included both veggies and starch for the sides.

SHOPPING: I was supposed to stop shopping but I really needed a few basics. I know it puts me over budget but we go through bananas like crazy. We also want to be more environmentally conscious so we decided to portion yogurt out from a larger container for ourselves instead of buying single-use cups. I spent $5.24 at the store.

Bananas – $2.75
Vanilla yogurt tub – $2.49

Wednesday

EATS: Chris ate leftovers for lunch (the quinoa and chicken from the night before) but my office got Ted’s Montana Grill so I had my balsamic blue steak salad that I love so much. I don’t usually have red meat and you’ve probably noticed that I rarely use it, eat it, or buy it. But, of course, I ended up having it twice this day. I made a beef and vegetable soup for dinner. It’s heavy on the veggies (I substituted onions for peas but it had carrots, green beans, and potatoes along with the beef) and allowed me to use up my beef broth and tomato paste from the fridge.

Thursday

EATS: We both had the leftover beef and veggie soup for lunch, which was super tasty still. For dinner, I made Korean-style ground turkey bowls with green beans and brown rice. I had a few snacks and desserts too, like a homemade smoothie after breakfast and ice cream float after dinner.

Friday

EATS: I had some of the leftover turkey bowls for lunch at work (again after a smoothie) while Chris had lunch with his dad. We went out to eat at Mill on the River for dinner (our usual Friday date night!). I ordered lobster pasta while Chris had scallops.

Weekend

EATS: Saturday involved some leftovers for lunch (Chris had his turkey bowl and I had my lobster pasta). We also made homemade banana bread for breakfast that we could eat throughout the next few days. Chris went to the skatepark for a bit while I read my book at Starbucks in the afternoon. We had some weird eating for the rest of the day, as we went out and about for errands and had more snacky things. We went to one of our favorite breweries and ordered street-style waffle fries. On the way home, I was in the mood for a milkshake so we stopped at Shady Glen, where we also got onion rings. Believe it or not, that’s all we ate for dinner because we felt so gross lol. On Sunday, I made a stuffed pepper soup for us for lunch and it was so tasty! We made homemade pizza for dinner (with my two-ingredient dough, homemade marinara sauce, pepperoni, and cheese) and had some snacky things and popcorn later while watching movies.

Week Four (2/24 through 3/1)

Monday

EATS: I had my banana bread for breakfast and we both brought the leftover stuffed pepper soup for lunch. In keeping with meatless Monday, we had sweet potato tacos for dinner. These involved sweet potatoes, the TJ’s broccoli slaw saladavocado, and tortillas. It was SO TASTY. That broccoli slaw is amazing. I’m so glad it held up after I kept forgetting about it in the fridge.

Tuesday

EATS: We made a switch to the bagels and cream cheese I previously bought for more breakfasts this week. For lunch, we had more of the stuffed pepper soup. I had book club at a local diner so for dinner I ended up ordering waffle fries and a buffalo chicken quesadilla, while Chris had dinner at his parent’s house.

Wednesday

EATS: Luckily Chris had brought home some leftover baby back ribs from his parent’s house – enough for us each to have a bit for lunch. I made some brown rice and broccoli to go on the side of it real quick Tuesday night, and lunch was prepped. We went out to a brewery for dinner with a few of our friends, where I had a sausage and pepper sandwich and split poutine with Chris.

Thursday

EATS: We started to get a bit creative and random with our lunches because of the lack of dinner leftovers! I made some of TJ’s potstickers/gyoza (two types) and paired them with rice for Chris and green beans for both of us. Super easy! For dinner, we were persuaded by our friend from the night before to finally try the Popeye’s chicken sandwich so we decided to go for it and it was pretty dang amazing. We loved it! Also got some sides and drinks.

Friday

EATS: Another scrounging for lunch kind of day: Chris and I each brought half of the corn poblano soup from Trader Joe’s along with Uncrustables sandwiches. Yup, that’s how far-reaching this got! For dinner, I used up the rest of the leftover rice to make fried rice with veggies and beef. 

SHOPPING: So I actually went shopping for the following week today after work because I knew it would be the best time to run my errands. I’m not including them here because none of the groceries will technically be used within this week (except I’m making a dip for a party on Saturday).

