Modern*Simplicity

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50 Tips to Simplify Grocery Shopping

Do you like grocery shopping? I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t enjoy it either. It always feels like I’m forgetting something, or getting too much, or not getting the right items. Grocery shopping, especially shopping for a family, can be complicated. It often ends with spending too much money, not having anything “good” for dinner, and then tossing away groceries that didn’t get eaten before they spoiled. I’ve put together 50 tips to help simplify the food-buying process.

Prepare Yourself

  • Always go with a list. If you go without a list, you may as well just throw your money away. Prepare a list of everything you need, pulling from your weekly menu (next tip) and checking to make sure you don’t have the supplies already in your pantry, fridge or freezer. Write it down so you know you’re not forgetting anything. Now stick to that list.
  • Plan out a weekly menu. This is the best way to ensure that your list is complete and that you have enough to serve your family dinner for the week. I often plan a weekly menu and then duplicate it for the next week — this way I can shop for two weeks at once. Be sure to plan a leftovers night. Plan your menus to the ads to save even more money. A great resource for meal planning is Meal Prep 101: The Beginner’s Guide.
  • Keep a list on your fridge, and write things down immediately. When you’re running low on something, write it down. Don’t wait until you run out. When you see there are only three toilet paper rolls left, put it on your list. You’ll save yourself from having to run back to the store because you forgot one crucial item.
  • Make a pantry checklist. Make a checklist of everything you normally stock in your pantry. Keep it posted in the pantry. Put a slash next to each item for the number of items you have (if you have two cans of stewed tomatoes, put two slashes). Then, when you use something, turn the slash into an x. This makes it much easier when it comes time to make your list.
  • Clean out your fridge. You’ve got stuff growing in there and turning from solids to liquids. The leftovers have begun to organize their own political party. Toss ’em out and make room for the new.
  • Have a budget. When I go to the store, I know exactly how much I can spend. Then I try my best to stick to that limit. If you don’t know how much you can spend, you’ll certainly spend too much. I keep a running tally on my grocery list, just rounding off so I can do some quick math. An item costs $1.85? I say $2. Rounding keeps it simple so I don’t need a calculator.

Get Ready to Shop

  • Clip coupons. I know, sometimes they seem like too much trouble. But it’s not really that hard to clip a few coupons and toss them in a coupon envelope to take on your grocery shopping trip. And you can save 10-20% of your bottom line with coupons. Check store entrances, newspaper, and flyers for coupons. Only use coupons for items you were already planning to buy. Don’t let them trick you into buying something that’s not on your list, just to “save” money.
  • Prepare your grocery list by aisle. If you regularly shop at the same stores, organize your list so that you can easily find and check off items as you walk down the aisle. We always shop from right to left, so we’re not constantly running back and forth in the store.
  • Look for specials. Every store has specials. Be sure to look for them in the newspaper, or when you get to the store (they often have unadvertised specials — look on the higher and lower shelves for deals). Don’t buy them unless they’re things you always use.
  • Comparison shop. Look at the different brands for a certain type of product, including store brands. Sometimes there will be a significant difference. Be sure you’re comparing apples to apples — you need to divide the price by the amount (ounces, pounds, etc.) in order to get the comparable unit price.
  • Go during slow times. One of my favorite times to shop is late at night. But during working hours or other non-peak times is good too. Avoid right after 5 p.m., on paydays and near major holidays.
  • Know when the store restocks its fresh fruits and veggies to get the best (and longest lasting) produce.
  • Whenever possible, buy produce from the farmer’s market or from an orchard or farm. You’ll sometimes save money, and you’ll always get much better quality for your dollar.
  • Avoid trips to the corner store. Or the gas station! These are some of the most expensive stores.
  • Try co-ops. You can often save a lot of money at these types of places for staples.
  • Consider shopping at two stores. There’s no store with a monopoly on savings. Each has savings on different items on different weeks. You might switch between two stores on alternate weeks.
  • Use store savings cards and rebate offers. These can add up to big savings over the long run.

Time to Shop!

  • Go when the kids are in school. When you bring kids, they will pester you and pester you until you buy some kind of junk food. Even if you’re able to stick to your guns, it’s not pleasant saying no 10 million times. In most cases, you’ll save money shopping without the kids.
  • Don’t go when you’re hungry. This is a common tip, but it’s true. Eat a good meal first, and you’ll be more likely to stick to your list.
  • Buy frozen veggies. While fresh veggies are better, frozen veggies are almost as good and much better than no veggies at all.
  • Cut back on meat. Meat is expensive. We have vegetarian meals several times a week (think pasta or chili) and for other meals, you could just use a little meat as a kind of seasoning instead of the main ingredient — think Asian, Indian and other such cultural food.
  • Try the store brands. Brand names are often no better than generic, and you’re paying for all the advertising they do to have a brand name. Give the store brand a try, and often you won’t notice a difference. Especially if it’s an ingredient in a dish where you can’t taste the individual ingredient.
  • Sugar cereals are a bad buy. Lots of money for no nutrition. Look for whole grain cereals with low sugar. Add fruit for better flavor.
  • Rain check. If an item is on sale but the store has run out of stock, ask for a rain check.
  • Go for whole foods. The processed kind is lacking in nutrition and will make you fat. Look for things in their least processed form — whole grain instead of white or wheat bread, fresh fruit instead of canned or juice, whole grain cereal or oatmeal instead of all other kinds of cereal.
  • Read labels. Look for trans fat, hydrogenated oils, high amounts of sugar, saturated fat, lots of sodium, cholesterol. Then avoid them like the plague. We also try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives. Look instead for fiber, good fats, protein, vitamins, calcium.
  • Avoid frozen dinners or prepared entrees. Again, these cost way more and are usually much less nutritious.
  • Drink water. If you regularly drink iced tea, sodas or other types of drinks, cut those down and just drink water. It’s much better for you, and much cheaper.
  • Use a hand basket. When you do have to run to the store for just a few things, instead of using a cart, use the little hand basket. That way you don’t get too many things because it gets to be too heavy to carry!
  • Be watchful at the register. Keep an eye on the scanner — you’ll keep the cashier on his toes, and catch any mispriced items.
  • Use reusable grocery bags. You’ll save tons of plastic over time, and help the environment tremendously. Some stores also offer a discount, usually a nickel or so a bag, when you bring your own.
  • Consider grocery shopping online if you can. While it may cost a little extra to have it delivered, you save on the gas. Most online sites keep track of the products you normally buy, keep a running total of what’s in your basket, and show you all the current special offers. Online shopping can also save you from those impulse buys that weren’t on your list. Right now, I’m doing most of my grocery shopping at a local store that offers free pick-up.

