I almost didn’t write this post for fear you might question my regard for you. I would never want you to think I think you don’t know how to compile a list of ingredients before heading to the grocery store. My respect for you as a reader is high, and I assume you have been writing grocery lists for years and have mastered putting to pen to paper in order to not forget what you need from the store.
But, I think there are some key ways to make grocery lists work to the best of their capacity, and I want to share those with you here today. I love the grocery store, and grocery shopping is somewhat of a hobby for me. As much as I love a visit to the store, I also want to get in and out as quickly as possible and avoid having to make return trips simply for items I failed to realize I need. Today’ post covers a few methods I use to make my grocery list serve me well.
Create zones on your list.
One long list of ingredients in random order is a recipe for chaos once you arrive at the store. My strategy is to divide my piece of paper into zones, and I have been doing it the same way for years. The key is to use zones that make sense to you and match up to your store of choice.
My zones include produce, meat, pantry items, bulk items, frozen food, dairy, deli, bakery, and prepared foods. These categories reflect the zones of Central Market, which is where I do most of my shopping. Your zones need to reflect where you shop. Close your eyes and imagine the path you take through the store. Jot down the zones. Then arrange those zones on your empty page and leave spaces to fill in the items in each category.
When you arrive at the store, your list will be a map you follow through the store, and each item will correspond with a zone, reducing confusion as you shop. I have been doing this for so long that I no longer need the literal titles of the zones on my paper. If I write something in the upper left hand corner, I know it is produce. Bottom left? Frozen. Upper right? Those are my pantry items. It has become second nature to my brain, and I love the clarity this approach provides to the grocery shopping process.
Don’t skip any ingredients from the recipe.
Let’s say you’re going to cook White Chicken Chili for dinner. It can be tempting to just assume you have certain items on hand and jot down the main ingredients you know you are missing like chicken, cheese, and beans. The problem with this approach is when we assume we have ingredients on hand (spices, garlic, onions), we run the risk of discovering our mistake after we return from our shopping trip, which means we will have to return to the store to get the items we are missing. It is far simpler to assume nothing, write it all down, and make a comprehensive list first.
Be specific with quantity if quantity matters.
Sometimes we can jot down an item and not worry about a specific quantity. Other times quantity is crucial. Knowing the difference is a skill that will serve you well as you make your list.
If, for example, I’m making Chili, and I want to serve it with sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, and Fritos (which, for the record, is the only way to enjoy Chili, in my opinion), the exact quantities of these ingredients is not vital because they are garnishes. On my list I would simple write “sour cream,” “cheddar cheese,” and “Fritos” and grab whatever looks right while I am at the store.
However, if I am making Spaghetti Pie, and the recipe calls for 16-ounces of sour cream, 12-ounces of cheddar cheese, and one pound of pasta, the quantities matter quite a lot to the success of the finished dish. So in this case, on my list I would write the specific amounts I need of sour cream, cheese, and pasta, making sure I grab the correct quantities of each while I shop.
What if I am making Chili and Spaghetti Pie in the same week and including the ingredients on the same grocery list? Great question! I would write the following on my list: “16-ounces sour cream + garnish,” and “12-ounces cheddar cheese + garnish.” This very clearly tells me what to grab in the dairy section and includes a specific quantity for one recipe and a general quantity for the other. This notation will also help jog my memory as to what the different quantities are for and allow me to make smart choices in the moment.
Shop your kitchen.
Before you head to the store, take your zoned, comprehensive, specific-quantity grocery list and shop your kitchen. Do you indeed have three tablespoons of cinnamon? Do you already have six lemons? Do you have enough chicken stock in the pantry to make this soup? Do a quick run through of your fridge and pantry and see what you already have on hand, paying attention to quantities (see how those come in handy?).
Maybe you need six cups of chicken stock and discover you already have a quart in the freezer. Great! Change the quantity on your list to two cups, and now you are reducing waste and using what you have. Cross off anything from your list that you don’t need to buy, adjust quantities if needed, and head to the store confident of what you actually need to purchase.
Establish a list of staples.
This probably needs to be its own blog post, but establishing a list of on-hand staple ingredients is a game-changer for grocery shopping. Basically I suggest creating a list (I keep mine on my phone) of ingredients you always stock, regardless of what you are going to cook.
My staple inventory includes things like salt and pepper, baking basics (flour, sugar, vanilla, etc.), olive oil, and most vinegars. I check my staple inventory weekly, and if I am running low on any of these items, I add them to my grocery list even if I am not cooking something that calls specifically for one these items.
Likewise, when I am creating my grocery list, if a recipe calls for salt, pepper, or olive oil, I don’t include those items on my shopping list because I know I already have these items as part of my pantry staples. It may sound like a lot, but I swear this approach simplifies the shopping process.
The good news is, your staple ingredient list can be as simple or elaborate as you choose. At the very minimum, you might start a simple inventory with salt and pepper, perhaps olive oil and another basic such as balsamic vinegar. You can build on this inventory over time based on the kind of cooking you typically do.
Maybe you love cooking Asian-inspired dishes, so things like rice vinegar, soy sauce, and kimchi might be on your staple list. Or, maybe you want to be able to bake Chocolate Chip Cookies at a moment’s notice so you always keep chocolate chips, butter, and brown sugar on hand. Your staple inventory will reflect your life and how you cook, so make it work for you. If you find you are adding the same ingredients over and over to your list, these items are excellent candidates for a staple list.
I hope these tips help you as you build your grocery list!