Holiday Entertaining

The Best Way to Organize Massive Holiday Grocery Lists

December 14, 2012

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Doing the big holiday shop the Type A way.

The holidays are here, and you've got a lot of cooking to do. With all the roasts and sides and sweets you've got in the pipeline, you don't just need a game plan. Your grocery list needs a game plan.

Jotting down on post-its is fine for your weekly grocery list, but faced with a taller-than-normal stack of recipes, it's easy to miscount, underestimate, or plain forget. We should know -- we shop for the equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast every week for our photo shoots at Food52. So we rely on a simple system to save us from last minute dashes to the store.

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Below is the super satisfying -- and effective -- grocery list method I learned when I interned in the Saveur Magazine test kitchen, and brought with me to Food52. All you need is your favorite word-processing program (Word, TextEdit, or even a blank email).

Your lists will be cleaner and shorter, and you'll always buy as much as you need (and not more). For the Type As among us, it makes everything make sense.

grocery list

1. Categorize. Start listing off sections of the grocery store you know you'll have to hit: Produce, Dairy, Spices, Booze, and so on. (Bonus points: List them in the order you'll see them in the market.) List any specialty stores separately: Butcher, Cheesemonger, Greenmarket.

2. Gather. Paste in the ingredient lists of all your recipes. (If the formatting gets crazy, try the command "Paste & Match Style" -- you'll love it!) Type in any ingredients from cookbooks or hand-written recipe cards.

3. Re-group. Start cutting and pasting! Herd all the ingredients into their appropriate sections. Creme fraiche, butter, milk -- head on over to the dairy section.

4. Combine like ingredients. A little culinary math helps, but when in doubt (or in a hurry), round up. 5 sticks of butter + 6 tablespoons of butter + 1 1/2 cups of butter becomes 3 pounds of butter.

5. Check your stash. Now that you know you need 11 cups of flour for all your holiday baking, you can more easily check against what you already have on hand. 5-pound bag of flour lurking in the pantry? Now you can decide if you really need to buy another.


Now you're well-armed to hit the grocery store with confidence and conviction. You can print your list and bring a pen for the soothing cross-off experience (and the ease of tearing the list in half, if you're bringing a buddy). Or go paperless -- email yourself your list or use a handy app.

While other shoppers are staring at the spice aisle, blank-faced, you'll be skating around them -- that much closer to home, your couch, and a nice hot toddy.

Grocery store photo by Sarah Shatz. All other photos by James Ransom.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • citlalnahuac
  • Pam Reed
    Pam Reed
  • AntoniaJames
  • GordonW
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


citlalnahuac November 12, 2015
I just got through doing a shopping list for the 'Friendsgiving' I'm doing the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Similar massive menu, and (given my friends, who don't mind being guinea pigs) some new-to-me recipes.
I used Excel instead of a word processor, and listed each ingredient for each recipe, with columns for the amount and the source (if I think it's in the pantry, it's something exotic, or there's one particular place I prefer for that ingredient). I included staples, too, even if I was pretty sure I had, say, flour.
After confirming I'd listed everything, I sorted on the ingredient name, and then totaled all the listings for each one. This was how I discovered I'll need pretty much a whole bag of flour, but only 10 eggs - my mental guess would have said I had enough flour, but would have to buy 2 dozen eggs.
Once I have the list whittled down to a single totaled entry for each ingredient, I sort again on the 'source' column and - presto! - I have a list of exactly what I need from each individual store or my pantry. Print it out, cross items off as I check the pantry or shop, and don't stop until everything's crossed off.
Normal, everyday shopping list, though, is in Notes on my iPhone...
Pam R. November 9, 2015
I use an app called Keep for grocery lists etc. You can make your list and then move everything around so you are dept categorized. So simple and works great for the crazy list maker that I am!
AntoniaJames December 14, 2012
Okay, this will prove that I am a triple type A -- but I suspect you knew that) -- fold your paper so that the text is on the outside when folded. It's so much easier to use while shopping! (I have to admit that I'm now mostly using the Notes function on my iPhone for my regular weekly shopping . . . and that about 50% of my holiday food shopping, or whatever percentage is non-perishable, is integrated into my regular shopping (always handy on my iPhone) within the 2 weeks prior to the week of the event. So my "big" shopping for big events has increasingly become just not that big. But the general strategy I use for coming up with and organizing the list is the same (except that many of my recipes are not digitized, so I do it by hand, on sheets of paper folded lengthwise -- with half of each page available for notes, calculations, doodles and arrows and similar artifacts of non-linear thinking. ;o)
GordonW December 14, 2012
This is very similar to the method I use. I take the organization craziness a step further. I divide the page into 4 quadrants: meat, dairy, produce and aisle. The first three are usually on the outside wall of most markets. Then I fold up my list into a square along the quadrants. As I move through the store, I only look at one section of my list, refolding as I finish a section. This has the added bonus that when I go to different markets, I can shop the sections in the order that make sense in relation to the flow of that store.