It used to be there was nothing I loved more than an impromptu afternoon grocery shop. But in the age of COVID-19, grocery shopping no longer feels like a fun distraction. So I’ve changed my mindset. I now think of my grocery runs like a football play: something I carefully plan but then adjust in the moment. Apparently all it took for me to get super into sports metaphors was an unprecedented global pandemic.
I’ve taken it upon myself to be my family’s designated meal planner and grocery shopper. And in a household of four adults, we go through quite a lot of food. But my goal is still to reduce my number of grocery runs and minimize the amount of time I spend in the store. I aim to shop once a week, or even once every two weeks if I can manage. With mask on and cart freshly sanitized, here are some tips I’ve learned about how to make your grocery shopping experience as streamlined and stress-free as possible.
The ideal grocery visit starts with a detailed shopping list. Personally, I create a two-week meal plan and build my list around the ingredients for those meals. But however you’re handling cooking these days, be specific with your list. Don’t just write down “bell peppers,” make a note of exactly how many you want. (For my last trip that meant six green ones and five red ones—like I said, we go through a lot of food.) A detailed list will save you mental stress in the store and make it quicker to grab exactly what you want. And with the security of knowing you’re buying everything you actually need, you can still enjoy the fun of an impulse buy. There’s nothing better than an impromptu quarantine coffee cake!
You can shop quicker and more effectively if you write your list in the order of where things are in your store. At the very least, you can separate items by section. Produce, dairy, and meat tend to be placed on the perimeter of the store, while pantry goods will be in the main aisles, and frozen foods and household goods are usually off to one side. But the better you get to know your store, the more efficient you can be. I’ve even turned it into a bit of a game to pre-plan my path through the produce section and then order my list aisle by aisle. Hey, we’ve gotta get our fun where we can these days.
Of course, the store might not have everything on your list, so it’s good to have a backup plan in mind, particularly if you’re shopping for someone else. There’s nothing worse than having to send a panicked text mid-shop. So discuss details and contingencies before you go. Does your sister want sweetened or unsweetened almond milk? If the store is out of your roommate’s favorite potato chips does he want a different flavor or should you skip them entirely? If it’s a super specific item, have them google a photo of exactly what they want so you know what to look for. And if all else fails, ask whoever you’re shopping for to keep their phone near them when you leave for the store. That way if you do have to send a clarification text, you can at least be guaranteed a quick response.
While we’re thankfully past the point of panic buying, it can still be helpful to maintain a little stockpile at home, especially since that makes you less susceptible to the whims of what your store does or doesn’t have that week. When it comes to the items my family uses most frequently, like canned black beans and coffee, I throw one or two into my cart each time I go to the store so that we always have a surplus at home. But you can also alternate your bulk buys based on aisle.
For instance, last week I tackled the baking aisle and picked up an extra baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract, brown sugar, flour, and salt so that we’re set on those for a while. On my next trip, I’ll tackle the canned vegetable aisle and stock up on extra crushed tomatoes and canned mushrooms. This slow and steady approach reduces the number of aisles you have to visit during a given trip, and it’s less stressful than doing one giant stockpile shop (especially if you don’t have a car to lug your groceries home). Plus it can help spread the bulk buy cost from week to week.
Given its relatively short expiration date, milk could be the item determining how often you need to make a run to the store. But not all dairy expires so quickly. Hard cheeses, sour cream, and even half & half can have surprisingly long shelf lives, assuming they remain unopened in your fridge until you need them. So treat yourself to the luxury of some backup creamers and parmesan to ensure you’re not living at the mercy of your dairy. Oh, and take advantage of an age-old Midwestern tip, which is to look toward the back of the dairy case to find newer items with the latest expiration dates.
Grocery stores tend to be more crowded on weekends and in the late afternoons/early evenings, which can make it harder to shop efficiently while maintaining safe social distancing. If you can, aim to shop at non-peak hours and experiment a bit to find out when those are in your area. My local suburban supermarket is surprisingly crowded at 8 a.m., but 9 a.m. is the perfect sweet spot between the early and late morning rush. I’ve also had luck shopping late in the evening, around 7 or 8 p.m., although the downside is that the store can be pretty picked over by that point. Also, remember that a lot of stores are still setting aside early morning hours for seniors and at-risk individuals, so steer clear of those times if you don’t fall into those categories (or take advantage of them if you do!).
While you want your grocery runs to be as efficient as possible, you also don’t want to lose your mind in the process. Shopping in a pandemic can be incredibly stressful, especially when you’re buying more food than you’re used to. So rather than just throw everything into your cart and end up with a nightmare of squished produce at the end, take a few extra seconds to place things neatly or reorganize as you go. If I know I’m buying a lot of canned goods, I’ll sometimes swing by that aisle first and make a base layer at the bottom of the cart that everything else can sit on top of. For me, at least, an orderly cart means an orderly mind, which helps me keep my cool during the stress of shopping. Plus it makes checkout a little easier too.
Though the goal is to get in and out quickly, slow and safe is better than efficient but reckless. Wait a few moments to let someone else finish up in the tomato section rather than break social distancing guidelines to squeeze in and grab your romas. This is the time to be extra courteous to your fellow shoppers and especially to the store employees, who are working on the front lines through all of this. Oh, and if you need an extra moment to double-check your list or rearrange your cart, I’ve found the greeting card section to be your best bet for a little momentary solitude.