How to Grocery Shop

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Ack! No milk! Off to the grocery store!

Was there something else you needed? There was, wasn’t there? What was it?

 Oh, look, this is on sale. That isn’t, but I think I need some. Might as well wander down this aisle to shortcut to the other side.

Oops – walked straight past the pasta, and we definitely need some of that.

How many grocery store trips feel like a random grab-bag and confused wandering? It happens to us all, but if feeding our people and keeping the shelves stocked is an important part of our service – and it is – then we need some better strategies for making the most of our grocery trips.

We want to minimize the time they take, the brain power they require, and the mistakes and oversights we make.

The bottom line for myself has been that the more simple I keep things, the less mental energy my stuff requires of me, and this includes food shopping and preparing.

So, I wanted to share tips that have made grocery shopping less of a hassle.

Tip #1: Start with clear shelves at home

Ok, so this doesn’t have to do with grocery shopping at the grocery store. Before we can get there, we have to set the stage at home.

What’s in your pantry right now? Half-used bits and pieces of specialty ingredients just waiting until they are old enough to be thrown away without guilt? Maybe boxes of Rice-a-Roni or Hamburger Helper? Unknown substances lurking in dark corners?

The first step to simplifying and organizing is decluttering. And the best way to declutter is to empty the space and see what exactly is there.

  1. Empty your pantry space(s).
  2. Wipe down the empty shelves.
  3. Label shelves and any containers with categories: cans, bags, bulk, baking goods. Use whatever categories make sense to you.
  4. Take inventory. Make a two-column list: pantry staples and specialty ingredients. Pantry staples will be any food that you regularly use and would like to always keep on hand. Specialty ingredients will include those things purchased for specific recipes but that you don’t regularly use. If you are considering a complete overhaul and dramatic simplification, you might want to start with my master pantry list, but feel free to personalize it.
  5. Put things back the way you’d like them. You might consider adding labels to your shelves to make it easier to put things in their right place.

Repeat this process with your fridge, freezer, and any other place you have food stored. You will want to finish with a complete list of all your food inventory.

Now you not only have a clean space to shelve your groceries, but you also know what you have.

This menu plan template will help streamline your process.

Tip #2: Keep less stuff in your pantry.

If your food storage space is stuffed with five-year-old unopened boxes, half-used bits of specialty bulk ingredients, or items that were deals too good to pass up (but you don’t know how or when to use), then you’ll benefit greatly from my pantry strategy.

Here’s the deal: With rare (usually birthday or holiday) exceptions, I only buy groceries on my master grocery list.

I’ll be developing that strategy more all month, but for now, use it to focus and clear out your pantry.

Use up the bits of ingredients languishing in your pantry.

Toss the moldy or very expired items.

Donate any nonperishable food items you are not likely to use. Be honest.

It doesn’t matter what coupon you had or how cheap it was, if you buy it and don’t use it, it’s not a good deal. If you buy it and it sits in your pantry, causing you guilt whenever you see it, it’s not worth it.

While browsing the shelves and the coupons and the sales, it’s easy to be optimistic in our good intentions. But how many of those good intentions actually turn into good meals? How many just result in more food than necessary being purchased and wasted?

Work on your master grocery list, and use up or get rid of items in your pantry you don’t want to be part of your regular plan.

Tip #3: Rely on standard, unbranded, whole foods instead of coupons.

Ever been tempted to pay money to learn how to save money with coupons? It’s a thing. But, it’s not a thing you need.

You don’t need more Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup or Malt-o-Meal Tootie Fruities. Coupons are advertising, and most of the food they try to sell you is not real, whole, good-for-you food. Moreover, if you buy more than you use, or buy it without a plan and it sits in your pantry, that’s not really saving you money.

Food you buy with a plan, knowing you will use it to make the meals your family loves will save you money. Buying food without a plan, simply because it was on sale or on coupon, is a recipe for spending more than you realize and still feeling like “there’s nothing to eat.”

grocery shopping without stress

However, sometimes there are coupons for foods on the master pantry list. We don’t want to turn up our noses at an extra 50-cents off an item we were going to buy anyway!

