Tips from the Pros for Tackling Your Holiday Grocery List

November 12, 2015

If you’ve ever been to a grocery store on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, gripping seven just-printed recipes with only a vague idea of the pie you want to make, you know it’s a, well, memorable experience.

Photo by James Ransom

To avoid the mad-dash rush and last-minute runs to the store, we turned to professionals who spend a lot of time in grocery stores. Our Head Recipe Tester Stephanie Bourgeois and two members of our test kitchen team, baker-extraordinaire Erin McDowell and Test Kitchen Manager, Josh Cohen, shared their tips for tackling an enormous list:

Pre-Store Tips:

We're making a list and checking it twice. Photo by James Ransom
  • Consolidate and categorize your grocery list: In short, make your list work for you. Both Erin and Stephanie (and Kristen) vow by organizing grocery lists by the order they go through the store. Before Stephanie heads to the store, she’ll copy and paste the ingredients from all of her recipes into another document, then re-paste them into one organized list. Not only will this get you in and out of the store faster, but it will ensure that you don’t forget anything.
  • If shopping at a farmers market, try to visit it a week ahead of your big buy: Since farmers market produce rotates frequently and doesn’t have the consistency of grocery stores, Josh says that when he has time, he’ll “swing by the farmers market a week earlier and browse casually to get an idea of what’s in season and what’s beautiful—because chances are it will look beautiful in a week as well.” He’ll then make edits to his menu to reflect what’s available before doing his big shop.
  • Remember to check what you have before you leave the house: Even though Stephanie, as a recipe tester, is in and out of her pantry several times a day, there are times when she can’t quite remember how much of a certain thing she has. To remind herself to check, she’ll leave her keys in the refrigerator the night before a grocery run to remind her that she has to check on ingredient amounts before she leaves the house.
  • Eat something before heading to the store: This may go without saying, but Stephanie says it’s not to be under-estimated: “Don’t go grocery shopping while hungry—you’ll end up with a hundred apples you don’t actually need.” She adds that, as a rule of thumb, if you don’t have a specific plan for exactly what you’re going to use the ingredient for, don’t get it.

Save or splurge? Here's our take on a few staples:

In-Store Tips:

  • Go at the right time: All three agreed that choosing the right time to shop can make or break your shopping experience. Erin warned, “If possible, don’t go shopping on the weekend.” The best time to go? Monday morning—there are fewer people and everything’s usually freshly stocked on Mondays so you’ll have the best pick of the produce.
  • Don’t buy too much: While running out of food is the ultimate Turkey Day party pooper, Josh says, “If I see one mistake, it’s over-estimating and buying too much food. You want to have enough for dinner, of course, and for leftovers the next day—because that’s just as much fun as the dinner—but for those people who know in their hearts that they buy too much, considering cutting back so you don’t end up with way too much.”
Photo by James Ransom
  • But stock up on some things: One of the things Josh will always stock up on and buy ahead of time are turkey necks (available at most butchers this time of year). He says that, “Gravy is just one of those the-guests-are-going-to-be-here-in-5-minutes, time-crunchers so it’s nice to make it 2 to 3 days ahead of time with turkey necks. You can even pick the leftover meat off and fry it for a snack.” Erin always stocks up on coffee. She says that people often forget to keep enough coffee to serve to your guests after the meal (and she always splurges here: “You don’t have the have the fanciest Champagne, but being able to offer something that’s still affordable like high-quality coffee is something people remember.”)
  • Also, don’t forget non-food items: Erin and Stephanie both bulk up on non-food items ahead of time. Items they suggested stocking up on? Takeout containers (for guests to bring leftovers home in), parchment paper, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil.

Post-Store Tips:

Photo by James Ransom
  • Unload your groceries immediately: It may seem counter-intuitive, but even if you’re not cooking right away, Stephanie suggests unloading your groceries anyways. That way, your counter is clear for cooking and you’ll be able to find ingredients more efficiently than you would if you had to rifle through grocery bags for each one. Erin agrees, but she has a little trick: To keep her counter clean but food still accessible, she has an open shelf in her kitchen that she uses for groceries she’s immediately cooking: “It’s easier than finding room for it in my crowded pantry.”

Post-Meal Tips

Photo by James Ransom
  • Have take-out containers on hand: Remember to buy take-out containers before the big meal so that your friends and family can take leftovers home!
  • Make a post-mortem of the meal: Don’t wait too long after dinner to ask yourself: How were those new cookies? Were all of the baked tomatoes eaten or picked over? After the meal, Stephanie makes a post-mortem and writes down all of the things that worked (and what didn’t). She keeps the list on her phone for easy-access so that when she sees other holiday dishes that look appealing, she can jot them down. Since she’s Canadian, her Thanksgiving has already passed this year, but she’s already ready for next year: “Right now, it’s all cookies,” she said—we’re working on our invite to that Thanksgiving.

