Automating my family's grocery shopping to reduce costs and waste.
I love food and I love cooking, but I loathe grocery shopping. Deciding what to cook and the time it takes to find the groceries (in-store and online) is painful. Like everyone else I’m kind of busy and would rather spend my spare time with my family and friends. In addition, I casually follow the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) mentality, minimising living costs where possible. I hate waste too - particularly food waste. So I have made it my mission recently to see what I can do to make this weekly chore less expensive, less wasteful and generally simpler.
It’s 2020 and I can’t believe grocery shopping hasn’t been “solved”. Why is this even still a chore? Is it possible to imagine a scenario where we never have to think about the act of grocery shopping again?
Let me know if any of this resonates with you, via the comments section at the bottom or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife and I, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t fussy eaters. There are a few meals we like fairly frequently (Pizza, Spicy Korean Beef), but overall we like variety. I love cooking and will try my hand at new recipes on a weekly basis. During the week we aim for evening meals that take around 30-45 minutes (tops) to prep due to our schedules, especially now that we have a newborn to juggle too. Neither of us have any dietary requirements although we’re becoming more aware of how much of an impact eating meat has on the planet. Cowspiracy and The Game Changers were both eye opening for us.
What to eat
In the past, my wife and I have had that daily SMS conversation that I’m sure a lot of couples and housemates have - you know the one…
You: What do you fancy for dinner?
Them: I don’t mind
You: Lambs brains on toast?
Them: Not that
You: Ok, so anything you’re in the mood for at all? Need inspiration.
Them: Pizza, takeaway?
You: Ugh, it’s expensive and makes me fat
Them: Ok, I don’t mind then
This conversation is frustrating for whoever initiates it. Worse still for that person, they then need the mental energy to research recipes and check we can get all the ingredients from the overpriced and understocked Sainsbury’s local close to home. The result: we end up visiting Sainsbury’s every day of the week and have the same meals on repeat (depressing).
Let me go into a bit more detail…
Shopping in-store is time consuming and inconvenient, which is why online shopping exists - I get it. Sadly, online shopping is time consuming too, unless you repeat order the same basket every time. Reflecting on the last few weeks, I would estimate we spend approximately five hours per week in the supermarket or shopping online - this would equate to nearly 11 days a year 🤯.
Supermarkets are great at helping you to buy more of what you don’t need, spending money you didn’t want to spend. I hate this - this is when my well intentioned budget goes out of the window. Small amounts of money that would work harder for me when invested or used for overpaying the mortgage.
My will power
Over the years I have learnt that it is easier to manage my own cravings and bad food habits by simply not buying those things and having them in the house in the first place. Avoiding the supermarket and the temptations it contains at the end of a long day is one of the easiest ways I know to support my own will power.
Yet another gripe related to grocery shopping that my wife and I are conscious of is food and packaging waste. There are nearly one billion hungry people in the world and all of them could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe. Shockingly, 25% of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food that is never eaten.
Most food waste occurs in the home, but supermarkets make it extremely easy to bulk buy food that will go rotten before you have time to eat it (think bags of potatoes, boxes of tomatoes and bags of satsumas). We tried the alternative; recipe boxes, but after a couple of weeks we could not stomach the volume of packaging involved.
Summary of the problem
I have five problems to solve when it comes to my grocery shopping…
- What to eat - remove the effort involved in choosing what to eat and bake in some variety
- Time - reduce the time spent grocery shopping
- Cost - avoid spending money on groceries we don’t need
- Will power support - avoid impulse purchases for a healthy diet
- Waste - waste nothing
If you can relate to any of these problems, let me know via the comments section below or send me an email at email@example.com.
Just in time
Having trialled some recipe boxes, what became obvious was that despite the excessive packaging we weren’t wasting any food. Those boxes provide just the right amount of ingredients; no more, no less. This reminded me of the Just In Time (JIT) production methodology made famous by Toyota. Post World War II, Japan was cash strapped and lacked the space to build big factories, so they made their processes more lean. They built smaller factories in which the only materials housed were those on which work was currently being done. To avoid food waste I wanted to do something similar when grocery shopping.
Building a solution
Step 1 - “Just In Time” our grocery shopping
One of the simplest things I thought we could do to get started was to “Just In Time” our grocery shopping. This meant two things to me:
- Knowing what we wanted to eat for the week
- Knowing what we have in stock already - that we don’t need to buy
I read about a meal prep app on Reddit called Mealime. Mealime provides a bunch of recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner to create a meal plan from and then provides a grocery list. My wife and I currently use Time Tree as our shared calendar, so counting up the days we were going to be at home, we were able to create a meal plan with Mealime pretty quickly, in under five minutes (after some practice).
With our meal plan, I am able to export the grocery list. I’ve been saving the list as a draft email on my phone that I can open on my laptop. I then copy + paste the grocery list into a spreadsheet. Here, I can add tick-boxes and check what I already have in the kitchen. I can combine this with a list of essentials that we buy on a weekly basis (e.g. kitchen towel, bottled water) and use the
FILTER function to build a final shopping list.
LINK: My grocery list spreadsheet.
BONUS: Documenting our shopping made me more aware of the predictable, frequent purchases we make (e.g. toothpaste and dishwasher tablets). This encouraged me to take a closer look at Amazon Subscribe and what it could help us with. As a result we have automated some of our shopping. We’re tweaking our delivery schedule of items, such as toilet paper, to ensure we get it “Just In Time”. I am however skeptical of Amazon’s frequently changing prices, so I am checking in regularly. Generally speaking though we will soon be able to forget entirely about several household items. Small steps.
We’ve been using this JIT method for six weeks. Here are some results and observations so far…
- Our food waste is down. We didn’t measure it in any way, but it feels like it’s been reduced. Buying just the right amount of fresh produce rather than the supermarkets pre-packaged, bumper packs is not only cheaper, but also less wasteful.
- Our grocery spend is down. Where we previously spent ~£100 per week on groceries, we now spend around £60 (£2k per year saving). We no longer make daily visits to the store after work so we bypass the additional spending on impulse purchases too.
- Using Mealime and JIT, we have our process and total time spent grocery shopping down from approximately five hours per week to 60 minutes.
It’s not all plain sailing…
- JIT means we only plan and buy enough food for my me and my wife plus any visitors we have scheduled. Unplanned visits from friends or family mean additional planning time and more than likely a visit to our local store. Unplanned visits like this don’t happen very often so it’s not a major worry.
- Sometimes after a tough day we can’t be bothered to cook and order takeaway. This not only increases our weekly spend on food but means at the end of the week we have spare food for a meal we’ve planned. In the past, we just carry this over to the next week and buy a little less - not a problem. It’s ok to have a day off every now and then, right?
- Planning and shopping still takes 60 minutes. I wonder if we can get this to 0 - fully automated 🤔.
In my mind, the simplest next step would be the automation of getting a grocery list into our spreadsheet in the first place. First from Mealime, but in the future we would like to use recipes from other sources too.
I’ll post again when we’ve made some progress on this.
Let me know if you have any thoughts on any of this - I would love to speak with you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org