Grocery Shopping For Dummies

I learned something new about myself this weekend: I DON’T KNOW HOW TO GROCERY SHOP.

After 2 years of living at home with my parents, I finally moved into my own apartment this weekend.  It was super exciting – like I’m finally starting my Carrie Bradshaw years (my lifestyle will probably be more “Girls” than “Sex and the City” but a girl can dream).  But my moment of weakness/homesickness/panic came around 6:30 pm Sunday night when I realized I would have to make my own dinner! **GASP**

Breakfast, lunch, and snacks don’t scare me; I know how to shop for all of those things.  It’s dinner, the biggest and most complicated meal of the day, that I have no idea how to plan for.  In college, I ALWAYS ate dinner at the dining hall. Even when I lived in an apartment, I still bought a meal plan because I knew that 1. I would be too lazy/starving to cook myself a meal every night after swim practice and 2. I wouldn’t know how to cook even if I wanted to try.  When I moved back home after graduation, my wonderful mother just started including me in the meals she made for herself and my dad. Dinner is the one meal each day that I have never really had to think about.

Things got even worse when I headed to the grocery store just down the street from my new place to buy a few groceries for the week.  Not only did I go in without a clue of what to buy, but there where about a billion people in that store; it was super overwhelming to try to walk around so I could figure out what I needed with all that cart traffic. Needless to say, I think I came away with simultaneously too many things because I got nervous and just grabbed stuff, but also not enough because I forgot to get items I should have.


I’m starting to feel like Hannah from HBO’s “Girls”

So today, I have done a lot of research and talked to my less domestically-challenged co-workers to come up with a GROCERY SHOPPING PLAN OF ATTACK! My budget is not huge (I hope to spend under $80 a week) and my cooking skills are non-existent, but I am determined to make 6 dinners a week all by myself (on Sundays I will give in and let my mom cook for me 🙂 ).  Here are some tips that I scrounged up that you might find useful for your own grocery shopping:

1. Make a Menu – For me, planning for breakfast and lunch is easy because I eat literally the same thing every day for those two meals.  I know what to buy because I know what I’m going to eat.  Following that logic, my first step to grown-up grocery shopping is to make a meal plan for each week.  You don’t have to be super strict and follow it exactly, but having an idea in advance is the best way to effectively grocery shop.  If you know what you’ll make each night for dinner, you’ll know what to buy.  You can also be thrifty and plan meals that will use some of the same ingredients/ reuse leftovers.  In addition, you’re less likely to buy stuff you don’t need or won’t eat if you have a plan ahead of time.  If you are like me and you only know how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, try searching for recipes online or asking friends.  I also found this great app on my iPad called “Meal Guru Free.”  It allows you to enter your food preferences (what vegetables you like, what meats you won’t eat, what you want to eat each night, etc.) and then it creates a weekly meal plan for it.  It shows you the recipe for how to make each meal.


You can click a button if you don’t like the meal the app suggested and it will give you another option.  When you have a meal for each day, you hit the “Shopping List” button and it will make a list of the ingredients you need to buy to make your meals.


It’s super easy and a great place to start if you’re a cooking newbie like me! What did we ever do without smart phones and iPads?

2. Make a List – It seems obvious, but making a shopping list is an easy way to make sure you get what you need and stay on budget at the grocery store.  Before you head to the store, review your meal plan and write down what you will need for each meal.  Remember – check what you have leftover in your fridge from the week before you go.  Maybe you still have enough rice for one meal or carrots left in the vegetable drawer; don’t buy more of something until you’ve already used up what you have.  If you go into the store aimlessly, you’re more likely to impulse buy and get things just because they look yummy.  It’s okay to get one or two treats, but otherwise stick to the list. It will help you stay on budget and you won’t end up throwing out stuff because it goes by before you can eat it.

3. Don’t Go on an Empty Stomach – The old adage is true.  If you walk into the grocery store hungry, you’re eyes are might end up being bigger than your stomach.  You’ll grab extra items here and there because they’ll look more appealing when you’re hungry.  Eat a small snack before you hit the store and you’ll do a better job sticking to your budget.

nut system

4. The Less Processing, The Better – When you can, try to opt for foods that have been processed as little as possible.  This is good for two reasons: those foods are normally healthier AND CHEAPER.  Soda in small bottles, chips in snack-size bags, individually wrapped cheese slices – all of these things cost more than their unprocessed equivalents because you are paying extra for the packaging.  Unless the convenience of these items is super important to you, doing a little extra cutting and prepping of your food can mean big savings for your wallet. For example, I love walnuts and almonds; they’re a great on-the-go snack, they’re easy to carry, and they’re good for you! You can buy prepackaged 100-calorie bags of mixed walnuts and almonds at my local grocery store.  Each box has 5 bags in it and costs about $4.59, which is around $0.98 a serving. A few months ago, my mom found these great small plastic containers that were meant to carry salad dressing or other condiments (as seen above).  She started buying bulk bags of almonds and walnuts for about $2.29 each, mixing them together in a big container, and then putting scoops of the nuts into the little condiment containers for me.  By doing a little of the packaging work ourselves, we get 15 servings of nuts instead of 5 AND each one only costs about $0.30.  It might only save me $0.68 a week, but over a year that’s $35.36. If you have 4 or 5 items on your shopping list that you could buy with less processing, you can see how the savings would really add up!

