Secrets of a grocery store clerk: How to grocery shop effectively

Guest post by Zorazen

By: Gabriela PintoCC BY 2.0
Something very strange happens when people walk into the grocery store. They get out of their car, clearheaded and prepared, and step through the automatic doors and… why was I here again?

The number one thing I hear from customers is “I just came in here for one thing.” These are people with overflowing baskets, with $300 orders. These are folks who place their hand baskets in their shopping carts because they are too full. These are people without enough bags, and sometimes, not enough cash. Don’t make that mistake.

So, here are some things to figure out: If you have a budget, make a list. Once you’ve made your list, read it carefully and see if it all adds up. Let’s make an example list here with some annotations to clarify exactly what we’re going for at the market.

Now, of course this list is an example, and you want to create a list that meets your needs. Maybe you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you would make a drastically different list. But, what you should do at the market is carefully analyze how you’re going to use each ingredient you buy.

1. Buy a whole chicken even if you’re not planning on roasting it. It’s far more economical to learn how to cut up a chicken than to buy chicken parts. Furthermore, spare chicken parts like spines and wingtips can be saved for stock. Stock is the ultimate in economy, so keep some heavy freezer bags around.

2. Onions are cheap, plentiful and keep really well in a cool, dark place. They’re also great for developing knife skills. Onions are in just about everything, so it’s always safe to keep an onion or two in the house.

3. Sweet Potatoes are economical, good for you, and versatile.

So, let’s look at my list so far: Chicken, onions and sweet potatoes. What can I make with these three items? Well, I like roasting sweet potatoes, and I can roast the chicken legs along side. Add a salad and that’s Monday’s dinner taken care of. And Tuesday’s lunch if I make a little extra.

Two meals done for the week. Moving on…

4. Green Onions. Gosh, the green onions are cheap and they sure look good. What can I make with green onions though? Well, they’re nice grilled, so I’ll get a cheap and thin piece of meat to go with them. That should use up this bundle nicely. That’s Tuesday night taken care of.

5. Pork Shoulder. Holy moly, that pork shoulder is on sale and nice looking too. It’s got the skin on it, so I will remove the skin and render out all the fat. Then I can freeze the fat into cubes and use it later for frying up things. And the pork can be cut into smaller portions and frozen for later.

6. Rice makes a cheap meal alongside just about anything. Good for lunches and dinners.

7. Cilantro. If you’re one of those folks who eat cilantro, this is a fantastic herb. It’s used in Central American and Asian cooking and can be used for a bunch of other things. At ethnic markets it’s usually laughably cheap, so you can get a lot of bang for your buck with cilantro. I’m already getting green onions, so I’ll use this bundle of Cilantro to make chimichurri for my cheap grilled meat. If I wanted to, I could get a few bundles and then trim the ends off of what I don’t use and store it in a glass of water to keep it fresh.

8. Lettuce to make salads for the week. And BLTs sound good. We’ll have BLTs on Wednesday.

9. Tomatos are essential for the T in BLT. Also good for salads. If I want to do sandwiches, I’ll get slicing tomatoes, and if I want to do anything else, I’ll buy cherry tomatoes.

10. Bread for sandwiches. I specified sandwich bread here in order to keep me on track. If I want hamburger buns, I’ll write that down instead. If I want a baguette, that’s what I will put. If I just put bread, I end up with moldy bread by the end of the week.

As a side note: if you buy a baguette and you know full well you’re not going to eat the whole thing, leave your leftovers on the counter overnight and then pulverize the bread into crumbs. Use the crumbs later for casseroles or pasta sauces. Economical.

11. Cheddar cheese. Since I’m buying a loaf of bread, so I will get some cheese for grilled cheese later in the week. Oh, look, Thursday’s dinner done with.