The Wrap-Up

Week One – Spent $21.31

THE GOOD: We did pretty well during the first week and that’s mostly because I had just grocery shopped to get Superbowl foods late the previous week. I went to Trader Joe’s as my one grocery trip for the week and went just barely over budget to get a few fresh veggies, yogurt for Chris, cereal, etc. Nothing major! I still had meats in the freezer and a handful of canned goods.

THE OKAY: I actually thought we would go out to eat more over this week because of the movie plans we had, but we ended up doing okay in this aspect? In total, we got Panera, takeout pizza, Subway, and a brunch with Chris’s sister. It helped that my office treated me to lunch two days out of the week so I wasn’t eating my leftovers and everything stretched out nicer than usual.

Week Two – Spent $9.95 + $24.99 + $6.47 = $41.41

THE BAD: Half of my budget for the week went to protein bars and mayonnaise because I just wanted them (well, the mayo was more of a necessity). I picked something expensive and inexplicably bought two boxes instead of one, so it was challenging to get groceries later in the week with less budget available to me. Spoiler alert: I did not succeed. My “real” grocery trip happened the next day at Trader Joe’s and I spent the full amount of $24.99 instead of the $15 I had left in my budget. I honestly fell into the usual trap of “may as well get these while I’m here!” for the yogurt, but also bought Chris a burrito he didn’t REALLY need for dinner, AND a kale broccoli slaw even though I could have just made my own coleslaw again for the rest of lunches. Sigh.

THE BAD PART 2: I was supposed to have a Meatless Monday on 2/10 and I definitely completely forgot about that. I knew I needed to research good meatless meals and just forgot. Sigh again. Because of my overdoing it in this week, I decided to actually dedicate myself to the meatless thing for TWO meals next week.

THE BAD PART 3: I was an idiot and forgot that groceries I bought over this weekend would be included in the previous week, not week three. We got smoothie supplies that we kind of needed because I want to make them more, but they’re not dealbreakers. Oh well. I don’t regret getting some healthy foods, it just sucks that it coincided with my lifestyle change. More on that later.

Week Three – Spent $43.26 + $5.24 = $48.50

THE GOOD: I thought it would be wise to consolidate my last two week’s worth of shopping into one Walmart pickup order for a few reasons. I’ll talk about this later in the lessons section but basically this was a good idea for sticking to the budget. I had $20/week to spend, which meant I could go to around $40 for two-weeks’ worth of groceries. I tend to freeze all of my meat anyways so I can make sure it gets eaten and doesn’t go bad in the fridge, plus we still had leftover ground turkey from Chris’s mom. I was able to stock up on fresh veggies, frozen veggies, meats, and potatoes for the next two weeks and watch the price as I added things to the cart. I did this while meal planning on Pinterest and from what I knew I already had at home. When I decided to buy stew meat for a beef and veggie soup, I found a way to use the other half of the package in another recipe that still managed to use a lot of ingredients I already had.

THE OKAY: I ended up forgetting a few things and Walmart sold out of zucchini, so I made two other stops for those items (bananas and yogurt being the other). I did a great job of only buying what I went in there for though! I didn’t browse or pick up anything else, even though I was tempted.

Week Four – Spent $0

THE GOOD: I killed it. I didn’t grocery shop for meals or pick up anything after doing two weeks’ worth in one go.

THE OKAY: We went out to eat for two meals during the week (and I went once for book club), so I’m wondering if that affected anything? Honestly we still had plenty of chicken and ground turkey in the freezer so I’m positive we wouldn’t have needed those groceries if we didn’t eat dinner out a few times.

The Lessons

1. You probably have plenty of pantry items and freezer items you forgot about

I found that the most common things I did genuinely need each week were related to fresh items, like meats and veggies. I had a pretty decent stockpile of things that I kept forgetting about for sides, like rice, canned tomatoes and beans, pastas of varying types, and other things. Without that stockpile of side dishes or starches available to me, I don’t think I would have succeeded with this challenge! And again, that was the point of the challenge. Use your shelves to build the bases of your meals and then grocery shop for additional necessities.

2. Weekly budgets, generally speaking, can be flexible and adjustable

In the week where I went over budget by $10, I resolved myself to only spend the normal $20 for the next two weeks and not allow the $5 overage that I expected. Sometimes you just have to let things go and realize you’re okay with going over, especially if you can make up for it later. I know Jordan Page recommends a weekly grocery budget instead of subtracting from a monthly one, but I think that allows for a little flex in between too.

