Times change. Norms of society changes. Welcome to a new era, where men, chances are, you’re going to be thrusted into a world of shopping carts, barely-legible grocery lists, cold winter evenings, and very little patience. Then you have to deal with budgets, food prices, screaming children running around while their parents compare two jars of mayonnaise, old people who don’t watch where they’re pushing their carts, and high-volume days usually coinciding with monthly benefits. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Fortunately, as a
domesticated man of efficiency, order, reason, and science, I’m here to tell you how you can effectively shop when the time arises for you to hold up your end of the relationship agreement with your other half, and come out of the fray in mostly one piece. In bags. That was a joke. No? Okay.
I realize that doing what you might think are womanly things in today’s world are beneath your incredible god-given talents to infuse noxious gases into couches during football season, and that you probably think I am some sort of pansy-ass lady-man who allows his wife to cup him by the balls wherever we go. If you believe that, you’re probably the type of man your kids probably talk about in their therapy sessions, or lost half his net worth in the divorce. I’m not pro-feminism or any of that nonsense, I have perfectly legit reasons to want to be in control of the grocery store process when it’s my turn to shop, because a lot of things depend on it. I don’t think I am speaking to the majority here, rather, I am speaking to the minority. Most of you guys know what I’m talking about. We all took classes in school to prepare for budgets, cost analysis, and other such shit that enables us to live smart, rather than having someone else do it for us, or living on a diet of Twinkies and Big Macs all week. The rest of you had parents that did this for you when you were kids. I watched mine clip coupons, shop wholesale, and buy in bulk. We weren’t rich. We didn’t have delivery service. We hiked that shit out to the car and in to the house. My first job was bagging groceries. I’m not an economist or an expert at home and living. I’m just a guy who kind of knows what he is talking about. Sometimes.
So it’s serious fucking business. Deal with that.
On to the tips. We’re going to attack this from theory to plate. Stay with me.
What the Hell Do You Want to Eat?
This is probably the most difficult part of shopping. What do you eat? What do you make? If you’re College Kid A, you probably just hit your cafeteria. They plan out this shit for you, just like your parents did. You consider the grocery store a place where they sell soda and snacks. You probably couldn’t name six things out of the produce section that weren’t major fruits or potatoes. But for Generic Family A or Married Couple B, these people have to decide what to make, and buy the ingredients to make said meals. From a store. How novel!
There are millions of ways to go about this, so I cannot possibly cover them all, but here are a few of my personal Top Tips:
- Own a cookbook, or use the internet to look up recipes for things you like to eat – Easiest way to get ideas of what you want is from what other people have made. Not that I don’t mind the occasional box Mac and Cheese, but my wife makes way better Mac and Cheese using real ingredients. Plus it tends to feed more for less, so family-style is important.
- Trying to lose weight or eat better? Substitute different protein sources for certain dishes – Every tried ground turkey meat in tacos? You can taste the difference, but it’s not really that much of one depending on how you season it, and even so, buckle up buttercup, it’s better for you. Ground turkey and ground chicken can be used instead of beef in a lot of recipes that call for ground beef and make that dish much better to eat for the health conscious person. Also, if you like Chicken Parmesan, consider using egg whites and fat-free grated parmesan cheese mixed with some garlic salt, paprika, and whatever other spices you like to coat chicken in. Of course if you’re making hamburgers, stick to real beef for that, because anything less is un-American. Sorry vegan/vegetarians. Buy yourself a good book on alternative cooking methods and switch some shit up. It’ll help.
- Plan a menu out for one or two weeks, or until your next shopping trip – If you know what you’re eating, you know what you’re buying. Make sure it’s enough to cover until the next shopping trip. Because you know you’re going to “have nothing” on Tuesday, cave in, and get McDonalds. How does that cheeseburger taste? Like guilt?
- Check your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry before making your list – Unless you love tomato soup and want to eat it for the next month, you’re a hoarder, or you’re preparing for the end of days, take stock of what you have so you don’t buy what you don’t need. Unless you like spending money. Please let me know. Cause I got a Newegg wishlist that could use some love. Also, clean out those things to prepare for putting in what you buy.
