OK, picture this: you enter the grocery store just after a long day at work or school, dying of hunger, and immediately have to cut your way through the starving barbarian hordes of workers and students who are doing exactly the same thing. Your impulsive monkey brain prompts you to grab lots of ready-to-eat food from the deli and bakery sections of the store. Then you run up and down the aisles, cavalierly tossing anything that looks good into your cart. Dead-ending in the produce section, you throw in some guilt-purchased bagged lettuce and a few other fruits and veggies that you have every intention of making into... something, eventually. You wait 20 minutes in line to pay an insane price for this cart fulla goodness, as all your frozen foods defrost. On the way home, since by now you're so hungry you're in danger of gnawing off your own arm for sustenance, you pick up some fast food for dinner. Three weeks later you have to hose out your fridge's crisper bin because it's full of rotting goop that was once the vegetables you bought.
This scenario happens to everyone once in a while, but if it describes most of your shopping trips? Yeeeeeaaaaah, you don't really know what you're doing. It's time you got schooled!
You will need:
- The most recent advertising circular from your grocery store of choice.
- Some time to figure out a plan of attack.
- Grocery money from your spending plan.
- A cookbook or a set of recipes you want to try.
- A piece of paper and a pen or pencil.
- A calculator (optional).
- Transportation to and from the grocery store.
Strategic grocery shoppers can successfully manage three factors: how much money they have to spend, what's on sale, and what they want to cook.
Figure out first how much cash you have to work with; pull the amount from your spending plan and keep it in front of you as you work out your grocery list.
Now browse the ad circular. It will list all the items on sale this week. If you see a sale item you know you'll need (toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, etc.), write it down. It's also a good idea to write down the brand name and advertised price so you remember what's on sale when you're at the store. If the circular has any printed coupons for things you use, cut them out and take them with you. (Don't be too proud to use coupons! They'll save you money, and the store expects people to use them.)
Finally, look over the recipes you want to try. See any ingredients from the recipes that are on sale this week? It's a little like playing that old memory game where you try to find two matching images on the cards. Focus heavily on the recipes with items that are on sale, and write down what you'll need to make each recipe. Your grocery list is taking shape. As you go, make a rough estimate of the running total (you may need to use a calculator), so that you don't end up spending more money than you have.
Hungry? Eat a small, high-protein snack (examples: lunchmeat, fried egg, beef jerky, cheese stick, peanut butter) before you go shopping. Protein satisfies your hunger without making you feel stuffed, and when you go grocery shopping you want to aim for a happy medium -- not too hungry, not too full. (If you are too full, everything food-related will look nauseating, especially under those soul-sucking fluorescent lights. Wait an hour or two before you go shopping.)
Now gather up your money, grocery list and coupons and, to paraphrase a line from Predator, "Get to da shop-pah!"
In the store
If you can swing it, shop at a time of day when the store isn't packed fulla customers. I know circumstances don't always make this possible, but when the store is less hectic, you'll feel a lot less stressed and you'll make better choices. (Since I'm a night owl by nature and my local grocery is open 24 hours, I've become the master of the Epic Late-Night Grocery Run. Late-night shopping means there's food in the house first thing in the morning, and it also makes redeeming a whole stack of coupons less vexing to others, since I rarely have to worry about anyone waiting behind me in line.)
Plan a path through the grocery store. Start in the produce section, move to the canned foods, pantry and nonperishable items, non-foods (things like soap and TP), then baked goods, eggs and dairy, meat and seafood, and finish with the frozen items. If you buy the perishable and frozen items last, just before you hit checkout, they'll be in much better shape by the time you get home.
Don't just merrily fling stuff into your cart; pay attention to what you're buying. Check expiration dates on dairy products and canned goods, open and inspect cartons of eggs to make sure none are cracked or smashed, make sure produce isn't bruised or moldy, check the labels to find out what you're eating, and don't grab the first shopworn container off the shelf. You may as well get the most value for your money.
Buy head lettuce rather than bagged lettuce. It doesn't take that much extra time to prepare, and head lettuce is usually cheaper and lasts a lot longer than the stuff in the bag. And if you never buy anything but iceberg lettuce, try branching out a little and picking up some red leaf, Romaine, butter lettuce, arugula or spinach, depending on what's on sale.
