After taking the time to meal plan and create a weekly menu for yourself, the grocery shopping is the logical next step. It seems like a simple enough task – walk into a store, buy some food and other stuff – but it’s where even the best of us get tripped up. Temptations line the aisles and if you don’t go in with a plan, you are just begging the universe to point you in the direction of things you don’t need. Or perhaps there’s just that really tasty looking bag of chips on the end unit at Trader Joe’s…you just never know what traps you will fall into! Grocery shopping in an effective and efficient way is just short of being an art form. With some guidelines for yourself, you can turn it into a (fairly) painless process. Less time spent at the grocery store means more time to do other things that you probably enjoy more It can also mean more money in your pocket, but more on that in another segment of this series. Grocery shopping is one of those evil necessities you have to do, but most people typically don’t like (unless your weirdos like me and Will). Read on, friends, for tackling one of the most challenging types of errands you have!
How to: Grocery Shop
Much like creating a meal plan, you need to come up with an organized way to tackle what you need at the grocery store. There are many ways to do this and what I’m offering are suggestions from our personal experience, for going about the task. Remember: these won’t work for everyone and are merely suggestions based upon what we have found makes our lives easiest. What Will and I typically do once we’ve set our menu for the week is we go through the recipes and make a list on one of our phones of all the ingredients we don’t already have, for the recipes we’ve selected (we use a phone so the list won’t get left at home). If for any reason, the list looks incredibly wrong, we’ll reevaluate our menu to try to trim it up. I have found that at the beginning of the month, our list is longer than the end, because we need to gather lots of odds and ends. Thus is the lifecycle of our kitchen.
Once we’ve got the ingredients we need for our meals, we take stock of the cupboards, fridge, freezer, spices, etc. We look for things we’re low on or empty jars signaling we’re out of something and then determine if it’s a crucial thing we have to have, or if it can wait. Typically, we’ll add the item to our list and then decide once we’re out shopping, if we have the money to spend on it that week. Bag of pasta to have on hand? We would probably just pick up. Out of olive oil? We might see how long we can make what we have stretch because it’s pricier. It’s all a matter of what your budget allows weekly. We also recently started using the “All Out Of” pad to help track throughout the week when we go to do something and one of us says “oh we’re out of ______.” This has made it easier when Saturday morning comes, to remember all those things we’ve inevitably forgotten and may not notice. Another way to do this is to update your grocery list on your phone throughout the week, or simply have a blank or lined magnetic notepad on your fridge to write it down once you’re out of it. That’s what my mother does and it’s been working for a few decades for her! Make sure to delete items or cross them off your list while shopping, so you don’t double buy at different stores.
The next major component to successful grocery shopping is limiting the number of days you go to the store. We aim to only grocery shop once a week and only allow ourselves a second trip if we’ve forgotten something crucial (like we’re out of pasta and have scheduled a pasta dish). For a period of time, we forbid ourselves from going on a second weekly trip and just made do with what we had, whenever we forgot something. We’ve since loosened up, but really try to aim for no more than two shopping trips a week. We find that when you go in for “just one thing,” you typically come out with that thing and several frivolous additions. If I need spinach, there’s a good chance I’ve gotten some Ben & Jerry’s, a bottle of nail polish, a magazine, and some paper towels too. This is a good habit to break because multiple grocery trips per week tend to lead to overbuying of food and other things, in addition to overstocking your kitchen with crap you don’t need. A full fridge/cabinet is not any better than a sparse one! Controlling how many trips you make per week can help manage how much food you buy and thus help you be more aware of what you’re eating. Even if you’re not on a tight budget, this principle should still apply.
In conjunction with trying to only shop once or twice a week, you should avoid the following: shopping while hungry/hangry/emotional and straying from your grocery list. These are common problems shoppers find and everyone (including us) are guilty of falling into – traps of sales and enticing-looking snacks, when we’re not shopping with a purpose. If you go in with the purpose of only getting the things you need, then you’ll end up a happier shopper in the end. Sure, you may not pick up those seasonal special Oreo’s, but did you really need them anyways? You should also get familiar with your grocery stores – if you want to be super type A, you could even organize your grocery list by section, i.e. produce, meat, dairy, dry goods, frozen, etc. That way, if grocery shopping makes you anxious, you can go in with a plan and a way of attacking the store to get it done as quickly as possible. Most grocery stores are laid out in similar ways, so taking an organized approach to shopping can relieve your anxiety in no time. Don’t know where to find something obscure? Just ask. It’s easier than spending 10 minutes looking and then giving up. I typically will start in produce, work my way to dairy, speed through dry goods and then end up in the frozen section so my last items don’t melt as quickly. But to each their own!
As far as the types of things we buy, we only try to buy one type of meat per week and primarily end up purchasing fresh produce (although now we have a food share, so it will be pre-determined for us).We very rarely buy frozen foods and most of what’s in our freezer was pre-made and frozen by us. We never buy snacks and this is one of the benefits we see most in our budget and waistlines. Whenever we do splurge on something (chips, chocolate, etc) we tend to consume it all in one or two days, so it’s better to just keep it out of the house! Also, when possible, we try to buy in bulk as much as we can. This ranges from grains (flour, rice, quinoa) to nuts (almonds, peanuts) to baking needs (flour, sugar). We used to have a wider selection at EarthFare, but if you’ve got a Whole Foods or something similar, you should have an easier time buying your non-produce foods in bulk for better rates than pre-packed materials. We typically take one “stock-up” trip per month where we refill containers of these items and then we don’t have to worry about whether or not we have them on hand. We even have special bags that are super lightweight, for buying in bulk, as well as specialty produce bags so you’re not using so much plastic. Lastly, we don’t always go for the cheapest food on the shelf. It’s important to get high-quality milk, yogurt, certain types of produce and obviously it’s ideal to buy organic if you can. We buy things like beans and grains cheaply, but otherwise we try to invest in mid-range to the best quality foods as we possibly can. Keep in mind with everything food-related: what you put in your body now is essential to maintaining your body down the road!
In summary, here are our rules of grocery shopping:
1. Come up with your grocery list based on your menu
2. Take stock of what you have/may need and note it
3. Shop only one or two times per week
4. Don’t shop when you’re hungry/hangry/emotional
5. Don’t stray from your grocery list
6. Get familiar with the stores you shop out to ease anxiety of finding everything on your list
7. Be cognizant of the quality and types of food you’re buying – cheapest hardly ever equals the best for you!
8. Buy fresh/local/organic when possible and avoid pre-packaged snack foods
We hope you find this useful in the ways in which you tackle going to the grocery store. As much as it’s a necessary evil, if you plan accordingly, it really can be a positive weekly experience. While it’s less fun to shop on the weekends, coming in with a purpose can really alleviate much anxiety and stress that grocery shopping can cause. Know that the employees are there to help you and that they want it to be a pain-free experience for you to! Leave any questions in the comments section and we’ll be happy to offer any insight we might have, from our experience 🙂