Things tend to domino, don't they? You get home from work, and just...want to collapse. You don't want to think about anything. But...you're hungry, maybe you've got kids and they're hungry, and...fuck it, let's get burgers (at $6+ per person, if you're lucky), or Mexican, or a pizza...
And suddenly, the weekly food budget...yeah.
You get the idea.
So. What do you do?
Plan ahead. Sit down when you're not wiped out, and plan out a few days' worth of meals--at least the main dish. Set up themes, if you want.
I don't work outside the home anymore. I don't have the ability to, what with a few autoimmune issues taking turns wiping me out at random, unpredictable intervals. My current, full-time job is as a mom and a home economist.
One of our biggest budget busters for a long time was...food. I'd shop, and I'd impulse buy, and the food would...not get stored properly or eaten in time. Because I'd not planned for it. I had never, in my life, even considered planning menus.
FlyLady actually got me started on that. Yes, the housecleaning/decluttering/organization guru.
(It's easier if you get started with shining your sink and doing your dishes...because a clean kitchen--or at least, clean enough--is easier to work in.)
I started sitting down on Saturdays to plan. And I started with a couple of days of meals, then a week...and then it stretched out. I started shopping with a list, and sticking to it (made much easier when I got to know the store(s) and ordered the list so that I was going in a straight line, picking up what I needed instead of having to hunt, wander, and go "oh, that looks good!").
It took a while, but I've gotten things shaken down pretty well, now. And what I spend in Walmart and Sam's Club has fallen drastically (and could probably be reduced a little further). Between menu planning, keeping track of my pantry inventory, and (since the covidiocy started) doing curbside pickup, I've trimmed the grocery budget down from a couple hundred dollars a week to about four hundred or so a month.
Yes, part of that is because I live in Southwest Missouri, and my costs are lower than most other places; however, the rest of it is because I'm not buying stuff we don't need, it's not going to waste...and we're not grabbing fast food or whatever because I don't have anything planned.
So. What does my menu look like?
A standard week: I plan Sunday suppers to feed my other half lunch for the rest of the week at work--chili or tacos is really common for three seasons. Monday, we do burgers and fries (sometimes Johnsonville Bratwurst patties, sometimes ground beef)--and during the summer, all burgers are done on the grill and we do chips or fries in the toaster oven, so we're not running the AC so hard. Tuesdays are pasta: sometimes, it's homemade spaghetti; sometimes, I'll do pasta alfredo; sometimes I take last week's leftover spaghetti sauce, and make pasta bake; sometimes it's just a sandwich and macaroni. Wednesday is classic, American family fare, and varies by the meat I pick: for example, last night, I did baked roundsteak, mashed potatoes, garlic butter asparagus, and rolls (for three of the people in the household). Thursday's usually Mexican or Greek flavored--varied by meat (beef, pork, or chicken)--Friday's pizza (take-and-bake) and movie night, Saturday's leftovers from earlier in the week, a potato & smoked sausage foil packet, or a Zatarain's rice box (Jambalaya with cheese, or dirty rice).
I usually use my planner for this, and then copy it to a dry erase calendar on the fridge. What ends up written on the calendar is usually just one word: burgers, pasta, meat source, meat source, pizza, rice/potatoes/leftovers, chili/tacos.
But I have the plan in place. And if something I had planned doesn't seem like it's going to work out ("that doesn't sound good" or "I can't be on my feet long enough to make what I had planned" or "who the fuck ate the [ingredient] and didn't tell me it was gone so I could get more?"), I can still use the basic idea and just...adapt.
As my health improves, I can do more with less prepared food bases (as in: starting with flour or cornmeal or uncooked rice, rather than using a mix), which costs a lot less. I have mixes and easy convenience things on hand (both of which cost more money, but cost less in my personal energy budget) for when my health doesn't permit me to do a lot.
Planning meals is one of the biggest things I've learned to do to help keep our spending down. We do still eat out, once in a while, but it's mostly for celebration of birthdays and such. And with spending less here, we can put that money in other places where it's needed. Or even have a little slack for fun stuff.