Pick up fruits and vegetables when they're in season, and plan your recipes around them. They'll be cheaper and taste better. If you have no notion of what's in season, do a web search for "in-season produce" for your area -- or just let your nose be your guide; really fresh fruit tends to smell wonderful. And don't be scared of whole fruits and vegetables. They don't take much time to clean and prepare, and they cost less if you do the prep work yourself.
If something you need isn't on sale, look for a store brand. Many large grocery chains offer house-brand items that are as good as or better than the nationally-advertised brands, and they're almost always less expensive. Sometimes they're even less expensive than the advertised sale item. (If you're not sure you'll like the store brand, get the smallest available size of the item and sample it at home; if you hate it, most stores will let you return the unused portion for a refund.)
Check the Used Food Section for bargains. (No, I don't know of any stores that actually call their markdown areas "Used Food," but I'd love it if someone did.) Meat, dairy and produce are usually marked down because they're close to expiring, so if you find a good deal here be prepared to use or freeze it ASAP. Marked-down bakery items are usually in danger of going stale (meh), but shouldn't actually be moldy (ew). Marked-down cans are usually dented; examine them very carefully to be sure there are no leaks, swelling or other signs that the contents have turned evil. Botulism poisoning is never a bargain.
Don't buy anything on display in the checkout line. Seriously. Pure impulse buys. STAY STRONG, LITTLE SHOPPER.
Don't forget your coupons -- and don't let your checker forget them. (I usually say, "By the way, I have some coupons" as the checker starts scanning my items, and I put them up on the check-writing platform so they're clearly visible. Then the checker scans my coupons and I smile delightedly as my grocery total starts to shrink.)
Once you bring the bags in, put the frozen stuff away first, then the perishables, then the canned goods and pantry items, and finally the non-foods.
Plan out your meals so that the most perishable food gets used up first. If you bought fresh fish, you should eat it by the next day. Eat fresh poultry within 48 hours. Ground meat goes bad faster than steaks, chops and roasts. And have a specific purpose in mind for your fruits and vegetables. Cook and eat them promptly so they don't have time to evolve into a new lifeform and crawl out of the fridge on their own. Yeeze.
Grocery Fu: for advanced shoppers only
Mastered all of the above, and ready to level up? OK, here we go.
Buy staple pantry items and non-perishable items in bulk whenever they go on sale. To do this effectively, you need a good feel for what items are "staple pantry items" around your place. Staples are the long-storing foods you use most often to cook or bake, and they vary from household to household depending on your cooking style and dietary needs. (Your kitchen canisters may be labeled Flour, Sugar, Coffee and Tea, but you probably won't use them for those items if you're a celiac, a diabetic and a Mormon, right?) If you don't know what your staple items are, look over the recipes you cook most often. Seeing certain familiar ingredients again and again? Behold your staples!
If you have a freezer, you can stock up on some perishable items that freeze well. Roasts and chops freeze well if they're wrapped properly. So does butter (let it defrost in the fridge before using it). Milk? Ehh, notsamuch. If you plan to do a lot of freezing, check out this list of foods that freeze well (and some foods that don't).
Shop around. Many grocery stores have frequent buyer programs where they'll give you discounts on groceries and/or gasoline if you shop there more often, but it's easy to fall into the rut of buying all your food in the same place... don't do that! Remember, it's OK to cheat on your grocery store! Check to see what the competition is doing every now and then, and see what they're offering that your usual grocery store doesn't. This goes double for specialty stores like Trader Joe's or your friendly neighborhood spice emporium. They won't have the wide range of products your local supermarket has, but they do offer amazing stuff at (usually) low prices. And don't forget your local farmers' markets, where you can find super-fresh local produce and the kind of unusual fruits and veggies that most big commercial farms don't bother to grow.
Peg Bracken, of The I Hate To Cook Book fame, used to suggest bringing a small cookbook to the grocery store; then if you come across a snazzy unadvertised sale on something, you can look it up in the book's index, find a good recipe for it, and save yourself another trip by picking up the needed recipe ingredients. Of course, Ms. Bracken wrote this in the early 1960s, when Al Gore was still busy inventing the Internet. Why lug around a cookbook if you already have a smartphone? The power of the Net in the palm of your hand!
Have any additional advice to share about honing your grocery shopping skills? Drop me a line!