By Thorin Klosowski, Lifehacker – August 16, 2012 at 11:00AM
I despise grocery shopping, but as it happens, biology requires that I eat. Over the years, this grocery-related vitriol has sharpened my grocery shopping process into the most efficient, streamlined method I can muster. Here’s how I fixed the pain-in-the-ass that is shopping for sustenance.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of cooking, but I, like everyone else, have to sustain myself with healthy foods. Still, I want to make my list, get into the grocery store, and then get out in less than 30 minutes at all times. To do this, I use a mix of automated delivery, a simple tactic for meal planning, and a few tricks inside the store itself.
Step 1: Automate Delivery of Non-Perishables
Total Time: ~30 minutes to set up initially, 0 minutes thereafter.
About six months ago, I started using Amazon’s Subscribe and Save to get automated monthly deliveries for non-perishable items. My delivery list includes a few standards like toothpaste, soaps, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper. It also includes recurring food items like cereal, cat food, and pantry items (like mac and cheese, soups, etc.).
It took me a couple of months to get the timing of everything right, but now I get most everything delivered right as I’m running out of it at home. It was essentially a trial-and-error process on my part, but I recommend if you want to start using a subscription service you start dating and tracking how long it takes for items to run out. Then, once you have an idea, set up the renewal process beforehand. With Amazon, you can add items at any point, and you’ll be notified before they ship if you need to cancel. Here’s how a few of mine are set up right now:
- Toilet paper once a month
- Dishwasher soap once every three months
- Toothpaste every two months
- Mouthwash once a month
- Selection of rices and pastas every two months
- Granola bars once a month
- Four different boxes of cereal a month
The benefit is twofold. First, I don’t have to waste time at the grocery store picking out one of the 50 different types of toothpaste. Second, I know exactly what my budget is, and I’m not shocked by a large bill at the store when expensive items like cat food, laundry detergent, and cleaning supplies all run out at the same time.
With these items all taken care of, I can concentrate on what really matters at grocery time: food. That means preparing a list.
Step 2: Prepare Your Lists
Total Time: 5 minutes
I follow the same basic premise we’ve highlighted in the past when we’ve talked about how to plan your meals more efficiently, but with a randomized twist.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not much of a gourmet chef, and my palate for food is childish at best. That said, I’m trying to learn to love food more, and part of that means experimenting with recipes. So, instead of staring at a blank list and trying to come up with something to eat, I start with one random recipe and build from there. To do this, I use Epicurious, but whatever your favorite recipe app is will work just fine. In Epicurious, I have about 20-30 standby meals stored in my favorites so that I can quickly add them to the list. Here’s the basic, five minute process:
- In the Epicurious app, I pick one new recipe each week. I pick a type (summer dinners, grilled, etc), and then scroll randomly until I find a new recipe to try. This takes about one to two minutes.
- After I pick my random dinner, I pair it up with recipes from my favorites list so that I don’t waste food. For instance, if my random recipe is something with chicken breast, I’ll make sure I have one of my favorites that also includes chicken, like a chicken caesar salad. this takes on minute.
- For each day of the week, I add a dinner or lunch recipe that works together with the day before. For instance, if I add chicken caesar salad, I need a favorite that uses the rest of that salad. I continue this until I’ve built a weeks worth of lunches and dinners, which looks like the screenshot to the right (I’ll often fill in my own stuff, like lunch meats, when I’m writing down the real list). This takes about three minutes.
That’s it. The whole process takes about five minutes. It doesn’t require you to overthink your meal plans because each new meal for a day is based on the last one, and the whole process starts at a random point. If I’m struggling to find a starting point for whatever reason, I’ll also occasionally hit up randomized recipe sites like Dude You Can Cook, or What the F**k Should I Make for Dinner.
For me, the final piece of the puzzle involves ditching the grocery list. You can, of course, skip this step and carry around a list, but as I’ve mentioned before, I turn my lists into a story and memorize them, which helps me get around the store quickly. To do this I take a look at the built-in grocery list in Epicurious, and then reorder the list by hand to match the grocery store’s layout.
If you prefer to keep you list on your smartphone, an app like Grocery IQ will organize your list automatically. If you need to manage a lot of different people and different lists, we’ve also walked you through some of the best practices for keeping a collaborative grocery list.
Now it’s time to drive to the store.
Step 3: Navigate the Store Like a Pro
Total Time: 15 Minutes
The basic rule for navigating the store quickly is simple: Organize your list by the aisles in the store, and stick to the list. When you try to improv in the store you end up backtracking and wasting time. You’re also more likely to grab items you don’t need when you backtrack because you also get exposed to advertising twice. That bag of cookies might not have looked good on the first pass, but the second time around it might end up in your cart.
I have the benefit of going to the same grocery store every time I shop, so navigation is as simple as ordering my list as though I’m walking through the store. I start in produce and quickly make my way to the bread aisle at the end.
When I’m at the store, I’m careful not to do any of the stupid things we all do while shopping. In the grocery store, this is a big deal. Brand loyalty is easy to get caught up in, and advertising is everywhere. I regularly remind myself of these tricks to avoid the most common marketing tricks. I try to grab items that are on sale, even if they’re not brand name, and I do my best to ignore advertising.
At the same time, I’m always careful to keep an eye out for number manipulation affecting my shopping choices. If my list is solid, this isn’t a problem, but sometimes I need to put on my mental blinders so I’m not tricked into buying something I don’t want or need just because it’s on sale.
Let’s get out of the store before that happens.
Step 4: Check Out As Quickly As Possible
Total Time: Less Than 5 minutes (usually)
Once my cart is loaded up and I make my way to the checkout stand, the work is nearly over. The next step is to pick the right lane to stand in.
According to math teacher Dan Meyer, it’s best to pick the line with the least amount of people in it, regardless of how many items they’re holding. This is because it takes at least a minute or so to check out a person, even if they only have a couple items. Each item only adds about three seconds to the total time. So, instead of hunting down the “perfect” line, I always pick the shortest, even if everyone has shopping carts full of food.
I’ve also noticed that the best times to shop are early in the morning on weekends (around 9 or 10), or later in the evening on weekdays (around 7 or 8). Not only is the store less populated with people, it’s also the inbetween time for shifts at my grocery store, so it’s easy to find a checkout person.
Next, I’ll load up the conveyor belt with all my items in baggable order. This might sound over the top, but it’s easy to implement, makes the checkout process quicker, and (probably) makes the cashier’s job easier.
You don’t have need to get this perfect, but it’s simple to do: group like items together on the belt. For instance, keep everything in a small box together, keep produce together, keep meat together, frozen items together, and save your fragile items (like eggs) for last. This way, as the cashier scans your items they go directly into one bag, then your cart. I also use the larger, reusable grocery bags so more items can get packed in. This means less trips to and from the car once I’m home.
Finally, when you’re checking out, don’t bother fumbling with your reward card. Jenny’s number—(your area code) 867-5309—works just fine, and you don’t have to worry about the grocery store collecting personal information.
That’s it. The entire process, from list to unloading into my house, takes me around 30 minutes. Granted, my grocery store is less than five minutes away from my house, and I’m only shopping for one person, but the above process has cut the time I waste grocery shopping by at least 30 minutes. I’ve also saved money, and have slowly trained myself to try new foods.
This post was illustrated by Dominick Rabrun. You can find his illustrations on his personal web site, or works in progress on his blog.