Making a List, and Checking it Twice
Once you know what you’re getting, now you have to make the list. Unless you can remember a bunch of stuff in your head, people use lists. I’ve yet to find a good mobile app that does what I think should be done with grocery lists, and that is categorizing the list by the aisles in your store, something that requires stores to have their aisle configurations online to do, so we have to do this the old-fashioned way with paper and pens. List-making gets far easier over time, because the more you go, the more you know where shit is and you can blaze through the store.
Update (2015-12-19): I’ve begun to experiment with using OneNote for Android for shopping lists, due to the fact that it can sync with a Microsoft account on a PC, and has stylus controls to allow you to cross things or write things with a tablet pencil or stylus. So save a tree, use your smartphone.
- Categorize everything by major department/section – Produce, Meat, Bakery, Seafood, Dairy, bread, etc. Grocery chains configure their stores so that you can efficiently knock out your list pretty quickly, but when you find yourself going from one end of the store to the other constantly grabbing one thing, you’re wasting time.
- Be Specific – Do you know how many kinds of cheese there are? How about butter? Baking chocolate? I bet you think there are only one kind. I want to shop at your grocery store, must be a small and cozy place. Right, turns out there are many kinds, shapes, sizes, and brands of many things. I don’t know how many times I’ve bought something, come home, and found it was the wrong thing because the list wasn’t specific. Women, this tip is for you, when you ask for “Yogurt” and not “Yoplait Light ALL THE BERRIES FLAVOR 16oz tub”, you’re gonna have a bad time. Or you’re going to get an annoying phone call while you’re busy. Save us the trouble, know what you want, and write that down. In detail.
Where to Shop
There are a lot of grocery stores. Major chains, minor chains, local marts, specialty stores, you name it. Here in the northeast, the major powers of food delivery and sales are Stop and Shop, Big Y, Price Chopper, Wal-Mart, and Target. Selection and price vary, but typically you will find more fresh ingredients and specialty selections at supermarkets than you will at Wally World. They may carry groceries, but a lot of it are processed foods, frozen selections, and drinks. Go there when you need stuff for a football party. Personally, I shop at Aldi and Stop and Shop. Aldi carries most of the important staples for much cheaper. What I can’t get there, which usually amounts to be some slightly obscure things, or fat-free something-or-other, I get at Stop and Shop. The price difference is astounding.
- Buy wholesale or in bulk of certain items – Proteins like chicken and pork, cleaning and bathroom supplies like paper towels and toilet paper, mouthwash, toothpaste, things that you can store in bulk that will not perish. Get a Sam’s Club/CostCo/BJs membership for these. You will save a lot on things that can be frozen for long periods of time or stored indefinitely. Don’t bother with short-term consumables like milk, eggs, and bread. The price difference is not much between there and a regular grocery store, unless you want to consolidate your shopping to one place, but I find that paying fifteen bucks for extra jars of pasta sauce I might not use doesn’t seem like a wise investment, especially if you live on a tight budget.
- Take advantage of localized sales – Big Y here in Connecticut and Massachusetts often does “Buy X Get Y Free” sales, often higher free quantities. This is an excellent way to stock up on some staples one week and cross off you’re next trip list. Others will throw certain items on sale like baking items for Christmas or meat during Super Bowl Sunday weekend. Check your local newspaper or online and see who is doing what, and hit them up during a trip for things you might need. If you’re on a budget though, don’t stock up on more than you can consume short-term. There will always be new sales.
- Consider local chains for certain items – Around here we have a small family-owned chain called Highland Park Market. They were my first job as a bagger, and I also worked deli and bakery. They carry excellent deli, bakery, and meat products that are perfect for dinners, parties, or other special occasions. However, they are slightly more pricey than your regular supermarket or wholesale, so it’s a consideration I usually reserve for certain occasions. But, if you need a quick lunch or dinner option and you’re nearby, these type of places usually have excellent prepared lunch and dinner items they make fresh daily that are reasonably priced, and are a better alternative to fast-food.
