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LifeHacking Your Grocery Shopping

By J Wynia

"The cupboards are full and there's 'nothing' to eat". Has that phrase ever echoed through your kitchen? Do you have stacks of food items that don't really go together taking up space? Do you throw away food items in your refrigerator because you didn't get around to making the item you bought it for or just plain forgot about it? Do you have 3 jars of peanut butter or 5 bottles of ketchup because you forgot you already bought some? Have you ever made a special trip to the store to get the items for a specific meal only to get home and realize you missed a critical ingredient?

While these kinds of things are annoying, they're also wasteful of your grocery money (a big portion of most family budgets), your time and of the food itself.

Taking control of your grocery process can result in lower stress at mealtime, less wasted food and money, more space in your cupboard, more variety in your eating and it all can be done with very little effort, starting with dinner tonight. We'll use the gap time during the cooking (waiting for water to boil, onions to sweat, etc.) instead of dedicated blocks of time to make the system easy to integrate into your busy schedule.

The reason that we often have lots of food, but nothing that goes together is that most of us buy our groceries either with an arbitrary list of things we usually get or worse, just wander the store, filling the cart with things that appeal to us. As a result, rather than buying to feed our families, we're buying to feed our imagination. When we start taking control of this impulse, our grocery bill will shrink, meals will be easy to prepare and you may actually find yourself enjoying cooking again.

What you'll need:

  • a stack of 3x5 index cards and a pen.

  • A box, rubber band, binder clip or some other way to keep your meal cards together.

Start by making a card for each meal you make. Name the meals the same way you refer to them in your house. So, for instance, we have a card labeled: "Spaghetti and Garlic Bread". In addition to the meal title, note down the time you start making the meal. Leave space next to it for another time to be written down. Write this "summary" information on one side of the card. I usually use the non-ruled side if there's a difference on your cards. We'll use the other side for our data.

On that card, we're not going to put the recipe. Instead, we're going to list the actual physical grocery items we open and use while making it. So, in this case, we'd write down the half a box of dried pasta, the jar of sauce, the half a loaf of french bread and the butter. Dried spices, etc. that are always on hand (like garlic powder) are assumed. If a recipe is needed, note down which book, website or other reference contains the recipe and where it's typically stored. Write this information on the other side of the card (the data side). However, any rare, seasonal or expensive ingredients should be noted specifically on the front. This will help you avoid making a meal that requires fresh corn on the cob in January when there's either none around or it's 4 times too expensive.

Anything you take out of the refrigerator, freezer, a box, a jar, a can, etc. goes on the card. Write down not the amount that goes into the pot or the recipe, but how much you will use or waste. Note down brand names, preferences for flavors, etc. It will help down the road to know that a particular brand of pasta sauce makes you want to gag when you're staring at the aisle full of jars. Also note down for which times of day this meal is "acceptable" in your house. I make this distinction because I grew up in a household where pancakes (American buttermilk flapjacks) were a fairly normal evening meal. My wife considers them only valid for breakfast. Write this on the data side.

When the food is ready to be eaten (not necessarily when you actually eat), note that time down next to the start time. The difference between them is the real preparation time for your family. I don't care if the recipe book says "30 minutes", if it takes an hour from going into the kitchen to being able to eat, that's the time that matters. This preparation time number can help you avoid meals that take longer than you tend to think they do and may reveal some suprisingly quick meals that you don't consider often enough in the midst of a time crunch. Write these time bits on the summary side.

When the meal is over, if there are leftovers, note that on the card, along with how many servings and their typical purpose are left. For instance, if the spaghetti meal results in lunch for one of the parents, write that down. When you make this in the future, you can either plan for this outcome or eliminate it by adjusting the amounts.

Then, file the card. For the extra geeky among us, the contents can also be entered into the computer using database software or something like WikidPad. However, an entirely card-based setup will work fine. Do this recording of meals for a few weeks and otherwise go about your normal routine. If you need groceries before you are ready for the next stage, just do it the way you normally would and don't worry about it.

When you reach a point where you're not creating a card for most of your meals because you already have one, it's time to move on to the next phase. By doing the recording of meals as they happen, you avoid the typical problems with a system like this. Instead of taking an entire evening trying to "organize our kitchen", we're just noting a few things down while making dinner for a few weeks. The work is minimal at each meal and is spread out over time.

What you essentially have is a menu of choices for the meals your family eats. From this deck of cards, plan out your next week's meals. In our house, we eat dinner together Sun-Fri, go out to eat for dinner on Sat, eat breakfast and lunch at home on the weekends and that's our "home" list. Our weekday breakfasts and lunches are taken care of at work. Your list will likely be different. All that matters is that you end up with a count: 6 dinners, 2 lunches and 2 breakfasts. Consider snacks as well, given that we will be restricting the shopping to our list of meals.

Take your meal cards and pull out meals to fill each slot. This smaller stack of cards is your meal plan for the week (or 2 weeks or month as the case may be). File the rest away for next time. Grab an empty card to serve as your grocery list.

Take your meal plan and go through your kitchen and food storage to see if you already have the items. For those you don't, write the item on your grocery list.

When in the grocery store, only buy the items on your list. Nothing else. Bring the groceries home, unpack and file the receipt with your cards. Keep the current cards out (a good place is the side of the refrigerator) as a reference for what meals are available for the week. This can let you and your family shuffle a bit on the fly. When it's time to make a meal, pull out the receipt and mark down the actual cost of the grocery items already on the card. Total them up and divide by the number of people who eat it. This gives you a total meal cost and a per person cost regardless of what the serving sizes are on any packaging. Write both numbers down near the title. If you're also concerned with nutritional information like calories, fat grams, carb grams, etc. include this as well. Write this information on the summary side.

Once a meal has been made, return its card to the main stack.

You've now completed a full cycle. From here on out, any meal that hasn't made it to this point goes through the process described above. This works for new recipes from cookbooks, TV shows, etc. Once a meal has gone through the complete process, you have a card that has a quick name, preparation time, cost per person information and possibly nutrition information on one side and detailed shopping list information on the other.

After a few cycles, you should have removed any extra, stored food from your cupboards and freezer and anything that hasn't been used is unlikely to get used and should be given away (support your local foodshelf) or a meal planned that specifically uses it.

If you want to extend the system, making up cards that have defined week-long meal lists or bundles of cards in week-long groups will let you just grab an entire plan for the week with absolutely no effort. Add a copy of the grocery list for that bundle and you can go to the grocery store at a moment's notice. These further enhancements result in an eventual system that's nearly maintenance free in the long run. Only new recipes or variations on your normal routine require any new work.

About The Author

© 2005 by J Wynia.

J Wynia is a web consultant, writer and geek who lives in Minneapolis, MN with his wife and 2 basset hounds. His personal site is at


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