3. Using one store per week is the best move

I did find that I did MUCH better in the weeks where I only went to the store once. If I went to Target for a few things and then TJ’s later for a few more, I would spend more money because of the two trips. No matter what. Going grocery shopping ONCE is key for me. If I forget something, I just need to pivot to a different recipe instead. I can go to TJ’s one week and then a “normal” grocery store the following week if I need something TJ’s doesn’t have. It’s that easy.

4. Plotting shopping trips within the month is also the right move

I watched another one of Jordan Page’s videos while planning some of these blog posts and was reminded of her methods for shopping and budgeting. She suggests a budget of $100 per person in your household, but start with $300 (so yes, Chris and I would be $300 not $200). It turns into $75 per week. However, another logical method of shopping for me would be to spend more at the beginning of the month (or end, or halfway, however you decide – but one bigger grocery trip a month) so you can restock the pantry things that you’ll use throughout the month. The other three grocery trips would be for fresh items and anything you missed. For me, I would probably do $100 for week one and then $65-70 for the following weeks. I feel like this would help me stick with the “shelf cooking” concept and cheaper grocery trips on a weekly basis, because I will have to go in my stock to make proper meals. I could do a Walmart pickup order for my canned goods and frozen items at the beginning of the month, then spend the $60-70 at Stop & Shop or Trader Joe’s throughout the rest of the month.

5. Do whatever makes sense to stick to your budget

This is specifically referring to my final two-week grocery haul. While I like to go weekly to save money and only buy things I currently need, it sometimes make more sense to group two weeks together. In this situation, I knew I would better stick to my grocery budget if I shopped through the Walmart app and do grocery pickup. You can see your total add up as you go and therefore stick to your budget amount. I also like to do pickup on weeks where I know I run the risk of getting too much shit and browsing. For example, I needed a few frozen veggie packages and if I went into Trader Joe’s for them, I’d end up buying other things because I “may as well while I’m here.” So, I made the executive decision to shop for both of the final weeks in one grocery pickup. (There’s also a $30 minimum for pickup orders!)

6. Lifestyle changes are gonna cost ya initially

I decided to start going to the gym, move away from WW and back to calorie counting, and try to just follow the 80/20 rule for eating. Because of this, I needed to buy a few protein bars for after the gym and some smoothie ingredients to have as snacks. I spent $14ish extra dollars over the course of the week to stock up on these things that didn’t go according to my grocery budget plan.

7. MEAL PREP/PLAN and buy only the fresh veggies needed for the week ahead

Meal prepping and meal planning is absolutely key if you want to save money on groceries and eliminate food waste. No more buying a bagged salad because I think I may want or need the lettuce, just to have it sit there. If I don’t have a salad planned for lunch or dinner, don’t buy the damn lettuce. Just don’t. It seriously helps to look at what you want to make, only buy what’s necessary, and go from there. I still managed to throw away a thing or to because I didn’t actually have plans for using them! If you buy complementary groceries that will make multiple meals from the same containers instead of letting them go bad (for example I almost always need like two tablespoons of tomato paste and have to throw the container away after). I bought a package of stew meat and planned to use it for 2-3 meals that needed beef. I bought frozen peppers and onions because those would go into two different meals as well. I had an opened container of beef broth from a previous recipe and was able to use it up within the allotted 7-10 days.

8. If you’re worried about things going bad, find alternatives that last longer

I realized during some recipe investigating that there are a lot of alternatives for things I always end up tossing away. Instead of buying beef and chicken broth, buy bouillon cubes! They last forever and you don’t have to worry about finishing up the other half of the carton in the fridge. There are tomato paste squeeze bottles that you can buy instead of the can and keep in your fridge, for those instances that I always need 1-2 tbsp at a time instead of a whole can. For easier smoothies and avoiding fruit/veggies going bad in the fridge, make freezer packs with the proper ratio of ingredients. You can just pull one out and add your liquid when the time comes to blend. I have a tendency to buy lettuce for the “oh I may need a salad this week if something goes rogue and we need a backup meal” reason. Instead of that and letting it go bad, buy a healthy-ish frozen meal or two instead. I would rather have a backup frozen meal that doesn’t really expire than throw away something fresh because I can’t eat it in time. Sorry not sorry.