If I run across a coupon for an item on my master pantry list (usually I find these in-store, since we don’t get the newspaper and I don’t spend any time seeking out coupons), I either buy the item with the coupon attached right then and there, or I take the coupon and add it to my wallet, right in front of my debit card. The hope is that I’ll see it before I pay. Usually there’s only one or three there, if there are any, so it’s not hard to just look at real quick as I pull out my card to pay for the groceries.

There is no added time here, no extra notes, no extra organization, no extra binder or file folders. No extra hassle or time added. Personally, I simply don’t think the coupon craze is worth the time and hassle it takes.

Just buy your normal foods and don’t be tempted by coupons anymore than you’d be tempted by television commercials or roadside bulletin boards.

Companies wouldn’t put out the coupons if it wasn’t simply effective advertising. Don’t buy into the gimmick.

Tip #4: Packaged convenience foods don’t save time, they save mental effort.

When I was first learning to cook, my pantry options were often stocked by my coupon-queen grandma. That means that there were a lot of boxes, mixes, and packages. I would look on the shelves, and pick the picture in front of me that appealed most that day. Then I’d boil the noodles, cook the meat, open the packet, and mix it all together. Dinner!

To make the same thing from scratch is nearly the same process, except with herbs or spices or vegetables instead of a seasoning packet.

It’s the same with packaged brownies. The only part of the process that they save you is mixing flour, sugar, salt, and cocoa powder. You still crack the eggs, measure the liquid, mix, and bake.

But that’s not completely true. The part of the process prepackaged convenience foods save you is the thinking of what you’ll make and the finding of the recipe.

When I gave up buying boxed brownies (eat real food often enough for long enough and the boxed foods will taste off – I’m guessing it’s the preservatives), I spent 3x as long in the before-making process: not only looking up a recipe, but also simply choosing between brownies or any of the other myriad choices I can make with flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and cocoa powder. Keeping all the basic ingredients is more flexible, but that means it can be harder to decide.

If a boxed brownie mix is sitting on my pantry shelf, it says, “Make brownies.” If all the ingredients are on my shelves, they say, “You’ll have to think of something.” And, all too often, I don’t want to think. I don’t actually want flexibility, options, or choices. I just want a bossy box sitting on my shelf, ready to tell me: “I am for dinner.”

If you are trying to cut back on the processed and packaged foods you are purchasing, then identify what it is that appeals about these foods. You might have to dig deeper than the surface, obvious answer.

More than the time in measuring, the convenience that packaged foods offer is that

  1. It has the idea right there, staring you in the face, with its market-tested photo and pitch.
  2. It has the recipe right there, ready to go.
  3. It’s reliable and less risky; if it’s not good, you can blame it on the seasoning packet and not your skills.

Here are the ways I’ve tried to solve these aspects of convenience as I’ve moved more and more toward from-scratch cooking:

  1. I have a limited number of meal ideas kept in one place, and I always keep on hand the ingredients I need to make them. This is Simplified Dinners. Limits actually help; making decisions is fatiguing, and so the more options there are, the more stress there can be when you have to make a choice.
  2. I have the guideline instructions for making my standard dinners (i.e. Simplified Dinners in one notebook stack in Evernote, which I can access on my laptop or my iPod touch in just a few swipes and taps. Nothing more to pull out; nothing more to put away when I’m done.
  3. I intentionally practiced making these meals, so even though they are different every time (because I use what vegetables and meat I got on sale, and also because I’m just a slap-dash cook), they rarely (not never) flop.

It is the thinking that the boxes save you, not the cooking time. Have a plan, and you won’t need that crutch.

Tip #5: Write your grocery list once and for all

So often, menu planning turns out to be waiting for that magic moment when the sales ads, the recipes, and your list all align, and then you are actually able to execute the grocery trip and the dinner preparations you wrote out.

That is, it’s actually a whole lot of trouble, and there are so many steps along the way where it can go wrong.

A master grocery list is the answer to this problem, but only if you go extreme with it. Simplified Dinners is about an extreme master pantry list instead of extreme couponing.

