Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How to Build a Grocery List & Meal Plan: A Series, Part 1

There have been some really good questions about how to menu plan, how to make a grocery list, how to prevent waste, where to shop, and do all this and still have a life outside the kitchen and grocery store. Great questions. I LOVE QUESTIONS.

This sounds like a series.

If I say something confusing, leave out details, or if you have more questions about points I raise, I encourage you to ask. As much as we would all love it, I can't read your brains...

I would first like to acknowledge that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Sorry, sounds gruesome, and this is supposed to be a cruelty-free blog. What I mean is, my way of doing this is only ONE way. But it works for me. You may have a different way. Do what works for you; however, you may still be able to get some ideas from this post.

How to Build a Grocery List

I have had goals that I would start becoming a more organized shopper, a more organized meal planner, have a more organized menu, a more organized BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.


This is real life and I have to live it. If this whole foods thing is going to work for me and my family, then it has to be realistic.


I sat down with my notebook and pen today, ready to make a grocery list.

And then Megan started yelling, "Mommy! Poo Poo!"

I spent the next 30 minutes bathing and dressing her, feeding her, and answering phone calls. Having a clean kitchen has become very important to me (fruit flies are a good motivator!) and it has become a habit. I spent the next 15 minutes doing dishes, washing counters, and scrubbing my stove.

There goes the time for a grocery list. I had NO fruit, leafy greens, milk or yogurt left, and it was time to pick up Essie from school. Driving into town takes 25 minutes, and once I got there, I needed to buy groceries.

I was able to go to the store with NO grocery list at all, keeping in mind the basics that I had run out of, and came home with this:

It is rare that I go to a store without a list. However, it is a goal to shoot for because we don't always have time for lists. It's nice to go to a store and feel confident in getting what you need without having to plan every detail. The total cost? $164. The canned, boxed, and frozen goods will last me more than two weeks. The fresh produce will last me 2, 3 days at most.

And thus is the life of a Mother. But Mother's aren't the only busy people around! Working men and women are extremely busy, also.

With these thoughts in mind, my goal is to help you be able to walk into a grocery store, and without having dedicated hardly any time to making a list at all, be able to get the things you need.

The fix?

1.) Realize you are never done shopping, planning, and list-making. You are never done with your grocery list. It is always growing, always being added to, and it is AN ONGOING PROCESS. For me, it can't be a half hour or forty-five minute long period of time where I sit and plan all my meals at once. It's ongoing, every day, a little bit here, a little bit there. That's all I have time and concentration for.

2.) How do you make it ongoing? Keep a lined notebook in your kitchen. This is YOUR notebook. It doesn't leave the counter. The pen sitting neatly on top of it is YOUR pen. No little hands running off with it.

This notebook and a few others stay on my counter at all times. I rip out the grocery lists, and keep the notebook on the counter for the next round of lists.

I have seen other homes where they have a magnetic list that attaches to the fridge. If that works better for you, do it. I don't like'em because my brain needs a large depository where I can store my million thoughts. I need space. Needless to say I own a LOT of notebooks, filled with grocery lists, meal ideas, to do lists, and random thoughts. You could say these are my mommy/food/life journals. Get one. Or five. If you are like me they fill up fast.

3.) While you are preparing a meal, you usually are looking through your cupboards and your fridge. You are also using basic ingredients that need replenished. Spices are a good example, and so are things like sauce ingredients (tahini, soy sauce, BBQ sauce, etc).

If your dinner requires that you use curry powder, and you find that you used the entire remainder, or it is almost gone WRITE IT DOWN. IMMEDIATELY. This is why your pen and notebook are on your kitchen counter. Trying to remember which spice it was that you had that needs replenished is difficult once the day is over. Or, with all those life distractions, once 5 seconds are over.

4.) Have a well stocked pantry of the basics, and buy your basic bulk items in bulk. And there are a lot of basics. But once you get those basics, your stress levels will go down and life will get easier. Not everyone can afford to do this and must therefore buy items 1 or 2 at a time. This is also what your notebook is for. If you run out of garbanzo beans, which is a kitchen basic, write it down. You can have two lists going: One list is for bulk foods, and one list is for items you know you need in the next week. This helps with shopping plans.

Bulk food in our "cupboard under the stairs." These are the very basics -- rice, oats, sugar, beans, etc. I have another food storage area for canned beans, spices, sauces, pasta, etc.

However, I highly recommend to make your life easier, that you buy a variety of pantry items in bulk. This will be my next post -- what is in my cupboards and how to buy them in bulk in order to a.) have a well stocked pantry to prevent last minute empty cupboard syndrome, b.) save money, and c.) stop having to worry about running out of the basics, and really only have to shop for fresh produce, breads, and other fresh items with a short shelf life during the week.