The Rule Wrap-Up

How well did I do following the rules I set for myself specifically?

(1) Grocery budget of $20 per week (maybe allowing $25 once or twice if I’m desperate for more meats) 🤷🏼‍♀️ I did pretty well on this, all things considered! Check below for the final wrapup and numbers.

(2) Meatless Mondays on the 10th, 17th, and 24th of the month to save money on meat ✔ I’ll give myself credit for this one. I failed on the 10th because I forgot, but I did make one meatless lunch one day that kind of makes up for it? I did succeed on the 17th and 24th!

(3) Attempt to follow a weekly schedule for meals ❌ Absolutely not hahaha. As usual, did not even remember to try this. I guess I don’t feel like we NEED that kind of structure for the purpose of saving money, but it’s more for adding variety into what we eat. I fall into the trap of basically Mexican- and Asian-inspired dishes 24/7 so this would be helpful down the road maybe?

(4) Use up things from the freezer, refrigerator, and pantry ✔ Totally succeeded! My freezer got down to basically empty and remained that way even when I shopped a little bit. I used up plenty of pantry items and cans too.

(5) Utilize ingredient-based recipe searches and budget food websites 🤷🏼‍♀️ I did half succeed at this, hence the shrug. I used AllRecipes for an ingredient search a few times (that’s how I decided on the beef and veggie soup, for example). I didn’t specifically go to the budget food blogs though.

(6) Get back to simple meals that don’t call for as many ingredients ✔ I’m going to count this as a success as well. I know I’ll always enjoy making fun meals with different steps, but I did a good job of simplifying quite a bit. There were a few nights that I used leftovers for if I DID make it complicated (Italian quinoa) but I had a few protein + starch + veggie meals, especially with fish.

(7) Only buy what I genuinely need ✔ I did well here too. With my limited budget, there wasn’t a lot of room left for buying random stuff. I was always super conscious of that!

(8) Chop and prep things when I get home from the store ❌ This is still something I want to implement but I haven’t yet. I get nervous about doing this with veggies because maybe they require a different chop than what I’m thinking when I first buy them? I 100% need to do this with fruit though. I made smoothie packs from frozen fruit and spinach, so that was definitely one of the “prep” things I had in mind.

(9) Eat out the same amount we normally would ✔ I don’t think this changed! There were a few nights we ate out because of errands or appointments, but we generally did our same stuff like waiting for the weekend. We ordered pizza once because my meat wasn’t defrosted but that’s not necessarily a grocery-related issue.

(10) Only FOOD is considered groceries, not household items and alcohol ✔ Not really a guideline to stick to because obviously when I did buy toiletries and household items, those were not included in the costs.

Final Thoughts

While I didn’t actually fully stick to the $20/week budget (with an ideal total of $80-90 for the month), I came impressively close, TBH. I ended up spending about $110 on groceries for the entire month. That’s a THIRD of a normal ideal monthly grocery budget and averages to $27/week. I was able to use up a TON of stuff in the freezer and pantry – things I had forgotten about – and think about replenishing things we want to use going forward. (For example, Chris has decided he’ll be the mashed potato maker from now on and doesn’t want to use instant mashed potatoes anymore. We used up the instant mashed on hand and now will just buy regular potatoes.) I saved a ton of money instead of spending $100+ a WEEK like I basically had been doing.

Like I said in rule #7 above, meal prepping and meal planning is absolutely key if you want to save money on groceries and eliminate food waste. I had to look at what I had each week, think about what meals I wanted to make to complement what already existed in my house, and only buy the fresh items I would definitely use. If you buy a large container of meat, plan around multiple meals. Search by ingredient on Pinterest and AllRecipes to see what you can use it for specifically. I had a container of beef broth open in the fridge that I knew I needed to use ASAP so I found a beef and vegetable soup to use the remainder, and then supplemented with bouillon cubes.

This was such a great exercise for me as I was able to save money during a key time I needed to save money, use up things that were just sitting around, and get some budgetary discipline/practice in. I will absolutely be taking these lessons forward when it comes to my grocery planning and budgeting!

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