5. You Don’t Need to Be Extreme, but DO Try Use Coupons – I’ve always wanted to be one of those people on the TLC show “Extreme Couponers” who go to the store and get $650 of stuff for $6.50.  Realistically though, I don’t have 40 hours a week to clip coupons or the storage space to stockpile my non-perishables.  Though my dreams of extreme-couponing are on hold for the moment, using coupons in a more traditional fashion is still a must for smart grocery shopping.  Browse the fliers for your favorite store when they come in the mail or in the newspaper so you know what’s on sale this week.  Clip out coupons for items you typically buy.  For additional coupons, you can visit websites like or; they allow you to select the coupons you want and then print them out from your computer.  Also, check out your store’s website.  Grocery retailers often post coupons or deals online that they don’t in store.  The key here is, only clip coupons for things you will use.  If you won’t eat it or don’t need it, there’s no sense in buying it just because you got it for a good price.  Use coupons as a tool to help you shop, not as the determining factor of what’s on your grocery list.

6. Buy Generic – Your mom was right when she wouldn’t let you buy the expensive cereal as a kid.  Generic brands of food items are often made with the same ingredients and taste just as good as the brand names, but cost way less.  At my local store this week, a package of Perdue Brand Grade A Chicken Breast is $4.69; a package of Grade A Store Brand Chicken Breast is $3.49.  When I compared labels, these two chickens were identical – same serving size, same ingredients, same everything. So where does the extra $1.20 come from? My only guess is that you’re paying for the name, which doesn’t seem worth it if you ask me.  So the next time you go shopping, buy generic!

7. Use Cash – Another simple way to stay on budget while grocery shopping is to pay with cash.  Before you leave, determine how much you can spend and only bring that amount of cash with you. A cash-only approach will force you to stick to your spending limit. When you have debit, credit, or even checks, you have the wiggle-room to pay a little extra.  If you go over budget, no big deal – you won’t be embarrassed at the register when you don’t have enough money to pay for everything.  But if you bring cash, you’ll be more conscious of those impulse purchases that tip your budget over the line and therefore more likely to stick to only the necessities.

8. One and Done! – Go grocery shopping once a week and then you’re done! No more stops for the rest of the week.  Maybe you’re someone who stops buy the store on your way home from work to pick up dinner for the night.  Maybe you stop at the gas station once a day to get soda or chips.  Every time you make extra stops at the store, you’re spending extra money!  Multiple trips to the store generally means that you buy bigger portions of food items, add extras like gum or magazines to your cart, and that you’re spending more in gas for the extra trips.  Plan ahead and bring extra snack or drinks from home with you for your day; it will make you less tempted to stop at 7-11 for that 2 o’clock power snack.

9. Buy Bulk – This is a tip you’ve probably heard before, but that’s probably because it’s a super important one!  When it comes to buying stuff like toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning stuff, and toiletries it just doesn’t make sense to buy small quantities.  Bulk packages tend to cost less per unit than small packages, so overtime you are saving money.  Example: my store has a 24 pack of toilet paper on sale this week for $6.49, or $0.27 a roll.  A 4 pack of the same generic brand is $2.49, or $0.62 a roll.  Toilet paper doesn’t go bad and you know you’re going to use it – DON’T pay extra just because you don’t want to carry the big package around.  Buying in bulk it totally worth it.  Same goes for non-perishable food items.  If you need a staple like rice or pasta, buy it in bigger quantities.  Not only will it cost you less over time, but you’re less likely to run out and have to make an emergency trip to the store.

10. Take Your Time – One big thing I learned in all of my grocery research is that shopping frugally takes time! Don’t rush yourself.  Give yourself plenty of time to browse for items and compare prices if needed.  If you’re like me and big crowds make you nervous (I think it’s because I’m worried everyone can tell that I don’t know what I’m doing), plan to visit the store when you know it’s not busy.  Remember, you’re only going to go grocery shopping once a week, so you want to make sure you do it right.

I’m hoping that all this grocery knowledge I have acquired will make my next shopping adventure a little less hectic and A LOT less stressful.  Do you have any tips for smart grocery shopping that I missed? Let me know! I need all the help I can get 🙂


4 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping For Dummies

  1. Pingback: Week in review: When things don’t go as planned | Run 2 Your Own Beat

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  4. Pingback: The Great Grocery Debate of 2013 | Kelsey at Casco FCU

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