Grocery shopping for dummies.
November 25, 2016 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm not an organized person, and find grocery shopping a most frustrating experience. How can I make trips to the grocery store more efficient?

This might be a stupid question, but just like those questions you see about budgeting, grocery shopping seems to be a life skill that just passed me by. As a single, childless woman, grocery trips resulted from waiting until the absolute last morsel of food and drop of drink was done at home, and dragging myself to the store, walking up and down aisles picking up whatever seemed useful/ healthy/ tasty at the time. I rarely cooked anything other than rice, chicken in some form or other, and breakfast foods.

Now I have a boyfriend and a son. Said boyfriend is as bad as I am, and when let loose at a grocery store by himself will come home with breakfast-related things. Anything else unless explicitly told will be a text message exchange of epic instruction proportions. I have begun to abhor grocery shopping because it always seems I'm missing something, have to go back, and end up spending more than I need to. Amazon Prime Now is useful for basics, but I keep coming back to this same feeling of being disorganized when it comes to the food needs of my family. My son is an infant, so right now purees are working well, but I know I'll have to start making a variety of dinners for the family as he gets older. My boyfriend and I currently fend for ourselves either at work or eating out (expensive!) for lunch and dinner. I want to be healthy as a family and to do that I feel I need to get this grocery thing down.

So, what are some tips and tricks to grocery shop so I can organize my time better in those cold aisles and not keep having to go back? I remember reading about master grocery lists, do those help? How does one go about organizing oneself and one's kitchen to make grocery trips efficient? Imagine you're teaching a teenager how to keep a well-stocked kitchen and pantry and freezer, assuming said teen has healthy eating habits, will cook 2-3 times a week, isn't a picky eater but likes easy, classic recipes and has a very disorganized temperament when it comes to many things domestic. What are some steps you can give me that get me from a sparse pantry to one that's well-stocked enough to feed a family of three for a week with no repeat dinners?

Thank you in advance, Mefites, and please pardon my naïveté and... desperation in overthinking this!
posted by Everydayville to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You work backwards from meals. You figure out what meals you're going to eat for the next 3 - 7 days; you figure out what ingredients each meal uses; you open cabinets and the fridge and figure out what you don't have; you make a list for your grocery trip.

You also make a list for staples and check for those. Ours are tea, coffee, milk, cream, bread, butter, olive oil. We cannot function without those things and the lack of any single item from that list means YAFTTGS (Yet Another Fucking Trip to the Grocery Store.)

You can get more elaborate but those are the basics in my household.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:09 PM on November 25, 2016 [25 favorites]

Paprika is what keeps me organized. You can use it to look for recipes, plan your meals, and create a grocery list that's automatically organized by supermarket sections.
posted by sid at 1:11 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My grocery shopping is more organized when my eating habits are more organized. Part of this is plain old trial and error -- what do you like making and eating? What do you have the energy and ability to make? What meats are you comfortable preparing and eating? Do you like hot meals or cold? Do you like eating the same thing for several days, or a different meal each day? What grain(s) do you like to eat? Vegetables? Fruit? Frozen or fresh?

Answering these questions will help you pin down what you want to make in the next week. Then you can start to figure out what you need to buy to make them.

With enough times doing that, your habits become more settled and you can figure out what you should probably buy in bulk (these form your pantry, basically), what you should buy week to week (these stock your fridge), and where you should buy certain things.

I would cut yourself some slack -- it's hard and nobody's perfect at it. But it helps a lot when you have an idea of what you realistically will and want to eat.
posted by sondern at 1:16 PM on November 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: 1. This sounds dumb, but how well do you know your grocery store? If you know that you need (for instance) canned tomatoes, how long would it take you to find them?
2. I don't know if you/your boyfriend have smartphones, but if you do, start using a grocery-list app that can sync between them. My wife and I use Anylist. Add stuff to it as the need arises, and then you both always have a current list when you're at the store.
3. Develop a repertoire of things you can cook without thinking too hard. Joy of Cooking is really good for reliable and relatively easy recipes. Once you've prepared one a few times, you can wing it.
4. You've probably heard this, but shop around the edges of the grocery store.
5. I'm a big fan preparing big batches of food, vacuum-sealing them, and freezing them. The day after Thanksgiving, I've got 4 bags of soup stock, 3 of stuffing, 3 of turkey.
6. Similarly (assuming you've got space) keep spices, canned foods, rice, spaghetti, and other dry goods around in sufficient quantities that you don't need to buy them every time you want to use them.
posted by adamrice at 1:20 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh! Also, one thing that can be really helpful is to make a master list of specific dishes you can make (and enjoy eating) -- then before you go shopping for the week, pick the ones you'll make this week from off the list and form your shopping list accordingly.

