bell peppers

There Is a Science to Grocery Shopping—Do You Know It?

Although some people might find this odd, I happen to love grocery shopping. The bright lights, stacks of canned beans, piles of colorful squash and nubby potatoes, bins filled with salted fragrant nuts, cases filled with thick slabs of red meat, marbled with flavor-inducing white fat, and rows of fresh-caught shellfish waiting to be cracked open and devoured—it’s all a blank canvas, a symphony of ingredients begging to be transformed into something nutritious and delicious.

I enjoy a trip to the supermarket because it entices all of my senses. As my eyes come across a sale for dark green lacinto kale, my mind reels wondering how I can create a dish that combines kale with the items that are already in my fridge. I touch the avocados checking for ripeness. I smell the mandarins for freshness. I hear the fishmonger cracking crab. There is a simplicity and nostalgic quality to grocery shopping—humans have been doing it for thousands of years. They have also been avoiding it and complaining about it for just as long. Yet a trip to your local Whole Foods or Publix doesn’t have to be a tedious chore. With a few helpful tips, you can be in and out of the grocery store in a matter of minutes. Here is the savvy way to shop the supermarket.

Always make a strategic list.

To ensure that you don’t waste food, only buy what you need. The easiest way to do this? Make a list when grocery shopping. Not just any list, but a strategic list that has you move through the store quickly. Let’s say you’re want to make your mom’s famous turkey chili for dinner. Before you go to the store, pull out the recipe and read the ingredient list. Check your spice rack to make sure you have plenty of chili powder and cumin. On a piece of paper write down the components you need to buy. Sort the items into grocery store sections on the page. Place the produce—garlic, onion—on one side, the dairy—cheddar cheese and sour cream—on another, pantry—fire-roasted tomatoes and black beans—in the middle, and protein—ground turkey—at the top. When you walk through the store, don’t move from the produce section to the dairy aisle until your cart is filled with all of the fruits and vegetables that are on your list.

Don’t shop at peak times.

Sunday afternoons and Monday nights are popular grocery shopping times and stores, especially in big cities, can be overly crowded. If you can, avoid shopping during peak grocery-store hours. Be smart about it. Places that have an extensive selection of prepared foods and a large salad bar will be crowded during lunch. If you live in an area where there are a lot of families, Saturday mornings can feel like “take your kids to the grocery store” day. My preferred time for buying groceries? A weekday around 11 a.m. or 2 p.m.

Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season.

Although most produce is available year-round, it’s not always in season. Do a little research and learn when your favorite items are in season in your area. There are several benefits to buying in season: 1. You save money. In summer, farms are filled with tomatoes, so they will be cheaper than in winter when no one is growing them. 2. You support the local economy. Winter tomatoes are most likely imported from Mexico or Florida, but summer tomatoes may be from the farm down the street. 3. Your food will taste better. Anyone who has had a lackluster Caprese salad in the middle of winter knows that tomatoes are best enjoyed when they are ripe and in season. The same goes for strawberries, corn, asparagus, peaches, and many other fruits and vegetables.

For the best deals, shop multiple stores.

Unfortunately, my dream grocery store doesn’t exist—and yours probably doesn’t either. Some stores are better for fresh foods and others are ideal for dried goods. Cast a wide net and hit up several different stores throughout the week. I like to buy protein and harder-to-find produce at Whole Foods. For everyday pantry goods and cheese, Trader Joe’s has unparalleled prices and great selection. Safeway has items that neither Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods sell, like a variety of spices and extensive assortment of beverages. Once you’ve figured out which stores in your area have the items you need, become a loyal shopper. The more often you go to the market that is down the street, the easier it will be to shop. You’ll become familiar with where everything is located from your favorite tortillas to the ice cream your husband loves.

Be friendly with the staff.

Call me old-fashioned but I like making friends with everyone from the butcher to the baker to the Italian guy who owns the bodega downstairs. When you are kind to the employees at your grocery store, they will help you find ingredients, recommend recipes, and point you toward deals and free stuff. Plus, it’s nice going someplace like Whole Foods and being greeted with a smile and a hello.

Shop together.

If you’re planning a dinner party or cooking for a large crowd, enlist a friend to help you with the big shop. If they know their way around a grocery store, make two lists. You take one and start at one side of the store and give them the other list to start at the opposite side of the store. If they aren’t a home cook and haven’t grocery shopped too much, keep them with you and ask them to pick up little things along the way. Let them wait in line for the peeled and deveined shrimp while you grab the ingredients for the spicy cocktail sauce.

Never go hungry.

You’ve heard this rule before, so gentle reminder: don’t go to the grocery store when you are hungry! You’ll end up impulse buying items you don’t need and may even be tempted to go off of your diet. If you’re starving go to the prepared section, get a sandwich, take it outside, eat it, and then go back inside to do the grocery shopping.

How do you make grocery shopping a more pleasurable experience?