A little planning ahead can help you shop more efficiently, save money and cut down on food waste.
woman shopping at a grocery store
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Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make Earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

Personally, I love grocery shopping. It's a very grounding and, honestly, fun part of the week for me. I like to think about how all of the food in my cart will help fuel me for what's ahead, and feel pretty grateful whenever I do. But I know that many people aren't as psyched about grocery shopping as I am, and I recognize that it can be a stressful time, especially with rising food prices

One of the best ways to make grocery shopping feel less intimidating is by having a well-organized grocery list that helps you navigate the store with ease. A good list can keep you on track so you buy only things you'll actually need, which can help you save money and cut down on food waste, too. As a dietitian on a budget, here are my best tips on making a useful grocery list for your next shopping trip.  

Start with a menu plan 

One of the biggest mistakes people make is writing a grocery list without thinking about the meals they plan to cook throughout the week. Menu planning doesn't have to account for every single thing you eat each day, but a rough plan can help focus your list and, therefore, the foods in your cart. I typically plan dinners for five nights a week. This allows me the flexibility to eat out one night and to have leftovers or be spontaneous another night. I usually stick to the same few breakfasts and lunches so I can just buy a few ingredients to cover the bases (more on that later). After I make my menu plan, I add the ingredients I need into the appropriate sections of my list.

Organize your grocery list for efficiency

When I write my grocery list, I think about how I will navigate around the store. If your store's layout is different, you may need to shift the order of your list. Grouping items together by area of the store is super helpful, so you can have an efficient shopping experience (because when I grocery shop, I'm all about efficiency). Plus, having an organized list means less risk of needing to double back through the store to pick up a forgotten ingredient.

1. Fresh produce

The first (and usually largest) section of my grocery list is devoted to the produce section. In most stores, it's the first area you see when you enter, so it's a natural place to start filling your cart. Regardless of my menu plan for the week, I always pick up some fresh fruit and salad greens, usually opting for what's on sale. Then I'll pick up any fruits, vegetables and herbs I need for my menu plan. 

Before I move on to the next area, I'll make a point to check out what's on sale and see if I could add it to any of the meals I'm making that week. For example, if I'm planning to make pasta and I see that bell peppers are on sale, I'll throw a few of them in my cart for sautéing and snacking. 

2. Meat and deli counter

The next part of my list is devoted to any proteins I need for the week. The meat counter is usually behind the produce section so I can move intuitively through the store. Meats and seafood are usually the most expensive items on my list, so to help stay within my budget, I'll choose smaller portions and more budget-friendly cuts (bonus points if they're on sale). I'll also include things I need from the deli counter, such as sliced meats, cheese or olives, in this part of my list.

I like to eat a variety of different types of protein throughout the week, but things like eggs and canned beans or fish are on different sections of my list based on where they are in the store. 

3. Canned and dry goods 

The middle section of my list is (you guessed it) devoted to the aisles in the middle of the store. This is where stores have the most variety, so I tend to include everything I know won't be in the perimeters of the store here. That includes things like canned beans, canned tuna, oats, chia seeds, pasta, rice, peanut butter and more. This would also be a good part of your list to include frozen items, like fruits, vegetables and ice cream, as they would be in the same area of the store. And remember that if you're really trying to make your dollar go further, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables can help you get in a variety of nutrients while staying within your budget. 

4. Consider other staples you need to restock

When I'm writing my grocery list, I always take a lap through my pantry and kitchen to see if I'm out of or running dangerously low on important things (because running out of coffee on a Tuesday morning before work is not a good note to start the day on). Other staples I might add to my list include flour, olive or canola oil, spices, honey or maple syrup, and vinegars. 

5. Dairy and eggs

The next section of my grocery list is devoted to the dairy and refrigerated sections of the store. I'll include other staple ingredients I always like to have on hand, like eggs, milk, heavy cream, butter, Greek yogurt and cheeses that aren't by the deli counter. Since these items are more perishable, I opt to buy the smallest size I can find. Personally, I'd rather run out before my next shop than waste food (and money). 

6. Miscellaneous

At the bottom of my grocery list, I always leave room to add miscellaneous items. This can include things like cleaning supplies, toiletries, charcoal for the grill or specialty items I don't usually buy. I put them at the end because it allows me to complete my shopping as I normally would, then leave the searching for last. Also, sometimes when I'm navigating the store as usual, I'll stumble upon some of the miscellaneous items, which saves even more time and searching. One of the biggest tips I can give for this section is to ask for help if you can't find something; most employees are happy to answer your questions if they're asked respectfully. Plus, even if an item is not out on display, they might be able to get it for you from the back. 

Bottom line 

Grocery shopping can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Regardless of where you shop, make a well-organized grocery list that matches the layout of your store (bonus points for menu planning in advance, too). This will help you shop efficiently and only buy what you will actually use, so you can save money and cut down on food waste throughout the week.