How to Make a Grocery List

You may think you know how to make a grocery list, but I've got news for you: there's probably room for improvement.

Do you throw out food regularly? Do you have too many leftovers in your fridge that you're sick of eating? Do you have too much fresh food but lack the pantry staples--like grains, beans, pasta, tomato sauce, and spices--to make meals out of them? Are you ever bored with eating the "same old thing"? Do you want to know how to save money on groceries? Do you want to waste less food? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then your grocery-list-making skills could be better.

Americans waste a staggering amount of food every year--according to the website www.worldfooddayusa.org, 30-40% of ​our food supply is wasted. 30-40%! I have to believe that this starts with what we're buying--because if we were buying wisely, we wouldn't be wasting nearly as much food as we do! 

Yes, it's difficult--maybe impossible--to use every bit of food you buy. But you can get better at it! I have, and it feels great.

If you want to save money on food and waste less of it, knowing how to make a grocery list is a great place to start. 

How to Make a Grocery List: The Categories

I used to be a terrible food waster. I love to cook, and that was always my main focus: the cooking. New recipes, challenging recipes, recipes I saw on a cooking show or site; I didn't really care what I had in the house or how full the fridge was. If I wanted to make something I didn't have ingredients for, I went out and bought them. No big deal, even if it meant the fridge was waaaay too full for the two of us to possibly eat all its contents before they went bad. Sometimes I'd feel a twinge of guilt, but mostly I just avoided thinking about it at all and did what I wanted to do. 

Then, a couple of years ago, this changed. One day, I found some chicken soup in the back of the fridge--really good homemade chicken soup, which is one of our favorite meals. It was so slimy and smelly that it took me awhile to figure out what it was. I was disgusted with myself for being so wasteful. After that, I challenged myself to become better at using up what was in the fridge, to re-imagine leftovers, and to be really disciplined about buying, using, and saving food.

​One of the first things I did when I got serious about wasting less was create a master grocery list that I call, simply, "Groceries." I keep Groceries in GoogleDocs (it's a free word processing app that lives in the "cloud") so I can access it from my laptop, my phone, or anyplace else with an Internet connection. This is important because this way, I always have my master list with me.

Sections of Master Grocery list--How to Make a Grocery List

The categories of my master grocery list.

I thought about creating a document for readers to download, but it's really so simple that I didn't think that would be necessary.​ (Although if you have any questions, you can ask in the Comments section and I'll be happy to answer them.) There are also a lot of smart phone apps available for list-keeping but I haven't tried any so I can't recommend one. I like having one I can use on my laptop because I hate typing on my phone.

In any case, it doesn't matter where you keep your grocery list, as long as the list is easy for you to access, update, and keep track of. ​

On my list, I have several categories:

  • Food I'm out of or almost out of 
  • A Costco list 
  • Food I need to use up
  • Ingredients for recipes I want to try
  • My pantry, fridge, and freezer staples.

​Here's a brief explanation of each category.

​Food I'm Out Of or Almost Out Of

This is what most people think of as a grocery list: when you're running low or out of something, you write it down on your list so you remember to get it next time you're at the store. It's the basic level of list keeping. This will help you keep your pantry well-stocked, but it won't really help you learn how to make a grocery list that will save you money on food.

Costco List

Costco Store - how to make a grocery list

It's easy to overbuy at big box stores, but it's also possible save a lot of money on groceries.

The Costco list is a sub-category of "Food I'm Out Of or Almost Out Of." Keeping Costco items separate helps me decide which store I should go to (I hate going to both Costco and a grocery store on the same day). Often, there's overlap, so if I need, say, lettuce, I can get that at the grocery store if I also need items Costco doesn't have, like fresh herbs. I prefer to get lettuce at Costco because it's soooo much cheaper (and usually better), but I will buy at the grocery store to avoid making two stops. Sometimes I'll also forego items at either store and modify my meal plan in order to avoid two stops. Whatever I decide, having separate grocery lists help immensely in making the most practical shopping choice.

Keeping Costco items separate isn't so much about how to save money on groceries as it is about making life a little easier. (Time is valuable, too!) However, I will say that my preference is to go to Costco, because I can just save so much money on food there. The annual membership fee more than pays for itself--sometimes their items are so much cheaper than the grocery store, I don't know how they stay in business! And with other perks like gas, prescriptions, optical services, and more, membership is a no-brainer for us. 