D-Day (or G-Day?)
So you’re in the store. Crossed into the fourth dimension. There is a lot to take in. But if you’ve been following me so far, you’ve fought half of the battle. From here, you just have to follow your list, check prices, and get out without too much trouble. Fortunately, even here I’ve found a few ways to make the process go a little quicker.
- Try not to deviate from the list – Yeah, you came across the beer aisle, or the chips, or frozen pizza. But if you’re on a budget, you can’t afford to deviate from your list, it’s made for you to get in, get what you need, and get out. If you’re like me and you don’t want to spend all day in the store, you can’t afford to stop and think “Man, should I really get this tub of ice cream?” Put it down. Step away. You have a mission, soldier. Failure is not an option.
- Bring your own bags – You might think I am being eco-friendly or there is a tree I am chained to when I say you should bring your own bags. You would be wrong. Al Gore is a nutjob and the only thing I am chained to is a cat. Bringing your own bags saves you time, and makes carrying all this shit inside your house much easier. Consider this, you cannot stack items neatly or arrange them in a plastic bag without it expanding outwards or things falling out. A re-usable bag is much like old paper bags, it stands upright, allows you to play Food Tetris with it and achieve maximum configuration, and won’t fall all over the place in your car if you’re doing it right. But more importantly, you can bag while you shop if you have a grocery store, like Stop and Shop, that utilizes the hand-held scan-as-you-go scanners. Tag, bag, tag the register, pay, done. Wave goodbye to the plebs in the regular checkout lanes waiting behind overflowing carts. You’re the Shopper of the Future Master Race. If your store lacks these, still bring them anyway. Have you seen China’s smog?
- Self-Checkout Lanes are your friends – A savvy shopper knows the self-checkout exists for one purpose, and that is for people like me who don’t need someone else’s help to know how to rock. I’ve often quipped that I am more efficient rocking these than most people are at ATM machines. It’s one of the most simplistic and intuitive devices made for making shopping easier, and yet I still see thirty-somethings struggling with how to scan a barcode. I know you’ve never had to scan your own groceries before or know how a computer works, but it’s time to MAN UP and learn how your self-checkout system works. Because when you’re in a store for a few items, you can be in and out in mere minutes when you know how to scan, swipe, bag, and leave. If you have an entire cart full though and you’re by yourself, don’t be a dick. A regular till is fine too. Help bag your own groceries, cashiers and baggers are human too, you know.
- When an aisle is impassable and you need to stash the cart and hike it on foot, stash the cart in the health food aisle. No one ever goes in there – The line that started this whole post. The reason for this is when you’re in high-traffic at a store, it’s hard to maneuver a cart around fifty other carts with crazy people at the helm. Seriously. Since most stores don’t specialize in wide aisles, they’re two cart-widths wide at most, meaning it just takes two of them side-by-side to block the entire aisle. I don’t have the hard math, but I guesstimate that probably 22-24 carts could be in a single aisle. So when all you need from one aisle is one item and there are a bunch of people making life miserable for everyone else, do what motorcyclists do. Cut in-between. Stash your cart in an empty aisle, slip in, slip out, be on your way. Fortunately, the health food section of most large stores works because no one is ever in it. No, seriously. Those people shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, because they hate money, and like shitting a lot. Actual shit. Solid copy.
- Use an electronic deli kiosk if available – Stop and Shop has these neat kiosks at the front of the store and next to the deli that you can place a deli order to be filled while you shop. Why wouldn’t you use this? If you’re going to be in the store for awhile, you’re not going to care if they take a few extra minutes filling your order while you grab other things. When it’s ready, pick it up. Was that so hard? Alternatively, for those without these kiosks, make your deli run either the first, or last thing you need to do. Since the deli is usually in the beginning of the “path” through a store, you might want to do it first if you’re obeying my tip of shopping-by-section. It varies depending on the store configuration.
