The Lost Art of Grocery Shopping
As with counting coins and my exposure to the bank, grocery shopping was my childhood exposure to the world of the supermarket.
Grocery shopping was routinized, practically to the point that my Mom could have sent my sister and I into the store to do the shopping without her, assured that we had been adequately indoctrinated.
What’s the Mommy Thrifty Grocery Routine?
Determine your needs
Growing up, my mom didn’t follow a set meal plan but she did know what we liked to eat. She knew we’d eat pasta one night, some sort of Mexican one-pan meal or casserole the next, a chicken dish, etc. Before grocery shopping, Mommy Thrifty would determine our needs based on what we already had in the pantry. “More pasta sauce? Hmm, running low on frozen shredded cheese! Girls, go check and see if we still have enough dry pasta.”
She would always consult the weekly ad for our favorite grocery store to see what was on sale. If we were running low on pasta sauce and she saw that the store was having a buy 3 for $3, she’d stock up (sometimes, if the deal was good enough, she’d request a rain check for 40 of them!).
Know your store
Admittedly, this advice (or at least my mom’s interpretation of it), is a bit extreme.
Fed up with generic shopping lists she found, my mom sought out to make her own. Simple categories weren’t enough. No, not for Mommy Thrifty.
She walked the aisles of our grocery store early one morning when there were few shoppers. She went aisle by aisle with a handheld voice recorder (pre-smartphone era). She narrated her stroll as she walked the aisles, noting any foods we had bought within the last two years and were likely to buy again.
She got a few looks from fellow customers in the store as she tried to conspicuously record. The store manager even intervened and asked if she was doing some sort of reconnaissance for a competitor supermarket chain.
From her recording, Mommy Thrifty transcribed the aisle locations and contents in the form of a whiz-bang Excel spreadsheet. Before heading to the store, she’d note what she needed on her personalized grocery list. Because the list was organized by aisle, there was no backtracking or wasted time. It was – just as Mommy Thrifty likes it – efficient.
Navigate with purpose
Once in the store, we were trained to shop the perimeter and strictly by our list. We scouted the produce, meat, diary, and bread. We ventured into the center aisles of the store only for items on the list and treated it like enemy territory. We tried to get out as soon as possible.
Calculate your choices
When we located an item on the list, it was up to my sister and me to determine the best buy. Mini calculators in hand, we would assess the price per unit (ounce, pound, serving, etc.). We learned early that we shouldn’t be dazzled by store brands, nor by the lowest marked price on the shelf. Only after one of us kids had calculated the choice with the lowest item price did it make its way into the cart.
If we wanted a convenience product, Mommy Thrifty made us calculate how much that convenience would cost us (the cost of a whole cantaloupe vs. pre-sliced container of cantaloupe). The numbers always won and we eventually learned after many calculations with the same result, that if you’re paying the manufacturer or the grocery store to do the work for you, you’re drastically overpaying them.
Mommy Thrifty, in her serious demeanor and through the efficiency of her shopping list, made it clear that the grocery store was no jungle gym. We were expected to act like the adult shoppers, and to shop better than them!
We learned early that if an item was on the list, no amount of nagging would get Mommy Thrifty to cave in.
Well, Mommy Thrifty had two weaknesses: Ruffles Sour Cream Cheddar & Sour Cream Chips and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Mommy Thrifty was willing to buy a $1.69 Reese’s that could be shared between us two girls because we had probably done a lot of the saving work for her.
Track your reserves
Once at home, Mommy Thrifty requested all of the groceries be put away. This was the part I always hated!
For items destined for food storagee (non-perishables), we had to label with a small sticker indicating the expiration date. Then, we took those items to the food storage section of our garage and rearranged the items on the shelf so that the soonest expiration date was closest to the edge of the shelf to grab-and-go. Expiration dates are sometimes hidden or inconveniently located under a can so the bright sticker allowed for quick scanning of what products should be consumed the soonest.
There was no second trip to the grocery store each week. We had one shot, or one opportunity (can't believe I just quoted Eminem) to get what we needed. During the week, we shopped our reserves for ingredients and meal ideas.
Now that I am doing my own grocery shopping, how much have Mommy Thrifty's lessons stuck with me?
Determine your needs: I always take a quick inventory of what I already have (easy for me in a 1-bedroom apartment!). I could be better about meal planning, though.
Know your store: I haven't made a personalized, store-specific grocery list like Mommy Thrifty but I do know my store like the back of my hand. I've also learned I have to start in the same place every grocery trip or else my entire orientation is off!
Navigate with purpose: Yep. I can't tell you the last time I went down the snack aisle! Over a year, for sure.
Calculate your choices: I am mindful of price per unit but at the same time, I'm not feeding a large family like my mom was. Sometimes it doesn't make sense to buy a larger quantity of something semi-perishable if you're shopping for a smaller household. I am pretty label-blind though and don't have qualms about buying generic. But, I am really bad about buying convenience foods (in my mind, it's better than eating out as much as I was, so it's progress?!).
Indulge selectively: Sometimes I'll allow myself a little treat, but this advice isn't as important to me since I don't have kids and thus no one to bribe.
Track your reserves: I wholeheartedly believe in the power of a stockpile. My reserves are much more manageable than Mommy Thrifty's (which, at its peak took over a 1-car garage). My reserves are confined to a few kitchen cabinets and for the most part, I think I am able to use what I have before it expires.
Now I'm adding one more strategy to perfect the art of grocery shopping: check for cashback after you shop by using your smartphone!
What are your go-to grocery saving strategies? Did your parents treat grocery shopping like a lesson in life skills and math? Was there a part of your parents' grocery routine that you refuse to live by?