Healthy Grocery Tips: The DON’Ts (& Do’s)

We’ve all gotta eat, but healthy grocery shopping isn’t always a breeze. Maybe you dread the time that it takes, the crowded grocery store, or just spending the money every week. Well, you’re not alone. Sometimes, grocery shopping can be a drag, but we can make it SO much easier on ourselves! Check out these all-too-common grocery DON’Ts, and learn what to DO instead:

#1 DON’T: Fail to Plan

This is the number one grocery mistake you can make, which is why it’s at the top of the list. Failing to plan is planning to fail! (Thanks, Ben Franklin.) Sure, grocery shopping may seem like a minor task that just has to get done. You want to get in, check out, and leave. But, it’s actually a majorly important aspect of our healthy lifestyles, and taking the time to plan can make your grocery trips more efficient.

The grocery store is where we buy the food that’s going to fuel our bodies. If we go without a plan of what we’re going to eat and which items to get, we’re less likely to make and eat healthy meals throughout the week. It’s easier to reach for convenient (but not-so-fuel-filled) options like snack foods, cereals, or frozen dinners. And, these kinds of hunt-and-find grocery trips can lead to excess spending.

Here’s what you should do:

DO: Plan out your meals for the week.

Think about the foods and meals that you want to eat. What items do you need? This may seem time-intensive, but you can make it as involved or laid back as you want. Plan out your meals very precisely, or keep it flexible. It helps me if I go through my week mentally, day by day, to plan out what I’ll be using and what I need. This way, I won’t be guessing while I’m in the store. I stretch my ingredients (and my dollar) further, and I avoid wasting food!I’ll typically think along the lines of, “Do I want salmon for lunch this week? How many days? How many avocados will I use this week? Do I need to buy more and give them time to ripen?” Just think about what kind of meals you will be eating, so you can assess which ingredients you need and in what amounts.

Try making a meal plan or calendar to help keep yourself organized! This calendar is from my Meal Prep: A Beginner’s Guide eBook. Check it out for more meal prep tips and tools to keep your weekly prep efficient!

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DO: Make a list of “favorites” or staple ingredients.

Build a list of the healthy foods that you enjoy and eat consistently. Use these as guidelines when you build your grocery list each week. Which of those staple ingredients do you need to re-stock? Which are left from your last grocery trip that still need to be eaten?

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DO: Try new foods and recipes.

If you’re trying out new healthy foods and recipes, planning is so essential. Many of us get into a groove with those “favorites,” but it’s good for all of us to switch it up sometimes! Use a recipe that you like, or one that you’d like to try, and add those ingredients to the list. Look for recipes that have some crossover with items on your “favorites” list. Think about how you can use the ingredients you buy in more than just one way!

If you’re looking for new recipes to try or ideas for dishes, do some quick online searching! Which foods do you like to eat? Are there new foods you’d like to try? Are you trying to fit more veggies into your diet? Do you need a new dinner recipe this week?

Start searching for recipes that use those ingredients you’re interested in—there are SO many out there, you’re bound to find some that excite you! As you find recipes you enjoy, save them to use again. And, don’t be afraid to get creative and switch things up a bit! Recipes are more like guidelines than rules…

#2 DON’T: Wander List-less

If it wasn’t clear by now, you do NOT want to wander around the grocery store without your handy dandy list. You’ve got to plan ahead, actually make your grocery list, organize that list, and bring it with you to the store. Shopping list-less leads to our two biggest blunders at the grocery store: buying too much food, and buying too little. 

Without a list to guide you, you’re liable to grab whichever item tickles your fancy. This can be especially problematic if you go grocery shopping while hungry… You might also see some really great deals and impulsively decide to buy a bunch of food that you didn’t intend to and that you won’t use. Those impulsive buys might be snacks and goodies that we’ll now indulge in, but wouldn’t have otherwise. And, if we buy excess food that goes to waste, it’s a real budget-buster.

Buying too little food probably won’t leave you hungry, but you’ll more likely order takeout or go out to eat. These can be delicious options, and we can make them a part of our healthy lifestyles (check out my Tips for Eating Healthy at Restaurants blog)! But, we want eating out or ordering in to be occasional indulgences. Restaurant food typically isn’t as fuel-filled as the food we can make for ourselves, and it’s more expensive! Bringing a list to the store can prevent these last-minute mishaps, so we stay on track with our healthy lifestyles and our budgets.

DO: Keep an ongoing list throughout the week.

This helps me SO much with the planning phase of grocery shopping. We have a magnetic list that sticks to the fridge where we can write down which items we’ll need for the upcoming grocery trip. As I use my staple items throughout the week, I write down what I run out of so I can be sure to re-stock those items. This way I’m less likely to run out of something that I really want or need for a healthy meal. If I have healthy foods around that I enjoy eating, I’m more likely to eat them! It may also help to keep an inventory list of your pantry and fridge items, so you don’t unknowingly buy items that you already have!