What are your best tips for making the most of the big pre-holiday shop? Share them in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • cpc
  • Betsey
  • bittersweet
  • AntoniaJames
  • CookOnTheFly
I eat everything.


cpc November 8, 2016
Can anyone recommend an app that works well for organizing holiday menus and shopping lists?
AntoniaJames November 8, 2016
I've never seen one that appealed to me, in large part because (a) I find that one of the most important steps in planning/execution is actually to look at all the recipes on the menu at the same time, to figure out how to combine similar tasks, organize the best order of operations for advance prep etc.; and (b) shopping list apps tend to create so much "noise" by showing ingredients you don't need to buy (you have them already)., etc.
I put both my November dinner plan - more about that here -- and all of my prep activities in separate calendars (Word documents) that I fiddle with to size the cells as necessary: You can find monthly calendar templates easily online. I like to start the week with Monday so I can see the weekend days side by side.

After I do that, I look at the calendar, and the recipes, and create a number of grocery lists, with shopping dates assigned to each, in a Note (Notes app on my iPhone which is synched with my Mac laptop). I have to do a lot of holiday baking prep over Thanksgiving weekend due to my deal flow in Q4, so I include ingredients for those things to the extent practical, as well.
I hope you find this (very long answer to a very short question) helpful. ;o) P.S. I asked a similar question on the Hotline about 6 months ago and ended up not getting a special purpose app - just using Notes, and loading relevant Word documents to my Google Drive. I put all the recipes into Word documents, and also print them out in landscape format, and put those hard copies in a pocket divider in a binder.
Betsey November 13, 2015
Farmer's markets in November? I can't even imagine.
bittersweet November 13, 2015
I keep all my favorite recipes in a Word document folder, with many sub folders. Every year I go to the Thanksgiving folder and review past menus. For each year I include the menu, my daily timetable beginning the week before (stock earlier), and shopping lists. This way I remind myself to iron those napkins the week before, gather everything I need, and print lists and recipes. I've always written notes the day after about what worked and what needs to be improved, which I find very helpful since those memories tend to blur. And that means I include new recipe testing at least the week before so new additions are happy ones. I try to have everything I need before Wednesday so I don't come home exhausted from the market and then have to begin some very important day-ahead cooking projects.
AntoniaJames November 12, 2015
Okay, I'm not a pro, but I do tend to think things through and try to improve processes from year to year (the engineer in me). You've covered this really well. My tips:

No later than the second weekend of November (this weekend for those of you reading this on November 12), make your project plan for the Thanksgiving meal AND for all of the meals you'll be serving starting the Friday or Saturday before Thanksgiving. Make your grocery lists now, divided as follows:

Things to buy this weekend (or ASAP): All non-perishable ingredients, supplies (garbage bags, aluminum foil, parchment, dishwashing liquid and dishwasher detergent, hand soaps, paper towels, any other cleaners you don't want to have to worry about), candles, wine, sparkling water, and an extra pound of butter.

Speaking of which, you should make this weekend or in the evenings next week your pie crusts and all breakfast pastries, rolls and breads, etc. that can be frozen. Make sure you have all ingredients for those this weekend, too. Buy an extra pound of butter.

If you haven't made your turkey stock, do that this weekend. Many butchers have necks as well as backs. Call ahead. The guys at my local Whole Foods put them aside for me last Friday. You can roast them in the evening, cool them down quickly in chilly water and store overnight (I do it in the stock pot!), and then simmer your stock the next day. I like Paul Virant's method: roast the backs at 425 for 15 minutes, add 2 carrots, 2 stalks of celery and 2 onions, all chopped up, to the pan and roast for another 15 minutes. Remove, scrape brown bits into the stock pot, add herbs, simmer 3 hours. So simple.

Make your grocery / shopping lists for both Thanksgiving and your meals the week before at the same time. Add to the list an extra pound of butter. Plan meals for those pre-T-Day dinners to coordinate and combine efforts on your advance prep.

Check on store opening and closing times during Thanksgiving week. My favorite grocery store (Piedmont Grocery) opens an hour early on Tuesday and Wednesday, which makes it possible for me to pick up my turkey before work on Tuesday. It's much, much nicer being the first person there on Tuesday, than joining the throngs of the distraught, hungry, slightly-panicking post-commute shoppers on Monday evening. When you pick up your turkey, don't forget an extra pound of butter.

You'll find some other tips here: (I'm raising my game this year with a tough hike on the weekend before as well as our usual one onThanksgiving Day.) ;o)
CookOnTheFly November 12, 2015
Buy your mushrooms EARLY. Like the Friday before Thanksgiving, early. If you are using a variety of mushrooms in your T-Day dishes you will need to stock up as they tend to go fast and stores can't keep up. I'm going to buy what I can a week before the big day. Also, if your T-Day crowd likes tried and true items like canned cranberries, the standard Green Bean Casserole, Libby's pumpkin pie, etc., take advantage of the sales going on NOW. I lived in Hawaii for 15 years and learned to shop early, and to stock up as there were only so many boats of products were headed my way from the Mainland and air-flown items were prohibitively expensive.