best shopping list ever

Almost unconsciously, we adjust habits to the rhythm of the times.  In hard times, groceries are purchased ¾ of the time using a shopping list and food is cooked at home.  In good times, just 30% of us use a shopping list and meals are more often deli-prepared, or “takeout.”  We all know which is healthier—the home-cooked meals.  So good times or bad, if you want to look better, live longer, and enjoy better health, stick with home cooking.  But there is more to home cooking.

Dan Buettner wrote a book on longevity titled The Blue Zones based on his study of communities where people lived longer than 100 years.  (In a later post, we’ll discuss their secrets to longevity, but yes, they’re a lot like Word of Wisdom Living.)  One group was in Okinawa so Buettner sought the help of Sayoko Ogata, who he remembered as a hard-working, well-paid Tokyo business executive.  She had disappeared from Tokyo—he finally found her far from the fast lane, in a small village on a green island, now married to a humble schoolteacher, with two small children.  What had happened to Ogata?  Perspective.  An interview with a centenarian had brought her face-to-face with the wisdom of the ages and her busy career, by comparison, seemed both barren and bereft of meaning.  In her new life, she explained to Buettner, she was a mother, a wife, a person who cooked to “put love into my food. . . . I take time each night to think about the people around me . . . to reflect.  I’m not chasing the carrot anymore.” 

There is a lesson here that every homemaker—whether you work or are able to stay-at-home—knows.  But the lesson is often lost in the hustle bustle of life.  We don’t cook at home because it’s cheaper, or even just because it’s healthier.  We cook because it shows love, and because eating food endowed with that love is what binds families together and helps give meaning to life.  

With Ogata’s epiphany in mind, we can better discuss the prelude to cooking—planning and shopping.  Here are three keys:

1. Plan—write a weekly menu and use it to prepare a shopping list like the one shown above, available here.  The first year’s menus are hardest; in the following years you can merely refine the saved menus.

2. Shop—to reduce costs, eat natural foods in season and follow sales (most stores now post online), and consider coupons.  Coupons are a preference item—if you like collecting coupons do that, but limit yourself to things you normally use.

3. Cook—it’s cheaper and healthier to do your own cooking.  Preparation reduces hassle (during busy weeks focus on meals prepared in 30 minutes) and experience builds competence.  Training children to help provides a double benefit—with experience they become truly helpful plus they learn good habits.

Digital apps for menu planning and shopping are on the horizon, but for now a well-designed shopping list and a #2 wooden pencil seem to work best.  Your grandmother likely used this method and perhaps your mother, though in the faux-prosperity of the ‘80s and ‘90s many abandoned the practice in favor of processed or prepared foods.  People used to get everything at the local supermarket, but now usually shop at three types of stores, which we've included on our shopping list:

1. A warehouse store like Costco, with rock-bottom prices on bulk items.

2. A health food store with local produce plus bins of grains and other affordable dry goods.  (There are also outdoor Farmer’s Markets.)

3. The supermarket, which now seems more a large convenience store.

When I do the weekly shopping, I go to my warehouse store first (where I can usually get the best prices), then my local health food store (where we buy produce and bulk items not available at the warehouse store), and then to the supermarket (for items we couldn't find elsewhere).

Please comment with any changes or suggestions for the shopping list; we’ll incorporate as many as we can so that this can be the best shopping list ever!  If you prefer, a combined menu and shopping list is available here.

And may I ask a favor? Try leaving your shopping list in the grocery store cart when done, for others to discover. We'll spread the word, one shopping cart at a time.

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Reader Comments (25)

First, I'm really enjoying this blog.

Second, I'm working to plan weekly menus. I really love this particular menu planner printable. The aesthetics of it please me:

April 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAgathaMChristie

I use a shopping list app for my smart phone. I always have my phone handy, so when I'm out of something I can quick add it to the list. The one I use can create lists by store so I know what I need from each store, and it keeps track of items you frequently enter, so you can go to the master list and just check off items that you need. I like to scroll through it to see things I've bought in the past and it helps me think of meal options as I see key ingredients. It definately helps to make sure I don't just wander through aisles buying items. I can focus instead on buying ingredients for meals rather than just readymade meals or snacks.

April 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

Julie, what app is it? I've tried a couple, but haven't found one that I like.