5.) Go to the store more often, and buy less. This is mostly for fresh produce. If you are like the *old* me then you shop at the store as if it is your last chance to buy food. Ever. Tomorrow there will be a massive earthquake and all the food trucks will be stopped and everyone will die. Their survival for the next month depends on how well you shop in the next hour. You will starve if you don't fill your cart and buy everything in sight. Have faith, my friend. You will see this grocery store again. In exactly two days. Shop only for the food you need for the next two days. And stop freaking out. Your bases are covered because you have a well stocked pantry of dry goods.

Going to the grocery store often, in shorter stints, and buying less, is now a part of your life. Produce goes bad quickly, and needs to be eaten immediately. Push it on yourself, your kids' and your hubby. Eat it, don't hoard it. Your goal is to get rid of fresh produce before anything else, and run out of it first.

I want you to practice something five times before you enter the grocery store, or before making a meal plan. "I am only buying enough food to last the next 2-3 days. I will be at a grocery store again in 2-3 days." Say it at least 5 times. It works. And then say it again to yourself while you are in the store. Then make it a reality by going to the store again in 2-3 days. You can also ask yourself, "Am I going to use this within 2 days? Do I have a plan for it, or do I plan to learn how to use it?" If not, put the item down. And walk away.

6.) Make learning an ongoing process. Have patience with yourself, but take your learning seriously. BE DELIBERATE AND PERSISTENT IN YOUR LEARNING. Collect a few recipe and nutrition books and build a library. Maybe have a goal to buy one new cookbook or nutrition study book a month? Read a few blog posts a week -- search out knowledge.

And it is a process. I had a very interesting conversation with the check-out man at Trader Joe's last week. It went something like this:

Him: (looking at my groceries) Are you a vegetarian?
Me: Yes.
Him: Cool. How long have you been eating this way?
Me: Almost a year now.
Him: I bet it's easier now. And it gets easier and easier with every month that passes. Sometimes these things take time. It's hard at first but gets easy.
Me: You are a vegetarian too?
Him: Yeah, for about five years now. I told myself I would just try it out for a month and then it stuck. It's gotten really easy and I love it.

He looked young. He looked single. No wife to cook for him, probably not a lot of time to cook in the kitchen. And he was happy, and strong, and trim.

If he can do it, so can we!

Just like he said, think of it as a process. Learn more every day, and the more you learn the easier it will get.

Some people read romance novels or watch soap operas in their spare time for fun. I read cookbooks. I pour over recipes, reading them from top to bottom. I study nutrition and read blogs to soak up as much information as I can. If you are a whole foodist then you need to take a bit of time every day to search for new recipes and learn more about nutrition and health. The key? Take it one day at a time.

7.) Speaking of taking it one day at a time, don't expect to ALWAYS be trying new recipes. Plan for successful repeats, and slowly incorporate new recipes. Have a goal to try 3-5 new recipes in a week. That way if it fails, you aren't starving. Last nights successful dinner in the fridge can cover your depressing trash-worthy lunch today. This has happened to me many times. It takes work, time, and trial and error to find the recipes that work for you and your family...

My brainstorming ideas for a menu plan. The only new recipe on here at the time was Cauliflower Bechamel. The rest of the meals were tried-and-true.

8.) Have that same notebook, or a second one, readily available in your study area. Once you have studied your book, or blog for the day, and have decided to try out a new recipe, read the recipe from top to bottom and immediately write down any ingredients you know you don't have. Turn the page, and create an ongoing menu plan by writing down the name of the recipe and where to locate it. Slowly add to both the grocery list AND the menu ideas, written on separate sheets of paper in the same notebook, over a period of 2-3 days. Exactly the time you need before going to the grocery store again.

9.) Understand how to build a basic whole foods, plant-based meal that YOU like. If you understand how to build a meal, with or without a recipe, you will understand how to build a cart full of groceries with, OR WITHOUT A LIST AT ALL. This is another one of my goals to be able to help you accomplish. In another post coming soon.

10.) After some time, you will have a notebook full of menu ideas that you have tried. Looking through your notebook, you will be able to remember which of these meals worked, and which ones failed. You can write notes on those recipes, too. On my computer I keep an excel spreadsheet of all of the recipes that worked out FABULOUSLY for my whole family, and where to find them. The kind of recipes that you would want to make over and over. The kind that you would double, triple, and freeze leftovers to use in the future for FAST FOOD. The kind that you would serve at parties or for dinner guests.

