Think of your last trip to the supermarket. Was it a laser-focused exercise in food gathering, a temptation-laden trudge, or something in between? For most of us, grocery shopping is more time consuming and less rewarding than we’d like. And without a good plan for getting in and out with the essentials, it can easily morph from a weekly errand to a part-time job — which is exactly what supermarket executives have in mind.
For the most part, grocery stores are designed to slow you down. Long aisles force you to cover more ground and hunt for what you need. Eye-catching end-of-aisle sale items stop you in your tracks. Even the music floating out of the store’s sound system has a slow beat to encourage shoppers to adopt a more leisurely pace. Subtle manipulations, yes, but they all keep you in the store longer, like a rat stuck in a maze. Why?
“Because reams of studies show that the longer you wander aimlessly, the more you buy,” explains Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of What to Eat (North Point Press, 2007). “Supermarkets want to expose you to the largest possible number of items that you can stand to see without annoying you so much that you run screaming from the store.”
Grocery shopping may be unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be a grind. We grilled a few of our favorite food experts for tips on how to plan and carry out a fast, healthy trip to the market.
Here are their top suggestions for getting in and out with what you need, without wasting time and effort.
Keep a proactive list at your fingertips. Put a grocery list on a kitchen bulletin board, on the fridge or taped inside a cupboard, and train yourself and any housemates to use it. When you pull a jar of salsa or can of coconut milk out of the cupboard, put that item on the list right then. “One out, one in,” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RN, professor of nutrition at Boston University. “That’s the best way to avoid a midweek dash to the store and, therefore, save time.”
Organize your list by aisle. Most supermarkets have similar layouts: produce upfront; seafood, meat and dairy in the back; and packaged dry goods in the center aisles. By grouping items according to aisle, you’ll save time by reducing the number of times you crisscross the market. “Putting a little bit of energy into figuring out how your store is laid out can save you a ton of time,” says Mark Tafoya, a personal chef in New York City.
Think menus. Before you leave the house, flip your list over and jot down a few dinner ideas for the coming week. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, says Ellie Krieger, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite and author of So Easy (Wiley, 2009): “You just need to plan a few basic meals.” Krieger’s strategy? “When I shop, I focus on buying three different proteins and three dinner-type veggies, like broccoli,” she says. From there, you can just mix and match on the fly, of course. But if you can decide you’re going to include, say, bison burgers, grilled portabellas and a stir-fry in your week’s dinner menus, that can trigger you to think about what you’re going to need for sides, herbs, condiments — and help you avoid doubling up on what you already have. Stick to dishes you’re familiar with for weeknights, advises Krieger. “Keep it simple and save new recipes for the weekend, when you can cook at a more leisurely pace.”
Preview sale items online. Most major supermarkets put their weekly circulars online. A quick visit to the store’s Web site lets you browse for bargains (including specials on the staples you keep on hand) and add them to your running list. The fact that fresh catfish is on sale might inspire a change of dinner plans and save you some money to boot. Seeing steel-cut oats at 25 percent off might suggest that now, not next week, is the time to stock up.
Call ahead. If you know you need a pound each of sliced turkey and Monterey Jack from the deli, call and ask for your order to be pulled together in advance. Says Tafoya: “When you get to the store, everything you need is ready and waiting, and you can just go boom, boom, boom down your list” — rather than waiting around for someone else’s deli order to be sliced just so.
Go it alone. Nothing hijacks a quick shopping trip more than kids. So, if possible, go when the little darlings are in school or otherwise in good hands. If you have no choice but to schlep them along, think agility. For infants, consider carrying them in a sling or backpack instead of putting them in the cart’s baby seat or infant carrier. Include older children in the process to keep them entertained. Krieger likes giving her 7-year-old daughter small tasks, like choosing that night’s vegetable. “I enjoy shopping with her,” she says, “but, if I need to be efficient, I go alone.”
Time your trips. Shoppers who rise early or venture out late are rewarded with smaller crowds and shorter checkout lines. Likewise, it’s important to know when to steer clear. Salge Blake never shops at max-capacity times — weekdays between 5 and 7 p.m. or on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Peak times vary by market, of course, so if you haven’t already figured out the slow and busy times at your favorite grocery store, ask the manager.
Make new friends. On a day when you’re not rushed, introduce yourself to the produce manager at your favorite store. He or she can tell you what day(s) of the week fresh produce is delivered. That can help you get first pick and may save you a return trip for a must-have item that sold out before you got there. Also ask your new friends about what looks best and freshest or is especially good on a particular day. In many stores, produce managers will be happy to cut open a fruit for you to taste.
Pick a cart. If you opt for a hand-basket, there’s a good chance it will be overflowing and digging painfully into your arm halfway through your trip. It can also make negotiating tight spaces really awkward. If a full-size cart is more than you need, consider a mini cart. A set of wheels will save you time, trouble and arm welts in the long run.
