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In Reverse: The Smarter Way to Organize Your Grocery List

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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.

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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.

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.

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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!

Tags: Tips & Techniques, Advice, Ingredients