8 Steps to Navigating the Grocery Store Like a Pro
Working as a personal chef, I do, it’s safe to say, frequent the grocery store more often than the average person. And although some people consider grocery shopping a tedious chore, I actually like the act of purchasing fresh fruit and local meats. Perhaps my experience is more enjoyable because I’ve come up with an effective system for buying groceries. I can be in and out of the store, even when shopping for an 18-person dinner party, in a half-hour or less. I know, because I timed myself at Trader Joe’s yesterday! Wondering how you can do the same? Here are eight crucial tips to learn how to navigate the grocery store like a pro.
I never go to the grocery store without a list. In fact, I don’t even know how to shop without a list, and it makes me anxious just thinking about it! A list ensures that you get all of the necessary ingredients for what you are making, and it will make you more efficient. When writing your list, group like items together. On a blank sheet of paper, put all the produce in one corner, the dairy in another, the protein in another, and dry goods in the fourth. As you walk through the store, you won’t have to keep scanning the list to see if you missed an ingredient. You simply look at the produce corner when you’re in the veggie section. If you frequently shop for a family, consider taking inventory of all the foods your partner and children like to eat. Type it up and print it out each time you’re heading to the store. Look through your kitchen, and circle or highlight the foods you need.
Dieting experts say you should never grocery shop when you are hungry: You end up buying things you don’t need and unhealthy items you’re craving. It’s also a good idea to avoid shopping when you are rushed or in a bad mood.
Supermarkets are designed to trick shoppers into buying more. The most expensive items are placed at eye level, and grocers entice shoppers with aisle-end sales and stacks of fancy goodies near the checkout. Resist the impulse to load your cart with things you don’t really need. Having a list will keep you in check, but if you have the urge to buy a huge bag of cherries, ask yourself: Will I really eat these? Think about your schedule for the next couple of days. If you’re eating dinner out, then you don’t really need that flatbread pizza that looks so delicious.
If you always shop at the same grocery store, you’ll become familiar with the location of your purchases and therefore be able to move more quickly through the store. Check out all the markets in your neighborhood and start frequenting the one that suits the majority of your needs. Unfortunately, you may need to shop at two or more stores to get all of your preferred ingredients. If that’s the case, hit up the same two stores over and over again. You’ll also become friendly with the staff members, who may point you to deals in the future.
Most of my shopping is done on the outskirts of a grocery store rather than down the aisles. The outer ring of the market is where you’ll find fresh food like produce, dairy, seafood, and meat. Be smart about your walk around the store. Always start on one side (I like to do produce because that is what I’m usually getting the most of) then move around the back of the store. Avoid the front of the store, where you may run into checkout-stand traffic and people who are idly browsing magazines. Note when you are passing an aisle (such as baked goods or canned vegetables) that has an item you need, and make a quick pit stop to grab it.
Ice cream melts and flowers wilt, so whenever those items are on my list, I pick them up last. You don’t want melted ice cream all over your cart! Likewise, a bouquet of pretty fuchsia dahlias could get crushed by other ingredients if added to your cart too early.
If you can, invite a family member or friend to help you shop. One person is ideal—add more people and everyone just ends up aimlessly walking around the store. However, a partner can make the trip that much more efficient. If your sidekick isn’t familiar with your store, have him or her man the cart and delegate easy items—“I need two white onions”—while you shop for more-complicated ingredients. Whenever I’m hosting a big party or a holiday like Thanksgiving, my dad and I shop together. We make two lists and each tackle a different section of the store. We get our own carts and then meet in the middle at checkout. It’s insane how quickly we can complete a large shop.
Sunday evenings are the worst time to go grocery shopping. The stores are flooded with people making big shops for the week, so if you can shop at another time, do so. Lunch hour is another time when grocery stores can get packed, and Saturday mornings usually have a lot of parents shopping with young children. My preferred time for shopping? A weekday around 11 a.m. or 2 p.m.
Shop a few grocery-store essentials below.