To create your own simplified list, write out all the spices and herbs, all the baking supplies, all the cold items, all the produce, all the canned and dried goods, all that you need to prepare the meals your family loves and nothing more.

You can copy and paste my master grocery list and then customize it to fit your situation.

This menu plan template will help streamline your process.

With this list, then, you can make a quick grocery list without referring to recipes or the calendar or ads or coupons. Print out a clean copy, go around your kitchen and pantry and circle what you need to replenish or cross off what you don’t need to purchase.

Five minutes or less and you have a complete resupply grocery list. And that list will give you the ingredients you need to cook your meals with whatever meat or vegetables are on sale.

Wonder of wonders!

Write your master grocery list and then resolve to not deviate from it except for special occasions!

Tip #6: Keep your planning digital and paperless.

I hate losing my papers, or having them crumpled, torn, or used as drawing paper. I am a list maker by nature, and quickly find the papers piling up beyond my ability to sort and organize. So, over the last two years, I’ve been converting all my papers and my planning processes to digital.

After all, isn’t that what little pocket devices like smartphones, tablets, and iPod Touches are for? Why not use them that way?

It is possible. And it is so useful!

First, the master pantry list must be digital. I keep mine in Evernote. When I want to make a good grocery list, I copy it into Google Keep and delete items I don’t need. Another way I do it is to have the Evernote note open and skim it as I glance through my pantry and fridge, using copy and paste to add items from the Evernote master to the Google Keep offline grocery shopping list, making sure to keep the grocery items listed in the right order.

Also, whenever I think, “Oh, we need that” or my husband says, “I just used the last of this” then I add that to my running Google Keep shopping list.

Then, at the store, my list is on my phone, ready to be whipped out and glance over at the beginning of each section of the grocery store in my route. I don’t actually bother erasing or checking off items as I go, I just see the list, and know I grabbed it or note that I still need to.

Because it’s in the order I travel, I don’t have to backtrack or scan the list over and over, trying to find missed items.

Having all I need for food management digital, always at hand, without taking up any additional room has made it all so much more convenient and also more fun!

Tip #7: Follow a standard grocery-list-making process.

All the time I end up going to the store and forgetting an item that we need. It is so frustrating! I might forget my list, or I might have forgotten to check the spices or the level of the baking powder, but much, much too often I end up making more trips than I should because my planned trip was not adequately prepared for.

And that goes to show that the right knowledge is not good enough. Because I know what needs to happen to keep the pantry stocked, so that I never run out of my master pantry items. Right action as well as right knowledge is required.

Still, I’ll share that knowledge with you, hoping that you will be better at the execution than I.

  1. Have your master pantry list, either digitally or on a fresh piece of paper.
  2. Start in the pantry, where the extra supplies are kept (extra supplies are key). Look over your list and what you have, and note on your list what you need to buy to replenish the supply. Because this list is kept as minimal as realistic, this doesn’t take too long and becomes second-nature, eventually, if you stick to it.
  3. Do that same thing, physically looking through the places in your kitchen where you keep food, including the fridge and freezer.
  4. Now you have a complete list, based on replenishing the reality of your current kitchen. You also have a current picture in your mind of the state of your stock, so when you encounter unexpected produce and meat sales, you know how much room you have to stock up.
  5. Take that list with you to the grocery store.
  6. Look at it as you shop.
  7. Be willing to go back and get what you missed, if you realize in the checkout line that you missed something. It’s better to get it then and there than to have to make an extra trip later. Just do it.

Once you practice this process, it will be simple, straight-forward, and quick. Put in the time to practice, and you will reap huge dividends!

Tip #8: Use Menu Planning to Reduce Trips to the Store

This one is a cliched piece of grocery-shopping-frugality advice, but it’s true, so it deserves a spot. The less often you go to the store, the fewer chances you get to cheat on your master pantry list or be tempted by sales and cleverly placed products.

Many factors go into the decision about how often you should grocery shop. But it will simplify life and greatly decrease the mental energy and stress involved if it is a decision rather than a haphazard, “Ack, we need milk today!” affair.

