In first grade, I ate dried octopus because my best friend did it first. Not my best decision, I know, but we’d just gotten back from a field trip to Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market, which was my family’s regular grocery store. I felt pretty worldly, and I didn’t want to be shown up – despite the fact that the whole classroom smelled like the trash pile at a fishmarket the moment my teacher let the octopus out of the bag.
The octopus was disgusting, but it was a good day. I got to wander around the grocery store and I got to eat something new.
These days, not much has changed. I still love to wander and explore new grocery stores (I’m planning a field trip across town to Wegman’s just as soon as it feels safe to shop frivolously again).
More often than not, though, the weekly grocery run is just another chore – and my goal is to get in, get out, and get home as fast as possible so I can get on with my day.
This is tactical strike grocery shopping – and it all starts with a solid plan of attack.
Plan your menu before you shop
Honestly, I’m terrible at meal planning. I want to cook all the things all the time, so narrowing it down to six choices in a given week can feel basically impossible. To make things easier, I give myself limits.
I start by flipping through the sale flyer for my local store (or, you know, checking it out online because I never have the presence of mind to actually pick up a physical copy), paying attention only to the products I could build a meal around. This week, for example, I can play around with chicken thighs, pork butt, broccoli, frozen peas, canned beans, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, mushrooms, mozzarella, and bell peppers.
A couple of things jump out right away: I’ll do a pot pie with the chicken thighs, frozen peas, and mushrooms, and I can do tacos with roasted sweet potatoes and black beans.
After that, it’s a matter of flipping through cookbooks, checking Pinterest, and Googling recipes until I come up with a set that makes me happy. Easier said than done, I know, but I’d rather spend time figuring out what I want to eat at home in my jammies than when I’m wandering around the store.
I also take the time to go through and outline what I want for breakfast and lunch – usually cereal, eggs, and fruit for breakfast, and sandwiches or leftovers for lunch. It’s never very specific, but it gives me an outline of what I’ll need to pick up.
List out everything you need
Once I have my list of recipes together, I go through and copy down the ingredients for every recipe I’m making. The entire list – down to the oil and salt, even if I know that I have it on hand. It feels a little bit redundant, but it makes sure that I have enough of everything, and I won’t be sending Jackson out for onions at 6:30 because I was short one and getting hangry.
(I’m not the only one this has happened to, right?)
Next, I go through the list and consolidate multiples – if I need three cloves of garlic for my pot pie and one for the tacos, I’ll mark both those off and make a note that I need four cloves of garlic for the week. This shortens my list and makes it more manageable, and also makes sure I don’t forget anything.
As I’ve gotten more practice with this system, I’ve found myself shorthanding this section – only counting oil and salt if I know I’m getting close to the end of the jar, consolidating onions as I go, or assuming that regardless of what the recipes say, I’m always going to need two heads of garlic for the week. I know it’s more work to write everything out, but I encourage you to try it for at least a week or two just to get a feel for how everything connects.
Shop your kitchen first
Now that I have a preliminary list, I shop my kitchen. I go through my list, item by item, and check to see if I have it in stock. If I do, I cross it off – or adjust the quantity on my list if I’m short. This inventory check keeps me from buying duplicates that I don’t have space for and helps me get familiar with my list ahead of time so I don’t have to check it as frequently while I’m in the store.
I also use the opportunity to clean out the fridge and check my stock levels on pantry staples – if I’m checking the produce drawer for carrots, I might as well chuck the squishy cucumber while I’m in there. Same thing with the pantry – if I’m checking to see if I have enough olive oil for the week, I might as well check on flour and peanut butter while I’m in there.
Organize, organize, organize
Now that I know what I actually need from the store, I organize my list.
I know. At this point more organization probably feels like overkill, but hear me out: my shopping list is the tool that I use to pre-plan my route ahead of time so I can get in and out as quickly as possible.
Most grocery stores are organized the same way: the produce, dairy, bread, meat, and seafood are around the perimeter of the store, while dry goods, processed convenience foods, and frozen goods are in the center aisles. This is a deliberate choice: stores want you to wander, because the more time you spend looking, the more likely you are to spend money on something you don’t necessarily need.