Be bag-ready. Ever picked out four perfect, tender avocados, then tried to balance them in one hand while wrestling open a stuck-together produce bag with the other? Spare yourself this indignity by having some bags open and handy as you enter the produce area. If you’ve brought your own reusable produce bags, this is easy. If you’re using the store’s plastic bags, grab a few off the spool and shake ’em open before you start loading up at the produce racks. (By the way, if you forgot your reusable shopping or produce bags in the car, go get them now. It will make them easier to remember next time.)
Spend more time in produce, less time everywhere else. Once you leave produce, you’re entering the no man’s land of processed foods. So plan to fill about a third of your cart here (let your shopping list and senses be your guide), and then blast through the other aisles as fast as you can. Not sure what to grab? At the least, you’ll want a few favorite or seasonal fruits, and a variety of veggies: leafy greens (salad greens as well as heartier greens for cooking); some cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts); basics like carrots, zucchini, cucumber, onions and celery; flavor-adders like red peppers, mushrooms, leeks, garlic; and longer-lasting items like squash and sweet potatoes. Remember: If you don’t buy them, you won’t eat them. Then again, if you don’t eat them, they’ll rot in your fridge. So be realistic about how much you can consume. Frozen veggies may be a good way to hedge your bets.
Baby your goods. Use the cart’s baby seat to protect precious, easily bruised or broken cargo, such as ripe fruits, delicate veggies, fresh herbs and eggs. That way, they won’t get smashed under dairy and canned goods. Come checkout time, they’ll also be easy to unload last, meaning they’ll sit securely at the top of the bags on the trip home. Use the cart’s lower shelf or ledge for clumsy and heavy items.
Stay focused. The average big-box supermarket sells 40,000 items and is designed to get you to look at as many products as possible, says Nestle. “Their job is to sell food, and more of it,” she notes in her book What to Eat. Your goal? Stay focused, move swiftly and avoid impulse buying. “Seventy percent of shoppers bring lists to the supermarket, but only about 10 percent adhere to them,” she says. To stick to your list, don imaginary blinders to block out everything but the items you need. Don’t go down the aisles you don’t have to, and consider parking your cart at the end of crowded aisles so you can dash in and grab the one or two items you need. This will save you from getting caught up in the slow-moving fray and tempted by impulse purchases.
Whiz Through Checkout
Unload strategically. Empty the cart either from heaviest to lightest or from indestructible to fragile, meaning milk, bags of bulk beans, rice and flour hit the belt first; items like ripe peaches, soft bread and eggs bring up the rear. As you unload, keep identical items together (e.g., three lemons or six cans of beans). This timesaving tip helps the cashier ring up items more quickly and also increases the chances that identical goods land in the same bag, which will expedite unpacking.
Swipe out. Leave the checkbook at home. Instead pay with cash, credit or debit card. Come with cash and you’ll be less likely to buy impulsively and more likely to wrap up quickly. If you use a credit or debit card, many stores let you swipe your card early, while the cashier is still scanning items: In the time between unloading the cart and the cashier ringing up your total, find your card, swipe it and stash it again.
Map it as you bag it. Bagging your own food or asking the bagger to clump similar items together saves you time when you get home, because you can load bags according to their final destination. For instance, you may have three bags: one for refrigerated foods, one for frozen items headed for the basement freezer and one for dry goods kept in the pantry. Upon arriving home, deposit each bag near its final destination and unpack one at a time. No more running laps between the pantry, fridge and freezer.
Invest in high-quality, reusable bags. Something as simple as a reusable grocery bag that stands open versus one that collapses at the top saves time, because you can use both hands to pack and unpack groceries instead of needing one hand to hold open the bag.
Call in the reinforcements. Text your family when you and your groceries are in the car but before you’ve left the parking lot and ask them to be ready to lend a hand when you arrive home. “When my mom came home from the supermarket, she would beep her car horn as she pulled into the driveway, which meant the kids were expected to come help out,” says Krieger. “This is the next best thing.”
Store items properly. Avoid the temptation to shove plastic bags of bulk items into the cupboard or tuck improperly wrapped produce into the fridge. That’s a no-no, says Tafoya. “Taking time to put food and produce away in proper containers not only helps them last longer, but also gives you a clearer picture of what you have so you don’t inadvertently double up.” Store bulk beans, grains, flours and sugar in clear glass containers. Wrap leafy greens in dishtowels; store mushrooms in paper bags; set the stems of fresh herbs in a glass of water with a tented plastic bag over the top; take onions and potatoes out of plastic and store in a cool, dark, dry place; and layer delicate berries between paper towels in a sturdy container.
Post a fresh list. Starting a new shopping list right away alerts your family that they need to continue keeping track of outgoing goods, and lets you take note of any items you may have overlooked on this trip.
Experiment with these tips to find out which ones work best for you. Reengineering your habitual approach to grocery shopping may take a little time and effort at first, but the payoff will last a lifetime. You’ll find you get home faster with a better, healthier haul, and have more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Download the PDF of our “Savvy Shopping Guide” for tips to help you grab the best stuff from every aisle, and check out our grocery shopping video with senior editor Laine Bergeson.
Catherine Guthrie is a Bloomington, Ind.–based writer and a contributing editor to Experience Life.