How to Save Money, Eat Well and Conquer the Grocery Store

By Chef Meg Galvin, Healthy Cooking Expert at SparkPeople.com

Without a shopping list, a casual trip to the grocery store can be a recipe for disaster. Sometimes, even with a list in hand, we still find ourselves in a state of confusion as we meander through the store. Organizing your shopping list can smooth out your grocery-shopping experience and make shopping and cooking more efficient.

Whether you're shopping for one meal or seven, yourself or a house full of people, the process is the same. SparkPeople.com experts have put together the following steps to help you plan healthful meals, create an organized list, and save time and money.

Step 1: Keep a paper pad and pen posted in your kitchen at all times.

A small chalkboard or wipe board will also work. When you run out of something in the kitchen, jot it down. This will prevent you from starting a recipe only to discover that you're out of garlic or nutmeg, and it will save you the hassle of searching through the cupboards to try to find out what's missing. Don't worry about making a neat, organized list-just get the missing items recorded. Make this a habit for everyone in your house; even kids can help. Don't throw a package into the recycling bin or garbage until you've written the item on your running list.

Step 2: Plan your meals.

We all plan our meals differently, depending on how many people we're feeding and how often we go to the store or farmers' market. However, this step should always precede shopping. Set aside some time at least once a week to plan your meals for the days ahead. Here are some basic things to keep in mind:

Your schedule: Look at your calendar for the week or days ahead. Do you have a busy week coming up? How much time do you have to cook on each night of the week (it may vary day to day, especially if you manage a larger household or have children). Sit down with your calendar and plan meals based on how much time you have available. Choose a variety of quick recipes, dishes that yield leftovers and meals that require more time so that cooking always fits into your schedule. Don't forget about slow-cooker meals for nights when cooking isn't an option.

Company: Do you have people coming to visit soon? You may need to buy special items at the store or plan for a larger dinner. Also, be sure to consider any special food preferences or allergies.

Coupons, sales, and deals: Some people prefer to look at coupons and sale flyers during the meal-planning stage so they can create meals around lower-cost ingredients. Others prefer to plan their meals and then look for coupons or deals on the items they need to make those meals. Decide which method works best for you. Just make sure whatever you buy can be worked into your meal plan and that you're not just buying something because it's on sale-if you buy it and don't use it, you haven't saved any money.

The season: What you cook and eat should change according to what's in season and what you like, but remember that fruits and vegetables in season are going to be cheaper and more readily available. Save money by planning your meals around produce at its peak taste and lowest price!

Step 3: Gather your recipes.

Now that you've planned your meals based on time, taste, season and coupons, assemble your recipes. We've made this easy for you by collecting our best recipes in this one volume-and we hope that many of them will become a regular part of your meal plan. For the rest of those recipes that have been passed on from friends and family, or cut from the pages of newspapers and magazines, try using a basic template for all recipes (or enter them on SparkRecipes.com). When you come across a great recipe, grab a blank template from your stash, jot it down in your own writing and place it in a binder organized by time, season, cuisine, or another parameter. To streamline your planning process, include a mini grocery list on the recipe template so you can quickly see what ingredients you need to make the dish. You can also highlight specialty ingredients (such as certain herbs or special cheeses) that you don't typically keep on hand.

Step 4: Create your master grocery list.

Next, sit down with your running list of staples (from Step 1), your weekly meal plan and your recipes to create one organized list that will help you navigate the store. You can avoid walking back and forth across the store by separating your list into grocery store departments: produce items, bulk foods, bakery, deli/meat/poultry, frozen foods, dry goods, dairy, beverages, home goods, and miscellaneous. Set up your list based on your preferences and the layout of your supermarket. Don't forget to attach your coupons to the list before you head to the store!

As you did for your recipes, creating one master shopping list template will save you time and keep your list organized. Include a section where you can list the meals you planned for the week and then the groceries you need, organized by department.

When you arrive at the store, stick to your list and don't get distracted by the various supermarket promotions. Once you're home from the store, put your groceries away systematically to streamline cooking in the days ahead. Keep your pantry and refrigerator organized, storing similar items together. When every item has its place, cooking will become more efficient.

No more excuses about not being able to create healthy meals! Staying organized, saving money, and finding the time to cook healthful meals each night boils down to meal planning and a good shopping list. The time you spend in this planning phase will more than pay off when it's time to cook, so make it a habit to start each week with a plan.

Reprinted from The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose The Weight (c) 2011 by SparkPeople, Inc. Permission granted by Hay House, Inc., New York, NY 10033. Available wherever books are sold.

Chef Meg Galvin

About the Author: SparkPeople Healthy Cooking Expert Meg Galvin is a World Master Chef, culinary instructor, and the author of "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight." A farmer's daughter and marathon runner, she lives in northern Kentucky with her husband and three teenage sons.