The list is surprisingly helpful -- makes the stress of forming a coherent grocery list go way down, since the hard work of thinking up actual meals is out if the way.
posted by sondern at 1:23 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you go to the same grocery store all the time? Decades ago my mother took one of the store layout maps they had at the end of a shelf, and used to look at that and write her shopping list in the same order as the store was in.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:28 PM on November 25, 2016 [12 favorites]

One thing I did at one point was make myself a standard list with everything on it that I would usually get from a supermarket. Then I would print out a copy, review the supplies, cross off things we didn't need, and what was left was my shopping list. It helped a lot.

I don't do this any more because I'm a middleaged person who can do this on instinct now.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:53 PM on November 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have a one page/two column list (a Google doc) of all of the stuff I might typically buy on a shopping trip, grouped by sections of the grocery store I shop at (e.g. the list is grouped into a butcher/fish section, dairy section, a produce section, bulk section, dry goods section). I print out ten of these at a time and leave one out in the kitchen. Date the top of the page when you pull it out, so you'll know you are working off of a current list. Circle the items you need to pick up as you think about it. If there is something not on the list, write it in the margin. It is a bit of a hassle to set it up, but once you have your "permanent shopping list", it is a time saver both in figuring out what you need, and in being efficient in the store. And almost no special trips back to the store for the one thing I forgot. I've been doing my shopping this way for about four years; at this point, I might edit the list once or twice a year.
posted by kovacs at 1:53 PM on November 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I made a spreadsheet with all the stuff we buy on a semi regular basis, sorted in order of the aisles of the grocery store.
posted by COD at 2:00 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My husband and I use an app called OurGroceries. The nice things about this are:
- It syncs between various devices (so I can add things on my laptop or phone and my husband will see them on his phone).
- It remembers what you put on your lists in the past and I'm not sure how it exactly orders items, but the more frequently used items come up in the top of the list of suggestions when building a list (so for example, if you always buy bread or cilantro, those will be suggested as you're building a list).
- It has the ability to add recipes, so you can over time build up a list of favorite recipes and combinations. Then you can just add the entire recipe's worth of ingredients to your list in one shot. After that you, still have to go through the main list and remove anything already in your pantry or that you have in your fridge already.
Besides this app, my husband and I maintain a list of recipes on Google Drive's spreadsheet application. This might be more work than you're willing to do, but it makes life easier in the long run, as we can look through our list of rated recipes, decide on 3 or 4 we are going to make in the next week, add the ingredients for that to OurGroceries, look through the suggestions to add staples, and boom the list is done. I try to think about how many days that week we're likely to eat out or in the office cafeteria for lunch, any days we will eat out for dinner and how long we can stretch leftovers for each dinner. I buy a few extra shelf-stable things to make a meal if for some reason we need to make an entire meal that I hadn't planned for. I can make a planned list in about half an hour these days. I'll note also that all this elaborate keeping track of recipes is partly because I have an excessive need for variety in my diet - if you're the kind of person who doesn't mind eating mostly the same thing each week, OurGroceries alone could work very well for you.
posted by peacheater at 2:05 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is what we do in my house. Post a list pad on the board in the kitchen. Write things you need on it as the week goes on. Sit down one day and write a list. Base this list on what you need from the board plus the items you need for the coming week's menu, using the sales circular from the store as a guide. Take the list and split it up into store geography based categories: Produce, cooking, drinks, bread, canned goods, pharmacy, refrigerated, frozen. Shop in that order while crossing things off of the list.

