7 Tips for Streamlining Your Shopping List

I have a long-standing dislike of grocery shopping. Pushing a cart around a store is not one of the ways I amuse myself. I've found that because of my attempts to get in and out of the grocery store, I wind up forgetting things. The only way I can manage is to have a perfect grocery list — the type that includes even the little things that we need on every trip. There are some tricks to figuring out a grocery list, though, and I'm sharing them here and now.

  1. Use a spreadsheet. I know that not everyone likes to use technology for stuff like their shopping lists, but being able to organize my list, especially by store, has saved my life. It also makes it easier to add information like whether I have a coupon or which store is holding a sale.
  2. Add items immediately when you run out. The biggest danger to my grocery list is three little words: “Oh, I’ll remember.” Whenever I run out of something, I write it down immediately. If I see that someone else has used up the last crumbs, I write that down, too.
  3. Buy in bulk, when you can. I live in an apartment, but I still managed to find a hiding place for a 25-pound bag of flour. Small spaces should just be an opportunity for creativity. Buying in bulk from Sam’s Club and its ilk can often get me just as good of a deal as clipping coupons and buying weekly from a grocery store.
  4. Shop around, but not too much. I read the weekly sales paper, and pick one or two stores that seem to have the best overall prices for the week. For some families, it may come down to the price of just one item: I usually wind up going with the store with the cheapest price on our soda pop of choice.
  5. Plan meals. The easiest way to get an idea of what needs to be on your shopping list is to plan out what you’ll be preparing for the next week or so. You can put together a list from your ingredients, and, if someone’s coming to dinner, you know which ingredients you’ll need more of.
  6. Determine your staples. Every family has different staples: my boyfriend would mutiny if I didn’t keep cheddar cheese on hand at all times, while my mother’s household practically runs on tortillas. Whether or not your staples fit into your meal plan, they’re usually worth picking up. Running out may not be a pretty option.
  7. Go green. The less you’re buying from the store means the less that has to go on your grocery list. Even as simple a step as purchasing cloth napkins to reuse, rather than buying paper towels or paper napkins, can reduce costs, as well as worry when you forget to buy something to wipe up messes.

If you've got a tip on refining the shopping list, let me know! I'm always looking for ways to simplify my system.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

I do everything but number one, although I admit I could probably benefit from that.

I also break my list down into sub categories with pen and paper so I have certain items listed by store if I already know where I need to buy specific items. I guess that's sort of spread sheet "ish", but certainly not as high tech as many people. It just seems like when we notice things that are missing, we are by the fridge / freezer / cupboard where the magnetic notepad is, rather than at the keyboard. But I know every family and household has its own routine, so I'm sure others could easily make the spreadsheet system work for them.

Cool post. 


Guest's picture
Melissa E.

Like suggested, I keep a list on the fridge so that as I run out of things, the item can get added to the list right away. We also recently started planning our meals a week ahead of time, and have found that really helpful!

I have one more tip to share - we take the lists from the fridge and from our meal plan, and re-write it on a sheet of paper with headings. I haven't nailed down the perfect headings yet, but last week's went something like this: produce/breads; boxed/canned/prepared; meat/dairy; misc (for papergoods, juices, etc). It helps us save time at the store by not having to double back a million times and hit isles we've already been down.

Thursday Bram's picture

One of the reasons I switched over to the spreadsheet has to do with the fact I use Google Docs — I've got a shared spreadsheet with my boyfriend, so either one of us can update the shopping list from anywhere with internet access.

Myscha Theriault's picture

That sounds cool. Particularly the real time aspect of updating. Really cool. I kind of do what the second commenter mentioned with the rewrite of the list. Not sure I mentioned that before. Except that she seems to like the topic area sublists, and I seem to go more with location sublists.

That being said, I've always wanted to be one of the people that can go the extra mile and know per store which aisle I need to hit for the various things. But moving always knocks me for a loop. By the time I live somewhere long enough to be that familiar with the stores I hit, it's time to move. Alas . . .

Philip Brewer's picture

1) Use your receipts. I can remember the days when a grocery store receipt was just a long row of numbers with a total, which was not so useful. But for the past 25 years or so, grocery store receipts are an actual list of everything you bought. If you skim over your most recent three or four grocery receipts, you'll have a chance to spot stuff worth thinking about. Is the produce you bought three days ago still on sale? Were those healthy snacks such a big hit that you ought to get some more?

2) Organize the list according to the store layout. (It is a sign of my tendency to over-optimize things that I actually do this.) When I'm making the final list, I put things in rough order according to where stuff is in the store. This makes it quicker, because I can make one pass through the store and get everything (no need to go back to the produce section twice because I forgot potatoes and lemons which were way down on the list). It also makes it more likely that I actually get everything on the list (no forgetting the cough syrup which I saw six times but figured that I'd pick up when I went down that aisle, only I never did).

Myscha Theriault's picture

to tell you the truth. I'm with you on the produce and frozen items, as well as the dairy stuff. Certain aisles are obvious, I know, but it seems that it never fails that I have 3 or 4 items on my list that are in some sort of no man's land category that different stores deem appropriate for different locations. It's a real bugger. And then, just when I get the hang of it, some just out of school marketing genius shakes things up and moves things around. Just venting. . . and really digging this discussion, Thursday.