I just use a small notebook that I almost always have with me. But I separate into categories: Trader Joe's and Fairway (our everything grocer + health food). Since we don't have space to store much from Costco I compare price and quality between our two markets and purchase accordingly. And I attempt to get to the farmer's market every week, but that doesn't always happen. When I can, I rent or borrow a car (we live in NYC) to get to Costco to buy yeast, honey (for our homemade bread) and canned tomatoes (Nina brand is our fave) for a huge pot of pasta sauce.

April 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiasa

Kiasa - I use the OI Shopping List version 1.2.6 for my android phone. Its very no frills, but I like it.

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

I'm a huge fan of shopping with a list, though was not always that way. Over the past few years, I've learned that it helps me spend less, waste less, and put more thought into the food I buy and meals I create.
And I love the idea of leaving our shopping lists for others: vigilante shopping list sharers! I know I'd be intrigued (and probably inspired) if I came across such in my next trip to the store.

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentershokufeh

For budgeting purposes, I recently added a little note of how much each thing costs on my list. Instead of adding it up as I'm shopping, I add it up beforehand to see about how much I'm going to spend and cross off anything I can live without. I don't like to be surprised when I get to the checkout! Of course, prices do fluctuate, but it gives me a fairly accurate estimate (within 5 dollars).

If you don't know what you buy regularly, I heard a good tip about saving a few grocery receipts to help you get a list started.

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha


Can you post a used grocery list that you have laying around? I'm not sure whether you put check marks next to stuff you've bought, or how you know which ones you need that week? or specifics like which spices to buy.


April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCamaronO

One thing I learned from someone is to shop the outside/edges of the store--around it and not down the aisles. The main things we want are not in the middle--produce, meat, dairy, etc; and all the junk is found in the aisles. And if we wander down each aisle, we are more prone to impulse buy. Sometimes I try to write my grocery list in order of how I walk the store, then I just go from thing to thing and don't stop to "shop".
Glad you made the comment about "Coupons are a preference item—if you like collecting coupons do that, but limit yourself to things you normally use". I have tried coupons before but find that most are for things I just don't need but sometimes with a coupon I feel like I should buy cause it is a good deal! If I happen to find a coupon for something that I buy often, then I'll use it, otherwise I don't do too much. it just isn't for me.
Thanks for these great posts!

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

I'm a stay at home mother, and with 2 little ones it is hard to focus on anything else but the basics (at even that gets hard!). For various reasons I have really thrown myself into home cooking nutritious meals, and it makes me feel so good knowing what my kids are eating and that I have prepared it. It is a labor of love for me. Menu planing is an area where I can use a lot of work though! I'm excited to try your menu/shopping lists, thanks for posting!

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEsther

I really love this blog. Thank you for sharing the list. Without one I find myself just roaming aimlessly in the store and throwing out spoiled food at home. Hate that.

April 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterliz

I liked the comment about putting love into your cooking. I was recently at my favorite spice store and they were handing out magnetic stickers. I took it home and put it on my frig. I catch myself reading it all the time. It says "Love People. Cook Them Tasty Food." It reminds me to put the love back into the food for the people I love.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLulu

I'm new to your blog but I love what I've read. I'm a stay at home mom with five kids. I've learned that planning meals and preparing a grocery list not only saves time and money but sanity on busy week nights. A few years ago I made a grocery list of items I normally buy from the warehouse stores and saved it on my computer. Now I plan meals for two weeks at a time. I get my kids involved. I figure if it's a dinner they've asked for they'll eat it. Then I print up my grocery list and mark off the ingredients I need from the warehouse store for the recipes I'm going to make and on the back side I write down the items I need from the grocery store and health food store. Now when I make my grocery trips I know exactly where to go and what I need which also saves a lot of time wandering around the store aimlessly.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Lauren, you're a pro. Do you save your menus?

April 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Love the idea of leaving the list in the cart. Wouldn't that be so much better to find than a bit of garbage?!

Thanks for sharing all of these great ideas each week, Skip. Stopping by is a highlight of the week!

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCMN

i've got to agree, it's so much better shopping with a list. maybe i'll move it up a notch and actually make a meal plan so i know how much of what to buy. this is a pretty cool site.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGriffin

Skip, I too am loving reading your blog.