If you’re cooking for multiple people in your household, this is a great way to get everyone involved in the list-making process! (If they’re eating the food, they can help with the planning!) Find out what the other people in your house like or want to eat that week and they can help you build your shopping list. Maybe even let them write on the community list themselves with requests of items they would like.

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DO: Organize your list.

Once you’ve compiled your rough list throughout the week, take a few minutes to flush it out and reorganize it. Make sure those staple ingredients are on there, and add ingredients that you’ll need for any recipes you plan to make. I like to write the amounts of each item that I’ll need, so when I’m at the store I can just grab what I need and keep moving.

Again, as you look at all of your grocery items, start thinking about how you can use your ingredients in more than one way. If you’re trying some new recipes, maybe you don’t need as many of your staple items or favorites that week. Then, with all of my grocery items pinned down, I have to organize my list. You, of course, don’t have to do this, but it helps me to move through the store SO much more quickly and efficiently!

I typically go to one or two grocery stores regularly, so I know them well. This allows me to organize my list in the order that I tend to move through the store. One trip along my route, and I’m done! It’s a time-saver, and it prevents me from wandering off course into the snack or cereal aisles unintentionally… I prefer a handwritten list, but you can make a list on your smartphone, or even use one of the many grocery list apps out there!

DO: Be smart in the checkout line.

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  • Beware of the “express” lane! It’s not always moving so fast…
  • Guesstimate your wait time. Count the number of people ahead of you in line. Though it may seem like a line with more customers and fewer items is a better bet, you actually may be better off choosing a line with fewer people—even if they have a bunch of items. The payment process at checkout usually takes a few extra minutes per person!
  • If your store offers it, the self-checkout lanes can also be a big time-saver.
  • Put items on the conveyor belt in an order that’s easy to pack up, and easy for you to unpack. Start with harder and bulkier items, so they’re get packed first and won’t crush any of your fragile items. Save those fragile items, like eggs, greens, herbs, or produce, for the end. Group together canned goods, fridge items, frozen items, meat, and produce so you’ve already begun your organization before you get home!
  • Bring reusable grocery bags. Not only do you save time bagging and unloading because they’re bigger bags, but you’re also saving the planet!

#3 DON’T: Shop Whenever, Wherever

If you need something immediately or you’re running on a tight schedule, you’ll probably have to squeeze in a grocery trip however you can. But, if you’re planning a bigger grocery trip for the week, being smart about when and where you shop can save you some time and money.

Nobody likes getting to the grocery store only to find that the parking lot is jammed, it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic inside the store, and the items you’re looking for have already sold out for the day. Mondays and Fridays can typically be crowded—people tend to stock up at the start of the week and just before the weekend. Then, the weekend is when most people aren’t working and there are all kinds of food- and snack-oriented events happening. So when’s the time to shop?!

DO: Shop mid-week evenings.

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In general, stores aren’t as busy on weekend mornings, and shopping traffic slows down on weeknight evenings. (Of course, this may vary depending on your area, and you’ve got to shop whenever you can make the time.) The sweet spot is typically in the middle of the week during the evening hours. Around 6 or 7 pm, the store is less crowded (it’s dinner time for many people), this is usually when stores re-stock so you’ll get fresher food, and there are usually new deals starting in the middle of the week (often on Wednesdays). If you make it to the store on Wednesday (or whichever day your store’s new deals start), some stores will even allow you to apply deals from the past week and the new week!

Heading to the store later in the day can also lead you to bigger savings. This is when items with a limited shelf life—like baked goods, meat, and produce—may be further discounted. Some stickers start appearing in the morning with special discounts, and those discounts increase in size and quantity throughout the day (up to 50% by around 5 pm, and then 75% off or more after 7-8 pm)! Wednesday is a common re-stocking day for many stores, but it might vary depending on your area. Ask at your local grocery store when they re-stock and when their weekly deals begin, so you can plan to get the freshest food and the best deals!

DO: Compare deals across stores.

If you’re like me, you may have to shop at more than one store to get the items you need some weeks. By paying attention to those weekly deals at different stores, you can also plan to buy special sale items at specific stores. I typically buy the bulk of my groceries (including cheese) at Trader Joe’s, but sometimes there’s a deal on cheese at Ralph’s. Since I prefer to buy my eggs at Ralph’s anyway, I can save some money and get the cheese at Ralph’s that week!

If you’re a real super-saver, you’ve got tons of resources at your disposal to find the very best deals. (You may even know of these already.) In addition to specific stores’ websites and apps, there are other sites and apps dedicated solely to the pursuit of savings. You can browse through or download the Favado app, which both allow you to compare prices across tons of stores in your local area. Just enter the item you’re looking for and the zip code, and you’ve got deals galore!

