I take grocery shopping very seriously. From the moment I select a basket inside my local Giant’s sliding doors to the parting robotic words delivered by the self-checkout machine, I’m on a mission. I navigate the aisles with the determination of a cadet completing an obstacle course, and I’m here to tell you: This level of intense foodstuff focus should be normal.
My one weapon in the grocery gantlet is my shopping list. Armed with a pen and that folded piece of scratch paper, I’m ready to take on overripe tomatoes and the elementary math required to get the best deals. Whether electronic or scribbled by hand, the grocery list is a supermarket staple in its own right. The vast majority of friends and colleagues I unscientifically polled use a list when they go to the store. Some confessed having trouble sticking to the items therein, leaving the store with extra impulse purchases, but almost all agreed on the list’s necessity.
The most satisfied list-makers prefer to keep an ongoing tally throughout the week, adding items as food gets used up. “It took me until well into adulthood to realize that if I wrote down a food I always keep around (yogurt, eggs, peanut butter) on a shopping list as soon as I ran out, it would make my shopping trips much easier and I’d actually keep stuff in stock,” one respondent said. If you share groceries with a partner or roommate, it’s best to keep this living document in a spot that’s accessible to all members of the household who will be adding to it, whether that’s on the front of the fridge or in a shared Google Doc. This ensures that no necessities are left off and minimizes last-minute scrambling.
The problem with this strategy, though, is that the list becomes a chaotic jumble of fruits and frozen dinners, cheeses and drinks, toiletries and snack foods. The majority of my survey respondents admit that they write their lists out in an entirely random order. But the list’s utility is highly diminished if you find yourself in the rear corner of the grocery store realizing that the final item is all the way back in the front. Navigating tight aisles with a squeaky-wheeled, hard-to-steer cart or a stuffed basket is hard enough; having to backtrack through the same makes the whole slog twice as bad.
The solution, tried and tested by a true American Grocery Warrior, is to order your list based on the location of items in the store. It may seem exceedingly anal, like alphabetizing your medicine cabinet or ironing your socks, but I, along with a quarter of my survey respondents, can attest to its efficacy. My supermarket times have dropped since I adopted this method, and my shopping satisfaction gains are noticeable.
For those who keep a running list, this may mean reordering the items come grocery day. But the extra few seconds of at-home preparation are worth it, and within no time, the dedicated shopper will be naturally listing things in the order of the aisles. How does one know in what order the store arranges its foodstuffs? It may take a few trips to get it right, but if you frequent the same store often, you’ll soon enough learn the layout. As you’re copying down your list, visualize yourself moving through the aisles with ease. It’s important to envision success on grocery day. Even for those who shop regularly at multiple stores, as many respondents to my survey said they do, it’s not too difficult to adapt from one store to another. Most supermarkets abide by a few focus-group-tested organizational principles: produce near the entrance, dry goods in the center aisles, dairy at the back. Grouping your grocery list based on those broad categories is already a step up from pure entropy.
When wielded correctly, the grocery list is an invaluable tool, a cudgel to guard against decision fatigue, grumpy stock boys, and cleanups in Aisle 5. And should the Game Show Network decide to reboot Supermarket Sweep, we grocery warriors will be ready.
Read more from Normal, Slate's pop-up blog about how you're supposed to do it.