This Week’s Menu + How We Food Shop

Slow cooker pork carnitas

Slow cooker pork carnitas

After nearly two years here, I feel like I’ve finally gotten the food shopping and menu planning down to a science these days. It’s taken that long to figure things out around here as well as build up our stocks.

We budget $700/month for food, but generally only spend around $650, or maybe a little less. We allow around $450 of those dollars each month for Costco; $120 – $150 is set aside for our weekly trip to the farmers’ market (how much depends on whether there’s four or five weeks between paydays); and the rest is split between local stores – Foodland, Safeway, Cost U Less or Walmart – and/or bulk orders from Amazon. That $700 is a big drop from the $1000/month we initially spent when we arrived on Kaua’i, but we just weren’t shopping smart then. Our monthly amount will drop again next fall after WenYu leaves for college, probably by another $100 – $150/month.

We buy very little processed food these days. We occasionally pick up a Costco ready-to-bake pizza, but one of those provides three meals for Brett and the girls! We also sometimes buy things like ready-made tamales at Costco, or quiches, or a big bag of potstickers or spring rolls, which we use for the girls’ breakfasts or school lunches, and we’ll often buy something special from their bakery (last month they had guava Danish which were a big hit). Most of the items in our Costco cart each month though are basics: chicken thighs, pork roasts or chops, fish and one other kind of meat (like chicken breasts, roast turkey breast, sausages, or ham), tofu, nuts (peanuts, cashews and pistachios), eggs, bread products (sliced whole wheat, sandwich rolls, croissants, and Italian or French bread), frozen fruit and vegetables, ice cream, cheese, wine and a small amount of produce that we usually can’t find at the farmers’ market. We also buy things like peanut butter, jam, honey, butter, soy milk, cereal, rice, pasta, tortillas, crackers, English muffins, some canned goods and broth, sugar, some sauces, mayonnaise, and coffee at Costco when we need them, but those aren’t monthly purchases. We shop from a list and stick to it. If something is not on our list, even if the sample is fantastic, we don’t buy it – period. We repackage the meat and bread into meal-size portions when we get home and they go into the freezer.

Local stores are where we buy milk (just a quart at a time), the odd bit of produce (potatoes, for example), some canned goods, low-sodium soy sauce and other Asian ingredients, baking supplies and a few vegan substitutes, although I can sometimes find those at Costco. We use Amazon to bulk order items that are either too expensive or can’t be found here. For example, last month we bought pad thai kits, yellow rice, and San Marzano tomatoes through Amazon, but we won’t be ordering anything from them this month. We eat very little beef, but once in a while buy locally-raised ground beef, and very occasionally will buy a steak or London broil from the marked-down section at Safeway or Foodland.

Toiletries and paper goods (other than toilet paper, which we get from Amazon) come out of our food budget as well, and are purchased at either Costco or Walmart. A jug of laundry detergent from Costco lasts for more than four months, dishwashing soap for more than six months – both cost around $12. A package of a dozen paper towels will last us for more than a year, and a box of trash bags from Costco lasts for nearly two years. A big bottle of Suave shampoo is less than $3 at Walmart and lasts for around three months. Other paper products and toiletries we buy are also reasonably priced.

Rather than shop based on a menu, which is what I used to do, these days I make my menu based on what we have on hand, and buy the produce we need for the week at the farmers’ market. We get a nice variety of meals that way without wrecking our food budget. Everything that’s left over out of the budget each month goes into our travel fund. I always check the fridge, pantry and freezer before I make my list too. For example, right now we have a lot of pork on hand, so won’t add that to the list this month, but we will need more chicken, and because I don’t have to buy pork we’ll probably buy some extra fish or some shrimp.

Whew! Now that you know all that, here’s what’s on our menu this week. Next week is our monthly Costco shop, so we’re trying to use things up to make room in the freezer:

  • Tuesday: Panzanella with beans (we leave the cheese out)
  • Wednesday: Tuna noodle casserole (soup for me)
  • Thursday: Grilled chicken drumsticks; potato salad; corn on the cob (vegan ‘chickenless nuggets’ for me)
  • Friday: Slow cooker pork carnitas with tortillas, rice, and refried beans; cucumber and tomato salad (just rice and beans in my tortilla)
  • Saturday: Grilled ahi tuna; grilled bok choy; a treat for dessert!
  • Sunday: Yakisoba with tofu
  • Monday: Spaghetti with greens; garlic bread

Must-buys at the farmers’ market on Wednesday will be cucumbers, tomatoes, bok choy, kale, corn, and carrots. My birthday is on Saturday – the girls have an outing that day with Big Brothers/Big Sisters but will be home for dinner, and Brett and I are going to pop down to Java Kai to pick up some sort of vegan dessert to help celebrate the day. Last week went really well as far as sticking to the menu, so I’m hoping for another good week!

