Saturday, October 15, 2011

When Did We Make This Pie? Why We Inventory.

When we first started our budget cutting project we did it because we were finding that certain foods weren't getting used and we were winding up with spoiled produce or freezer burnt meats. We quickly realized that this was defeating the purpose and decided that we needed to figure out a method to ensure that everything got rotated properly and used in a timely manner.

To be honest, we really had no idea what we even had. Things at our house were chaotic and only partially organized. We have an inside side by side fridge/freezer and a garage side by side fridge/freezer (the one from the old house) as well as a deep freeze. We also have a walk-in pantry and something we refer to as our "convertible pantry" that houses our spices, oils and baking supplies.

The garage "storage". It was a frightening place before this project.

We rarely used the garage fridge so we often forgot about the things in there. Sometimes this presented an ugly surprise. Last year we found a pie from Thanksgiving that never got February. Eww. We weren't about to go through that again.

The freezers were the greatest source of worry. It was crazy. I wish I had before photos. We knew we had meat that we had purchased in addition to deer meat from Collin's brother-in-law and some beef from a half of beef that Collin's mom split with us and his sister. But we didn't know how old anything was, what cuts we had or how much we really had available. I assumed we had chicken, but I didn't know for sure. When we checked, we had two bags - but one bag was a partial bag that got poorly resealed and was freezer burnt. The dogs had an awesome dinner that night. We decided that the best thing to do was to pull everything out, reorganize and toss what couldn't be saved. We threw away a lot of food that night...I would estimate at least $50 worth. It made me absolutely sick. I decided that something needed to change.

I talked Collin into helping me and we started to take an inventory of everything we had in the house at that moment. This included everything in the freezers, the fridge and our pantries. We reorganized as we went. I have to say, that made me feel much better - I like order. I then used the inventory list to build our month's worth of meals - trying to use up as much of the food that needed rotating (ie. refrigerated and frozen) as possible. This saved us money by using up what we already had available and prevented additional items from going bad. This was the first key to our project and it is something that, now somewhat refined, is what we continue to do at the end of each month.

The garage freezer now holds our meats and items that I consider "overflow". Like items are stored together. These are items that can be used for quickfire meals, lunches or that I just got at a really good price and stocked up on for a few months. (I keep my family eating somewhat healthy, but we do stock up on some foods that aren't exactly the best for you. These items most often go in the overflow.) The frozen groceries that are in the month's meal plan (with the exception of the meats) get stored in the kitchen.

Freezer overflow.

The garage side-by-side now houses our ice cream stash in the freezer and the refrigerator is used for overflow leftovers (like the lasagna that I made last week and couldn't fit in the kitchen fridge) and during holidays. It gets checked during inventory at the end of every month. There will be no pie surprise this year.

In order to make my life easier, I've also arranged both our pantry and our "convertible" pantry by item type. In the pantry all cereals go on the very top shelf with the first three boxes in rotation being available to eat. My family knows that they have to eat the cereals in order or they will deal with my wrath. Other categories include dry pastas, potatoes, instant sides (rices & other pastas), soups and canned vegetables/fruits. All of these items get rotated when we buy new stock. It takes a little time but keeps all of the older items near the front. The convertible pantry still needs more work, but I have to find a better way of storing my spices...they are out of control. It's a work in progress.

When we first started out, I just jotted all of this information down onto a piece of scrap paper. That worked fine for then, but I'm a little OCD and so I've now created spreadsheets to make the job easier. Everything is categorized as dry/canned goods, refrigerated or freezer. I created the sheets based on the items in my shopping binder (which you will see later). If we start using a new food that's not on the list I simply add it in for the next month's printouts. The system may not work for everyone, but it works for me. You're more than welcome to take the lists as your own or use them to build off of. (Just do me a favor and give me credit if you post them elsewhere or share with friends.)

At the end of each month I take my checklists and write down the number of each item that I have available. This lets me know what I'm getting low on before we run out and helps me plan the next month's meals. I also can figure out exactly what I need to buy in order to finish all of the meals so that I don't have to make a bunch of trips to the store or have items that spoil.

I plan on taking this system up a notch in the next month or two. The plan is to keep a fresh set of inventory sheets in the kitchen so that when an item gets used (because we don't always follow the meal plan completely) I can just take it off the list. That way, if done correctly, I won't have to do a complete inventory at the end of each month. We'll see how this goes...I have to train the family.

Still wondering if inventory is really worth it? In our first month of using the inventory system I built nearly the entire month off of our existing items. Our grocery bill for that entire month was...wait for it...$35. That's my produce and dairy. That's it. I didn't really need anything else. The next month I still had some items. Our bill that month was around $70. Still not bad.

Taking inventory now takes me about 20-30 minutes. I am regularly rotating stock and planning ahead for future months. At this point we are averaging around $150 per month for the items in the meal plan and an additional $30-$50 for items getting stored for rotation. Why do I do that? Grocery stores sell items in quarterly cycles for their sales. I have all of my summer items fully stocked to use through the rest of the year (hamburger helper, salsa, barbecue sauce) and I have started on my fall items (soups, pasta).

Next step...building a coupon binder. It's like being frugal and crafting at the same time!

**** Update. Well...I got a little ahead of myself. The next step in the process is actually meal planning. But the wonder of the binder will be revealed soon!


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