12. Thin, cheap steaks. They will go nicely with the grilled green onions.

It’s okay to deviate from the list a little if you know what you’re going to do with your deviations. If you find a vegetable that looks especially good, buy it, but MAKE A PLAN. Figuring it out later is a sure way to watch your food spoil. If you pick up a squash and think, “Oh, I have that cut up pork in the freezer, so I’ll thaw that out and braise it in a little chicken stock, then I can roast this squash alongside it…” then you have a plan. You have Friday night’s dinner done with.

One thing you want to avoid doing when you’re starting out learning how to cook, is building an enormous pantry of staples. Yes, it’s way more economical to buy a 10 pound bag of flour, but if you never bake, it’s a waste of your money. Some staples are okay to buy in large amounts. Sea salt or Kosher Salt is great because it’s tasty and never goes bad. Go ahead and buy a few pounds. If you eat butter, buy a few pounds when it’s on sale and keep in your freezer. Some recipes call for sugar, so I keep a one pound box of superfine sugar at home.

Lastly, be aware of what’s in your fridge that you need to use before you leave for the store. If the eggplant in your crisper drawer is starting to look a little weak, maybe it’s a good idea to pick up the stuff to make ratatouille that night.

So remember: Make plans with everything you buy, and execute those plans throughout the week. If you do find yourself at the store for half and half, and you look down into your hands and you see all these groceries that just appeared in your hands, evaluate how important they are. Are you getting that box of cookies so you can pack them in your lunch? Or are you getting them because, gosh, they look good? If it’s the latter, put them back. Analyze everything in your basket. Don’t make the dual mistakes of buying way more than you planned to, and letting all that food go to waste.

Comments on Secrets of a grocery store clerk: How to grocery shop effectively

  1. I like to look at the grocery store sales flyer before I go shopping (normally the online version). Then I can plan some basics for the week by what’s on sale and what I need to use up from the fridge.

    • Pork shoulder and pork butt are soooooo yummy in the crockpot. I usually cook mine with Dr. Pepper all day, then drain the juice, pull apart the meat and add in BBQ sauce for the very last hour. Best pulled pork ever.

      If it helps anyone, I usually spend one day peeling and chopping all of my potatoes. Place the chopped potatoes in a ziplock type bag with a little oil, and Italian seasoning. Seal and freeze! Then whenever you’re ready to have french fries or roasted potatoes, take out of the freezer and cook. =)

      Also, buy your rice at an Asian grocery store in bulk. I ended up getting a huge bag of rice for about 5 cents a serving ($8 total).

  2. Great advice, planning is the key for meals. Another great tip I live by is to shop the perimeter of the store. Thats where your staples are; produce, dairy, meat, bakery. Only go into the aisle for specific items, if they’re on your list! This way you can try to avoid most of those impulse buys.

    • Fresh is best! Where I work we have tons of pre-prepared meals and not only do they not taste very good, they’re waaaaaay too much money to live off of effectively.

  3. I live by the pick 1-2 recipes per week for dinner and eat leftovers for dinner plan. After I pick the recipes, I write down all the ingredients on my grocery list. Lunch and breakfast are always the same, so that part of the grocery list is the same every week.

    I do have a couple of go-to meals for when I didn’t have time to plan. It’s so hard to remember everything in a meal AND remember what you have at home while in the grocery store. And if I shop while hungry, forget it. I had Brie and Baggette for dinner on Sunday when that happened, haha.

    I can only imagine the games grocery store employees must play… find the “grocery zombies” comes to mind!

    • One game we used to play was taking old apples, sticking them on knives and using the knives to toss and catch the apples.
      Not on the sales floor, of course.
      “Overheard at the store” is a game I play with myself now.

  4. I also work at a grocery store. I know exactly what you mean. Here’s the other thing. There is a real science behind how stores are built and where product ends up. They are designed specifically for the impulse shopper, wandering around aimlessly. Even folks that have lists can find themselves in a position of “well its not on the list but OH COOKIES!” Two ways I avoid that: Never go to the store hungry, and if there is a location frequented more than others, learn the layout and build lists around where things are specifically. Sounds OCD but by doing that I can pick up a weeks worth of groceries in under 30 minutes.

