We live in a very remote area, where our closest Wal-Mart is an hour away and the closest mall two hours away. (Being a city girl, and from part of the country where EVERY small town has a Wal-Mart, this was a huge adjustment for me.) But I've figured out a way to make meal planning and shopping happen, partly with the help of a good buddy of mine here.
I grocery shop once a month. WHAT?! Yep. Once a month around payday, I load up the coolers and head to Wal-Mart, list in hand. Here's how I do it:
1. I make a list of 25 dinners. I love to cook, so my list can get involved. I love trying new things so I scour the internet and my cookbooks for recipes. I list them with their corresponding book and page number for easy reference. This month, I've decided to make copies of each recipe and put them in a 3 ring binder so that everything is at hand. We'll see how that works. I try to plan for leftovers for lunches and I work for a variety of mexican, italian, american, asian, and grilled dishes, as well as different meats (The hubby killling his first cow elk sure helped the beef situation. I LOVE ELK now!) and meatless items. I also plan 5-6 different lunch options. Breakfast is almost always cereal (gimme a break-i was up all night with the baby :) ) I also plan for any special dinners, like Easter dinner or snacks for Sunday night church or anything else we're craving. Once I have all my recipes together, I begin THE LIST.
2.I use a chunky spiral notebook to make my list. I shop for nonperishable stuff first, in the order of the store and load my cart up with that. By now, I've filled up one cart, so if hubby's with me, he takes it and one of the kids to go check out and take it to the van. I continue with a new cart and get all the dairy, meat, produce, and frozen in that order. By the time I'm done, he's done and loaded so we all go through together with the last load. I make my list thusly, one page for each category in my chunky little notebook:
baby stuff (it's back that way in my store)
bread (on top so it doesn't get squished. I buy 10 loaves of 100% whole wheat and freeze them)
When a category is complete and everything's checked off, I rip it out of my notebook.
3. When checking out, I get an empty cart to load bagged stuff in. I also put similar stuff together on the belt, especially cold and frozen since it requires dry ice.
I truly save money this way. I only buy milk, eggs, and fruit in town. We also use lots of frozen fruits and veggies, especially veggies--frozen can be just as good as fresh. We probably spend, for this trip, between $500-$600. What's left in our budget, goes toward milk, eggs, etc. I don't buy milk on the big trip because it takes up too much room in the cooler. In all, we're out of the store in about 2 1/2 hours.
I know this sounds like a lot of work, but it's a huge pay off. And I'm not bound to always make tacos on Tuesday. We just look at the list every night and pick something, knowing I bought everything we need for it already. That eliminates all those quick runs to the store, where you intend to pick up one thing and come out with twenty. And this isn't Once a Month Cooking. I tried that and it didn't work for me because too many dishes we like can't be frozen and maintain their quality. This is just once a month grocery shopping.
Consider giving it a try, even if you aren't as remote as we are!