The best way to reduce the number of trips you have to make to the store is threefold:

  1. Plan your menu: all the meals.
  2. Plan your trips. You know it will happen regularly, so figure out when to make it part of your routine and decide that is when you will do it.
  3. Make a thorough list. Double check the status of everything on your master list, and, better yet, keep a backup and check your backup status.

These are the sure-fire steps to routinized, simpler, less frequent grocery runs, but they aren’t magic. They don’t run themselves. They are still work. It’s not the easy way out, but it is the way that gives peace of mind and of wallet. It’s worth it.

grocery shopping made easier

Tip #9: Choosing Your Frequency of Grocery Shopping

Many factors go into the decision about how often you should grocery shop. But it will simplify life and greatly decrease the mental energy and stress involved if it is a decision rather than a haphazard, “Ack, we need milk today!” affair.

There are three most common options: shopping weekly, every other week, and monthly. As always, there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

1. Weekly Grocery Shopping

Advantages:

  • Easy to create a routine around a weekly errand day.
  • Don’t have to buy massive amounts of anything.
  • More likely to be able to make due until the next planned trip if you run out of something.
  • Able to take advantage of weekly specials.

Disadvantages:

  • Trips might be shorter, but they are more frequent, so possibly more time is consumed shopping.
  • Seeing more specials might provide more temptations for impulse buys of items not on the pantry list.

2. Twice Monthly Grocery Shopping

Advantages:

  • Less time is used shopping without the hassle of purchasing a whole month’s supply at once.
  • Perishables should be consumed within around 2 weeks of purchasing, so twice monthly is an efficient timeframe.
  • Makes budgeting easier if you are paid biweekly.

Disadvantages:

  • Doesn’t take advantage of the weekly specials.
  • Can be harder to create a routine around shopping every other week.

3. Monthly Grocery Shopping

Advantages:

  • Turns grocery shopping into a less frequent project instead of a frequent routine. Get it done and forget about it for a month.
  • Less likely to buy things you don’t need or that aren’t on the list; less room for temptations to buy specials that don’t fit your budget overall or your food philosophy.

Disadvantages:

  • A large monthly trip can be an exhausting all-day process when you include getting home and putting everything away.
  • Requires knowledge of the quantities your family goes through and flexibility in substitutions and making due if you run out of certain things.

Many families are likely to choose some combination of these strategies. For example, I currently shop weekly at WinCo but only once or twice a month at Costco. Also, different seasons of life require adapting of the grocery routine. I used to go shopping monthly (except for picking up milk as needed), but with a family of 7, and hearty appetites all around, that’s just too much at once for me to manage these days, particularly since I want to bring the kids along. So try out the various strategies, but know that they are adaptable and flexible according to your own needs and situations. There is no one right way. All attempts at being intentional, however, will help your peace of mind in the long haul.

The best way to reduce the time spent on food-related tasks is to reduce the frequency of grocery store runs.

Tip #10: Shop at 2-3 grocery stores

It is very tempting, especially if you get the pack of grocery ads every Wednesday and Sunday or if you try to do coupon-magic, to try to stop at all the stores where you can get that week’s “best deals.”

However, your town probably has one grocery store that simply has the best prices. In our town, WinCo’s normal prices are most of the other store’s sale prices. Every once in awhile it might be possible to get something off the master list at one of the other stores for 20-50-cents less, but is that worth the looking, the gas, the stop, and the time? I don’t think so. I shop at Costco, WinCo, and sometimes Yoke’s. Yoke’s is expensive like a Safeway, but more local and nicer, and their produce and meat is nicer than WinCo’s, and if I watch their weekly ad (online), I can get pretty good deals there. So that is the one extra store I watch and might make an extra trip to. Plus, they have a good wine selection at good prices, with a discount if you buy 6, so it’s where we buy most of our wine. When they have their one-day sales (Fresh Fridays, once or twice a month), they usually have meat and produce cheaper than I could get at WinCo (and better), so that’s when we go.