    • Absolutely. I can’t believe how well end-cap displays work.
      At least at my local grocery all the impulse buy displays at the register are Korean medicines.

    • The way I respond to impulse / indulgence purchases is that I’m only allowed ONE. I started to reach for some Halloween candy this week before realizing, “Nope, Alissa, you got Izze. Which do you want more?” Izze won.

      The exception is non-perishable staples on sale. Canned veggies are half off? I’m stocking up.

      • I also buy non perishable foods when they go on sale, but only of the things I’m already buying because I prefer to walk the aisles with blinders otherwise. So if I’m buying canned black beans and they’re on sale, I’ll get 3 cans instead of 1. But if I’m not buying beans, I don’t look at them.
        My husband thinks I’m some weird pantry Mary Poppins because he’ll be like “uh oh we’re out of ketchup.” (me, pulling another bottle from the back of the pantry) “Of course we’re not.”
        He wishes it was because I have some magical power to make food appear (which I agree would be a great power! and a money saver!) but really it’s because I just bought 2 bottles of ketchup last time instead of one. And I just put it on my mental list to grab another when it goes on sale again.

    • The last tip is so good! I’m trying to get there. My mom has a photographic memory, so she builds her lists in the order in which she will walk through the store. Efficient, no deviation, and no impulse buys (save for a good sale!). Also a little spooky, but hey. 🙂

    • I’m super type A about my grocery list. I draw a line down the middle (top to bottom, left to right) to get 4 sections. Then I divide my top right and bottom right sections into two each (another line left to right). So a total of 8 sections, some bigger than others
      The top left = produce (this is usually my longest section, as it should be!)
      The top top right = dairy
      The top bottom right = bread/fancy cheese/deli meat
      The bottom top right = fresh meat section
      The bottom bottom right = freezer section
      The bottom left = aisles

      Your quadrants may vary depending on the organization of your store. My husband thinks I’m crazy, but it keeps me from having to loop through the store multiple times, which is when you walk by the cookies for a second and third time and don’t have enough willpower to say “no” again.

      Last year they changed my store from a Kroger to a “Kroger Signature” which apparently meant rearranging everything. It took me about 8 months to relearn where everything was. This made me very angry. I know they do that so I’ll wander by the cookies again. Bastards!

  5. Maybe I’m a cheap bastard, but if it is not on a buy-one-get-one sale I’m not getting it…period. >.> When things are on buy-one-get-one I try to stock up so I’ll have enough to last a while.

  6. Cooking during the workweek used to be too difficult. So, to make it easier for Monday and Tuesday, I make a big meal on Saturday with the leftovers earmarked for Monday. I do the same thing for Sunday/Tuesday. That way the leftovers are well within theirsafe usability without having to eat the same thing two nights in a row. Then, theres only 3 other days to figure out, and we usually get takeout once a week.

  7. I’ve found that shopping at a smaller store often results in a smaller haul. I may not have as many brands of pasta to choose from, but I’ll still end up with everything I need (and fewer of the things I’m likely to pick up on impulse). Maybe that’s not the case for everyone, but it is for me. 🙂

    • And basil! I have a thriving basil plant in my kitchen window that I grew from cut basil from a package. I’ve never had luck with green onions, but living next to both Korean and Mexican groceries, green onions are Cheap as Free.

    • I have taken green onions from the CSA that were stored in the fridge and got too wilted to use and planted them outside for the hell of it. They rooted and lived! And the green onions come up year after year, too.

  8. The tone of this post was really funny. I loved it. It made so much sense and made me think differently about my shopping. I feel like I waaaaay overspend at the market.

