I cook, in theory at least, like a quirky cross between Robin Miller and Rachel Ray. I pre-plan everything I’m going to make in the week ahead, but I don’t usually use leftovers like Robin, and I cook fast and easy, akin to Rachel Ray – but above all, I am cheap. I don’t cook necessarily for speed. I work in the evenings, so having all day to prepare dinner isn’t necessarily an issue, though I usually start an hour or less ahead. I almost always favor doing more legwork to spending more money – obviously, your mileage will vary. I use the Trent method to figure out how much my time is worth, estimate how much I’d save and how long it’d take me to do. If it’s worth it, it’s worth it, but if it’s not, pay the extra with no regrets.

Anyway, this is a Workshop! So, how you would do this, yourself.

Step One: Pull up your favorite in-season resource. Foods that are in season will always taste best, and will usually be cheapest, and even if they aren’t, they can often be found at farmer’s markets and U-Picks in the area.

Step Two: Grab the sale ad. I try hard to do my shopping on the first day of grocery sales (usually Saturday or Monday in my area) so that the goods aren’t hugely picked over.

Step Three: Grab my recipe box. Mine doesn’t actually have any recipes on it – as I’m really lazy and never use the recipe anyway – but it’s full of ideas.

Step Four: Ask people-to-be-subject what they’ve been craving. Any specific fruits/veggies? Any particular types of cuisine? Think about this for yourself, too – and take into good consideration what specific ingredients your family has been craving. Often, non-junk-food cravings are a sign of nutritional deficiency in their regular diet. If your husband is craving bananas, you might have an iron deficiency in your diet you weren’t even aware of (kind of like being thirsty – if you’re already thirsty, you’re already dehydrated).

Step Five: Stand in front of your pantry and absorb what’s in there.

So now you are armed with all the information needed. I never (or only very rarely!) get more than two meats per week, and obviously I try to choose the two most on-sale, always defaulting to beef (my favorite) and chicken (Josh’s). Surprisingly, the price comes out evenly, because while I like the more expensive meat, I like less of it in my dishes. I try and have no more than 2 meals that rely completely on pre-processed foods, but while we are foodies, I know how to whip a block of velveta…velvetta?…you know what I mean. It’s good in con queso, but not much else? yeah, that stuff. I know how to use it!

And other things, like soup mixes and preformed and preseasoned french fries. I am just a home cook, after all. I do try to minimize the number of times per week I do that to our digestive tracts, but it pops up here and there.

So back to those meats. We’re meatatarians, so I buy in bulk, and have all the meals that week be based on that particular meat. Last week was chicken – the “girl-food” as well as Asian chicken salad and chicken Alfredo, etc. This week will likely be beef, and I’ll purchase a very large roast, hack it down into manageable pieces, and stew, slice, and dice from there. I’ll also pick up, of course, hamburger. Always! (It doesn’t hurt that I got a coupon for a free hamburger chub from my favorite grocer’s. Woo!)

Next, I think about what’s in my pantry again and think if there are any automatic thoughts. Beef – I have egg noodles. Stroganoff, it could be a good idea. There is taco seasoning, we could have tacos. Tacos could be good.

And then I move to the produce aisle. What’s on sale here, and what’s good? Oh, look, green beans at 99c a pound, I could make another green bean salad, only with a less freakish dressing. Strawberries on their end of season sale? Cheap, but they’ll be spotty – ignore those. Corn still 33c an ear….$2 for veggies for the three of us! And so on, and so on. Here is where you should remember what your family has been craving. Try and massage those sales into spewing out things of Asian style, if that’s currently their deal, or give your guy bananas if he wants them, even if they are ridiculous. By the time I’m done with produce, I usually have my meals planned out(usually in an excel file), and then I just whip through my list of recipes, writing down their every ingredient, checking for overlap. I check my pantry again, hoping that I’ve managed to pull even more items out of it.

Like I said, I usually do this in excel. Then I use the “worksheet 2” for my grocery list, and here is where real shopping genius comes in. I write everything I need, in recipe order, in column a, and categorize it, produce, meat, dry good, whatever, in column b. Then, I go over list a, make sure absolutely nothing is missing, and then! I sort the two lists alphabetically by list B. Do this by highlighting everything in both columns, go to Data -> Sort, Sort by Column B. Voila! All the meats are together and all the produce together, and now my grocery list is streamlined, so I can make one pass through the store.

And that, in a rather large nutshell, is how I make an otherwise-painful activity relatively easy, cheap, and even kinda, sorta (I tell myself these things!) fun.