Other One-Weird-Tips and Nigerian Scams
- Buy generic, but not too generic – There is nothing wrong with store-brand food, despite what anyone might say. Most of them are the same or excess product repackaged and sold at discount chains like Aldi for less. Even Aldi sells name-brand items for less because they keep their overhead costs down by not offering services, making you bag your own groceries, and getting you to return your cart. However, I wouldn’t probably spring for the really generic items, like that orange-labeled Stop and Shop brand. For some things it might not matter, like cleaning supplies, but for food, seems a little shifty. But then I’ve never tried, I find the price difference between it and their regular store-brand line to be negligible. Also, there is nothing wrong with bag cereal. Boxes are just for display and marketing.
- Have pets? Don’t feed them garbage – My wife would have better words on this, and mayhaps I will get her to fill this in for me, but she tells stories of how food selection matters when it comes to a pet’s health. Our dog eats Blue Buffalo, and our cats a cheaper-but-not-too-cheap Iams food blend. Animals will eat almost anything, and much like humans, if you don’t control their weight and exercise and make good decisions, they will give up the ghost sooner than later. For dogs, food choice is linked to their coats, skin, and other physical extremities. If you get it groomed, don’t be a dick, feed them what they should be eating so it makes their jobs easier because your dog is healthy. If you don’t know what to do, ask one, or a vet. I mean, I typically ask mechanics about car problems, not therapists. Unless you think your car is cheating on you for a Prius.
- Want to be super-anal about food safety? Do what restaurants do. FIFO. – Since no one is making a refrigerator like this, I’m afraid it’s up to you to regulate what goes in and out of it. Restaurants use a system known as “First In First Out” with day-dots and labels to track what comes in and what goes out. The theory is, what comes in will be the freshest product, and what comes out, or gets used, is the first product that has the closest expiration date on it. So if you put in a tub of sour cream dated two weeks from today, and you have two tubs in already dated three days from today and one week from today, you use the one three days from today first, then one week today next, then three weeks from today last. You should always know when your food expires, and you should use as much up as possible before it expires, throwing away anything that does expire. When it comes to leftovers, eat it the next day or the day after. Anything after that is probably bad. If you re-heat something, do not put it back in. Either re-heat a portion and leave the rest in, or the whole thing. I’ve worked in restaurants before too, I know what it feels like to eat bad food.
- Is your gallon of milk always expiring before you drink it? Buy a half-gallon – I used to always buy gallons of milk because the price difference seemed negligible between a gallon and half-gallon. But then I find that I end up pouring a third to almost a half of it down the drain because it expired. Unless you need the extra for recipes or something, buy a half-gallon for drinking. It’s cheaper in the long-term because you’re not wasting half of it down the drain. Also, buy skim milk. I used to hate the stuff, but I find now that it keeps longer past its quoted expiration date by a few days, is better for you, and doesn’t taste that much different. Also, don’t buy it in bulk. That sounds like a joke, but I’ve seen people buy three for a snow storm and waste two and a half, because they’re stupid and think the world is going to end for an inch of snow.
I’m sure I can think of a few more later, and I’ll add them to this, but hopefully you gained a little bit of knowledge from my years of observational know-how and manipulation of the very things we utilize for life on this dust ball. It’s all pretty standard stuff, I think. It might even be on Lifehacker somewhere I am sure. But being a fiscally-conservative guy without children (yet), I believe it should be my goal to build the foundation for smart shopping in an age when more household roles are shifting to men, regardless of orientation. I am by no means attempting to advocate you eat better or shop at expensive food stores, but it is still possible to eat well and shop for less when you know how to use the tricks and tools out there at full power. I specialize in efficiency in my life; I don’t like to spend forever doing things that can be done faster by different means. So when it comes to grocery shopping, I can do it with efficiency and ease simply by taking the time to organize my information in a concise manner, and executing it quickly. When I say that’s not new, it isn’t. People have been doing it for decades. They just don’t often tell anyone what they do. I am. Cause that way you all won’t be in my way when I go to shop. Clever me.