Grocery Shop Like a Pro

I learned how to grocery shop sometime around age 22 or 23. By this time I'd probably been to dozens of grocery stores over the course of my life on over a thousand food-buying expeditions, tossing items in my cart willy nilly as they called out to me from the shelves. I'd come home with the staples -- ramen, Hamburger Helper and sweet tea, which I drank by the gallon -- and stock my kitchen cabinets weekly. (True story: I vididly remember being so broke in college that my roommate and I couldn't afford the ground beef for our beloved Hamburger Helper, so we decided to switch to Tuna Helper instead. Boom, problem solved. We were gonna have Helper by any means necessary!)

It wasn't until my father took me grocery shopping in my first post-college apartment that I ever gave any thought to the strategy of shopping. I was just dropping things in the cart, as I was wont to do, when he skeptically asked me, "but what are you going to make with that?" I looked back at him, perplexed, and repeated back dumbly, "make?"

"Candy, Candy, Candy," he started off, exasperatedly, as he usually does before there is about to be a lecture. "You gotta have a plan." Seems silly in retrospect, but that really was a light bulb moment for me. He taught me quite a few grocery shopping tricks that day, and in the years since, I've taught him a few more. And now, Glow Getters, I'll share them with you.

1. Plan, plan, plan. As Dad said, you gotta have a plan. Planning, in most aspects of life, is critical to success. Grocery shopping is no different. Before making your list, think about what you'll want to eat over the next week. Think about how many people you need to feed. With that in mind, write down your meals for the week (remember to include breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, if that's your thing), then write down the ingredients you'll need to make them. Put everything, including any seasonings. This is the start of your grocery list.

2. Take inventory. Armed with your preliminary list, go to the kitchen and see what you already have. Cross out any items on the list you're already stocked up on, such as spices and pantry staples like rice and canned tomatoes. I have to admit, I am most guilty of skipping this step. I have like three containers of oats and God knows how many jars of paprika in my pantry. Don't be like me.

3. Organize your list. This is the last step with the list, I promise, but it's totally worth it. Group like items on your list together: produce, meats, dairy, etc. This will save you time and frustration in the store, running back and forth from aisle to aisle, likely forgetting things. I'll let you in on a secret: most grocery stores are laid out similarly. The fresh foods are around the perimeter of the store -- this is where you want to do the bulk of your shopping. The packaged foods are in the aisles. Keep these to a minimum. As you get to know your grocery store better, you'll actually start to know the layout of the produce and the order of the aisles, and you can refine the order of your list even more! Am I the only one excited by this? I know, I'm a geek that way.

4. Have a snack before you go. This one is easy, right? We've all heard not to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. You will only end up impulse buying a bunch of crap that your wallet and/or stomach will regret later.

5. Shop! You're ready to rock and roll, and please, I implore you, stick to the list. You'll save time and money, plus you've put so much work into it already. There is one time I give you permission to deviate from the list, however: in the case of a really good sale. When you see normally expensive meats go on sale, stock up. Pantry staples such as beans or crushed tomatoes on sale 2 for $1? Stock up. These items can be stored for a long time in the freezer and pantry, respectively, and can be used to make meals in a pinch. Also, don't be afraid of making a swap. If you planned on roasting broccoli for dinner that week but asparagus happens to be really cheap and you loooove asparagus, go for it. However, the one item you don't want to load up on due to a sale is fresh veggies. Unless you're planning to eat these for breakfast, lunch and dinner all week, they'll likely only go bad before you get a chance to use them.

6. Bask in your grocery shopping glory. Pat yourself on the back, you did it! Now you can go home, put your groceries away and carry on about your day. For me, this would mean cooking Sunday dinner and prepping my meals for the week, but I totally wouldn't judge you if for you, this meant sitting still and having a glass of wine. You've earned it.

Following the steps above will have get you grocery shopping success every time. But, if you really want to win at grocery shopping, these bonus tips will make you a supermarket star:

  • Know before you go. I'm getting deep here, but you'll really get the most bang for your buck if you know your grocery store(s) in and out. I'm talking know the prices of the items (How much is broccoli here usually? Chicken breasts?), know when they re-stock their meats and produce (don't be scared to ask store employees!), the whole nine. This way, you'll know which stores to hit for what items and when.
  • Scour the sales. This kind of goes with the tip above. It's an extra step, and it's kind of annoying, but its really a money saver. Check the weekly ads to find out which stores have the best sales on the items you need that week. It would suck to pay $3.99/lb for chicken breasts at store A when they're $1.99/lb at store B that week.
  • Time your shopping accordingly. Every grocery store has its busy times. Almost universally, Sunday afternoons are going to be busiest. If you really want to get in and get out, try visiting your store at different times on different days to see when the lines are the shortest. I must admit, there is something about the tradition of shopping on Sundays that appeals to me, but the lines don't. For that reason, I try to go early, when the crowds are low and the food is super fresh. Find what works for you!

Whew! That was a lot, I know, but hopefully helpful! Now that you've heard my tips for success, what are some of yours? Share in the comments!