How to Make a Grocery List (Especially if You Hate Meal Prepping)

You may think you know how to make a grocery list, but we've got news for you: there's could be 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 easily? 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 USDA website, 30-40% of our food supply is wasted. 30-40%! It only makes senst that this phenomenal amount of waste 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 to use every bit of food you buy. Maybe impossible. But you can get better at it.

How to Make a Grocery List

And it's a great feeling to know you're wasting less food.

Meal planning and prepping are all the rage now, and they will certainly help you plan ahead. But if you want to save money on food and waste less of it, knowing how to make a grocery list is also a great thing to work at. 

The method of keeping a grocery list described here is for people who want to be better at meal planning, but for whatever reason have a hard time sticking to a rigid weekly plan. It offers suggestions for the loosest of structures that still allows you to keep a running inventory, use up the food you have, and buy what you need, all with the minimal amount of waste. (If you are looking for a more structured approach, this article is not for you.) 

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 even figure out what it was! So gross! 

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, eating, 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 can always have my master list with me. 

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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 I may create something in the future if there's a demand for it.) 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 also like having a list I can use on my laptop because I hate typing on my phone, so I use Google Docs. It's free, it's easy to use, and I can access my files on all of my devices.

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. (But I highly recommend using an electronic list--it's so much easier to update!)

On my list, I have several categories:

  • Food I'm out of (or almost out of)--the basic list of food I need to buy
  • A Costco list--a subcategory of food I'm out of that I prefer to get at Costco instead of a regular store
  • Food I need to use up--helps me figure out what I need to buy in case I forgot to write something down
  • Ingredients for recipes I want to try--To be bought only when I've used up all the food I need to use
  • My pantry, fridge, and freezer staples--To check over in case (again) I forgot to write something down.

So you see, it's more than a list of what to get; it's an inventory of all of my food supplies. By keeping this all in one spot, I really stay on top of my kitchen game. 

And I feel so organized! Yes, I know there are much more rigid ways to do this, but I like my comprehensive list. Once you've got your staples listed and you get into the habit of writing things down ASAP--whether it's something you're running low on, something you need to use up, or ingredients for a recipe you want to make--it becomes a very simple, very efficient way to keep track of your food and of your potential cooking projects.

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 save you money, stay on top of what you need to use up, or waste less food.

The Special Costco List

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 quite often 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 helps 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. 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. 

Costco isn't for everyone. If you have a hard time resisting end cap specials and other great deals on things you don't need, Costco is not the place for you. Stick to the grocery store--you can't overspend at the grocery store.

Food to Use Up

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

Because, why does food get wasted? Usually, there are two reasons: either you overbought or you forgot about it (or sometimes both).

By keeping a list of food you need to use up, you have it right there in front of you so you can't forget about it.

You are also less likely to overbuy if you've written down the food you need to use up.

Most often in my household, "Food to Use Up" falls into two categories: produce and dairy. For example, I may buy a bag of bell peppers at Costco because "Greek salad" is on my meal list. But only half a bag of bell peppers later, we're sick of Greek salads. So then I put the bell peppers on the "Food to Use Up" list so they don't turn to sludge in the back of the veggie crisper. So instead of making chicken noodle soup, which was on my potential meal list, I might make chicken fajitas. (Bonus: this will also use up some of that Costco bag of chicken breasts, Costco onions, and Costco grated cheddar). And if I don't use the peppers, and a couple of days go by (because we just didn't feel like fajitas and I couldn't think of anything else to make with them), then they get roasted and frozen--and removed from the list. 

If the food is meat, dairy, or bread products, and I don't get around to using it, I will often freeze it. Frozen dairy isn't usually drinkable when thawed, but it's great for use in cooking and baking. 

In fact, freezing is a fantastic way to waste less food. You can put almost anything in the freezer for use at a later point. Here's a guide from Good Housekeeping on freezing food. Just be sure you keep an inventory so you remember that it's in there. (And label. Always, always label food before you freeze it. You think you'll remember what it is, but you won't. Trust me on this.)

