My Meal Plan Won’t Fit on my Bicycle!

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My friend and fellow blogger, Jeanette at This Dusty House, has recently started blogging about curbing their family’s spending on groceries, which got me thinking about our own spending on food. Our habits have changed in such a big way while living in Paris and now The Hague that I feel as though I’ve learned a few things.

Our routine back home in Toronto involved going to the grocery store once a week (or even every 10 days). We spent anywhere between $100 and $130/week on food. I remember getting frustrated sometimes because I bought produce that would often go bad before I had a chance to use it. I also remember buying more than we needed because the psychological implication of buying for a longer time period meant I felt like I needed more food to fill in the gaps, and to have a “back-up” meal when I didn’t feel like sticking to the meal plan (maybe that’s just me…).

However, these habits have changed entirely since we started living in Europe, for a couple of reasons.

1) Fridges here are smaller.  It’s simply not possible to buy as much food as we would buy in Canada, and be able to store it all in our fridge. We had a fridge in Paris that was the size of my roommate’s mini-fridge while I was in university. Yeah, not much is fitting in there!

2) We don’t have a car. In Paris, the grocery store, bakery, and fresh food market was within a few minutes walking distance. We could only buy as much as we could carry and, because I often grocery shopped alone, I could only buy what I could easily carry home. In Holland I have a bicycle with a little basket on the back. It’s big enough to hold a jug of milk, some juice, and a few other smaller items.

Due mainly to these two points, while in Paris I purchased groceries every day. I bought bread, fresh fruit, and meats for that evening and the following day’s lunch. Once a week I bought eggs. I bought juice and milk twice per week.

In Holland, I go to the grocery store and fresh fruit market three to four times a week (basically I pick up food every other day).

And I’ve realized that I’m spending less and wasting less by grocery shopping more frequently. And, on top of that, I’m not tethered to a meal plan (I’ve grown to dislike meal plans made before you visit the grocery store. I’ll get to why in a minute).

My visits are short, no more than 15 minutes, and I pick up what I need. I have all the staples at home – potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, onion, garlic and spices (and other things like yoghurt, cheese, milk, and juice, which I consider basics). These basic food items I purchase as we need them. I also only purchase them again when they’re all gone. That means I might pick up some of these items during my “every-other-day” grocery visit, but I don’t have a set day during the week where I buy specific things.

In the case of our life here in The Hague, I buy no more than two cuts of meat at a time. My visit to the store yesterday included the following items: one container of strawberries, a tub of blueberries, a bunch of carrots, yoghurt, pork chops, ground beef, freshly squeezed mango juice, half a loaf of bread, and cheese.

After buying food about 3-4 times a week, I’m spending an average of 60 euros/week on food which is about $85.00 CAD (this does not include household items or eating out).

But what about having a plan!?” You might ask. Heh. Planning meals. Unless it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or you’re having guests visit, forget about planning a meal before you visit the store.

Here are just a few good reasons to pick up food more frequently, and to hold off on the meal planning until you get to the store:

1) When you’re not so focused on buying the foods for your pre-conceived plan, you have the flexibility to buy the foods that are on sale.  I didn’t have to focus on looking for that one vegetable on my list, or that one cut of meat on my list, for a meal plan and pass by the great deals. I got a great deal on the carrots (1 euro for a bunch of about 20 carrots) and the meat (the ground beef and pork chops were both 35% off). By all means, make plans while your shopping – based on what’s fresh and cheap!

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2) You waste less. For me, this is the biggest thing I’ve noticed. When you’re buying fresh food more frequently (and only what you need for the next 2-3 days!) it just doesn’t have time to go bad. While in Canada, David and I would sit down together and make a meal plan for the week… And at least 2 of those meals would never get made. I’ll be honest, this was usually because, once it came to it, we just really didn’t want to have that particular meal that night. Or the spinach I bought on Monday for the meal on Saturday was gone bad (okay, that was me being stupid, but hey, it happens). You get my point.

3) Your grocery visits are really quick! Because you’re only buying what you know you need for the next couple of days, and not following a very specific list, you’re in and out within 15-20 minutes. These days my lists  can have as little as this: “meat and veggies for two meals, cheese.” But usually have no more than this: “milk, bread, meat and veggies for two meals, cheese, fruit, yoghurt, juice, sandwich meat.” Because you’re unlikely to need to buy a bunch of basics at one time, and you’re not having to buy a lot at once. Which leads me to…

4) You’re not lugging around heavy bags of groceries to and from your car. I love that I can fit all my groceries in one bag (except when I buy a 2.4 litre jug of milk, which I carry separately by the handle). No more running back and forth to your car to bring in the groceries! Or, you know, hurting your back because you tried to bring them in all at once and now can’t move for a week…

5) You’re not spending time thinking about a meal plan for the week, which you probably won’t follow anyway. Okay, so maybe this one is specific to me, but if you’re the kind of person that finds meal plans really hard to follow, then maybe you need to find an easier way!