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13 thoughts on “This Week’s Menu + How We Food Shop

  1. anexactinglife says:

    Hi Laura, when you say you make your menu based on what you have on hand, do you usually have excess perishable things that you’re trying to use up, or do you stock your kitchen with the same ingredients regularly and replace the items whenever you run low?

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    • Laura says:

      The second – we pretty much buy the same basics, ones that will keep (either in the pantry, or in the refrigerator and freezer) and then pick up produce from the farmers’ market to create our menus/meals. Some basics we buy monthly, others just when we need them. Things spoil much more quickly here than they did back on the mainland, so if we do buy something perishable it gets eaten quickly (the produce we buy is gone in a week or less, so is bread); otherwise, it goes in the freezer. Right now we dealing with using up a bunch of odds and ends that have collected in the freezer. Brett and I have had some interesting lunches recently!

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  2. Jen says:

    Once again, you have such a nice menu and you stick to the budget to boot. I don’t know if I could manage my family of 5 for under $700. You do inspire me to put more thought into it, though. I am such a sucker for the impulse buys at Costco.

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    • Laura says:

      We’re shopping now for a family of four, and when WenYu heads off it will just be the three of us. YaYu is a much pickier eater than either Meiling or WenYu, so I feel like our food budget may shrink more than we think. She has already said there are things she doesn’t want to see any more for breakfast (she doesn’t like pancakes or french toast, for example) and that she would prefer to have leftovers in her lunch versus sandwiches, etc. It will be an interesting/challenging adjustment for all of us!

      Once I got myself switched over to the “what’s in the pantry” way of food planning, it’s been going well and costing us less. It fits well with prices here. But it was not an easy transition for me to make. Getting firm about sticking to our list has also made a huge difference. If we try a sample and want to buy it, it goes on next month’s list!

      Also, one thing that affects our budget here is the number of potlucks we and the girls attend. There’s at least one a week during the school year, but sometimes more. They’re a BIG thing here. We always sign up to bring garlic bread or salad – the kids like them so there’s no leftovers, and those items don’t affect our budget as much as some other things would.

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  3. sbeckhamprofessionalblog says:

    Thanks for these tips. Food shopping is a necessity but clearly an area where we can shop smart. I feel blessed with an Aldi only four miles away, and now a Costco has opened nearby. So far I find Costco to be the huge saver on gas, Aldi saves most on fruits, vegetables, eggs and soy or almond milk. Kroger is great on certain items like chicken breasts and other on sale items. I maximize Senior days. We tend to not be as adventurous on our menus as you are but it works for us. Once I realized I could retire if I paid off a certain bill I doubled down on the grocery shops and retired without that debt. Your getting out of debt blog was my inspiration then. And again I am indebted to your wonderful book reviews.

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    • Laura says:

      Congrats on paying off your debt!! We were serious about getting rid of it, but when we figured out we could retire once it was gone we doubled down – it was very motivating!

      Having a store like Aldi would be a dream come true here, but it will never happen because of the shipping distance, and lack of low-cost storage. Same for Trader Joe’s. There still aren’t Aldi in Oregon though (and won’t be for a few more years). So, we deal with what we have. Finding the store with the best prices and shopping with a list is what saves us the most here. Our shopping options are limited, but we can still shop smart.

      We buy our gas at Costco. It’s been running about $.60 – $.70 more per gallon that what we’d be paying in Oregon, but we drive less here so we’re actually spending less on gas than before!

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    • Laura says:

      We eat a lot of rice, but we ate a lot back on the mainland as well. I think the girls would love it if we ate rice every day, but they also love pasta, Asian noodles and bread so I try to mix it up. I don’t we have rice on the menu this week, but some weeks we have it three or four days.

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    • Laura says:

      It’s a house we walked past in Kamakura last year. I loved the fence, and the bamboo peeking over, as well as the cherry tree just about to burst into bloom. Very, very Japanese.

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