Don't go to the store hungry. Do get yourself a treat as a reward for doing the shopping like an adult.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:07 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was an actual teenager, I would stock up every time I got pay from my job once a month.
I'd buy a lot of pasta and rice - like three kilos combined, a lot of canned tomatoes, a lot of olives and two-three jars of anchovies. I'd also buy two cans of tuna, a kilo of onions and a head or two of garlic. All of this cost very little and would sustain me for a month if necessary. I also had olive oil, salt and pepper and an assortment of herbs and spices, but they didn't need refreshment every month, and they would depend on your tastes. At the time, I mainly ate local Kosher food and Italian classics.
The thing was, I worked at an old-fashioned green-grocers, and every Saturday, I'd bring home food we hadn't sold. And then I'd cook from that, whatever it was. Sometimes my boss would give advice, but mostly I depended on cookbooks, taking the ingredients as my point of departure. When the shop closed I was devastated but I'd learnt to cook with seasonal produce and my new job was better paid.

What I am saying is: build a basic pantry, so you can always cook up a meal. Today, mine includes glasses of preserved tomatoes rather than the tin cans. Otherwise, I always have a tin of coconut milk, and my spices include those for a nice curry. I have ginger in my fridge, as well as butter and cream and a lot of different preserves, sweet and salty. I always have different flours and yeast and baking powder. I always have onions and garlic. For me, lentils are a very important part of the pantry, both tinned and dry, you might like other legumes. And I still have the other stuff mentioned above, the pasta and rice, the tuna and anchovies, the spices and herbs.
In the freezer, I always have chicken stock, spinach and peas.
Often, but not always, I have eggs.

When you have your basic pantry and keep it stocked, you never need to worry about food - you can always make a good meal in 30 minutes. So what you buy is extra - for pleasure. It can be lots of stuff for a whole meal with inspiration from a website proposal. Or it can be just a bit of bacon for a more meaty version of lentil stew.

I usually think every morning: what am I having for dinner, next day's breakfast and next day's lunch, and I note down the ideas on my phone or in my notebook. It depends on who will be eating at each meal and how much time I expect to have. So some days I'll decide already that lunch tomorrow is takeout for everyone. And some days it will be soba noodles (yummy).

With a small child in the house, I'd be seriously thinking about having some seasonal greens in the house everyday, as well as fish at least once a week. When my girls were small, they both loved a mash of potatoes and broccoli with butter, and all sorts of fish. They also loved blended olives and avocados, both separately and combined.

Also, you need to also have some sort of fresh fruit in the house every day if you have children.
posted by mumimor at 2:08 PM on November 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

We use Google Keep to run a grocery/other household goods list that we can both add to. Since I used Keep anyhow it saves us from having another damn app to install.

When you're ramping up to meal planning/grocery shopping/etc, don't feel bad for taking shortcuts. Premarinated fish, frozen vegetables, canned fruit, the occasional deli salad - these things will save you a lot of time and still be cheaper than eating out.
posted by joycehealy at 2:44 PM on November 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Another thing that might help - especially if you are visually oriented like I am - is to keep your pantry and fridge at home organized in a consistent way, especially with regards to the staples. Garlic is always on the top shelf just inside the door handle for me, so if there's a blank space there I need to buy garlic. Same for onions, cheese as well as many pantry staples - there's a place that soup stock goes, and if it's empty or only has one box, I need more.

(Yet another is moving next to a grocery store - it's a 2 minute walk for me and I've lost most of my grocery shopping skills.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:49 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Before I even start making a list I jot down what I have on hand in the fridge, freezer and pantry. Then I make a list of meals for each day, taking note if someone won't be home, will be late, etc. I'm flexible and leave a day or 2 per week that we have pizza, fast food, cereal etc or what I call No Cook nights. I also note if we will have leftovers for lunches the next day. I make sure to choose recipes that use some of what is on hand so less buying of ingredients and food waste. I also am not married to what day we eat which meal except if it's the 1st day or 2 where we have to use up fresh chicken or ground beef. I often make a larger beef roast then shred & freeze some for burritos later, cook up & freeze extra ground beef for tacos, spagetti, sloppy joes etc. Or I will grill and slice chicken for fajitas or add to pasta w/jarred alfredo sauce and some veggies.