6) You develop the skills of ad hoc cooking. Another reason I really love this method of shopping is that you can use your creativity to come up with recipes as you go through the store. You quickly learn what foods can be good substitutes for other foods. I enjoy following a good recipe as much as the next person – I love trying new things! – but I prefer this ad hoc cooking style for our everyday life. I feel much less stress, and there’s something oddly liberating about not worrying about what you’re having for supper until you get to the store. Also, I should point out that it does not take a lot of time to prepare a meal this way. You can make an easy stir fry, soup, pasta, wraps, fully-loaded salads, and so much more this way in less than 30 minutes!

Of course, one of the keys to this method working well is having a well-stocked pantry. And that means things like potatoes, rice, pasta, onions, garlic, and so on. For me, that doesn’t mean canned vegetables, pre-packaged meals, or processed foods.

I’m a huge fan of this new habit and I’m hoping that when David and I return to Toronto that we’ll be able to maintain it (fingers crossed!). We’ll see how it goes once our lives are back to normal!

But for right now, I’m really enjoying figuring out what we’ll have for supper while I’m at the grocery store. I also love being able to buy food on sale, in the moment, without having to spend time going through flyers.

One of the problems that I know others have run into with this method is the ability to control what you buy when you’re not following a list. One of the things that I do to ensure I’m not buying more than I need, and more than I can reasonably eat before it goes bad, is before I go to the checkout I look through each thing in my basket and remind myself of its purpose. It takes less than a minute! So I guess I have a meal plan, in a sense, but it’s not one that spans more than a 2 or 3 days at a time. Plus, it’s a plan that you make while you’re shopping.

And I love it.

*Note: I realize this method of grocery shopping certainly isn’t for everyone. Some might find it troublesome to visit the store so frequently. But if your grocery store is on the way home from work, or you have a store or fresh food market within walking distance of your home, it’s totally worth it! I also think that this style of shopping is probably more suitable to people who live in an urban setting.



  1. Ok. Attempt number 3…

    First of all, I am so thrilled that you wrote this post and that my budgeting project encouraged you to think about this! I definitely think you should try to revamp how you do groceries once you get back to Canada if how you were doing them before doesn’t work for you, and if you can adapt what you’ve learned there to here, all the better!

    The grocery shopping method you describe is actually very similar to how we’ve been operating for the past number of months. Problem is, I HATE grocery shopping. I get into a grocery store with no plan, no list, and feel lost. I end up buying a whole bunch of stuff, some of which works for meals, some of which allows me to be creative, and some of which doesn’t really belong in my cart at all, and therefore either sits in our freezer for months (pork chops, anyone?) or goes bad in our fridge (cabbage! tomatoes! so many things.) So, I would go shopping for 2-3 days worth of food, hate the process, use half of what I bought, throw out the rest, and end up with chronically empty cupboards. Which, of course, leads to far too much Thai take-out and frozen pizzas. I just don’t have the personality or the know-how to do the ad hoc style of shopping or meal planning.

    That said, I hope that, if I focus on successfully meal planning for a few months, I’ll find a few go-to recipes and from there, will be able to loosen up a little, especially when September comes, I go back to school, and don’t have as much time to dedicate to meal planning and budgeting.

    Let me know how all this works for you in September here in Canada! I’m curious how different shopping is in the two locales, and if one style can be adapted to another place.

    Miss you guys!

    • AmandaAlice says:

      Thanks for your reply, Jeanette!

      The problems you describe aren’t ones I’ve encountered with this method of shopping, at least not yet. Maybe the different environment when I get home will mean I’ll run into problems? I’m looking forward to seeing how it works in September!

      In fact, the problems you describe are what I’d run into with meal planning! I’d be so focused on the items for a particular meal, I wouldn’t have a whole lot of pantry items. So when we didn’t feel like having a particular meal, not only would those fresh food items go bad, I’d end up buying take out…

      I also like this ad hoc method because I actually really LOVE grocery shopping, especially when I don’t have a meal plan. I still have a goal – supper for the next two nights and what to do for lunch – but I find I’m much more focused on what I need when I don’t have a meal plan to follow. Most grocery stores are laid out the same, even the European ones. The perimeter of the store is where the fresh bread, fruit and vegetables, and dairy products are located. I always stick to the perimeter and only go into the middle of the store for things like rice, pasta, and sometimes canned tomatoes. So I always have a plan of how I tackle a grocery store, but not what I’m going to buy until I get inside!

      I’ve tried meal planning for years, and they’ve just never worked for me. If I want to try something new, I’ll look up a recipe that uses certain ingredients and see how it works. But I have a really hard time following recipes exactly… I just… like to experiment. I’ve tried that with different cream pastas and now I don’t even know the original recipe anymore because I adapt it to suit my needs when I’m shopping.

      I’ll let you know how things work out when we get home in September! 🙂 Miss you guys too!

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