Wednesday, May 12, 2010

10 Cheap Ways to Simplify Food Shopping

Since May is the fifth calendar month, and five is half of ten (or something), we’ve decided to make May our Official Month of Top 10 lists. Every Wednesday for the next … uh … 19 days, you’ll find a post full of tips and tricks (ten, to be exact) for making your cheap, healthy eating much easier.

Last week, we revealed secrets to simpler cooking and ways to eat green without an actual greenmarket. Tomorrow, Leigh is tackling potlucks. Over the next three weeks, we’ll cover:
  • 10 Ways to Cut Down on Meat
  • 10 Techniques for Maximizing Storage and Leftovers
  • 10 Tactics for Painless Meal Planning
If you have any wonderful shortcuts dealing with those three subjects, do tell! I’ll include the best in the lists (with attribution, of course). Also, I promise the posts themselves will have snazzier names. Because that’s how we roll.

But first! Today! We’re all about food shopping. The following strategies for simplifying your supermarket trips are born of experience and … other stuff.  If you have ideas unmentioned, please feel free to add ‘em in the comment section. We love that.

NOTE (added 5/13/10): Some of these tips are intended for folks with families (#8), while others are meant for those of us living on our own or with one other person (#1). Choose and use as you see fit.

1) Buy only what you can carry.
This naturally whittles purchases down to the essentials, and saves you the trouble of dragging a shopping cart through crowded aisles. It’s especially useful if you’re shopping for one or two people, or have only limited storage back home. Your upper arms will look pretty sweet afterward, too.

2) If possible, don’t bring anyone else.
Okay. This one might be up for debate, but bear with me: I shop faster, cheaper, and healthier when Husband-Elect is not with me. When he’s present, we tend to meander, and are much likelier to buy snacks and beer. If your goal is like mine: to get in and get out with as few extraneous purchases as possible, leave the kids/husband/marching band at home.

3) Fill the top of your shopping cart with produce.
You know where the kids usually sit? Yeah. There. This does three things:
  1. It creates a tangible health goal. Packing that compartment part of the cart with fresh foods automatically means you’re spending less and eating better.
  2. It fills your visual field with fresh food. Since it seems like you already have so much food, this keeps you from buying a ton of additional stuff later.
  3. It prevents fruits and veggies from being smushed by heavier objects. As the produce aisle is located at the entrance of most supermarkets, this is important. You don’t do as much re-arranging later, either.
4) Carry the circular with you as you shop.
Have you ever seen a bean bargain in an online circular, and arrived in the bean aisle itself to find no “sale” sign? Or maybe you brought the 17-ounce box of cereal to the register, when the 12-ounce box was the discounted item? Toting the circular around eliminates this confusion. Bonus: It makes a nice hat for your kids.

5) Group your grocery list by supermarket layout.
What areas of your store you tend to frequent? In what order do you usually hit them? I go: produce, eggs/dairy, cereal/breakfast stuff, bread/cookies, frozen foods, baking items, dry goods, paper products/storage, and meat. When I group my grocery list by these basic categories, I rarely forget items, and don’t waste time hunting them down.

6) Divide by ten.
When food goes on sale, it’s sometimes tough to deduce the final price in your head. But there’s a simple shortcut: drop the last number of the total cost, multiply that by the first number of the discount, and subtract it from the initial price. It might sound complicated, but once you get the hang of it … it’s nice. Here, check it out:
Olive oil = $11.39
Discount= 30%
$1.13 x 3 = $3.39
$11.39 - $3.39 = about $8.00

If your discount is 15% or 25%, add half of that $1.13 number. Your final number should be within a few cents of the discount price. Or, you know, just bring a calculator.

7) Keep a running list of needed groceries on the fridge.
And make sure you have a writing implement nearby. Whenever something is empty, put it up there. This is particularly useful for basics you don’t use very often, but need regardless (raisins, sugar, syrup, etc.).

8) Shop every two weeks instead of every week.
This takes practice and planning, but getting out there bi-monthly will, at the very least, save you a few extra trips to the market. Buying in bulk can frequently net you better deals, as well.

9) Have your coupons, discount card, and payment method at the ready for checkout.
And let your cashier know you have them before he/she does anything with your groceries. Actually, just do everything in this post from Almost Frugal. It’s kind of genius.

10) Consider the self-checkout.
Some of you hate and fear these things. I understand. Glitches are common and getting them to register coupons is akin to blindfolded calculus. But. But. But. Once you have the knack, it can be way faster than standing on line for the cashier. Plus, you can monitor purchases more easily, to ensure you’re getting the correct prices. Any user error is your own.