I could definitely make do without the Yoke’s stop and still not pay that much more overall. It would be cheaper to shop at only Costco and WinCo and eat less meat (or fruit). But, we like our meat and produce.

Try limiting your regular stops to 2-3 stores and don’t even bother looking at the ads or coupons for other places. See if it doesn’t reduce your feeling of “oughts” and still not significantly impact your grocery bill.

Just resign yourself to shopping at the discount grocer, even if you have to bag your own groceries.

Tip #11: Plan Your Route Through the Grocery Store

I know there have been trips to the grocery store where I have felt like the little boy in Family Circus: If a line was trailing behind me it would be meandering, backtracking, and illogical.

A little upfront thinking and stratagems can drastically reduce your grocery-store footprints – saving you time and energy and effort.

Here’s how:

  1. Next time you’re at the store, pick up a store map. Most grocery stores have them near the entrance, but sometimes they are near customer service.
  2. Grab a highlighter and your master pantry list. Highlight the aisles that contain items you purchase. When I did this, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I only need to go down about 30% of my supermarket’s aisles.
  3. Sketch out a route from the entrance to the check-out that takes you by all the aisles you highlighted in the most efficient way.
  4. Now, this might feel silly, but study this personal traffic flow plan. Take it with you for the next couple times you go to make sure you follow it. Soon it will just be your habitual rut through the store, and when it is, you won’t even have to worry too much about forgetting your list, because you’ll be walking by your standard items and can be reminded in that way about what you need (or can grab an extra, just in case, knowing you’ll use it).
grocery shopping made easier
grocery shopping made easier

Once you have a habitual pattern through the store, the mental effort of decision making as you’re shopping will be surprisingly slashed. Try it!

Tip #12: Categorize your shopping list based on your grocery store route.

So, now you have your simplified master grocery list and your efficient grocery traffic pattern) worked out. Now you can save even more time and mental effort by using the one to organize the other.

If your grocery list were categorized in the order of the way you go through the store, then you don’t have to spend time looking through the entire list at every pause, or realize near the end of the store that you missed an item back at the opposite end.

grocery shopping without stress

If you want to be in and out of the grocery store in as little time as possible, then the best way to accomplish that is to set up your grocery list so the items you buy are in the order you’ll walk by them in the store. With the grocery store route already planned, this isn’t complex at all!

With a grocery list so conveniently laid out, you’ll spend less time and less effort at the grocery store.

Tip #13: Shop at the right time. Don’t shop at the same time as the amateurs.

My mother-in-law taught me a useful phrase and concept. Once, casually, years ago, she said something like, “I had to go to the store Saturday afternoon, but I do so hate to do that. All the amateurs are out.”

It’s so true! It takes longer to go through your grocery store route and routine when the store is packed, and packed with people who don’t go with the flow of the store’s traffic and who leave their carts in the middle of the aisle and who don’t know what they’re going to buy so spend their time staring.

We’ve all had those days or those phases of life; one’s grocery shopping habits are not something to condemn anyone over. I’m just saying like just as we try to avoid rush hour traffic if we can, we should try to avoid grocery store rush hours.

grocery shopping made easier

My favorite time to grocery shop is between 9-10am. Only people who know what they are about are out at the grocery store at that time of day. Old ladies who tickle baby toes, other moms with small children, these are the people I like grocery shopping with – even if a few of them are still in their pajamas.

Of course there are other good times, but the times to avoid tend to be similar times to higher traffic on the roads: after school lets out, after people get off work, and Saturdays after the first of the month.

If you shop when there’s room for you to quickly move through the store, grabbing what you need practically on auto-pilot, you’ll finish up much more quickly and it will be a much more pleasant experience.

You are not an amateur grocery shopper. Avoid amateur hours at the grocery store.

Tip #14: Use reusable grocery bags.