(I am not a shill for Costco! I just like it that much!)​

Food I Need to Use Up

I also now keep a list of food I need to use up. As far as how to make a grocery list that helps me waste less food, this section probably helps more than anything else I've done.

Why does food get wasted? Usually, there are two reasons: you overbought, or you forgot about it (often a mix of both). By keeping a list of food I need to use up, I have it right there in front of me so I can't forget about it--and, I am less likely to overbuy, too.

Most often in my household, "food I need to use up" falls into two categories: produce and dairy. I may buy a bag of bell peppers at Costco because "Greek salad" is on my meal list. But only two or three bell peppers later, we're sick of Greek salads! Thus, the bell peppers get put on this list so they don't turn to sludge in the back of the crisper. Then, instead of making chicken noodle soup, I might make chicken fajitas (bonus: this will also use up some of that Costco bag of grated cheddar). And if I don't use them, and a couple of days go by, then they get roasted and frozen--and removed from the list.

I check and update my "Food I Need to Use Up" list every day to make sure I stay on top of my perishable items.​ As I said, it's been a huge asset in my quest to waste less food. And it only takes a couple of minutes. If you only take one tip from this article on how to make a grocery list, take this one: keep track of the food you need to use up!

If you only take one tip from this article on how to make a grocery list, take this one: keep track of the food you need to use up! Keeping track of food I need to use up has probably helped me waste less food and save money on groceries more than anything else I've done.

Ingredients for Recipes I Want to Try

ingredients - how to make a grocery list

I love to try new recipes, but if they require a lot of specialty ingredients or perishables, I wait until it's time to restock.

​For a lot of people, this category would be called "Weekly Meal Plan." Having a weekly meal plan is a smart way to waste less food and save money on groceries. However, I don't like to be that rigid. I find it hard to stick to even the loosest of schedules like "meatless Monday" and "taco Tuesdays." 

If you do like to have a weekly meal-planning schedule, good for you: you've made your life a ton easier, and cut down on your food waste in the process. But I like to make what I feel like eating, and I know myself: I will simply rebel at too rigid a plan. And because I see cooking as a creative outlet, almost any plan is too rigid. 

Instead, I keep a list of recipes I want to try and cross-reference this with the food I need to use up. If they coincide, great! If not, then I don't make the recipe until I've emptied out my fridge and really need to re-stock.

You may think it's dumb to keep ingredients on my master list if I'm not going to buy them. But if I don't keep the list somewhere, I'll forget about it. The Groceries list seems like the best place to me, because it keeps all my food concerns in one location.

I love trying new recipes. But now I wait until it's time to restock to buy the ingredients I need. This way I don't end up with too much food in the fridge.

Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer Staples

For staples, I have a long list under each heading (Pantry, Freezer, and Fridge). These aren't items I need, but rather, items I always have in the house.

Why keep a list of food I don't need to buy? Well, pantry staples are particularly easy to forget to add to the "Food I'm Almost Out Of" list. Because in the back of my head I assume I always have them, they're easy to overlook. So before I go shopping, I always glance down the list to remind myself of anything I may have forgotten. 

It doesn't take long to put together a list of staples, and once you have it, it only takes about a minute to glance over it. I can't tell you how many times this has saved me from having to make an extra trip to the store in the middle of cooking dinner!​

If you keep a list of your freezer, fridge, and pantry staples, you will never run out of basic supplies--and you will always have the ingredients to throw a meal together!

​Tips

Buy less produce than you think you need. I don't have statistics, but my guess is that lettuce is the number one food that goes to waste in the US, and maybe even around the world.

Greens are cheap, but most of them go bad very, very quickly, especially the pre-washed greens that have made salads so easy and convenient. I used to feel naked, culinarily speaking, without greens in my fridge. But I've largely gotten over that. As much as I love fresh salads for a veg, it's hard to use up a Costco-sized pack of spring greens before they turn mucky. And after paying Costco prices for these greens, it's very hard for me to pay the same price for a tiny bag at the grocery store. So I very rarely buy them anymore. Instead, I buy hardier lettuces like Romaine, and other veg like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. I also rely more on frozen veggies.

lettuce varieties - how to make a grocery list

Don't overbuy on lettuce! It's more likely to end up in the trash than any other produce.