I make my shopping list as I'm making the meals list for the week then rewrite it before I go to the store, in order of the store layout. That alone saves me a ton of time. I mentally walk the store, thinking if I need anything down the aisles. Then when I'm shopping I skip tons of aisles because I've already thought if I need anything down them, a time and money saver cause I'm a lot more likely to add stuff to my cart once I start meandering around the store.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

For important non-perishable things, keep two boxes/packets/bottles in the cupboard. When you finish the first one, put it on the shopping list. This way you don't wait until the cupboard is bare before you stock up again.
posted by emilyw at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Seconding AnyList - the premium subscription version is a buck a month and has made shopping so much easier! You can attach photos of items you're particular about so for example the BF won't forget whether it's Heinz or Hunt's ketchup, and there's a calendar function where you can plan out your menus. Also, items are grouped by category, and the default categories match the typical US supermarket layout quite well (but you can change them too).

Another feature I love is the recipe section. I have set it up with a few dozen favorite recipes - I don't bother entering the whole recipe, just the ingredient list (I use something else for whole recipes). So if I spot a really good deal on a certain ingredient, I can see what other items I need to go with it while I'm still in the store.

Since everybody nowadays usually has their phone at hand, you can add items as you think of them, which saves a lot of return trips to the supermarket for that thing you forgot when you were making the main shopping list.

I always plan my menus and make a shopping list before I go to the store. I hardly ever buy something that's not on the list (unless I see an unusually good deal on an ingredient for a favorite recipe). I never buy full-price perishables "on spec" because they'll just rot before I decide what to do with them. This means I don't use coupons but I feel like I'm saving money anyway by not throwing out a lot of spoiled food.

I recommend finding about a dozen recipes that will be your go-to dishes for everyday meals. This will give you some variety but you'll still be able to go on autopilot when you cook, and you'll already have most of the non-perishables on hand (e.g., soy sauce, dry lentils, canned tomatoes, etc). Focus on things that reheat well, generally dishes with a lot of liquid: soup, stew, chili, curry, pasta sauce, etc. You can expand your repertoire later but start with the easy winners.
posted by Quietgal at 3:23 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I keep handwritten grocery lists on paper which I cut out of heavy-duty envelopes that are sent to me in the mail. (Because it's more durable paper that withstands re-use well.) I cross off things as I buy them and hang on to the old lists, then when I'm about to go shopping I scan over the old lists to remind myself of stuff I usually buy and prompt myself to remember things I'm out of but forgot to write down.
posted by XMLicious at 3:33 PM on November 25, 2016

The book Food That Works helped me to start organizing my shopping around what I was going to cook for the week. I still struggle with this but it is getting better. Hang in there!
posted by scairdy chicken at 3:45 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A thought on lists:
Make your list twice. The first time, just figure out the big list of everything that you need to buy on your trip. Then rewrite your list, going down the first list and placing the items in sections corresponding to their location in the store in roughly the order you will go through the store. That way you don't have to double back to produce from dairy because you forgot shallots.

A thought on menu-making:
Embrace repetition. It's sort of a meme at this point, but we've wholeheartedly embraced Taco Tuesday in our household. Without fail, we are having tacos of some sort on Tuesday night. It's something we look forward to that's easy and cheap. It makes the deciding part a lot easier. We've hardly missed a Taco Tuesday in the last year. No regrets. We're thinking we will add Meatless Mondays as well. Maybe there's something to the alliteration aspect here.

On Timing:
Observe how busy your local store is at given times. I think this must be broadly similar but our store is always packed on Sunday afternoon, Monday Evening, and Wednesday Morning (senior discount day). Avoid these times if you can. Consider going at odd hours. You may just have the aisles to yourself around 10pm.

A quick admonition:
Do not go to the grocery store when you are hungry. Do not go to the grocery store when you are hungry. Do not go to the grocery store when you are hungry. At the very least eat a granola bar or something like that right before going. You will save ~20% on your grocery bill.

A final dispensation:
Going to the grocery store is a pain, make sure you get something fun for yourself. The day that you go to the store, you shouldn't have to come home and do some serious prep work and cooking unless you're just really looking forward to it. >50% of the time our post grocery trip meal is a rotisserie chicken and salad.
posted by goHermGO at 6:20 PM on November 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Once you've figured out your methods from the advice above, look into grocery stores that have online ordering and delivery or pickup at the store. This is time saving & way less stressful than wandering the store aisles! Your meal planning & list making will make online ordering a snap. Also eliminates the impulse/random purchases--you can plan your 'random' treats.

