How to Write a Better Grocery List

CC BY-NC 2.0. cesarastudillo – A 'cartographical' shopping list

It's your guide to conquering the grocery store as efficiently as possible.

A well-written grocery list is a powerful tool. It will save you money and time, and ensure your pantry is well-stocked for multiple days of healthy, homemade meals. That's why learning how to write a better grocery list is a worthwhile skill, and this article can help you accomplish that.

1. A good list starts with a plan.

To quote Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar, "A good grocery list actually matches what you need at home, minimizes the amount of guesswork you need to do in the store, and gets you out of the store as quickly as possible." Figure out what you're going to eat for a week and make your list based on that. It's best if you do the plan and the final list at the same time, with cookbooks, recipes, and flyers within reach, perhaps at the kitchen table with a view of your open kitchen cupboards or pantry. Make note of any coupons you want to use, or promos available at local stores via the Flashfood or Flipp apps or any other shopping apps you use.

2. Have a working list that the whole household can access.

Choosing the week's groceries shouldn't be up to one person if there are multiple people in your household. I keep a grocery list on a chalkboard in the kitchen that my kids and husband can add to. Other households use a whiteboard or a piece of paper taped to the fridge. I don't stick to it strictly; for example, when my kids write 'Lucky Charms' and 'Nutella' in giant letters, I am more likely to ignore their suggestion than if they request crackers and pineapple!

©. K Martinko

© K Martinko

3. Organize the final list as you write it.

An excellent grocery list is divided into categories that match the store aisles, i.e. produce, bakery, dairy, baking, dairy, special/health food, deli, dry goods, canned goods, frozen, etc. The best way to do this is to write columns on a pieces of paper and add the items from your working list and your menu plan. This is a huge timesaver. You won't have to wander multiple times from one end of the store to another just to get everything on the list.

4. Leave it more open-ended if you're an experienced cook.

I cook a lot, so I am comfortable writing things like 'salad stuff' and 'leafy greens' and 'veg protein' on my list. My husband, on the other hand, needs to be told 'three bunches of rapini', '2 cucumbers, 4 tomatoes, 1 bag radishes, 1 fennel bulb,' and '2 x 225g packages of tempeh'. The beauty of a more open-ended approach is that you can compare the quality of different items and choose based on that, as well as take advantage of sales.

5. Use the same list every week.

I don't do this, but many home cooks recommend basing each week's shopping list off the last; after all, what most people buy tends not to change much. You can look at a receipt from the previous big shop and cross off what you don't need, adding extras at the bottom, or go all out with a 'reverse grocery list' spreadsheet, as described by Mark Denner in this article for Food52. It holds 130 items, 100 of which are permanent entries for his household. He writes,

"Perishable items like meat, fish and vegetables that are used in our favorite family recipes have permanent status on the grocery list but are crossed off if we don't plan to eat them... Each weekend, all I need is the discipline to spend fifteen minutes inventorying my pantry, freezer, and fridge before rushing to the market. If we still have an item from last week, I cross it off. If we need it, I circle it."

6. Consider adding a "do not buy" section to your list.

This interesting idea comes from Cook90, a cookbook written by Epicurious editor David Tamarkin. He writes, "This is a place to list the staples you're already stocked up on. A lot of us reflexively buy olive oil, yogurt, garlic, onions, etc., even if our kitchen is overflowing with this stuff already. The Do Not Buy section prevents us from drowning under these items." I think it's also useful for reminding yourself of items you may have bought on sale or in bulk, and for avoiding junk food or impulse purchases.

The whole purpose of a grocery list is to keep you on track and to streamline shopping, so the more effort you put into it, the more efficient the process will be. Think of your grocery list as a key to saving money, keeping your diet clean and healthy, and your food budget under control. It gets easier with practice, and soon you'll find it's disorienting even to enter a grocery store without a list in hand.