Stockpiling

  • Buy in bulk when it makes sense. If you can save money, over the course of a month or two, by buying in bulk, plan to do so. But be sure that you’re going to use all of it before it gets bad — it isn’t cheaper to buy in bulk if you don’t use it.
  • Keep things stocked for quick meals. Easy meals for us might be spaghetti or mac-n-cheese or a quick stir-fry. We’ve always got the ingredients on hand, so we can whip something up fast when we’re feeling lazy.
  • Always have batteries, toilet tissue, and light bulbs. And other necessities that you always seem to run out of — buy a whole bunch when they’re on sale, or buy in bulk. Be sure to check to see if you have these items before you go to the store.
  • When there’s a sale, stock up. Sale items can be a great deal. If it’s an item you normally use, buy a bunch of them.
  • Plan one big trip a month for bulk staples. You can get fresh items at another store on other weeks, but doing a big bulk trip will cut back on the expense and amount you have to carry for the other three weeks. Avoid buying on impulse at the bulk store too — just because they sell a lot of it doesn’t mean you’re saving, if you weren’t planning on buying it in the first place.

Let’s Eat

  • Make leftovers for lunch. Plan to cook a bit extra for each dinner, so that you’ll have leftovers for your lunch and for the kids’ lunches. Pack it right away, after dinner, so you don’t have to worry about it in the morning.
  • Cook a lot, then freeze. You can cook a whole mess of lasagna (for example) and freeze it for multiple dinners. A great idea is to use one Sunday and cook a week’s (or even a month’s) worth of dinners. Plan 5-6 freezable dinners and cook them all at once.
  • Try crock pot dinners. They are easy and cheap and tasty. Cut up a bunch of ingredients, throw them in the pot in the morning, and have dinner ready for you when you get home. Can anything be more perfect than that?
  • Think deep freeze. If you really want to save, you’ll need a big freezer. Ask around — someone you know might have a relatively new model they don’t need anymore. You can use freezers to stock up on meat, frozen veggies, and similar staples, and to freeze big batches of pasta, casseroles, and other dinners you prepare ahead of time.
  • Use everything possible. Got a bunch of leftover ingredients (half an onion, a bit of tomato, some pasta, a few other veggies?) … combine them for a quick meal, so that these don’t go to waste before your next grocery trip. The more you can stretch the food, and the less you waste, the less you’ll spend in the long run.
  • Don’t waste leftovers. Have a list on your fridge of what leftovers are in there, so you don’t forget about them. Plan a leftover night or two, so you’re sure to eat them all. Pack them immediately for lunch, so they’re ready to take the next morning.
  • Don’t buy junk food. Junk food not only costs a lot of money for about zero nutrition, but it makes you and your family fat and kills you. Talk about a bad deal! Opt for fruits and veggies instead.

 More Tips

  • Keep your receipts, then enter into a spreadsheet. This will be your price list. Use it so you know when bulk or sale items are a good deal. It’s also a great way to comparison shop between stores — buy your baking goods in Store A but your fresh fruits in Store B.
  • Grow your own herbs and veggies. If you rent or just don’t have a big yard, you can still grow some things in containers. I’m giving a container herb garden a try this year, as so many recipes call for fresh herbs, yet they can be so expensive ($2-3 for a tiny plastic package) at the store.
  • Cut back on your restaurant eating. Plan your dinners and bring your lunches to work and save a ton of money.
  • Pack healthy snacks for the kids. Whole wheat crackers, popcorn, cut-up fruit, raisins, and other kid-friendly snacks are much better than the junk you often see in kids’ lunches. And cheaper.
  • Cut back on your “one-item” trips. They waste gas, and almost inevitably, you buy more than that one item. If you plan ahead, make a weekly menu, and shop with a list, this should drastically reduce the number of trips you make for a small number of items. But if you still find yourself running out for a few items, analyze the reason — are you not making a good list, are you forgetting some items from your list? Stock up on the things you frequently go out for.
  • Pack your own snacks. Buying pre-made snacks is convenient, but a big waste of money. Buy little baggies or use reusable containers and buy the snacks in bulk, then it will take just a few minutes to pack some snacks for lunch each day.

Do you have any tips for grocery shopping? Please share in the comments!

50 Tips to Simplify Grocery Shopping

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