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Things I thought everyone knew, groceries edition.

20160209_150200I apparently had a strange childhood.   Of course it seemed normal to me, and my sister and I often stare at friends when they say things that we had thought that of course everyone knew.  One of our friends didn’t know until a few months ago that you can have many shoes re-soled, for example.

One thing that I think has hugely impacted my life that basically nobody in my generation does well is writing a grocery list.  I don’t mean jotting down the three things you’re nearly out of that happen to occur to you right before you head out.  Instead, Imean really, truly writing a comprehensive list of all the things you are out of or will need to feed yourself for the upcoming week.  If done right, a grocery list will save you a ton of time, probably a good bit of money, and a lot of guilt over wasted food.

You won’t need to go back to the store three times because you forgot something.  You can plan to use up or freeze leftovers for future meals.  You won’t eat out just because figuring something else out sounds like too much work; it’ll already be done.  You’ll already have a plan for those quickly-wilting salad greens, so they won’t go to waste.

Here’s how I do it:

You need a note pad that will become your permanent groceries note pad.  You need a pen or pencil that will become your permanent groceries pencil.  You need a large binder clip and a string.  Tie the string to both the binder clip and the pencil, then clip it to the note pad.  That note  pad should now live somewhere you can easily see it and write on it every time you run out of something, and where you can refer to it each evening when you’re getting ready to cook.  Mine hangs on a hook on the pantry.

Now gather up your calendar and the calendar of anyone else in your house you’re cooking for/with regularly, any cookbooks you’d like to cook out of, and probably a beer; the first time you do this will take a while, and it can be irritating and exhausting, but it will ultimately be so much better, I promise.  If you get a CSA and have a list of the contents on hand, grab that, too.

Grab your grocery pad and go through your house.  Check everywhere you keep food, or grocery items like cleaning products or toilet paper.  Keep two columns, one for things you need to buy, and one for things you’d like to use up.  Include things you’relow on, don’t wait until you’re out unless it’s something you use very rarely.  You will probably only need to do this step the first time.

Now, sit down with that beer and those cookbooks and calendars and your CSA list.  First, pick the day you’ll go shopping.  This first time, give yourself AT LEAST four hours.  You’re not just going to shop, you’ll also need to get everything home and put away, and if your fridge is like mine, that might take some doing.  It’ll take a while the first few times, but it will get faster.

Now, look at your calendars and figure out what meals you’ll be cooking for, who you’ll be feeding, and how much time you’re willing to spend each evening.  For example, don’t try to plan a roast chicken on Tuesday night; you’re not going to have a lot of time or energy for it, so you maybe plan that for Sunday(there’s a reason Sunday dinner is a thing).  Now, go through your cookbooks or beloved recipe websites and find recipes that meet your criteria for each evening.  Prioritize things that use up your CSA produce, and plan to use the things that spoil the fastest earlier in the week.   Remember to plan side dishes.

Try to plan meals that use up the things on your earlier list that you want to get rid of.  If you decide to cook something later in the week that has a particularly delicate ingredient, consider either moving that meal to earlier in the week, or picking a day where you could drop by the shop and get that item the day you’re planning to cook it.

Remember that you’re going to need to eat lunch and dinner, and probably some snacks.  I usually eat the same thing each day for breakfast and lunch, which makes planning them easier.  Things like sandwiches can be augmented with leftover salad from dinner, or soup frozen into single servings.  You could also easily just plan to make extra of dinner and re-heat leftovers for lunch if that’s your thing.  Same thing for snacks; I tend to keep hummus and pita and fancy olives kicking around because I like them, they keep well, and they fit my dietary requirements.

If you’re going to have friends over, take their eating habits into account, too; do you have a vegan friend who drops by on the regular?  Or maybe gluten free?  or maybe you just have that one friend who prefers coffee to tea?  Come up with something to have on hand for them, or if you’re sharing a meal, find one that they can eat.

Example 1:

In this example, I’m home alone in the evening; I want something quick, that maybe my husband doesn’t eat which I like.  Shrimp fits the bill; it’s fast, I love it, and my husband can’t eat it so I rarely get to have it.

_____day:  Breakfast: re-heated quiche

Lunch: Sandwich with side of soup (frozen and reheated from last week)

Dinner: Just me; quick shrimp stir fry with sauteed spinach and naan

Snacks: hummus, olives and pita; fresh fruit


Example 2:

My husband and I have dates with our partners, and we’re all cooking together.  My partner and husband both can’t eat seafood, and his partner is vegetarian (but will eat seafood, of course) and hates celery.  There’s more hands, so a more labor intensive dinner won’t actually take a whole long longer.

______day:  Breakfast: Re-heated quiche

Lunch: Sandwich and fruit

Dinner: Veggie enchiladas, Mexican rice, re-fried beans


Once you’ve got your meals planned out,  startwriting your grocery list.  I divide my list into sections based on where in the grocery store things live.  For example, all of the bulk goods I’m buying will be grouped together under “Bulk”, all the dairy items will be together, all the produce, etc.  I know my grocery store pretty well, so it’s not hard anymore, but if you don’t know your store well, then do your best, and maybe take notes for next time.  I know this sounds a little obsessive, but planning how you’re going to move through the store and grouping your list that way will save you time by preventing backtracking; it will also mean you’re not having to scan your whole list to cross off an item.  Include the items from the earlier list of things you’re low on or out of.  Go through each meal you’ve planned and check the recipes; add any ingredients that you don’t have to the list, and check to make sure you have the others if you’re not sure.  Add any luxury items like ice cream or beer that don’t fit into any of the meal categories.  Now, take a deep breath, and a sip of that beer.  You’re done!

Congrats, you’re ready to go shopping!  Take your list with you and cross off items as you put them in your cart.  When you get home, put everything away promptly so things don’t spoil.  If you’ve got the time, consider prepping some things ahead of time, like chopping a few onions and putting them in a jar in the fridge to use for the week.

After you shop, hang your meal plan where you can see it so you don’t have to wonder what you planned for tonight.  Hang the list with a fresh piece of paper showing, and every time you use a pantry item up, write it on the list.  Grabbed the last roll of TP?  Onto the list.  Almost out of flour?  Onto the list.  This will take the place of going through the house taking inventory the next time you plan.  If you like, you can keep old meal plans and use them again.  There’s no reason to start fresh each week unless you want to.

I know that this is really long.  I know it sounds like a lot of work, and honestly, it kind of is.  But on Wednesday night when you get home late from work and you’re starving and you’re considering just ordering takeout, you’re already set.  You already have a quick snack that you like waiting for you.  You already know what you’re making, you already have all of the ingredients.  You already planned for fast weeknight meals, so now all you have to do is spend half an hour tossing ingredients together and you’ll have a delicious homemade dinner ready faster than the delivery guy could get to you anyway.