Your approach to grocery shopping will depend on your individual needs for meals, as well as your personal style and approach to eating. Are you the type of person who likes to plan ahead and have all of the ingredients ready to go when you start to cook? Or do you prefer to open the fridge, see what’s there, and get creative? Do you want to be doing a lot of chopping and prepping, using mostly fresh foods? Or would you prefer to use some pre-made elements along with some canned or frozen ingredients?
Once you know your general meal prep style, there are other logistical questions to answer before heading to the store such as:
- Do you need food for all meals and snacks or just one meal?
- How many people are you feeding and for how many days?
- How much storage space do you have in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry?
Know before you go
Now it’s time to sit down and make your list. You can use good old paper and pen or a checklist app that allows you to mark things off as you gather them at the store. The important thing is that you make a list to keep you on track. Studies have shown that people purchase healthier foods and have less “impulse” purchases (which can strain the budget) when they shop with a list. If you’re the type to plan ahead, maybe you’ve found a recipe or two you’d like to try, figured out which ingredients you already have on hand, and added the others to the list. Or, if you like to get creative, maybe you’ll ensure that you have some basics on your list – a few different types of protein such as chicken and salmon, some veggies like mushrooms and broccoli, and some whole grains like quinoa and whole wheat pasta.
You might choose to organize your list by area of the store so that you can be more efficient – such as all fruits and vegetables listed together – or you might want to list items together by meal to ensure that they are all included.
Additionally, shopping when hungry can cause someone to purchase additional snack foods or foods that seem tasty in the moment, rather than just the ingredients that go into making meals. So try to have either a meal or snack before heading to the store.
Shop the perimeter
There is a theory that shopping the “perimeter” or outside aisles of the grocery store is a smart idea because that is where the fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and frozen fruits and vegetables tend to be. However, when you think about the main aisles of a grocery store, there are plenty of things you’re likely to want or need from there as well such as beans, whole grains, canned vegetables and fruit, high fiber cereals, nuts, oils, dried spices, condiments, and beverages.
What is for now, what is for later?
You’ll need to decide how long your grocery haul needs to last when you’re planning on your list. If you don’t intend to return to a grocery store for several weeks, you need to make sure to have a mixture of fresh proteins and produce and frozen/canned protein and produce. That way once you have used up the fresh ingredients, you have the frozen ones to use.
Saving money while shopping
To save money while grocery shopping, look for items that are on sale. Purchasing “in bulk” or items in the larger size, is usually a better deal. In order to figure that out, you can find the “unit price” and compare. For example if you are buying a container of oats, they may come in several different sizes. You might be inclined to purchase the smallest size because it is the cheapest. However, if you look at the unit price (usually the smaller number listed in the corner of the price label on the shelf) the largest size is often actually the best deal because you are paying less per unit (this might be per ounce, per gram, etc. depending on the product). If it is a nonperishable food or a food that you think you’ll be able to use before it goes bad and you have enough money to afford a larger size, you will actually be saving money over time by purchasing in bulk.
Larger grocery stores will have deals throughout the store that are available for those holding a frequent shopper or customer loyalty card. Ask at the service desk prior to shopping whether this is an option at your store, then look for the special tags throughout the store. If you are a frequent shopper or have a customer loyalty card for the store you plan to shop at, you can often get coupons in advance either in the mail or through the store’s digital app! Additionally, store brand or non-name brand products are often less expensive than well-known brands for the same or very similar quality foods.
Planning out meals and snacks to contain vegetarian proteins like beans and tofu will save you money and benefit the environment as well. These meals are often also higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat. Consider making one or two “meatless” meals per week by having something like a 3-bean chili, quiche, tofu stir-fry, or veggie pizza for dinner.
Be aware of marketing
If you grab something you need off of an “end cap” (the display at the top of an aisle) or off the shelf that’s at your eye level, you might not be getting the best deal or the healthiest choice. The companies who make the food that you are likely to grab in those sections have paid to have their product placed in your sight line. You’ll be better off if you go to the section where that product is found and then compare options or find the exact product you intended to purchase.
Grocery list examples:
- Mandarin oranges
- Baby carrots
- Bell peppers
- Deli turkey slices
- Salmon (frozen)
- Chicken breast (fresh)
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat tortillas
- Coffee beans
- Brown rice
- Canned black beans
- Olive oil
- Dark chocolate
- Seltzer water
- Shredded cheese
- Frozen broccoli
Getting started with grocery shopping for the first time can be daunting, but remember that it can be as much or as little work as you want to make it. You can meal plan out what you’ll eat for several weeks and break your list down by recipe or you can go into the store and see what inspires you. Just try to ensure that you’re arriving home with groceries that represent a variety of food groups, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and that you have enough food that you won’t need to return to the store the next day in order to complete your meal.