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Tips from the Pros for Tackling Your Holiday Grocery List

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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. Photos 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.

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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:

Photos 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.

Tags: grocery store shopping, list, thanksgiving shopping