Food & Fitness

The Living Healthy in the Real World Guide to Grocery Shopping, Part One: Preparation

This is Part One of our seven-part mini series about grocery shopping! First thing’s first: preparing your house for the grocery shopping experience.

If you go to the grocery store without a plan, you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. Here’s the problem: without knowing what you need, you’re liable to wander down the aisles picking up anything that strikes your fancy as you go along. This is how people wind up with a basket that contains a jar of peanut butter, 6 cans of tuna (“they were on sale!”), a bag of rice, a block of cheese, and a package of hot dog buns. Have fun with creating a meal out of those items (although I bet Sophia could rise to the challenge with her inventive cooking creations!).

I’ll be hosting a Living Healthy in the Real World Guide to Cooking after this Grocery Shopping mini-series, so I don’t want to go too much into the cooking aspect of things, but I do think that it’s very important to take cooking into consideration when you’re grocery shopping. With that in mind, I’m going to suggest that you prepare for grocery shopping and cooking simultaneously; it will broaden the scope for ingredients to buy at the grocery store if you know that you have the right equipment necessary back at home.

Preparing for the Grocery Shopping Experience:

1) Do an inventory. This is going to take a little bit of time if you have things lurking in your pantry and/or fridge from weeks ago (me!), but it’s totally worth it. Go through all of your cupboards and every shelf; throw out the moldy stuff or whatever else has gone rancid or that you are never going to eat. I’m sure there’s something in there that shouldn’t be. While you’re going through everything, organize. Place canned goods on one shelf, dried goods on another; put your fruit in one container and your vegetables in the one beside it, and group your condiments together in one area.

As you do this, write down the essentials: make a list of all of the herbs and spices that you own. Keep the list in your kitchen. I also like to keep another list with all of my “health food” items, such as different kinds of flour or oats, in case I forget what I’ve got in there. Once you’ve got it all written down, the next time you go grocery shopping and you know that you’ll need a specific spice to *make* the dish, you can just briefly skim your list without having to sort through all the jars and packets that are scattered on your herbs/spices shelf.

2) Decide what basics you need. I’m within walking distance of several really great grocery stores, so if I forget something, it’s easy to run over to the store and grab a couple items. However, it’s also cold at this time of year, and I’m a wimp, so going outside in the evening is not appealing if I’m already hunkered down. I make it to the grocery store a couple times each week, and as the days pass, I make a note on a piece of paper of what I notice I’m missing in the kitchen or would like to stock up on. Keep the ongoing list in your jacket pocket, wallet, or purse so that you always have it on hand. Typically, my list includes specific fruit, vegetables, and beans that I am very fond of- those are what I tend to run out of the fastest.

3) Choose recipes. If you go to the grocery store once a week, have some kind of plan for what you will eat during the week. You don’t have to sit down and deliberate every single meal, but if you decide to get the ingredients to make a few dishes- for example, pasta, stir fry, and an omelet- then you can check over the recipes and buy those ingredients. For example, I don’t eat mushrooms on a regular basis, but every once in a while I come across a recipe that calls for them, so that’s when I know I have to buy mushrooms (besides, mushrooms are one of those foods that you can’t leave in your cupboard for any longer than a day or two before they start to go bad. Some items you should only buy when you have a specific plan in mind for what you’re going to actually do with them).

Cookbooks are a great guide to figuring out recipes. If you don’t own any, I would recommend your basic Better Homes & Gardens cookbook; it tells you how to make all kinds of meals from the beginner “how to poach an egg” to gourmet dishes. In this day and age, cookbooks aren’t even necessary to purchase: check out YouTube or any number of recipe blogs and websites for great ideas. The Peanut Butter Boy and 101 Cookbooks haven’t failed me yet. And you always have my list of recipes if you need ideas!

4) Get the equipment. Invest in a few durable cloth bags. We all know that plastic is the devil’s spawn (or something like that), but most of the cloth bags that they sell at grocery stores are also of very poor quality. I’ve broken many of them from the weight of apples and potatoes, and that really defeats the purpose of reusable bags if you have to keep replacing them. Whole Foods, POM, and Oikos all have really good quality reusable bags. I also find that the cloth bags from veterinary conferences (the kinds of bags that are full of freebies) are excellent for carrying heavy loads, so if you happen to go to any conference- I’m assuming that it’s not just veterinarians who get all the fun of durable bags- be sure to reuse the bags that they give you! These bags are easy to scrunch up in a small ball to keep in your purse, or you can keep a couple on the inside door knob of your front door to remind you to take them on your way to the store.

Other equipment that I find essential in my kitchen is a sharp knife, several cutting boards, a marble rolling pin (marble beats any other material by a long shot and it completely worth it), a quality blender, a crockpot, a baking sheet, and a couple pots and pans (including a non-stick pan). Having a ladle and a slotted spoon on hand, plus measuring cups and measuring spoons, are crucial. Toasters (or toaster ovens) and microwaves are very useful as well, and while you can get away without having them, it makes life far better when you have them. Vegetable peelers, food processors, and casserole dishes are all nice to have, but they aren’t essential.