In our area, a big grocery chain will let you order online and will deliver free for a $100 dollar order or $5 for an order under $100. There is the issue of being there to receive the order, but so worth it. This same store will have your order ready for pickup at the curb which is a helpful option if you can't be home for delivery. This has made a huge difference in our household--prices are the same as in store and you can put your coupons in, if that's your thing.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 7:15 PM on November 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love lists! Here is my system for making my grocery lists:

First, I keep a dry erase board of everything I ran out of (household and groceries). Those go on the grocery list first.Then I write down anything I need for breakfasts/snacks/desserts/beverages, etc.Then I figure out how many meals (lunch and dinner, I don't really consider breakfast to be a real meal) I'll need (i.e.,if I am planning to go out to eat twice this week, I'll need 14-2 = 12 meals this week). Assuming all recipes serve 4 people, if cooking for 1 person, then you need 3 recipes for 12 meals, if cooking for 2 people, you need 6 recipes. Then I look up that many recipes from my recipe files/cookbooks/the internet. Put stuff you definitely need to make the recipes on the list. My favorite trick here is to make a second, intermediate,list of all the ingredients (pantry stuff like garlic, spices) that you maybe already have on hand but aren't sure about. Then go back to the kitchen and go through your fridge and see what on that "maybe" list needs to be added to your main list. That way you're not getting distracted by having to keep checking to figure out what you already have. I sometimes do the reordering of the list in order of the grocery store sections but not always. It does save time at the store.

I think the whole meal planning thing works best (or at all!), though, if everyone else in the household is on board with it and willing to stick to using ingredients up as planned out rather than just grabbing whatever out of the fridge. Pretty much everything in my fridge is "spoken for" except for snack foods. (I'm always confused by cookbooks that suggest that you can modify the recipe by throwing in whatever vegetables you have on hand. Why would I just randomly have perishable vegetables lying around?). This works fairly well in terms of reducing food waste but I think can take some getting used to if that's not how you're used to operating.
posted by eeek at 9:01 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention: today I order most of the pantry staples online and have them delivered once a month along with most beverages.
When I am at a store, unless there is some special occasion, I only buy what I can carry in one hand and always from the list I made during the morning. Since I like shopping and go almost every day, I'll often know what produce is available when I plan.

An other idea is to get a weekly box delivered, with recipes. I did it when my kids were small and I had less leisure time. Not just because it frees a lot of time, but also because the good ones work like a cooking and household management course - you learn a lot of good stuff that you can use when you get more practice. My sister was you when her kids were small, and she found a service that was really well planned and had very detailed recipes and explanations. Mine was more loose, a reminder of my grocery store days. Eventually, we have both moved on, but we both still use the skills we learnt then.
posted by mumimor at 6:59 AM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's a lot of great advice in the above comments. I think of it as a three-pronged approach.

1) Meal Planning - you need to know what you are going to shop for to eat, otherwise you end up using your refrigerator as a compost bin. I read somewhere that most people eat mainly from 10-15 standard recipes, so if you figure out your 10 favorite dinners, you know what you have to shop for, and you are less likely to be overwhelmed by ALL OF THE RECIPES.

2) Pantry stocking - when you are figuring out your 10 favorite dinners, have 2-3 that rely solely on pantry staples and you'll almost always have something to cook when you haven't had time to shop (providing you remember to replenish your pantry). This can be as simple as pasta with jarred marinara sauce. You'll also want to factor in snacks, drinks, paper goods, cleaning supplies and spices in this segment.

3) Actual shopping list making - once you have your meal plan, you'll know what you need to buy. If you pull something from the pantry, or have made a pantry meal the previous week, you'll add those items to the list. Theoretically, your running list, filled out by the entire household as things are used up, will have the items that need replenishing.

I also highly recommend arranging your grocery list in store categories (Produce, Meat, Dairy, Bakery, Center aisles) to avoid running back and forth across the store. Also, store pick up/delivery is a WONDERFUL service, especially if you hate shopping.
posted by sarajane at 8:07 AM on November 26, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you, thank you, thank you all for your spectacularly helpful answers. Every single one had a useful piece of information that I have noted down on a notepad that I plan to use for my grocery purposes. I went out and bought a nice-looking one with refillable pages (that way I'll use it more, as well as for recipes) and a chalkboard for the kitchen wall, as these seem like necessities. I've also downloaded Anylist. Our first post-thanksgiving list is in the making! Thanks again.
posted by Everydayville at 1:37 PM on November 26, 2016

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