So, if I organize my list based on where items are in the store, I know exactly where I need to go ahead of time, and I don’t get sucked into the trap of wandering around. I’m not the first person to organize myself this way – heck, this is more or less how restaurants organize their weekly orders – but there’s a reason this system is so prevalent among professionals.
Grocery shop at off-peak hours
When I’m grocery shopping, I avoid other people like the plague. Navigating through a crowded store is slow, and the trip always takes longer if items are out of stock and I have to spend time thinking about substitutes.
This is why I shop on weekday mornings – it’s not crowded, and I can get in right after the produce delivery when everything is fresh. This is absolutely a privilege of setting my own hours and working from home – but if you can, avoid the rush. Stores are generally slowest in the mornings and evenings, especially during the week, and are most crowded right after church lets out on Sundays.
Don’t shop on Sunday afternoon.
Use your list
Now I have my menu, I made my list, I got organized, and I picked my window.
It’s time to shop.
I always start in produce and work my way around the edges of the store, only dipping into the aisles when I know I need something – which usually means targeted strikes in breakfast cereal, international foods, baking supplies, and canned goods. This keeps me out of crowds and congestion for the most part, and avoids the temptation of being an adult with a bank account loose in the chocolate aisle.
I use my list as a decision-making tool as I shop. I always write down the exact quantities I need for the week – even if it’s a weird amount, like two and a half ounces of tomato paste. It helps me decide what size I need in the store, especially if I’m not sure what the packaging will look like ahead of time.
When I’m wrapping up, I head for dairy, meat, and frozen foods. Perhaps I’m being overly paranoid since taking food safety classes, but I don’t like leaving refrigerated goods out for very long, and saving them for last means they have the shortest journey between the store’s fridge and mine.
Bag like a boss
In case it wasn’t obvious at this point, I’m a grocery control freak – and nowhere more so than when it comes to bagging my food. So, if I can’t bag it myself, I set the store clerk up for success by unloading my cart in the order I want my items bagged.
For me, this means cold stuff comes out first, followed by dry goods and produce that won’t squish. Anything squishy, fragile, or soft comes last. Does that mean that I often have a weird bag of eggs, bananas, and chips at the end? Yes. Does this mean my chips come home whole? Also yes.
Again, I’m not the first person to do this – both my mom and my mother-in-law use a similar technique – but once you try it, you’ll never go back.
Prep your groceries to set yourself up for success
Being weird and retentive about bagging sets me up for success when I get home. I know all my cold items are more or less together, so I can grab that bag first and make sure everything gets back in the refrigerator or freezer before germs become a problem – and, perhaps more importantly, before my ice cream melts or my frozen peas soften just enough to freeze back into one unusable brick.
After that, I unpack lettuce, greens, and hardy herbs, trim the ends, and let them soak in a sinkful of cold water while I unload everything else. This brief bath perks up anything that’s looking a bit wilted and ensures everything is washed and ready to go later in the week.
Next, I pop any remaining refrigerated produce into the crisper drawer and get started on dry goods. Most of the time this means just putting everything in the pantry, but if anything needs to be decanted into jars or storage containers, I’ll go ahead and do it now. This is also a great time to prep any snacks you keep on hand during the week – hard-boiling eggs, cutting and peeling carrots, or bagging up apple slices, for example.
Finally, I take the opportunity to make sure my freezer inventory is up to date. Usually, this involves quickly jotting down whatever I brought home from the store, but once a month or so I’ll do a quick double-check of the whole thing to make sure it’s accurate.
Once that’s done, I drain my greens, wrap them in dry paper towel, and pop them in ziplock bags in the crisper drawer. All that’s left is to shake out and fold my bags, and get ready for a week of cooking!
This method seems like a lot of work when it’s all written out like this – and I’m not going to lie, the prep work takes some time. But the more you do it, the faster you get, especially when you get familiar enough with the system that you can start combining steps. I promise the extra effort is worth it – I’m routinely in and out of the store with a week and a half’s worth of groceries in less than an hour.
Where do you look for inspiration when you’re meal planning? What’s your favorite kind of reusable bag? What’s your biggest grocery etiquette pet peeve? Next week’s list is looming and I’m always looking for ways to improve and refine my system.