How to Be a Better Grocery Shopper, According to People Who Do It for a Living
Of all the routine activities in our life, grocery shopping may not feel like an area that needs improvement. Whether you actively seek out your favorite butcher for a lengthy discussion about what to cook this weekend or flip on autopilot as you cruise the aisles, you've got grocery shopping down. What could you possibly have to learn? Well, if you've ever shopped in the company of a private chef, you might be amazed at how they avoid the mayhem and maximize their time. Here's what two private chefs who grocery shop for a living want to tell you: from the best days to shop down to what you should buy.
1. Shop the perimeter. You may have noticed that every grocery store—no matter the brand—is organized in a certain way: the produce, dairy, bread, seafood, and meat can be found at the perimeter of the store, while everything else is consolidated in the center. As private chef Isabella Bedoya warns, “stores do this purposefully try to get you to buy more.” You can avoid overspending, she says, by sticking to the perimeters and not entering aisles.
2. Look for dry bulk sales. Private chef Lauren Rose O’Leary recommends stocking up on beans, whole grains, flours, and spices from the dry bulk bin aisles—when those items are on sale. Why? “These products have a long shelf life and can get pricey,” O’Leary says, “so seize the sale when you find it.”
3. Buy your meat from the butcher’s counter. Prepackaged meat may be easier to grab, but the meat at the butcher’s counter is better all around, of course, and Bedoya warns that packaged meat is a corner you shouldn't cut. “Ordering from the butcher gives you more freedom in customizing your cuts and orders, but better yet, it’s fresher than the cuts that have been sitting on the shelves for hours. Plus, you can consult with the butcher to ensure that you are getting the best cuts for your recipes.”
4. Go shopping in the early morning. Bedoya says she prefers to go shopping as early as 7 a.m. on weekdays. “As the saying goes ‘the early bird gets the worm,’” Bedoya says. “Being one of the first shoppers at the store gives you an advantage—you get to select the freshest produce the store will offer that day. I’ve noticed when I shop late nights, it’s hard for me to find quality produce because stores tend to sell out of fresh produce by the night time.”
O’Leary agrees. “I find the best produce and meat selection in the morning after an hour or two of the store being open,” she says. “Deliveries have been made, cold cases and refrigeration sections have been stocked, and the staff is up to date on what will be coming in the rest of the day. Battling the aisles in the afternoon or evening is not only a frustrating time to navigate the store, but produce, meat, and fish selections are usually picked over.”
5. Pay attention to sales—and not just because they mean savings. It’s not about saving a buck—though that’s a bonus. “Stores tend to run sales and promotions on produce that’s in season,” Bedoya says, and seasonal fruits and vegetables have the best, most vibrant flavors. “So, pay attention to sales on produce because it’s an indicator that the fruits or vegetables are in season,” Bedoya explains.
6. Shop on Tuesdays, if possible. Most grocery stores run promotions from Wednesday through Tuesday, Bedoya says. If you shop on a Tuesday, you’re avoiding the crowd and you can still score last week’s deals. And if the store is sold out of a certain sale item, “a manager will usually write you a raincheck slip,” Bedoya says, “which can be redeemed to purchase out-of-stock items later at the sale price available at the time of your visit.”
7. Make your grocery list based on the layout of your store. Chances are good to great that you frequent the same grocery store each week—and you know just where the beans, bread, and everything are located. And Bedoya recommends you make your shopping list based on that layout. She practices what she preaches: “I tend to write down my shopping lists based on the layout of the store and when I arrive it’s a smooth transaction from the entrance to the checkout line,” she explains. “When you go shopping with a layout-based list, your trip will be a lot faster, organized, and efficient. And if you stick to your list you will also save money by avoiding impulse buys that could take you over your budget.”
8. Leave some room for inspiration. Both Bedoya and O’Leary make grocery lists when they shop, and recommend you do too. But O’Leary recommends going off-list occasionally. “Grocery lists are important,” she says, “but sometimes we get inspired by beautiful, fresh produce that isn’t on our list. Be open to experimenting with new ingredients and trying them out in your recipes for a fresh, creative take on a classic dish or a new-to-you meal.”