Grocery Shopping & Meal Planning:
Tips and Techniques
I know that some of you struggle with fitting in grocery shopping and planning meals that are creative, delicious, healthy, and yet don’t consume too much time.
So today I’m going to share with you how I shop for food and plan meals. I’m a pretty organized person by nature and I gravitate towards making lists. However, I also like to allow room for change and spontaneity.
First off, if you have trouble getting the food to your house in the first place, then of course it will be hard to cook healthy meals at home.
Try scheduling in your grocery shopping, just as you might schedule in time for an oil change for your car. With a little planning you shouldn’t have to go very often. I usually only buy food once a week, maybe twice if there’s something special going on (a dinner party or a special holiday, for example).
During the week I keep a piece of paper handy, in the kitchen, to write down any items I need to buy on my next shopping trip. It helps to have a list somewhere easily accessible for those moments when you notice that the shaving cream is low, or when you use up the last of the garlic.
Of course, there are also staples that I buy pretty much every time. I no longer write these down on the list, but you certainly can if you find you often forget important things while at the store.
If going to the store is a burden to you, maybe there is someone else in your family or life who could do it for you? I don’t mind grocery shopping, partly because I’m the cook. Since I plan and prepare the meals, I want to know what’s being purchased. Here in Argentina the offerings at the market are always changing, so I couldn’t just send someone with a list to be filled each week anyway. If you are in the US, you probably could.
In fact, when I was a teenager and started driving doing the grocery shopping became one of my household tasks. My mom would make a list (very organized, with everything grouped into which section of the supermarket it would be in) and I would go to the supermarket each week. It wasn’t hard. I would have much rather done that than other chores. I think it was also good for teaching responsibility and something about ‘grown-up’ life. (Maybe you have a teenager who can go for you?)
Now, when I go to the store, I take my list of items I’ve noted down all week, and I also look to see what’s good in the produce section. I buy what's fresh and appealing, roughly calculating in my head possible meals I could make, and getting enough for about six dinners. (We typically eat out one night per week.) Of course, you might need more or fewer. If you are just getting started with healthy cooking at home, maybe all you need is to aim for one or two meals a week at first.
Then, when I get home with the groceries- as I am unloading them in the kitchen- I make a list of the foods I bought.
Here’s an example. I always have a current version of this list (with pen) that lives on the counter. (I stick in the silverware drawer for those times I want the kitchen spotless.)
You can see it isn’t formal, and I don’t expect anyone else to be able to understand what it all means. But I’ll give you the quick rundown...
• At the top I make note of any foods from our garden that need using. I also note any leftovers that are still in the fridge, as well as any frozen items that I should be aware of when planning meals.
• Next, along the right-hand side, I list out the fresh foods I just bought (as well as any that I need to use up from the last shopping trip, which is rare). I put fruit at the top of the list because it goes bad the fastest.
• At the bottom of the page I write reminders of items that I regularly make from scratch, so I can keep an eye on supply. This includes nutmilk, granola, yogurt, and gluten-free bread. I also note down reminders like ‘hard boiled eggs', or ‘cook beans', to remind me to make sure we have some on hand.
• Lastly, in the main area of the paper, I write out meal ideas using the fresh foods from the right-hand column. Some of the foods I already bought with a meal in mind; for others I might later go looking for inspiration. There’s nothing hard and fast here.
Then, each day, I just scan the list and consider what I want to make that evening, factoring in foods that spoil quickly (using them first), time (some nights I have more time and energy to cook than others), and what sounds good (important for motivation!).
As the week goes on, I continue to cross off the fresh foods that we’ve eaten and the meals that I’ve made, noting leftovers that need using up as I go (which often become lunch the next day).
I also allow plenty of room for flexibility. I frequently change my plan for a particular food. Maybe I initially thought of making my No-Noodle Eggplant Lasagna with the eggplants I bought... but then I decide it’s too much time this week and instead I do a simple roasted eggplant dish which will also make great sandwiches for my husband’s lunch the next day.
My point is that this is not meant to be rigid. I have used this method for many years and I find the structure very helpful for long-term healthy cooking at home. When I walk into the kitchen at the end of the day I don’t have to search through the fridge or cupboards trying to think of options. Everything I need to know is already laid out for me (by me!), just waiting on the counter.
And that’s how I shop and plan for everyday, home-cooked meals. I hope that a few of these tips will spark something that helps you on your healthy eating journey!
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