Anyway, the point is to buy less produce than you think you need. Keep some frozen veggies on hand, and you'll always have a good green and yellow vegetables available to make a healthy meal. 

Buy to use up your perishables. I covered this above in "Food I Need to Use Up," but it's important enough that I'm mentioning it again. When you make your list, check your fridge to see what needs to go, and plan your list and your week's meals around ​those foods. For example, if you have a lot of spring mix that's on the verge of rotting in the next day or two, make sure you plan salad for a vegetable. Or if you have milk or cream that's been in there for awhile, maybe you want to make a nice cream soup for dinner, pancakes for breakfast tomorrow, or a cake for dessert (if you're into that sort of thing--but your family will love you for it). 

One thing I've started doing is Googling ingredients. For example, if I have chicken, bell peppers, and feta cheese to use up, I type those into google: "chicken, bell pepper and feta recipes." I'll keep looking at recipes until I find one that makes the best use of what I have on hand. You'll be amazed at how many recipes there are that use exactly what you have in your fridge--you just have to look!

Don't plan meals for every night of the week. Plan at least one night for leftovers (more if you like to cook large batches) and one for takeout/eating out.​ Then, when you just don't feel like cooking (and you know this is going to happen), you won't feel nearly as guilty ordering that Chinese food than you would if you had a fridge full of a week's worth of meals.

takeout pizza - how to make a grocery list

Do your self and your fridge a favor, and plan for takeout at least once a week.

Some people think that if they don't plan a meal for every night, they run the risk of running out of food. I guarantee you, this is not going to happen. Especially if you have a well-stocked pantry and freezer!

Your freezer is your friend! If you have leftovers that you haven't eaten up, freeze 'em! By doing this, you accomplish a couple of really smart things: you save food instead of throwing it away, and you spare your family the boredom of having to eat a dish they just had and don't really want again. 

If there's not enough for a full dinner, freeze lunch-sized portions. Then you've accomplished yet another thing: work lunches for a couple of days. Voila!

This is where a vacuum sealer, my favorite kitchen appliance, can come in really handy. It makes freezing leftovers easy and it keeps food fresh and free of freezer burn for a really long time. Check out my article on why every kitchen needs a vacuum sealer for more info.

Learn to go without. Last Thanksgiving, we had company for a week. After they left, I had so much food in the house that I didn't go grocery shopping for over a month. I didn't think it possible to go so long without food shopping, but it was actually pretty easy. We had plenty of everything, and when we ran out of perishables, we just ate what was around that needed to be eaten up. Because I had a really well-stocked pantry and freezer, it was easy. 

I didn't intentionally avoid grocery shopping for a month. We just had that much food in the house. But when I realized I was able to go that long without going to the store, I began to challenge myself to do that regularly. I haven't gone a month again, but I can easily go 2 weeks now without hitting the store (especially if I rely on hardier produce like broccoli and brussels sprouts for our greens, and dried herbs instead of fresh).

If I had to go longer, I could; I'd just have to dip into my canned goods more than I do now.

Stop "running to the store" for one or two items. This is really just another side of "learning to go without." If you're in the middle of making dinner and realize you're out of an ingredient, challenge yourself to use something you have on hand rather than run to the store. I guarantee you that if you have a well-stocked pantry, you'll figure out a viable and delicious workaround. (You'll also reduce your carbon footprint and even save a little money while you're at it!)

If you're out of something you need for a recipe, google for substitutes, e.g., google "What's a good substitute for allspice?" "What can I sub for buttermilk?" There's almost always a workaround. Plus, it's a fun challenge!

Wasting less food feels good. Knowing how to save money on groceries feels good. It's a win/win/win for you, for your wallet, and for the planet. There are a lot of other ways to curb food waste, but making a savvy grocery list is an excellent place to start. ​

Do you have questions or want to share your own tips about how to waste less food, how to save money on groceries, or how to make a grocery list? Please share in the comments below!​

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