What is the most efficient way to shop?

I’m a big believer in having goals, and having plans to reach those goals. But there are also times when sticking to a plan too rigidly, including when you shop, can actually cost you money, time, or other opportunities.

Menu planning can be a bit like this. Having a plan is great. If I shop when I’m hungry, and I don’t have a plan, I tend to buy whatever looks quick, easy and appealing – regardless of its cost or nutritional content!

But if you want next-level savings, it’s crucial to adapt your plans on the fly – and even to go shopping without a plan at all! Here’s how:

Start with the specials

Supermarkets often have big discounts on fresh produce like meat, vegetables, and fruit when they’re about to accept a new delivery. Know what you can and can’t freeze, and how to make foods last as long as possible.

I recommend starting with the specials sections of your local store when you shop. All the regular-priced items will be there in plentiful supply. It’s those that have big savings that go flying off the shelves, so make those areas your first stop. Once you’ve picked up some meat and vegetables at a great price, it’s time to fill in the rest of your ‘plan’ on the fly.

Know your plate

When I first started out cooking, I tended to follow recipes very exactly. Over time, I came to know intuitively what to add if a meal I was preparing tasted too sweet or too sour. What to add if it needed to thicken more. Or what to do if it wasn’t cooking fast enough or if it was burning. I learned to adjust recipes on the fly, according to my own tastes, and to variations in ingredients. Sometimes the potatoes are mushier, sometimes the chilies are hotter. It’s important to be flexible.

Shopping is the same. When we began changing how we shopped to focus more on price and nutrition, we followed menu plans religiously. Then we started modifying those lists to better suit our tastes, the ingredients that were in season, and our wallets. Eventually, we had enough of a sense of what we needed as well as how much we needed to be able to plan in the shop rather than in advance, allowing us maximum flexibility.

The Perfect Health Diet

There are many guides to how a plate should look – you can check your local government’s nutritional guidelines for examples. The one I’ve found works for me is based on the Perfect Health Diet.

  • 225~450g of meat, seafood and eggs,
  • 450g of safe starches,
  • up to 450g of sugary starches,
  • and 500g or more of low calorie vegetables (leafy greens etc.) per person, per day.

I like this guide because, unlike many others which lump all vegetables in together, there is recognition that sugary starches like pumpkin have very different nutritional values to, say, green leafy vegetables like spinach.

The only meal plan you’ll ever need

Not only will following a ‘plate’ approach help you construct healthier meals, it can help you save money by allowing you to put together meals based on what is currently in season and on special. The problem with predetermined plans is they don’t take into account your local supermarket’s current specials or what’s in season in your area.

For example, say beef and chicken are on special this week. There’s a 3 for the price of 2 saving on canned salmon. In the vegetable section, broccoli, apples, tomatoes, and spinach might be heavily discounted. If you stick to a rigid menu plan, which specifies that you’ll be having pork with potato bake, lamb and steamed cauliflower, and tuna salad with rocket this week, you might miss out on those specials.

You could just substitute one ingredient for another (e.g. chicken for pork), but selecting what you will buy in store allows you to choose flavours that go well together.

Another reason I like the plate I mentioned above is that it uses weights. When you’re shopping, you can easily tell whether you have enough food simply by dividing what you have in your trolley by the number of people and days you’re preparing for. For example, if you’ve got 5kg of potatoes, 1kg of sweet potato, and 1kg of pumpkin in your shopping basket (7kg) for a couple for a week. You don’t need any more sugary starches and should probably start looking for more greens to round out your shop. (450g x 2 people x 7 days = 6.3kg)

If you’re used to picking up ingredients for tonight’s dinner on the way home from work, you won’t necessarily be able to easily estimate how much you need for a week or a fortnight’s worth of food. This is why, if you’re a beginner, shopping with a menu plan is a great way to get started. You’ll have a sense of how much food you need for the number of people you are feeding over the time frame you have selected.

Visit the supermarket LESS

Getting the right amount of food is important for two reasons. Firstly, if you don’t buy enough food or forget things, you’ll have to visit the shop again. Reducing your trips to the supermarket is one of the key ways to save.