  9. I’m not one to hock products BUT my fiancee and I got the whole house (excepting one of our extremely picky roommates) hooked on Fresh 20, which is a meal-planning website that has both carnivore and vegetarian friendly menus that feed a family of 4 (or an engaged couple with a very high-metabolism roommate). This is not one for a beginning cook, so if you’re like me and can barely use the microwave without supervision, it’s not for you. If you’re like my fiancee and know your way around the kitchen, it’s a great way to keep costs down (we spend about $80-$90 for a weeks worth of dinners and occasional leftovers-for-lunch meals) and you get to eat things like apricot-and-quinoa salad with goat cheese and fisherman’s stew and lamb burgers with feta. It is a subscription service but costs about $5 a month and it’s literally saved our asses from spending hundreds of dollars at the grocery store each week.

    Fiancee and I both work at grocery stores and we know aaaalll about the impulse shopping. Even it’s hard for us to resist, and we know better. Sometimes, after seeing fifty boxes of the same on-sale cookies come through your line, you give into temptation too. It’s why I learned not to shop (except for staples on a list) after work, when I’m hungriest and all that tempting yummy food comes through my line.

    • I used to work at a market with tons of stuff that I loved to buy. Now I work for…a different store. Rhymes with Mrader Moes. I only have a few products I like to buy there and I’ve saved a ton of money on all the expensive food I used to get.

      • But isn’t it a bit counter-intuitive to have an employee discount somewhere you don’t like to shop? Unless you seriously overspend on impulse purchases at work an employee discount should save you money.

        Also, the store you work at is one of my favorites, I’d have a hard time picking just a few products I like there.

        • You’d think so, but it didn’t.
          Where I work now, the disco is ten percent. Which is only okay. Where I used to work, we got a 20% discount which totally threw me off budgets. “I can’t afford this normally, but it’s 20% off, so I’ll get it now.”
          Most of my shopping is done at the local ethnic markets because the prices are so much better than elsewhere. It works really well for me. I also shop at the Farmer’s Market (in LA, the big touristy one. They’ve got good stuff there.)
          Prices are all over the place, here too. People always rave about how great our prices are, but for fresh foods, the prices are super high. (Produce, dairy, etc.) Canned goods, pastas, coffee and nuts are good deals, but the fresh meals and stuff aren’t.
          And, what I find the strangest of all is that Whole Foods has the best price on organic milk in the city. Wacky.

          • Yeah, if you’re not disciplined about sticking to a budget, a 20% discount could throw you off, I can understand that. My current job at a large retail chain that sells groceries as well as other things gives a 10% discount as well (and we can get extra discounts on top of that for various reasons) and I imagine that if I wasn’t careful I could end up spending too much.

            Interesting what you said about prices; the prices are reasonable to low for produce and dairy at the stores in that chain that I’ve shopped at (in Irvine and Claremont, California; Seattle and Spokane, Washington; and New York City), and the meat seemed to be reasonably priced too. Regional variation, I suppose? (Or particularly cheap ethnic markets that make the chain’s prices seem high, perhaps? The ethnic markets near where I live have some good deals, but other things end up being more expensive. For meat, most produce, and dairy the chain would be cheaper for me.) That is really odd about Whole Foods, though I have occasionally found some good deals there too.

    • Yes! I use the gluten-free edition of the Fresh 20 and it has made me try some things I never would have thought of and are amazing. The first week was sweet potato & turkey tacos. Sounded weird to me, but I’ll try most anything once – it was amazing! We’ve remade this dish many times – cuts down on meat consumption by upping with yummy fiber – good for the body and the wallet, win-win!

  10. I notice someone else mentioned this too, but those inside aisles in the grocery store? Don’t even go down them. Candy, crackers, potato chips, pre-made boxed meals – SKIP IT ALL! The only aisles I go down are the ones with baking supplies, canned tomatoes, canned and dried beans, old-fashioned oatmeal, and seltzer. Impulse buys of processed foods are one of the biggest budget (and belt) busters. Even if they are “on sale.”

