Storage Tips

In Reverse: The Smarter Way to Organize Your Grocery List

March 16, 2016

How do you shop for groceries? Do you find yourself standing at the entrance of the supermarket with an empty cart and no clue what you're going to put into it? Do you realize on the way home from work on Wednesday evening that you don't know you're going to put on the table for dinner? Do you get halfway into meal prep and discover your significant other didn't mention using the last of the salt?

Food52 has some great articles on organizing your kitchen, but what's the best way to stock and maintain that well-organized pantry?

I've been a fairly serious home cook for over twenty-five years and I've tried everything from random sticky notes to elaborate apps. But with three hungry tweens/teens and a commitment to good, homemade food most every night, I realized a few years ago I needed to up my grocery shopping game.

There were a couple of challenges to my existing grocery list.

  • First, I generally started out with a blank sheet and then tried to figure out what I needed. But this is backwards: Why not instead have a full list of all the things I usually buy and figure out what I don't have?
  • The second thing missing was that my list was disconnected from meal-planning: How do you know what you need if you don't have at least some idea of what you're going to eat?

With these two insights in mind, I grabbed the latest grocery store receipt and put my spreadsheet skills to work. I organized the list of my pantry items to match how a grocery store is organized (produce, dairy, bakery, etc.) and left plenty of cells open for the occasional specialty item I needed for a new recipe. I added some rows along the top of the list for the meals throughout the week, and so was born the Negative (a.k.a. Reverse) Grocery List.

The very compact list (here's a link to a blank version so you can print your own) fits on a single sheet of paper and I keep a handful of printouts in a folder in my kitchen. It holds up to 130 items, which can be a mix of permanent entries and ad hoc handwritten additions (my family's list has about 100 permanent entries). Perishable items like meat, fish and vegetables that are used in our favorite family recipes have permanent status on the grocery list but are crossed off if we don't plan to eat them. Some family traditions, like roast chicken and fries on Monday night and steel cut oats for Friday breakfast, have also achieve permanent status on the meal plan itself.

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Top Comment:
“I just keep a list of the recipes I am planning to make over the next week or two and then make sure I have the ingredients for them. ”
— ktr
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Each weekend, all I need is the discipline to spend fifteen minutes inventorying my pantry, freezer, and fridge before rushing to the market. If we still have an item from last week, I cross it off. If we need it, I circle it. Then, I think about what I'd like to make for the week depending on my family's calendar, perhaps also consulting the supermarket circular to see if there are any good sales.

When we return home from shopping, the list is pinned to the kitchen cork board, and everyone has learned to consult it when curious about what's for dinner. Over time, the list has evolved as the family's tastes have evolved: After a summer of cooking out of Ottolenghi's Jerusalem cookbook, tahini achieved permanent list status; apple butter, my eldest son's longtime obsession, eventually fell off the list as the last jar gathered dust.

Armed with the list, my days wandering the grocery store wondering what to get are behind me. Although there's certainly still room for the occasional impulse item, like a particularly beautiful salmon filet that catches my eye for gravlax, knowing exactly what I need and what we're going to eat has greatly cut down on food waste.

Photo by James Ransom

I've also been able to cut down on storage and better organize my pantry because I no longer need to preemptively stockpile multiple items "just in case" I forget them. And finally, although no system is perfect, there are far fewer emergency runs to the corner store for a forgotten item that's essential for tonight's dinner.

Want to start your own? Here's a link to Mark's template.

Would this method work for you? Or do you have another smart idea to share? Tell us in the comments!

14 Comments

mutton H. November 6, 2017
Online grocery shopping is really good.I always shop grocery online because it save my time and money.I always shop from eZeelo.com and it is good.<br />
 
kelly February 17, 2017
speaking of grocery lists, i love this one i found on popsugar - it's a notepad you can stick to your fridge, check off items as they disappear, then tear off the sheet and off to market you go!<br /><br />www.popsugar.com/food/Grocery-List-Pads-29085495#photo-29085529
 
erin March 31, 2016
Thank you so much for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Mark A. March 30, 2016
There's been some confusion about how to access this list. If you're a Google user, you can choose File|Make a Copy to create your own personal copy of the list. If you're not a Google user, you can choose File|Download As and choose Excel or PDF. I hope this is helpful.
 
EJR March 30, 2016
If you have an iPhone, check out AnyList—it's a listmaking app designed to do a lot of this, including saving lists of ingredients for frequently-cooked meals, meal planning, favorites lists, auto-categorization of grocery items, and ability to customize your lists to reflect the layout of your grocery store. Plus you can share a list with a partner and it updates in real time as you cross things off, so you can start at opposite ends of the list/opposite ends of the store and meet in the middle.
 
ktr March 16, 2016
I love this. I do have a love for spreadsheets though. And filing cabinets. <br />I, however, use a different method. We live in a rural area with little access to "exotic ingredients" and over time I have discovered that even things like most flours and grains are cheaper for me to buy online. So I keep 2 lists on my phone, one for groceries and another for online/nongrocery. It works for me because then I don't have to remember when I'm at the store which items I was going to buy online. I just make sure I leave 2 weeks between ordering and when I need the item. I do meal plan somewhat (I don't designate which nights are for each meal unless it is something that needs to be made on a day when I'll be home - bread for instance. I just keep a list of the recipes I am planning to make over the next week or two and then make sure I have the ingredients for them.
 
cv March 16, 2016
This is a carefully thought-out strategy, but one that would not work for me. I realize that I shop/cook in a manner that 99% of Americans don't do.<br /><br />I buy all of my produce at my town's weekly farmers market (something possible in California), I do zero menu planning, and I don't cook from recipes.<br /><br />Thus, my grocery list is very small, typically dry goods (pasta, olive oil, etc.) or dairy (eggs, cheese). I don't need to put animal proteins on the list, I basically know what I have in my fridge/freezer and I generally buy what's on sale and looks good.<br /><br />LOL, I see beer on Mark's list. I would *NEVER* forget to buy beer. :-)
 
Julia February 24, 2017
Yes! Me too. California thing. I love my tiny, hyper local farmers market... it really takes a lot of guesswork out of the conundrum: What to fix? without the boredom or monotony. Just, cook what's in season, what the market tells you to. Meat... whatever I score free or deeply discounted. tins of fish are on my permanent list. 😁😉
 
Jens W. March 16, 2016
Thanks, I like this idea. I'll give it a try.
 
Smaug March 16, 2016
Being unalterably opposed to paying $7/lb. for ordinary butter, and similar outrages, I usually start my shopping by checking sales. This usually stands me pretty well for staples, but I frequently get robbed shopping for recipes I just have to try- however, I put this on the entertainment budget, not the food budget, so it doesn't seem so outrageous.
 
Julia February 24, 2017
😂😆. oh god, yes
 
Amy L. March 16, 2016
This is BRILLIANT. This would totally work for my family, we buy many of the same items weekly, certainly monthly. I could keep it in googledocs, and give my husband access to it...he's not going to know what hit him!
 
magpiebaker March 16, 2016
Wow, this is intense. A little too intense for me, since our tastes change and I don't think I would put in the front-end work to create a spreadsheet like this.<br /><br />What I do instead that has worked is to create a list with headings for various parts of the store (produce, bulk, cheese/dairy, refrigerated, frozen, grocery, etc.), print 4 to a page, and write things we need as we run out of them (and if we're planning to cook a certain recipe, anything missing). It takes a negligible amount of time and has worked well for the last few years. It also has an advantage that various parts of the list can be torn off and handed to another family member.
 
SMSF March 16, 2016
Great idea, magpiebaker!