#4 DON’T: Miss Discounts, Markdowns, or Coupons

Grocery stores are chock-full of hidden discounts, just waiting for you to find them! But, so many of us miss them just because we don’t know where to look! Finding weekly sales and coupons might seem like a time investment you just don’t have, but stores make it pretty simple today to find their deals. Ask questions at your local grocery store, get in the know, and save more money!

DO: Know your store’s coupon and savings policies.

Just about every store offers coupons and special savings! Plus, you don’t even have to clip them out by hand anymore.

  • Look at your store’s website. This is often a gold mine for printable/downloadable coupons and deals that aren’t offered in the store!
  • Sign up for email lists, or find your store’s smartphone app. Another great way to access exclusive offers, no paper or coupon books required.
  • Get on board with their loyalty program. So many stores today now offer loyalty cards or store memberships (many of which are free). These memberships can earn you points or rewards that result in special coupons and discounts (like at CVS). Or, some stores will only sell their items at the sale price if you have one of their loyalty cards (like Winn Dixie and Ralph’s)!
  • ASK the manager or staff members about their policies! I can’t emphasize this enough. Every store has policies concerning their coupons and deals. Can you stack coupons? Will the store match or accept competitor’s coupons? Do deals like “5 for $5” apply only if you buy 5 of the item, or will it apply no matter how many items you buy? Ask the simple questions and unlock the answers to big-time savings!
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DO: Look for final markdown items.

Some stores offer a free-standing rack or shelf with bargain items that are on final clearance (typically not perishables, often marked with colored stickers). Look for this display in the store, or just ask where you can find it! You may not find anything you want or need this week, but each week those markdowns will be different and something might appeal to you. Some stores also use special colored stickers to mark-down produce or bakery items. You can ask to find out what your store’s clearance stickers look like, as well as what time they start to mark-down perishable items.

DO: Stock up on sale items.

If you pay attention to the weekly deals at your store, you can plan your grocery list to capitalize on those discounts Even if you don’t stay up-to-date on those deals, you can still make the most of them when you see them. When items are on-sale, stock up on them!

Pantry items, like canned goods, pastas, or grains, generally won’t go bad. Other items, like meats and produce, can often be prepped and frozen. (Of course, you’ll need to have appropriate storage room in your pantry or freezer to do this.) You can also capitalize on sales of other items, like cleaning supplies or paper goods.

And Finally, Some Quick Tips!

DON’T: Trust every sale.

Sales can look enticing, but they’re not always the best deals. Often, sales can be a ploy to get you to buy an item you wouldn’t have otherwise, or to get you to buy more of an item than you need!

DO: Pull out your cellphone calculator.

With some quick, simple math, you can figure out the best deals for yourself. Look at the deal, the product’s size, and figure out the unit price to compare deals.

  • If the 16-oz. water bottles are 10 for $10, that’s $0.06/oz.
    • (16 oz. x 10 bottles = 160 oz. total. $10 ÷ 160 oz. = $0.06/oz.)
  • If the 32-oz. bottles are 3 for $5, that’s $0.05/oz.
    • (32 oz. x 3 bottles = 96 oz. total. $5 ÷ 96 oz. = $0.05/oz.)

You get more water bottles for the 10 for $10 deal, but you get more water for your money with the 3 for $5 deal. You have to decide which deal is right for you! (Some stores also provide unit prices on their shelves.) 

DON’T: Deceive yourself.

Don’t buy foods that you won’t eat, or foods that you don’t want to eat. Even if it’s healthy, it does you no good if you won’t eat it. waste. If you’re greedy with a sale and buy more than you can eat before it goes bad, that’s money wasted.

DO: Be supermarket savvy.

Aside from coupons and weekly deals, there are simple ways to save money each week.

  • Buy dry goods in bulk if you can.
  • Buy whole-cooked meat to save some bucks—your store may even allow you to take that cooked meat to the deli to have it sliced for free!
  • Look for produce in bulk bags or boxes. It’s typically priced by the unit (per bag or per box), rather than priced per pound—which means it can be way cheaper. And, each bulk bag/box is required (by law) to contain at least the weight displayed on the package, so more often you end up getting a few ounces more!
  • Buy produce in season. Not only will it save you money, but it’s also tastier and packed with more nutrients! Check out your local farmer’s market for fresh, budget-friendly produce that’s in season and sourced locally.

DON’T: Be shy.

If you want to learn more about your grocery store and the ways that you can save money, you’re going to need the insider scoop!

DO: Ask questions!

Find a manager or other friendly staff members and politely ask them your questions. They may not be able to accommodate all of your requests, and no two stores are exactly the same. But, most stores are extremely helpful and want your shopping experience to be a positive one. If you want to find out the secrets to saving money and getting the freshest food at your local grocery store, you’ve got to ask!

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