And readers, that’s it. What about you? What gets you through the supermarket faster, healthier, and cheaper? Let us know!


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(Photo courtesy of Photo Dictionary.)

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Diane said...

Bring bags and bag my own groceries. I get a bag credit, and it goes faster than if I wait for the cashier to bag my groceries.

Plus, since I bike to the store that way I don't have to re-bag stuff to fit in the bike panniers.

wosnes said...

"Buy only what you can carry" reminds me of something I read in Clara's Kitchen by Clara Cannucciari (Great Depression Cooking): "Walk to the grocery store. Because if you don't have a large car trunk to store things, you'll be forced to buy only what you can comfortably carry, which is most likely all you need."

kaybee said...

This is primarily great advice! Because I take public transportation everywhere, I only ever buy groceries that I can carry, and I've observed in the past that this has a very positive effect on my spending and my nutrition (it makes it even harder to rationalize buying junk).

That said, I really don't like your last tip. I refuse to use the self check-outs, not because they're annoying and glitchy (though they are), but because the eliminate much-needed jobs. Many of the cashiers I see at my hometown grocery store are underprivileged and desperately need the work; some of the ones I know personally are single parents and rely on their flexible hours. Also, quite a few have special needs, and have had a great deal of difficulty getting hired anywhere. I'd like to discourage replacing too many human beings with machines just yet.

Melis said...

I agree with the self-checkout thing. Plus, it's much easier when you bring your own bags to use the self-checkout, and you don't have to deal with the eye rolling of the cashier, or constantly having to remind them, "I don't want those bags, I have my own".

anotheryarn said...

I've never encountered a grocery store mark down that did not give me the discounted price. If anything they seem to like to hide the fact that the price is maybe 5% off regular price. Also, if the discount is 25% it is easier to divide by 4 and multiply by 3.

My tip, doesn't help with speed but doesn't take very long either. Consider the unit price. The larger container isn't always cheaper (for example the toilet paper I buy is cheaper per equal sized roll in the 12 pack than the 24 pack). Many cell phones have calculators that make this sort of cost comparison easy and quick.

The Local Cook said...

I actually just wrote a post about menu planning, which helps tremendously!

Janet said...

Meal planning will also help simplify grocery shopping. You know what you will be cooking for the week, so you only need to shop for the missing ingredients, which eliminates a lot of wasted food and extraneous purchases.

MCM Voices said...

I like Kaybee's point very much. In the supermarket in my town where there are self-checkout lines, though, I don't see them replacing staff. There always seem to be people on hand to assist customers who use the machines. Also, I have selfish reasons for wanting to use them - it's just one more way to exercise my aging brain because I like to see how many produce codes I can memorize. And I like imitating the voice, and I especially like it when all 4 of the machines are talking at once - it cracks me up.

I haven't yet worked up the courage to use the scanner guns that you can carry around with you though.

I definitely spend more when family members are with me, and it slows me down too.

Anonymous said...

To the list I'd add... don't shop while you're hungry. 'Not sure if this exactly simplifies shopping, but it surely saves impulse buying.

Emily @ Relishments said...

Re: #2
If possible, don’t bring anyone else.

For me, the opposite is true! Even though I'm the one who espouses the more healthy eating values, my husband is great about making sure I actually only get what's on the list and don't buy ingredients when we have something else that'd work fine at home. Without him, I'd probably end up with chocolate in my cart every week.

Healthy Eating Made Fun said...

Writing a shopping list definitley simplifies shopping for me. This way I can go in, get what I want and leave. I find this also saves me money and keeps me focused on healthy purchases instead on buying 'naughty foods' under impulse. I have written 46 tips to writing a shopping list that you may find very helpful.

Andrea said...

I don't use self check outs if I can avoid it, they take jobs away from people and I don't get any extra cost savings from doing the work myself.

Check ethnic markets, often you can find really good prices there (6 bulbs garlic for $1 at the ethnic store, .50 a bulb at the regular store)

shop the perimeter, produce, meats, dairy and avoid the interior of the store as much as possible

shop based on whats on sale. if something isn't on sale then don't buy it!

get a freezer and freeze discounted meats

Sassy Molassy said...

#1 and #8 seem contradictory. Nine people live in my house and we cook dinner every night. If I buy only what I can carry, I'll be shopping daily.

Kris said...

@Sassy: There's been some confusion there, and I could have worded it better to begin with. Some of these tips would naturally be more helpful to single people, while some are better aimed at families. I added a quick caveat in there, so hopefully that should help.