Thursday Bram's picture

I'm working on getting them down myself, but what always trips me up is "Ethnic Food."

When I lived in the Midwest, tortillas were shelved with the other bread products. East Coasters put them in the ethnic food aisle, along with certain types of beans and peppers that I take for granted. I honestly never think to look in the "Ethnic Food" aisle, because I don't necessarily remember that half my recipes were from Indian, Mexican and who-knows-what-all cookbooks originally.

Guest's picture

My mother taught me to keep my eyes open while shopping, and every so often, go to a new, different, or less frequently visited store and bring your shopping list with you. Check and compare prices, see if they have similar or yummier versions of what you normally get. These notes can help you decide where to shop, and get you out of food ruts.

Recently I saved a ton by doing this at Costco** - I took my normal shopping list and 'visited' with a friend who was already a member. I took careful notes of what they did and didn't have, quantities and prices, etc. For maybe an hour or so of work I found that the $50 membership fee really would pay for itself, and I discovered fancy chicken, apple and gouda sausage - my favorite lower fat pasta addition! My regular store did not carry anything as yummy as that.

**As an added bonus, if you go at the right time they have free samples, which if you are diligent, can turn into a free lunch!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Yup! Those mess me up as well. Also, certain things like lime juice, horseradish, Parmesan cheese pre-grated, olives, curries, and more. And cornmeal! It's never in the same freaking place from store to store. Glad I'm not alone on this.

Guest's picture

At first, I used http://www.knotler.com/ for my shopping lists. It allowed me to input the items on the desktop computer at home and refer to the list using my cell phone while at the supermarket. Then I switched to Google Notebook when Google introduced a mobile version of that service.

Guest's picture

I use a combination of the fridgeside and spreadsheet methods. We keep a running list of a dry erase board at the side on the fridge (it's the only way I can even hope to get the bf to keep track of what we need--and even then it's a longshot). I also keep a spreadsheet with the "usual suspects"--milk, bread, carrots, apples, and that sort--always on the list and arranged in sections. Produce items are always in one area, dairy in another--this keeps me from criss-crossing the store. So I print my standard list and then add items by hand from the fridgeside list to the appropriate category. My add-on items tend to be very few. I'll also add-on any items for a specific recipe if they're not pantry items.

Maybe it's a bit of OCD peeking through, but the categories are also arranged in order of the path I take through the store--in the front door and over to the deli, swing through the bread area then on to the dairy cases, hit the frozen veg aisle, then down butcher row, then it's off to the pasta/ethnic/canned/condinment aisles (these are the two aisles that always throw me as to what's where), and the grande finale... produce (I hate squashed or bruised produce, so it's always my last major stop). Then, and only then, if there are still items left on my list I'll venture off the "approved" route.

The bf hates shopping with me--I'm too focused and he dawdles too much as far as I'm concerned, I really don't want to analyze the particular properties of each jar of salsa on the shelf every time I go to the grocery store.

Myscha Theriault's picture

OK, now this is really getting interesting. I've been looking for ways to use my T-Moble Dash a bit more. Every online service I've tried to use makes for a big pain in the neck to try to use. It's sort of like a Blackberry.

But a list that has a mobile version . . . now that just might grab and keep my attention . . .



Guest's picture

I used to use my Mindspring PDA for grocery lists back when I was the only person I was shopping for. I like the shared spreadsheet idea... access from any point to add to it for one concise list. Sometimes I think of things while I'm at work.

I wonder if there's a way to get to that with some combination of Google Docs and the new Apple Notes application on iPhone/iPod Touch?


Guest's picture


Guest's picture

I just simply start at the entrance of the same store I always go to, and take the SAME exact route through the store every trip. Up and down each isle, across the back, then up and down each isle on the other side, then to the registers.
I never forget anything, I remember where everything is, and I never have to go back through the store for stuff.
Unless, there's something really different on my list...sometimes it takes a while to find that!
But grocery shopping takes me 1 hour, from getting in the car, to getting the grocery bags out of the car, and into the house, and that's usually with a preschooler bugging me. Sometimes her older brother, too.
I go once a week, on the same day every week.
Everyone knows what "usual" items they need, every week.
As long as I have them, I can survive another week, if I forget something.

Oh, there ARE some things that are WAY more expensive than Walmart Supercenter's price, so I purposely don't get those things, BUT, I use the voice recorder on my cell phone for each item I have to get at another store. Or, I use the notepad on the cell phone, as I walk around, just so I can get right to the items at Walmart, and get out.

Good luck! I HATE grocery shopping!
Did you ever notice just how many times you actually handle each item, before you are totally done with it and it's out of your house?
Pick it from shelf, into cart.
Pick it from cart onto register.
Pick everything in the bag into the car.
Pick every bag out of the car, into the house.
Pick each item out of the bag, into the fridge, shelf, cabinet...
Pick each item out for dinner.
Throw the box, jar, container away,
OR...put that item back for MORE uses!

