How to Grocery Shop Like a Pro

CC BY 2.0. Brian J. Matis

Use these 7 tips to reduce time and money spent, wasted food, and the number of nights you order in because "there's nothing in the house to eat."

“If you ever walk into a store without a plan,” writes Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar, “it’s highly likely you’re going to walk out the door with something you didn’t intend to buy.”

The grocery store is full of delicious temptations that are arranged cleverly to trigger cravings and spontaneous purchases. That is why you have to be prepared before entering the grocery store – knowing exactly what you need, what you don't want, and what your budget is. Here are some tips to streamline and optimize your grocery shopping experience.

1. Always take a shopping list.

This is basic advice that you’ve probably heard many times before, but now you can take it to the next level. Keep a running list in the kitchen so that you’re not wracking your brain for items at the last minute, and inevitably forgetting something crucial. Then organize your list by aisle, so as to reduce those annoying dashes to the opposite end of the store to pick up a single missing item. Use a pen to cross items off as you go.

2. Establish your “basic template.”

These are the pantry and fridge staples that you should never leave the store without, and these will vary according to individual preferences and cooking styles. For me, these include coconut milk, good quality pasta, canned tomatoes (if my personal stash has run out), tuna, yogurt, etc. It’s perfectly okay to have multiples of these items stored in the kitchen because they will get used up, and their presence can mean the difference between a last-minute dinner on the table or having to order in. These are also the staples that you should stock up on whenever they go on sale.

3. Choose your shopping hours carefully.

It’s amazing how fast you can shop when you’re the only person in the store. Many supermarkets open at 7:30 a.m., and most stay fairly quiet until late morning. If you can squeeze in a trip then, you’ll save a lot of time. Also, it helps to shop on a full stomach so that you’re less likely to succumb to irrational food cravings. If you’re anything like me, a bag of potato chips is significantly less appealing at 9 a.m. than it is just before suppertime!

4. Take reusables of all sorts.

Many stores will accept reusable containers for fish, meat, dairy, and deli products. Of course you should always take reusable cloth bags for produce, and reusable bags or sturdy plastic bins for carrying everything home. (See here for my post about Zero Waste grocery shopping habits.)

5. Shop (occasionally) in specialty stores.

Although it can be more expensive, it’s good to shop, at least sometimes, in places where the food can dictate the shopping list. This could be a farmers market, a fish stand, a local egg seller, etc. By buying whatever is freshest or caught that day, you’ll be able to enjoy a really delicious, seasonal treat.

6. Ask yourself the tough ethical questions.

Smart grocery shopping isn’t all about pricing; it’s also about sourcing, ingredients, packaging, and the ethics behind production. Ask yourself, “Is there a fair trade option? Is this organic? Are there unnecessary additives? Can I recycle or reuse this packaging? Does it contain palm oil? Is this can of tuna MSC-certified?” Your list of ethical questions will vary according to your conscience and concerns, but these are important things to consider.

7. Take your kids along.

This might sound slightly insane, but including kids in a weekly grocery shopping expedition can be a great way to develop healthy shopping habits (and teach them about self discipline). It can trigger important discussions, such as “Why we don’t buy those chocolate-dipped marshmallow ‘granola’ bars for your school snack” and “Why our apples are rolling loose around the cart while other people put them in plastic bags.” Kids will also be more inclined to eat food that they’ve helped choose and buy.