Nearly all of my clients
complain about talk about grocery shopping. It’s frustrating, it’s boring, it takes too long, it’s confusing, it’s too busy…and that’s just from my Monday clients! I kid. Sort of.
I admit that I have a few advantages that I don’t take for granted:
- Right now, I’m only cooking for me
- Right now, I’m shopping solo – you have to add 5 minutes to your time at each store for every extra pair of hands.
- I have been managing grocery trips for over 25 years, and my system has definitely improved over time
“System”…that might be a bit too fancy to describe what I do. The basic idea has two easy steps: have a plan, and go at the right time.
Have a Plan
Don’t panic – please keep reading – we aren’t going to spend hours calculating macronutrient balances here (yet). And this part will evolve the most over time for you. When I go to the stores (and it’s always 2 stores, currently HEB and either Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, depending on the week), I have a list that’s organized by area of the store.
Does that sound too crazy type A for you? Grab a copy of my meal planning/grocery list template (it’s one single page) and see for yourself – I made it easy to break down what you need to buy.
My “meal plan” varies in its level of detail from week to week. I spend 10-30 minutes thinking of what I would like to eat, what’s in season, what’s on sale, and what I need to use up from my fridge/freezer/pantry.
This week, for example, my plan looked like the list below (click the picture to enlarge).
Rarely, there will be a recipe or two involved; I mostly cook relatively basic meals, and I freely modify new recipes to use things I already have around, rather than committing to large quantities of new ingredients that I may or may not use up. I don’t differentiate between lunches and dinners, I don’t worry about what I will eat on certain days of the week, and I plan for a variety of flavors throughout the week instead of trying to have something different every single day. When I was planning for others in my household as well, it took me an extra 5 minutes to list the additional things they would need and check the stock of their weekly staples.
Once the meals are listed, it’s a no-brainer to see what I need – like if I’m making chicken salad, I need chicken and mayo. Keeping everything on one piece of paper helps me make sure I don’t forget anything!
Go at the Right Time (in two senses)
Go to the store at the right time of day. I set my own work schedule (sort of), so I go to the store almost-first-thing on Sunday morning or on Wednesday in the middle of the morning. If I go right when the store opens, they are often still restocking things that I plan to buy, like produce and yogurt, and it slows me down a lot (or means that I have to go to the same store a second time, which can be a bummer if my week is really busy).
I know many of you will not be able to go to the store at either of those exact times, but those are simply the times I have found are right for me – the store is empty enough that I can maneuver at my own speed and checkout is quick! Right after work can be a great time as long as you don’t go on a Friday when everyone else is there; Saturday morning is also good, and frankly Sunday is great (at least here in Houston) until about 9:30 or 10am. If later in the evening works for you, weeknights after about 8:30 are also pretty empty, but by 10pm the store may either be closed (WHY TRADER JOE’S WHY) or running low on many items.
The other kind of “right time” for the store has to do with your life, and not just your work schedule. Some of us plan a whole week of meals and snacks at a time, and others of us do better looking only a few days ahead. You may need to find two or three grocery shopping days, or you might find that mid-week shopping works better for you than weekends, or you might find an entirely different system that works for you right now. Be flexible! There is nothing magical about batch-cooking on a Sunday, and I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you would rather use your weekends for fun and cook on other days (I do! I meal prep on Mondays so that I can enjoy some down time on the weekends).
Bonus: My Do Not Buy List
I, like other humans, am prone to saying “oh, a deal!” and “oh, I am sure I’m nearly out of this”, when in fact my pantry is already full of “this” “deal”. I, also like other humans, get sick of foods, and I’ve learned not to stockpile even my “most favorite” “staple foods” of the moment, because four months later I will be staring at the same 2-pound bag of chia seeds with intense regret.
I control the madness with a “do not buy” list in a note in my phone – basically, an inventory of my personal offenses that are already filling my kitchen. For example, I always think I’m out of frozen peas and spinach, so I peek in the freezer before I leave for the store to make sure that the 11 bags of vegetables are, in fact, still in there. (Even frozen food has a shelf life!) Toilet paper, bottled water, oatmeal, carrots, and eggs are also permanently on The List – even if some of those items never expire, I only have so much storage space.
Doing a quick sweep through my freezer, refrigerator, and pantry before hitting the road to shop keeps me from buying things I just don’t need, and has cut down a ton on the slimy mysteries of the crisper drawer. (Because hey, even though I shop with a grocery list, I’m not blind to sales and seasonal specials!)
Don’t forget – I will go grocery shopping with you if you need help getting a system in place and figuring out what is best for reaching your current goals.
Does it really only take 40 minutes?
Yes – with this exact list, I left my house at 7:35 on Sunday morning and was home by 8:15. I live less than a mile from each of these stores, so that helps! HEB took me until 7:55 and I arrived at Trader Joe’s at 8:02. I only take time to browse during one trip each month, and that trip takes a little longer – at Trader Joe’s this week, I breezed through only the produce section, cold foods aisle, and the dry goods aisle (I totally ignored 3/4 of the store!). Sometimes time is the most important thing for me, and that’s when these super quick shopping tips come in handy.