    Also – shop generic. Store brand, if you can. Staples are going to have minimal differences (if any at all) and we’re skipping processed foods altogether, right?

    Also, also – sometimes buying meat in bulk can save you a bundle. Buy a whole pork loin (it’s like 7 lbs usually) and have the butcher cut it into two roasts and the rest into boneless pork chops. Ditto buying a whole ham – cube or slice it up when you get home and a $20 ham will get you like 6 meals if you play your cards right. And you get the bone to make split pea soup. NOMs. I don’t like roasting whole chickens, but a grocery store near me sells chicken leg quarters (leg and thigh attached) for cheaper than either just thighs or just legs. They look fabulous when roasted for company and they make fantastic chicken soup (a leg quarter or two, plus a bunch of water, boil until meat is done, remove from magically created stock, remove meat from bones, return meat to soup, add veggies, simmer – voila – soup).

    Potatoes will keep well if kept cool and dark (and away from onions and apples) and are cheaper if bought in bulk bags (10 lb. bags of local white potatoes can be had for as little as $2.50 in my neck of the woods). Pre-bagged fruit (apples & oranges, generally) are also cheaper than buying by the pound (pre-bagged fruit is usually smaller, which is better for snacks and lunches anyway).

    Really, when buying anything in bulk, check the per-pound (or per-ounce) price and compare. Smaller things of generic oatmeal by me are often listed 2 for $4, but the twice as big box of oatmeal (literally double the smaller ones) is always $3. Plus, I eat a lot of oatmeal for breakfast. 😉

    It’s all about reading labels, knowing the contents of your fridge and kitchen, bringing a list (even if you forget the list itself, writing it down will help you remember most of it anyway), and keeping to your budget all help. And I like fifteenth the recommendation NOT to shop when hungry – buy yourself a snack first, eat it right there, and then go back to shopping if it can’t be helped.

    • Speaking of generics… I worked at DelMonte for a summer, and they were canning WalMart brand green peas. Sure, it wasn’t the “fancy” peas, but it was DelMonte peas in a WalMart can.

    • Second checking the price per kilo (or pound). I never buy the same cheddar each week because I just check out what has the lowest price per kilo. There are always introduction prices or deals on meaning cheese that cost £5 a kilo last week now costs £6.31 this week but cheese that cost £7 a kilo last week now has a deal on. It can mean that the overall price of the cheese changes but I know that I’m not paying a rediculous ammount.

  11. I love this.. when I worked beside a grocery store, this is most of the stuff I would normally get. I still do, mostly discount meats, potatoes, and onions. Cheese, tortillas, and various greens have made some great wraps on those quick days to throw leftover meats into. I still freeze milk like my grandparents and invested in a nice freezer that I use for meats my husband hunts for and veggies we grow with his family. The shredder attachment to my kitchenaid has helped a lot with this (shredding zucchini or squash for your next soup, bread, casserole is a pretty awesome idea I found on pinterest.) But yeah, if people keep up with just the basics and learn simple cooking techniques and preserving strategies (like canning and freezing) you could stockpile in one year enough food to last for five years. Or so I’ve seen before. It also helps to see what foods are in season. I know this works for my particular situation but I’m not sure for those with dietary restrictions and how they handle it. Oh and you can also freeze bread as well. it lasts much longer. (I do this with the sample bread we use for samples at my work. It defrosts just fine and tastes just the same as when it wasn’t frozen.) Hope this might help someone!

    • Is there a specific way to wrap bread for freezing that makes it taste the same when defrosted? A time limit on how long it should be frozen? Every time I have tried freezing regular wheat bread, it did not taste good enough to eat straight after defrosting. It is okay if toasted or put into something like stuffing, but no good for sandwiches. What have I been doing wrong, or am I just rather picky about my bread?

      • I never found any super awesome way to do it. I often used slice bread for toasted sandwiches. I think leaving the frozen slices uncovered on the counter for 20 minutes is your best bet.

