How do you shop for groceries? Do you run to the store every few days to buy things you ran out of, or do you shop once a week with a list, making meals according to a plan? Are you an impulse shopper, or do you always carry a list with organized coupons? Whatever your shopping style, here are the basics you need to save money and time, as well as to make your life easier in the hunt for food.
Grocery stores are designed to keep you in the store as long as possible. All "essential" items (milk, bread, produce) are located on the extreme corners of the store, so you have to pass by lots of other tempting merchandise even if you're just running in for a quart of milk. The most expensive products are placed at eye level (except for kid's products, which are placed at their eye level). Products on display at the end of aisles are usually not on sale or a special buy. Once you know these details, you can plan your shopping list according to the store's layout and save time and money by avoiding impulse buys.
Before You Go to the Store
Before you even go to the store, you need to make a plan. Start by looking through supermarket fliers, internet offers, and newspaper coupons to see what's on sale this week. If frozen chicken breasts, for instance, are two bags for a dollar, plan some meals starting with chicken.
Organize your coupons! You can use something like a small expandable folder that's organized into sections for different food types. Each week, look through newspaper fliers and supermarket inserts, along with internet coupons and magazines and clip coupons for things you know you'll use. Make sure the expiration date is current. Coupons won't save you money if you buy a product you won't use or if the brand-name product you buy is more expensive than a generic product.
Also, go through your favorite websites and cookbooks and plan 3 to 4 days of meals. Then, use this plan to make a list of items you'll need at the store.
Making a Grocery List
Before making a weekly shopping list, solidify the master grocery list. This is a reference list of household staples, including spices, cooking oils, baking items, dry goods like pasta, rice and beans, a stock of frozen meat and/or vegetables, coffee, and so on. It also includes family favorites, those things that are eaten all the time that would be missed if they ran out, be that baby carrots, milk, cheese, bread, peanut butter, bananas, or apples. The master grocery list is a personal memo that can be done on a spreadsheet, written on a whiteboard, stuck to the fridge, or kept digitally. It's really up to you to decide what method works best.
Now, once the master list is squared away, make the weekly grocery list. This includes the ingredients needed to cook each meal, certain cravings, new things to try, and anything special that might be in the pipeline such as cupcakes for a birthday party. Look through your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator and note the ingredients you already have that fit into your meal plan. This is a good time to start keeping track of staples in your pantry and freezer.
Write it all down, either on a piece of paper or on a digital device. Attach a notebook to your pantry or freezer and make a list of items as you use them up. Check the lists before you shop and you'll never unexpectedly run out of anything. There are also apps to help organize a grocery list and Amazon's Alexa bot has a list feature that makes it easy to add on items as they run out.
Finally, arrange your list according to the store's layout. Fruits and veggies are at the top of the list because that's the first department in the store. Frozen and bakery items are at the end because those are the last departments before the checkout counters.
What to Buy When Grocery Shopping
- All-Purpose Flour: Used to make so many foods including breading for chicken, pancakes, bread, cakes, muffins, and more.
- Dried Pasta: Having this on hand is great for dinner in a pinch, and it doesn't go bad. Stock up on different types of pasta for more creativity when cooking.
- Butter: This milk-based fat is a must-have, whether it's used to butter toast in the morning, on a sandwich at lunch, or to sauté vegetables at dinner. It's also necessary for most baking recipes.
- Olive Oil: Olive oil, extra virgin or not, is important for cooking things, lubricating pans and grills, and adding to salad dressings.
- Milk: Milk can be enjoyed plain, used in boxed macaroni and cheese, put in a protein shake, mixed in cake batter, and beyond. If milk isn't a big ingredient in the household, skip and only buy as needed since it will go bad.
- Eggs: This staple breakfast food also has a place in baking, meatloaf, and fried chicken. They last a long time in the refrigerator, though if fresh eggs are available choose that route.
- Cheese: Use cheese in many ways including as a snack food, melted in a sandwich, stirred into eggs, and grated on top of spicy chili.
- Garlic: Many recipes call for garlic, and since it lasts so well in the pantry, it's good to have the fresh stuff around. Garlic can also be bought as a powder, dehydrated, and in granules.
- Fruits: Pick your favorite fruits and keep them stocked. Apples, bananas, and oranges are the most popular ones, but pears, pineapple, and berries also have a following.
- Vegetables: Find the vegetables everyone wants to eat and have on hand for snacking and adding to meals.
- Canned Tomatoes: Search for good canned tomatoes, ones without a lot of added stuff, and keep a cache in the pantry. These are good for adding to sauces, sautéing with other vegetables, and anywhere a tomato is needed.
- Salt and Pepper: The two most important spices to have on hand for seasoning all foods. We recommend kosher salt for every day use and a grinder full of whole peppercorns for freshly ground pepper.