Man, I hate shopping!

Guest's picture

I have what might be an excessively simple solution to the aisle issue - I asked my store's customer service desk for an aisle directory. It looks like a little brochure and lists what's in each aisle. I just keep it in my coupon envelope and use it when I make my list since I never remember where anything is.

Maybe most stores don't have this available though.

Guest's picture

I was a single parent in college and was quite the thrifty mom. I agree that a spreadsheet is hte way to go. Computers are made for repetative things like weekly lists: why write the same thinga every week?

When I sort it by price the items I am not buying this week fall to the bottom. I highlight what I am getting (the things with prices above zero) and I choose "print selection" from the print menu. Instant paper list.

I use an Excel spreadsheet that has the prices in it so that I caqn use easy math formulas to multiply by how many of each items and find out what my total will be. A quick look at the store advertising circulars tells me if a side trip is warrented: after years of doing this I know which grocery stores have the best overall prices, the best killer deals on loss-lead items, the produce deals and the meat deals. I alternate between markets because some stores, while limited, have things I really enjoy so I don't want to skip them all the time!

I make it a game. How much money did I just save on stuff I really needed? That much? Really? Score!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Wow, Thursday. Thanks for posting this. Gayle, I don't know about the combo tech option you mentioned, but I'm interested in any new knowledge as well.

I'm thinking the preprinting of certain items on the list is definitely part of the solution. Although, there might need to be two additional mini columns for check marks? Two because you need to know if a perma-item is actually needed that trip and because you need to check it off once purchased if it is. Any thoughts on how to keep things separate for the integration of online grocery purchases with various "around town" shopping stops? Of course, nothing's around town for me, so every shopping trip is a logistal challenge.

Thursday Bram's picture

I had never even thought to ask if my grocery store has an aisle directory — guess I'll have to do that on my next trip.

I'm going to have to try out some of these other ideas. I really Wendy's way of turning her shopping list into a game and seeing just how much she can save. Another tip I'll be trying out! 

Guest's picture

My excel spreadsheet is organized by type (bread, boxed goods etc) with a couple extra spaces at the end of each for add-ons. I only use one column for check marks because I just cross the item off the list when I've picked it up. (I check the item if I need it, not when I've bought it). There's also a small column for prices beside the item with the last price I paid and space for the current price. I keep a bigger list in another spread sheet. If I had a web page, I'd post it, sorry.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I'm thinking I can picture parts of it, Jessica. Thanks.

Guest's picture

Stores know that we start figuring out what aisles we don't need. They will somewhat regularly reorganize, so that suddenly canned fruits aren't with canned vegetables, and diapers aren't with shampoo. We have to go down different aisles than before to find what we always get, and have to go past whole new things that might catch our eye...

I tend to plan my meals around what I found on sale, combined with our staples. I have a reminder of what might be perishable in the fridge, so I can focus on doing something creative with it before it becomes mush. Which reminds me; I'd better chop up and freeze those two red peppers before they go. The less we throw out, the less we have to go back to the store to buy again!

Guest's picture
Amy K.

I'm still low-tech. We have a whiteboard on the fridge, where we write things in as we use them. On shopping night (usually the day before we run out of milk, heh!) I sit down with the Need list, my boyfriend, a piece of paper and a pen. "What do you want for diner this week?" So, we plan a couple of meals, they go on the whiteboard, then I copy things from whiteboard to paper in roughly store order. I go counterclockwise through the store: produce, a foray in to the main aisles for snacks/rice/Coke/spices, then to the back row for meat, fish, milk, eggs, and down the refrigerated aisle to the front of the row for cheese, and we're back at the checkouts with a full basket. Usually we buy 15 items, in about 30 minutes, and we shop once or twice a week.

On more frugal days, as we make the shopping list we have the ads in front of us, and the "What do you want for diner this week?" question becomes "Hey, does any of this look like something you'd want for dinner this week or next?"

Guest's picture
Colin Joss

Great article! But you know what, I have practiced those tips in reversed order. Instead of point 1 to point 7, I've been doing it from point 7 to point 1.

Colin Joss
East Lothian, Haddington
United Kingdom

Guest's picture

I just need to share one more on this.

If you still insist to be a little more with technology, using a mobile app can be practical alternatives. I tried, but It doesn't work for me though, as I just mostly use the mobile notepad or sms editor to do the shopping list.

Guest's picture

But sticking white notes with a pen on fridge so far is still the very best solution for me and my family.

Colin Joss
East Lothian, Haddington
United Kingdom

Guest's picture

This was one of those articles that just sort of stuck with me through the week--in a good way--, as many Wise Bread articles seem to do.

Yahoo just launched a new beta on their MyYahoo pages. One of the widgets includes a notepad called "Note to Self."

I'm thinking if you use the widget for your grocery list, you could:

--access it from any computer connected to the net to add, delete, organize items
--keep track of which store to get the items (best $)
--and access it all from your handheld while you're at the store

Might be difficult to cross items off your list while you're shopping, but it's still something!

I wonder if you can add more than one notepad widget?