  12. I like to stock up minced beef and canned tomatoes when they’re on special. I freeze the mince into meal sizes portions so when I know I’m going to have a busy day at work I can grab a portion in the morning, let it defrost during the day, the cook it up when I get home with some canned tomatoes and pasta. Means I’m not going to be tempted to stop by the market and pick up a hundred things I don’t need.

  13. I faithfully use my Out of Milk app on my phone for grocery shopping. I add the staples like milk, eggs, cheese, necessary items for a couple of tried-and-true recipes, ask the fam what they need for lunches, and then cruise Pinterest.
    One of my Pinterest boards is called “Food” and another is called “2 make this week”. I find a couple of recipes that I want to try for the week, look at the ingredients vs what we have on hand, and add the necessary items to my Out of Milk app. And then I move the pin to the “2 make this week” board so I can find it easily once it’s time to cook.
    When I know which store I’m going to, I sort my Out of Milk grocery list based on my route through the store. When I get an item, it gets checked off, moves to the bottom, and my list gets shorter.
    What I’ve noticed since I started using Pinterest and Out of Milk on my smart phone to go grocery shopping is that I spend less money, I cook more meals, and I buy less junk. I think it’s a win win win. And so far most of the recipes I like to try are good. Then I move those pinned recipes into my “Meals to make again” board.

    The next thing I need to try is chopping up my fresh herbs that won’t get used before they go bad and freeze them in a little oil for use in later recipes.

  14. If I can, I like to play “6 degrees of Groceries” to figure out my shopping list. Say that I decide that this week chili and mac and cheese sound good, but I’m not sure what else to make. Well, for chili I’ll have meat, beans, spices, onions, and maybe green peppers on hand. For macaroni I’ll have noodles, various kinds of cheese, and sour cream or plain yogurt. So what else could I make with that list of ingredients? Hmm… If I pick up some chicken and tortillas, I’ll have the onions, cheese, sour cream, and bell pepper so I can make fajitas. Or maybe I can get a bigger package of ground turkey from the chili, and the leftover veg, and make meatloaf or stuffed bell peppers. If I make those fajitas, now I’ll have some tortillas around so maybe lunch will be wraps? Or that extra cheese… maybe quesadillas?

    I don’t often get my meals to perfectly align, but when I do it’s great. It keeps us from wasting food or eating the same meal a million nights in a row. Another thing I’m trying to do is make batches of stuff and freeze. Then once a week I pull out the leftovers to defrost, and replace them with new leftovers, so we’re not wasting food but not getting realllly sick of whatever it is that we have tons of.

    • I love that! Do you use any tools to find those in-between recipes? I’ve used yummly before because you can search by ingredient, but maybe you or someone else has another good go-to site.

  15. I agree with the comment to know your grocery store. It helps me to know that if I go down that aisle there is nothing but temptation.

    When writing my shopping list I start with my meal plan and then list the things I need to buy on the same piece of paper. That way when Im at the supermarket I know that I dont actually need what I am picking up.
    I also highlight my list once it has been written so all stuff from fruit and veg gets highlighted green, dairy aisle yellow, freezer aisle blue, tin aisle red etc. Between this and knowing the store layout I always stick to what is on the list and can get a full weeks shop done in an hour from leaving the house to arriving home.

  16. One really great tip I saw was to try things one brand below what you usually buy. So if you normally buy Heinz baked beans, try the own brand ones. If they actually taste different, you know the Heinz are value for money. If not, buy the cheaper ones!

  17. MEAT IN BULK! MEAT IN BULK! MEAT IN BULK! MEAT IN BULK! I cannot stress this enough. Especially pork loins, our biggest protein that we eat. Those little rinky dink loins at the market are like $7 bucks. We can get a GINORMOUS one for around $12-$20 depending on the size available and I will butcher it up into meal sized portions and it comes out to be around $1.50 – $2.00.

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