- Herbs and Spices: Discover what herbs and spices work best for the family's palate and make sure these are always on hand. Popular ones include thyme, dill, parsley, oregano, basil, rosemary, cilantro, and chili flakes.
- Honey: Sweeten tea, yogurt, desserts, bread, and even meat with this natural sugar.
- Vinegar: Vinegar has more uses than one might think, and it doesn't go bad.
- Sugar: Put the sweet stuff in barbecue sauce, baked goods, rubs for chicken, on top of strawberries or grapefruit, and in tea, to name a few of the many ways to use sugar.
- Canned or Dried Beans: Having these available helps to make dinner in a pinch, and can be used in so many creative ways from chili to soups to side dishes and as a protein-filled topping on salads.
- Meats or Meat Substitutes: Fresh and frozen meat is good to keep stocked up, and the latter means shoppers can buy while it's on sale and preserve it in the freezer.
Try not to shop when you're hungry, tired, or rushed; that may be difficult but it will make a big difference in your shopping experience, ending with you saving more money. If it's possible to go shopping without your kids, do it! Remember, stores are designed to attract impulse shoppers, which of course all kids are.
When you get to the store, look for fliers near the door that offer special buys or one-day-only sales and add them to your list if they fit in your plan or if they are easily stored.
At the produce aisle, avoid prepared fruits and vegetables if you're trying to save money. These "value-added" products are usually quite expensive and may not be as fresh as whole produce.
As you shop and go through your list, make sure that the products you buy match up to the stipulations on your coupons. Compare prices constantly. You may find that even with a coupon, name-brand products are more expensive than generic products. If you haven't tried generic products, please do! They are the same quality as the more expensive name brands, usually packed by the same packer, and are less expensive because no advertising costs are built into the price. Most grocery stores now have unit prices posted on the shelves; that's the price per ounce or piece. Study these to find the best buy for your money.
Check use-by and sell-by dates on every packaged product and buy the product with the latest date. Be sure that seals are secure, that cans aren't dented or leaking, and that packaging is not ripped, torn, or missing.
If the store is out of an advertised special, ask for a rain check. The check will be mailed to you when the product is restocked, so you'll be able to get the sale price even if the rain check arrives weeks later.
Always keep food safety in mind when you're shopping. Double bag fresh meats and seafood to avoid cross-contamination with fresh produce. Don't put raw foods that need to be cooked on top of foods that are eaten as is. Try to plan your shopping trip so cold foods are some of the last items you put in your cart so they stay chilled all the way home.
When Checking Out and After Shopping
At the checkout counter, don't fall prey to impulse buys! Since you usually have to wait here, stores stock the most tempting items; candy bars, batteries, magazines, and odds and ends. Keep an eye on the scanner to make sure the prices you are being charged are correct and remember to hand the clerk your coupons!
When you're done shopping, go straight home and get all of that food into the fridge and freezer as soon as possible. Remember, cold foods can be left at room temperature for only two hours (one hour if it's really hot outside) for safety reasons. Enjoy the feeling of satisfaction you'll get looking at your well-stocked fridge and pantry, then put up your feet and relax after a job well done!
Types of Grocery Stores
Online: Many grocery stores have online services where customers can shop and pick up or have the food delivered. There are also solely online grocery stores that tend to work with local purveyors.
Brick and Mortar Stores: These are the classic supermarkets most people grew up with. The favored shop all depends on where you live but could include Safeway, Wegmans, King Soopers, Hy-Vee, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, Natural Grocers, Sprouts, Publix, New Seasons, and more.
Big Box Stores: If bulk is needed, head to Costco, Sam's Club or Walmart. The first two are member-only stores, meaning a yearly fee is required to shop at them. Often big box stores sell a lot more than groceries.
Farmers' Markets: In many states, farmers' markets are seasonal, which also reflects the kind of fruits and vegetables they sell. There often are other goods as well, such as honey, prepared foods, grains, pasta, drinks, pasture-raised meat and cheeses. In general, all the products are locally grown or raised and artisan-made.
Grocery Shopping for One
Big box stores are not the best option when shopping for one, it's better to head to the regular grocer or farmers' market. Many packaged goods are made for two or more diners, but with a solid plan for cooking and plenty of freezer space, these two-person meals can be transformed into two separate dinners for one.
Start with portions. Instead of buying a five-pound bag of carrots, go for the loose options. Many grocery stores sell half heads of cabbage, melons, large squash, and cauliflower. Meat can be portioned out and what's not being used should be put sealed in individual portions and put in the freezer for another day.
Having a pantry of ready-to-use dried goods and flavoring agents helps too. Consider stocking it with items such as dried pasta and beans, lentils, rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, chili garlic sauce, tahini, and really good olive oil. All of these can be used in smaller portions as needed. Frozen vegetables are also the single person's friend since they can be divvied up as needed and will taste the same throughout.
US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. Keep Food Safe! Food Safety Basics.