I add to this excel spreadsheet these favorite recipes because my mind forgets. I get anxiety about forgetting stuff I have worked hard to find. Writing it down in an ongoing, known, and permanent location relieves that anxiety.

11.) Create your own family cookbook. The excel spreadsheet location is just a menu plan, not the actual recipes. So you may find that you want to put all of your favorite recipes together in the same book. Get a 3-ring binder with some sheet protectors, either on the web or add them to your ongoing grocery list. Every time you hit a total score with a successful recipe, slide it into your 3-ring notebook. You are creating your own family cookbook.

So, to recap, a basic day would look like this:

You wake up, and decide to make your favorite dinner that day. You check your fridge, double check the recipe, and you have all of your ingredients that you need.

While making that dinner, you use the second-to-last can that you have of garbanzo beans. You stop what you are doing, walk to your notebook, and write it down. Oh, and then you used up the remainder of your soy sauce, and see that there is none left in your food storage. Write that down, too.

After putting the kids to bed, you find yourself with some free time. Hubby is busy, so you pick up one of your favorite cookbooks, or read a good food blog. Finding a recipe with ingredients that are familiar to you, and that sounds and looks delicious, you read the recipe from top to bottom. The recipe calls for Thai red chili paste. You don't have that in your cupboards because you have never used that stuff before. Grab your notebook, find your ongoing shopping list, and write it down. Turn the page to your ongoing menu ideas, and write the name and location of the recipe you want to try.

Doing this over the next two or three days, you find you have a full grocery list and meal plan, ready to go. And in five minutes you are supposed to be out the door. You jot down the fact that today you have no greens, no snack items for your kids (yogurt, fruit, etc.), and that you need milk and cereal. You also write down that tomorrow for dinner you want to use a repeat recipe as a safety net. Out the door you go!

At the grocery store you look at your list. It says, "Fruit." Buy enough fruit for your whole family for only the next 2-3 days. And buy MOSTLY your favorites. However I do challenge you to pick out one new fruit or veg you haven't tried. Don't over-buy, remember -- you will be here again in 2-3 days.

As you walk around you keep your eyes peeled for new products available that are very healthy and might make your life easier. ALWAYS keep an open mind, there are new vegan products out on the health food store shelves all the time.

After three weeks or so of doing this, you find yourself with a great repertoire of recipes, your anxiety has decreased, and your bounty has increased. Your knowledge of whole food ingredients will have grown and you will be familiar with foods that you had previously never heard of.

In your brain and in your notebook are a large collection of go-to meals that you know work. You remember the basic gist of how to make them, and therefore are able to make them faster. Those items you are now familiar with have become a part of your regular life, and you include them in your basic pantry regularly. You know you like them, and therefore buy them in bulk. It becomes habit, and suddenly you have more time -- OUT of the kitchen. Yay!!!

Questions? I may have totally missed the mark so let me know if my way of doing stuff is completely loony tunes!

Coming up next: How do you build a basic whole foods, plant-based meal?


  1. Wow, this post was filled with great information. I read it twice and will have to read it a few more times :) Let me try it out and I will let you know if I have questions along the way. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

    I can't wait for your other posts!

    1. I would love to know if it works for you, and any other questions you have. I am cookin' up some other posts with some of the things I do to "prevent pantry panic," and hope to have it up soon. Thanks for your comments, they keep me going!

  2. I thought this was fantastic. I appreciate the pitctures as well :) Great info.

    1. Thanks, Aimee. At first I found myself trying to think of some great solution that comes from the "pros" but then I realized; you don't want to know what the pros do, you want to know what I do. This is it. Pretty simple. And it works for me. I am working on answering your other questions.

  3. I just discovered your blog, and this was VERY helpful! We have been vegetarians for a few years now, but we were relying heavily on dairy. I am finding it difficult to master a new way of shopping, planning, and eating. I love to cool, but I do not like recipes with hundreds (ok, ten or more) ingredients. I need quick and easy with 4 kiddos under 7 that I homeschool. Thank you so much, and I look forward to reading through your older posts instead of sleeping ;)!

  4. I clicked on your name and read your profile. You sound like an amazing person, and I very much admire what you are doing. I am so glad you found this helpful, and I have to say that I am so thankful for your comments. Sometimes I write and wonder, is this even helpful?

    I hear ya about the needing easy meals that are quick, and child-friendly. You sound VERY busy! I am looking for these kinds of meals all the time. You might be interested in the series I run for Project Vegan Kids, and Vegan Fast Food. I am also going to post a new soup that is loved by my children, myself, and is fast and easy. It may have 11 ingredients tho...J.K. I hope to continue to find easy meals that families love. To make life just a tad better...