I like my reusable grocery bags. I also dislike plastic bags. So I do make a concerted effort to remember them when I go grocery shopping. The best way to remember them is to store them in your car, but that doesn’t work well for me because I use my bags to carry all sorts of stuff. Anytime I have to take stuff anywhere (which is all the time!) I reach for one of my IKEA or Hobby Lobby plasticky shopping totes. So I keep them hanging near my launch pad area, in what is known as the “bag of bags.” A child or I grabs it on the way out, and then when we get to the store, I hook it onto my cart with a large carabiner.

simple grocery shopping

Of course these bags are primarily marketed toward the “green living” people, but here are the reasons I like to use them:

  • They hold more weight per bag.
  • They don’t tear and break.
  • They are more stable and stuff doesn’t fall out.
  • They utilize more vertical space, so I can fit more groceries in my small trunk than I can with plastic.
  • They are prettier and more pleasant to use.

The trick to reusable bags is all in the remembering. And there is no real shortcut to that. Here are the keys:

  • Keep them in a quick-and-easy-to-grab spot.
  • Work at it for awhile to make it a habit.
  • Tune yourself into your reasons as you grab them, while you’re using them, and as you’re putting them away. Anytime you see them, remind yourself of why you like them (if you do). You’ll get your unconscious and your emotions working in your favor if you focus them on it.

And, if you don’t like them and don’t care, then don’t bother. It’s not a big deal.

Honestly, the main reason I do is that I like carrying more things per bag and I really, really love pretty bags and this is a great excuse to buy and use pretty bags.

Using pretty, sturdy bags communicates to myself that this role is my thing, and I’m loving it.

Tip #15: Sort Your Cart As You Go

I categorize and sort things by default, by nature, without thinking. Things that are like each other, go with each other. I don’t really even think about it. So I’ve been categorizing my cart as I grocery shop from the very beginning simply because it’s the way I operate, and it never occurred to me to just toss everything in willy-nilly as I went.

Having a sorted cart helps at check-out time. If all your cold things go up onto the conveyer belt at the same time, they’ll be bagged together and help keep one another cold. If all the cans are together, and the produce all last, then cans won’t bruise the produce – even if you have children bagging your groceries (which I do).

Try it next time you’re at the store! Just put the packages that are alike near one another, and then pull one type out at a time at checkout.

My cart is usually sorted with produce in the back, then bulk items, then cans and boxes and packages, then cold stuffs. Meat goes on the bottom of the cart. However, your arrangement will depend on your route and the order you approach things at the store.

I think it makes the process simpler. You might find it’s helpful, too.

Keep like things together in your cart to simplify the checkout and bagging process.

Tip #16: Bag your own groceries when you can.

The “low-cost leader” grocery store in our town, WinCo, saves some of its cost by having customers bag their own groceries. This store (first called Waremart) came into town when I was still a kid, and it’s where my mom shopped. I helped her bag groceries then, and I’m pretty good at it by now, if I do say so myself.

And, that’s why now, I actually hate having other people bag my groceries. Those cashiers at other stores are always putting one random cold thing into my bag of dry goods or some such nonsense! At WalMart, I always self-check. I want to bag my own groceries so that it’s done Right.

And now, my kids bag my groceries at WinCo. And they’re pretty good at it, because they have been taught how to do it Right. It’s not complicated. It’s logical.

Put like items together.

Put the cold items together.

Put the raw meat in its own plastic bag.

Put the dry goods together.

Put the bulk items together.

Put the cans and bottles together.

Put the produce together, with the heaviest items on the bottom.

It’s not rocket science, and my 6 year olds have all learnt this basic principle pretty quickly.

And, after all, your items are already coming at you sorted from your cart, right? (This does not prevent store baggers to misbag items, though it helps). And you have your pretty bags that are durable and attractive, right?

You’re the professional, the expert. You can bag your own groceries.

Limitations can bring freedom. The options available at any grocery store can be overwhelming and even stressful. Being able to walk past 80% of the grocery store’s contents with a peaceful, “Nope, that’s not part of the plan,” is freeing.

It even makes grocery shopping with kids easier, because you’re making few decisions on the spot, so you’re more available and present rather than wrapped up in comparing salad dressings or wondering if this or that is a good deal.

This menu plan template will help streamline your process.

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