According to Steve and Annette Economides, known as and authors of the book America’s Cheapest Family, people making a ‘quick trip’ to the shop to pick up a ‘few’ items usually purchase 54% more than they intended. So-called ‘impulse buys’ make up half to two thirds of total purchases at the supermarket. And 90% of us do this.

Impulse buys don’t just hurt your hip pocket, but your waistline as well. The average American woman eats over 14,300 calories a year in nutritionally negligible impulse buys. You could lose over 4 pounds – that’s around half a kilogram – just by avoiding those checkout chocolate bars. Men eat almost double the number of calories in impulse purchases, at 28,350 calories a year.

Waste LESS

Secondly, if you buy too much food, chances are, it will go to waste.

Each year, the average US citizen wastes over 240 pounds – that’s more than 100kg – of food. Around 30-40% of the US food supply is simply thrown away.

In the US, the average family throws away $2,275 worth of food a year. In the UK, households throw away around 11 meals worth of food each month. Even though they estimate they only waste 5. One report even suggests the average household wastes £24,000 pounds in a lifetime.

What could you do with that money?

Similar levels of food wastage occur in developing countries, but due to spoilage resulting from inadequate transportation and harvesting techniques. According to the United Nations Environment Program, consumers in industrialised countries waste almost as much food each year as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons). Imagine if the money industrialised countries waste on food could be devoted to improving farming practices in developing countries.

Take a scientific approach

When it comes to making savings, we’re often told to ‘shop around’. It can be tempting to visit a variety of stores to get the best deals on everything. Or to go to the shop multiple times to make sure you don’t miss any specials.

The truth is, there’s no single answer that is right for everyone.

If you are walking to the grocery store, enjoy shopping, and have the time, by all means, visit several shops. If you are visiting specialist stores – a butcher, a baker, a fruiterer – getting high quality produce and supporting local business, by all means, visit several shops.

On the other hand, if your version of ‘shopping around’ means driving across town to line the pockets of several big supermarket chains, saving a few cents here and there on loss leaders, but wasting those ‘invisible’ commodities of burnt gas and time, consider whether shopping at the one store or market might be best for you.

A balance

We found a balance in going to the market on a Saturday afternoon, when the best specials were to be found. Then, we got whatever we couldn’t buy at the market from the supermarket, on the walk home.

Everyone’s situation is different, and you should find something that suits you. There is no single ‘most efficient way’ of grocery shopping.

This does not mean taking a relativisitic ‘anything goes’ approach.

It means taking a scientific approach. Sit down and figure out how much your choices are costing you. In time, in money, in satisfaction – and make an informed decision.

After all, you’re going to be eating your whole life. And food is what powers us to make other important decisions.

The importance of nutrition

I was recently inspired by a visit to the Japanese residence here in Izumo of writer Lafcadio Hearn. He lamented the Meiji-era nutrition for Japanese students thus:

one should remember that the modern knowledge which the modern Izumo student must acquire upon a diet of boiled rice and bean-curd was discovered, developed, and synthetised by minds strengthened upon a costly diet of flesh.

In other words, how can we expect children eating very little in the way of nutritious foods to be able to tackle the ideas of those who were well fed?

Choose your challenge

Over 30% of food is wasted after it leaves the shop.Challenge 1: If you currently shop without a plan and visit the store several times a week, discover your supermarket’s discount days, try to cut down on shopping trips and take a list with you.

Got your shopping with a list down to an art? Have your trips perfectly timed? You can handle weekly, fortnightly, or even monthly shops? Then try to plan from the specials, using the plate approach.

Challenge 2: For every spoiled or wasted food item you throw away, donate an equivalent amount of money to a nutrition program like GAIN.

Today’s featured image is from a Japanese supermarket… note the individually wrapped fruit and vegetables. By selling so many items individually, I would have thought that there would be less food waste (although much more plastic waste). But as it turns out, the rate stands at a third of all food being wasted here too

If you’re interested in traveling lighter, cheaper, and for longer, please check out my recent post on Beautiful Budget Life!

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2 thoughts on “What is the most efficient way to shop?

    1. Thanks Betty! Great to get your comment. I agree that a balanced approach is important when it comes to grocery shopping. Have a great day! 🙂

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