As for shopping I'm diligent about using a list, and my husband and I have taken it even a step further, for health and money savings...we do one "Big Shop" a month for most food stuffs, staple grains, beans, spices, some canned goods, nut butters, oils, etc. And then one very "small shop" weekly just to one store for dairy and produce. Over time I've created a pretty extensive inventory list in a notebook of the items we keep on hand in our basement pantry and deep freeze. Then monthly we do an inventory of what we have run short on and I make out our "Big Shop" list organized by aisle in the two stores that we use. Someday I'll go it all digitally, but for now, I still use pen and paper for this.

During the season I also add a section to the list for farm stand and farmers market. We also have a share in a local meat CSA (community supported agriculture) for local, organic, grass-fed meat, a seasonal fish CSA for weekly fresh sustainably caught seafood, and a winter vegetable CSA for what we can't grow in the garden. This means we eat much more seasonally, and use food storage staples wisely. We've saved significantly by doing this not only in time and gas but in random purchases and whims. We pay for our lamb, pork, fish and chicken once a year, in their season, and we try not to buy any other meat than what we've bought locally, from our farmers. Now we can do the big shop in two stores in less than an hour (not counting unloading at home) and we eat great healthy foods almost entirely from scratch.

Now if only I could get myself in the habit of a weekly meal plan that might even be better. And I'm working on a price book to bring with me to the store, just to keep track of overall prices.

As it is now, we plan about a day ahead with some mega-cooking over the weekends, and we do most of our "shopping" in our own basement pantry. We save well over $300 a month shopping this way, and we eat better!

Thanks for all the great information and inspiration. I love your writing!

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

Marie, you are remarkably advanced in your shopping. I'm putting you on the superstar list. Best.

April 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Sorry I didn't see your question Skip, my husband just pointed it out to me. We're becoming huge fans of your blog. I use Google's online calendar and write my dinner's at the top of each day so I can see it on my smart phone or on my computer and know what I'm making for the day. Since I know I have all the ingredients I need I don't have to worry about that, just making sure I have enough time to prepare the dinner assigned for that day. Putting it on my calendar is also handy so I can make easier dinners on nights when my kids have a million activities. We hardly ever eat out so I have a range of easy dinners, crockpot dinners, and oven dinners. Also, since they're on my calendar I can look back for quick ideas when I'm coming up for my list for the next two weeks. It saves time and I'm all about saving time. I also have different dinners depending on the time of year. Cooler things for summer and warmer things for dinner. I've been doing this for about 7 years so I have a good list of dinner ideas but I still try to add new things every so often. The benefit is that by consistently serving the same thing year after year my kids now eat fish and salad and tell me how much they love it. Consistency is key.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Having a plan for shopping and menus for dinner is definitely the way to go. My best tool for shopping is the splash shopper software from splash data. I love it. It keeps an list of everything I shop for plus the price and an option for coupons. I just go through and check off what I want each week, check off if there is a coupon ( or price match) and I have a subtotal before I go to the store. As I check off items at the store it keeps a running total for me which is great because I only shop with cash. It can keep multiple lists for different stores, and categorizes each item so you can get everything in that category and not have to double back. I adjust the price as I shop for each item so that I have an accurate total. That part takes a little time, but it is well worth it. I have a monthly rotation of dinner menus broken down into four weeks. I just look at what week I'm on, plug the dinner into each day I'm set. That way I don't have to keep reinventing the menu wheel. The only downside to the digital is list is making sure your battery is fully charged before you leave. Plus I can create a master list of ingredients for 1 month, then multiply the list by 3 and I know what and how much to buy for my 3 month supply. I taught a class about this at relief society one night and I was surprised at how many people don't plan.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeanette Petersen

OH how I am loving this blog! I am terrible at meal planning so this is great help. I did want to say to be aware that just because it is at CostCo doesn't mean it's cheaper. Some things are and some are not, even non sale item. Also, they change their prices so much so you may check once and then they raise the price and you don't notice. Make sure to check on those items and not just assume. Also, my business minded hubby has pointed out that when you buy in bulk you think you have lots and its cheap so you use more and waste more. I have discovered this is so true. We have a idfferent mind set if the bottle or bag is bigger. Also, I order my grains online from You have to pick it up on the side of the road but if you buy lots of grains it is way cheaper and their grain is organic (I don't even know if that really means anything, but whatever). I also buy gallon jars of raw honey that is more affordable than a health food store. Thanks again

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdana

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