I check and update my "Food to Use Up" list every day to make sure I stay on top of my perishable items, the only exceptions being if we're not going to cook dinner at home. Doing this has been a huge asset in my quest to waste less food. 

It might sound like a pain, but 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 before it spoils!

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! This is the number one way to waste less food!

Meals for the Week (Ingredients for Recipes I Want to Try)

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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 schedules like "meatless Monday" and "taco Tuesday." 

If you do like to have a weekly meal-planning schedule, good for you: you've made your life easier and cut down on your food waste in the process. But because I like to keep my options open, I do it a little differently. 

I take an inventory of food I want to use up, what I have in the house (usually meaning the freezer), and then I cross-reference with the recipes I want to make or try. Then I make a list of "Meals to Make this Week," and try to roughly stick to that list. Sometimes I'll change my mind or think of something better that still uses the food I need to use up. 

It's a very loose form of meal prepping, but it works. And, it allows me to try new recipes, which I like to do at least once a week.

You may think it's dumb to keep ingredients on my master list if I don't need to buy them. But if I don't keep the list somewhere, I'll forget about it. The grocery list seems like the most logical place to keep an overall inventory because it keeps all my food concerns in one document.

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 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!​

It will also help you keep a well-stocked pantry. And while looking at other people's list of pantry items can help, you really need to figure out for yourself what your staples consist of. After all, everyone's tastes are different.

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 ingredients on hand to throw a meal together!

A Few More 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 probably 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 so 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 (unwashed), and other veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. I also rely more on frozen veggies. (If you've got a bag of frozen spinach in your freezer, an easy meal is just minutes away.)

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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 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 going bad, 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 baking--but your family will love you for it if you do). 

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! And what a fun way to find new recipes!

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 ingredients going bad in the fridge.

takeout pizza - how to make a grocery list

Do your self and your fridge a favor, and plan for takeout (or leftovers or a freezer meal) 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.

Plan ahead as much (or as little) as you want to: If you want to prep for the week, go ahead! I'm not saying you shouldn't plan ahead, just that you can keep things as loose as you want and still save money and waste less food. If you want to make a large batch of rice, beans, prepped veggies, or whatever, feel free. And if you change directions for whatever reason, none of this has to go to waste: just toss it in the 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. You've also just put up a meal for some future day when cooking just isn't in the cards.

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

This is where a vacuum sealer 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 this 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 grocery shopping, but it was surprisingly 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 actually pretty 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 it 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 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.

Eat produce that's in season. You probably already know this, but eat what's in season. It's not only cheaper, it's much, much tastier. So if it's spring, it's asparagus, green peas, and scallions. If it's late summer, you have your choice of so many wonderful things, from corn on the cob to peaches to tomatoes, cherries, and cucumbers. And in fall, it's apples, winter squash, pumpkins, new potatoes, etc. 

Americans are used to having whatever they want, when they want it. And many foods are "in season" all year round (lettuce, herbs, avocados, etc.). But if you want to really treat yourself, and save money in the process, plan meals around in-season produce. Here's a website that lists in-season produce. (If it doesn't fit where you live, google for your area.)

Keep your list in the order in which you shop. If you're familiar with your grocery store, then you know where food is. I try to write my list in the order in which I'll navigate the store. For example, produce comes first, then dry goods, then meat, then dairy (which is in the back of the store). 

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.)

No, this doesn't work if you're making pan-fried sole and don't have any sole, but that's unlikely to happen if you're keeping on top of your food inventory. 🙂

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!

Final Thoughts

You can "meal prep" without the rigidness! If you hate the thought of meal prepping and sticking to a strict weekly schedule, try this easy method of staying organized and staying on top of your food inventory. You can keep it loose and simple, save money, and waste less food all at the same time with this simple method.

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. And thanks for reading!

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