It’s likely that you already have this equipment (or at least some of it), but if you don’t, this could seem like a crazy-expensive investment. But it’s worth it. Most of the basic pots and pans that I own are old hand-me-downs from my parents, and they have had them for as long as I can remember- these pots are 20 years old and they’re still in great working condition. Get the good quality equipment and you won’t have any regrets.

Next up is Part Two: Building the Basics (an expansion on the Equipment section of this post, plus advice for basic ingredients to add to your shopping list).


  1. Andrea (Off Her Cork)

    Sagan this is awesome! We do all of those things to ensure a successful shopping trip. I do wander down every aisle as it’s an OCD thing with me. I have to check! But most aisles I just breeze through like the chips and canned veggies aisle. I don’t eat that stuff so why spend a ton of time there?

    Meijer has great cloth bags as well if people have a Meijer by them. There are some iPhone and cell phone grocery list apps that can help with sales and comparing of store prices. They take some time to get used to though.

  2. nazarina

    Hi Sagan,

    I love all the bullets listed here for great and economical meals! However, I love going to the farmer’s market almost everyday to purchase fresh local organic produce as well! My motto is to never go to the grocery store hungry because that is when you buy all sorts of unnecessary items! Happy belated Valentine’s Day!

  3. Sagan Morrow

    Cammy- Once I get to the grocery store, I am too easily distracted… I would be lost without my list!

    Andrea- Thanks for the Meijer and iPhone info! (And wandering down every aisle is an OCD thing for me, too 🙂 I KNOW I’m not going to buy anything in the chips aisle, but I still like LOOKING at it all).

    Tracey- Going to the grocery store on an empty stomach is a bad idea for sure. EVERYTHING looks good at that point.

    Mary- Excellent, hopefully you will find something useful in here during the mini-series!

    Nazarina- If we had a farmer’s market around year-long I would be in heaven. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way in Winnipeg 😉 But checking out the farmer’s markets in the summer is a ton of fun. I like when I buy food that’s grown right here.

  4. Reeni

    What a good idea for a series. Since I’m living back at home I have access to so much food it’s unbelievable. I’ve become quite spoiled. My parents have an extra pantry downstairs and keep everything packed to the hilt. My Dad goes to a different market almost every day to shop for sales. I’m really going to miss having so many choices at my fingertips when I move out.

  5. asithi

    I usually browse through the ads and match them up with coupons before my husband hits the grocery stores. I hate grocery shopping with him because he NEEDS to go through every aisle (takes way too long!). Sometimes I go during the middle of week to pick up a few things if I want to try a new recipe, but I have my shopping list and go and out within 15 minutes.

  6. Sagan Morrow

    Diane- It all starts at the store; if we can get off on a healthy footing there, then we’re going to be that much better off at home.

    Reeni- My kitchen is ALWAYS full- when I go to the mother dear’s, she has so much less in her fridge, it’s kind of funny. I like being stocked up at all times 😀

    Miz- Absolutely! And I’ll be talking more about that later on this week 😉

    Asithi- Anyone who goes grocery shopping with me has to be prepared to spend far too long in the store. I like going up and down every aisle! But it’s definitely important to be ABLE to go in and out of there when you’ve got a short time frame.

  7. Dr. J

    Great tips! I am a serious grocery shopper! I got the green bags, and a plan. I know the store like the back of my hand, and wear a fear this shopper shirt! I know what I want, and I’m going to get it

  8. Holly

    How sad is it that I look forward to “grocery” day all week?! 😉

    Those are really great tips! I must say, I do plan it out and make lists – this is HUGE for me. Back in the day when I would wing it (and ate a LOT of frozen Lean Cuisines and veggie burgers), I never used a list – I spent SO much more money! It’s truly amazing how much easier it is and how much you can save if you just take some time to plan it out first. Now if I could have realized that about 10 years ago…

  9. Sagan Morrow

    Dr. J- I want that shirt!

    Julie- Absolutely. And the Kashi cereal 😉

    Westwood- Come play in my kitchen with me?

    Jamie- It’s good to be prepared. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from spending hours in the grocery store… 🙂

    Holly- YAY me too. Grocery shopping is such an exciting expedition.

  10. sophia

    Hee, thanks for the shout-out. But 6 cans of tuna because they were on sale? Uh, guilty!! I totally go crazy when I see something on sale. And then end up eating way too much of them, with the excuse that it was “on sale”.

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  12. The Candid RD

    Great post!! This is pretty much exactly how I prepare (I like to consider myself a professional grocery shopper, haha). Only lately have I based my list off of specific recipes, which is something I really enjoy doing now tha tI am cooking more 🙂
    By the way, I am doing a post about the Raw Diet tomorrow and will be linking to your blog (you raw challenge). Let me know if that’s not ok! Thanks.

    Have a great day, look forward to reading more!

  13. Sagan Morrow

    Sophia- Oh I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buying 6 cans of tuna because they’re on sale (I totally do that too): what I’m saying is that if we just meander down the aisle and buy a few totally random things with no method to our madness and no idea of how we’ll form them into a MEAL, then we’ve got problems!

    Gina- Ooh we should get business cards with PROFESSIONAL GROCERY SHOPPER printed on them 😀 That would be lovely if you link to my blog with regards to the raw diet!

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