Shopping Smart at the Supermarket

By Janet Potts, RD, LD

June 1st, 2008


I’ve never paid so much for a cart of groceries than I did recently. My husband and I have a game we play when we get to the checkout: “How much is this cart of groceries?” My teenager is a math genius and can pre-calculate the bill to the penny if she pays attention. But we were all shocked when the checker told us our latest total. With transportation costs skyrocketing as well as the demand for grains to use for fuel, we most likely have seen the peak in food prices. Perhaps the tips that follow will help you make the wisest use of your food dollars.


1. Fuel your body before you shop. Hunger is a common reason for over-purchasing and buying items you don’t need. If you can’t shop after a meal, a light healthy snack may be a good idea.


2. Make a list and stick to it, for the most part. Making a list before you go will help you avoid return trips as well as making too many impulse purchases. But do keep an eye out for unadvertised sales on items you regularly buy. And be flexible enough to change your menus and lists if key ingredients aren’t available or aren’t at their freshest.


3. Organize your list. Group items on the page according to location in the grocery store so that you can move through the store with efficiency. Here’s a link to an electronic list you can print and simply circle the items needed. You may want to customize your own list for your favorite store or needs. Check out the shopping list.


4. When it comes to sales circulars and advertisements, check the store policies in your area. A few may actually price-match other stores’ sales. This is very handy as you get all the best deals without driving all over town. Know the rules though, as some stores require you to have the other store’s ad in hand and do not honor other store’s coupons.


5. Use sales circulars and ads to plan weekly menus. Try planning at least four or five meals for the week and post those on your refrigerator. Tonight while one meal is cooking, see what you can pre-prep for tomorrow. Just knowing that you have a jump-start on tomorrow’s dinner will make it easier to avoid a fast-food stop on the way home.


6. Become familiar with prices of items you buy frequently. You’ll soon find that advertised specials don’t always translate into bargains. Also, if you find that a good deal is sold out, ask for a “rain check.”


7. Plan for creative use of leftovers, choosing foods that can be used in several different ways. For example, try our Greek Pita Pocket recipe. The meat filling is not only great in a pita, it’s fantastic over rice. You can even use it as a pizza topping. Another example: roasted chicken in your MP5. Tonight it’s roasted chicken but tomorrow turn the leftovers into chicken and dumplings, chicken and rice or chicken salad.


8. Shop the perimeter of the store first. Generally, the foods that are best for you are found here: produce, breads, low-fat dairy, lean meats and fish. But don’t forget the middle isle nutrition: whole grains, cereals and beans.


9. Shop seasonal when it comes to produce. Know what is in season and what is not. Fresh strawberries for instance are at their peak in the spring and early summer, and they’re cheaper and more flavorful. During the winter, it may be more economical to buy them frozen.


10. Buy fruits at various degrees of ripeness. For example, buy a few bananas at your favorite stage of ripeness and a few that are greener. You’ll have a few to enjoy now and when you are ready for more, the greener ones will have ripened.


11. Buy local when possible. Often local foods cost less because it took less time and fuel to get them to you. Check to see if there are farmer’s markets in your area.


12. Use coupons wisely. Sometimes coupons aren’t the best deals. Carry a calculator to determine the best price per ounce. Don’t forget to search for coupons for your favorite products online.

13. Larger quantities are not always the cheapest per ounce. Neither are the smaller ones. Use the unit pricing posted on store shelves to determine the best deal.


14. When trying out new products, try the trial size or smallest first to see if you like it. Better to buy a larger size next time than to waste a larger box now.


15. Try out generic products and store brands. Often these are of excellent quality. Cereals, grains and yogurt are excellent items to start with. Buy the smallest quantity first to make sure your family likes it.


16. Stock up on nonperishable foods when they are on sale. Some items like cereal and box mixes that have long shelf lives still have an expiration date, so be sure to look for that.


17. Many staple foods last a very long time when properly stored, and can help stretch your food dollars. Beans, pastas, brown rice, oatmeal and barley are inexpensive ways of adding protein, complex carbohydrate and fiber to soups, stews and casseroles.


18. A good rule of thumb is the more processed a food is, the more expensive and less healthy it is. Processing is often a way to add more fat, calories, sodium and sugar and often removes nutrients. Milk products are often an exception to this rule however, as many are processed to remove fat and calories. If you do opt for convenience, do quick label checks to compare products for fat, calories, sugar and sodium. Compare the cost of convenience foods with those made from scratch.


19. Cook extra portions of foods that freeze well. Good examples here are some soups and casseroles. On days when you just don’t feel like cooking, take advantage of your previous efforts.


20. Do your shopping during the off-peak times. Just after work, weekend mornings, and just before a holiday or winter storm seem to be the busiest times.


21. Think before you go to the checkout line. Look over the items that you selected. Will you use 100% of everything in your cart? What items were impulse buys? Do you really need them? If not, put them back.


22. Pay attention at the checkout. Know the prices and monitor them as the checker rings them up. Check your receipt too. Some stores will give you the item at no charge if you catch an error.


23. Get to know your store. Not just the layout, but the employees too. Find out what days produce and various perishable items are delivered and shop accordingly.


24. Check out pricing at warehouse clubs on items you use in large quantities. Be aware though that impulse purchases of large quantity items can really add up.

25. Form a “shopping pool” with neighbors and friends. Agree to shop sales for each other. You can even split large boxes of some items.


26. Recycle and reuse what you can. Take your own bags, whether they’re paper, plastic or cloth, to the grocery store.


There’s so much to choose from in today’s grocery stores. It’s not uncommon for a supermarket to carry 50,000 items. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and off track. Hopefully these tips will help sharpen your focus on healthy, economical food purchases. Shopping smart not only saves your time and money, it reduces waste going to landfills, reduces manufacturing waste and pollution, reduces energy consumption, and helps protect our environment.


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