According to a 2018 USDA report, Millennials spend the least amount of money on food at home and food prep, while spending an outsized amount of earnings on eating out. When we do buy groceries, despite spending the least amount of any generation on food for home, Millennials spend most of any generation on sweets, processed foods, and tv dinners.
Keep in mind, this issue is more than economic: it is generational. Even millennial households earning more than $100,000 per year report purchasing more pre-made meals, sweets, and processed foods than households of older generations at the same earning level.
So, I propose a pact: That during this tentative period at home, we make a commitment to cooking quality meals, and most of all, developing a grocery list that will bring nutrition and structure to our day to day lives.
Below is a guide complete with ten simple tips on how to structure your grocery list from the recipe to the register. As far as getting it all cooked? That is another story. But first things first, let’s figure out what we want to eat!
If you are someone who already has recipes, then you probably already have a plan for acquiring groceries. However, if you are just getting started, or feel a need to revamp your arsenal of tasty meals, here are some quick recommendations for websites to start your search:
- AllRecipes.com is a great source for home-made and user-submitted recipes of all sizes and all occasions.
- EatingWell.com is a great source for healthy meal ideas.
- BudgetBytes.com is a great source for affordable and hearty meals of all types.
Tip #1: While searching for recipes, always take into consideration how many people you are cooking for: that will inform the cost expectations that should be associated with your grocery list. If you are cooking for yourself, then the costs you spend can be fairly absolute, and in some cases, cheaper than the estimates presented in different recipes.
Before going out: Be sure to take a look in your fridge and spice rack to confirm whether or not you have certain essential ingredients already in your home.
Another aspect of understanding your food budget is taking into consideration how many nights you would like for your weekly meals to last. While some people may feel weird about leftovers, I personally like them, and as a busy person I tend to view my leftovers as a boon for a busy schedule: Instead of spending 30 minutes to an hour preparing dinner, I can drop my leftovers in a bowl, put them in the microwave and get dinner done in 3 minutes. Now, instead of spending 30 minutes to an hour cooking, I can spend an extra 30 minutes to an hour watching Netflix, reading, or having a brief moment of evening relaxation.
Tip #2: Cooking dishes that create lots of leftovers are a great way to manage your budget, free up the time you would otherwise spend cooking, and ensure the efficiency of your grocery list.In terms of how to view your leftovers, see them as a function of time: In a perfect world, the more time you spend cooking a meal, the more nights of leftovers that meal should produce. This is to say that not producing lots of leftovers is sometimes fine if a dish is one that can be quickly prepared and still hits our goals of nutritional balance.
Part of why we are using certain recipes as foundations of our list is because good recipes will ideally exhibit a degree of nutritional balance. This balance is what will be expressed in the core of our grocery list line-items.
Tip #3: While your weekly recipe selection should account for the main portions of your grocery list, the rest of what comprises your list should be things that exist in support of the primary meals of your day.
Generally, I was able to identify 7 categories of groceries that people would want on their shopping list. Of these seven categories, I would endeavor to say that only the first four are truly essential, while everything else exists in support of these four primary categories. Below are descriptions of each category, what they should account for on your list, and what you should avoid within each group—depending on who you are, that can be a lot. Generally, however, items listed under “avoid” are less so items that should never be purchased, so much as they are items that should be purchased occasionally, or very sparingly, to preserve a healthy diet.
Whole foods are groceries sold to the customer in their raw, unprocessed condition. Generally, whole foods account for the fresh fruits and vegetables you get from the produce stand, just as much as they can account for the raw, un-ground meats obtained from the butcher. Whole foods are usually best acquired weekly to ensure freshness, and usually require additional effort to stock en masse.
Tip #4: When shopping for meat, go to the butcher section of your store to see what they have on special. They may offer regular specials for core items such as fish, steak, and chicken breast from ½, up to ¼, of the pre-packaged cost. Additionally, be careful when buying meats at stores where you do not have a member’s card—many times the markups on packaged meat for non-members can be as high as 2x compared to what you would pay as a member.
Approach: Chicken Breast, Fish Fillets, Sliced Turkey, Fruits, Vegetables & Leafy Greens Avoid: Excess Quantities of Pork, Beef, Ground Meats, Sliced Salami & Ham
Frozen foods are goods sold to the customer cold, in a self-contained pre-packaged product. Though many times, frozen foods account for pre-made goods, they can also account for whole foods items and can be a great source of nutrition. While it would seem that frozen foods are very application-specific in their intention, your grocery list can get great amounts of meal coverage from investing in them. Primarily, in my experience, large purchases in frozen foods have usually meant being able to reliably cover my breakfast meal slot day in and day out. For those who enjoy smoothies, frozen fruits can also be a great way to maintain a heavy stock of produce items to use as the basis of your drinks, without having to worry about regularly stocking your fridge with fresh market whole foods items—which requires more trips to the store, and can have less nutritional value than their frozen counterparts.
Tip #5: Frozen foods can be a great way to keep your breakfast foods and morning smoothie game on lock.
Approach: Seal The Seasons’ Locally-Sourced Fruit & Vegetables. Bread Items such as frozen waffles, biscuits, and pancakes. Avoid: “TV” dinners, Frozen Pizzas, “made to fry” foods such as French fries, chicken fingers and other processed meats.
Many times, canned food is associated with two things: canned meat, and canned beans. One is completely terrible, while the other is a boon for our critical health functions. In my experience, this stereotype holds. Generally, the best foods to get canned are beans, while the worst ones to get are meats. Pasta items like Spaghetti-O’s and Campbell’s Soup should also be added to the list because of their sodium content. Canned beans are also the most efficient way of incorporating beans into your diet, as the alternative is usually dry beans, which require a soaking period before they can be used. While I would not usually recommend canned fruits or vegetables as a primary replacement for the fresh or frozen option, I would recommend canned produce if you need a certain type of fruit or vegetable delivered to you in a specific way, such as being diced or seasoned.
Tip #6: A can of seasoned black beans can be a great thing to stock up for a rainy day. These are great for meals that get thrown together quickly with a meat and a vegetable—or worse, a starch—and need something a little bit extra to balance things out tastefully, and with very little thought.
Approach: Any of the beans. Avoid: All canned meats. Canned Pasta.
If planned correctly, it is possible to get extremely robust meal coverage for a tiny cost by stocking up the right dry goods. While not all dry goods have the greatest shelf life—such as bread—most are great to keep in stock for the long term, just as much as they can provide tasty value in the short term as well. While I do not have any hard and fast recommendations on things to avoid when it comes to dry goods, I would say that perhaps the one thing that should be kept managed are pasta and other concentrated sources of carbohydrates. Past that, however, one box of pasta can feed one person for a week, and more times than not costs less than a dollar. A standard box of cereal lasts 4-5 days and usually costs less than 5 dollars. Finally, don’t forget rice, rice, baby! A 6-7 dollar bag of rice can last one person close to a month, or longer. This is all said to say that dry goods are a great place to get meal coverage, and in such a way that you only have to buy a few small things, such as meat, sauce, and a couple of veggies should the time ever arise when you want to cook what is in storage.
Approach: Pasta, Bread, Bagels, Cereal Avoid: Too Much Pasta
Many times, those of us who shop for fluids and liquids on our grocery trips are presented with many unhealthy options such as soda and sweet tea. While I do not traditionally shop for these items on my trip to the grocery store, there can be some great alternatives available to place in your fridge. Instead of flocking to the soda aisle, consider purchasing juice! There are plenty of great options available from a wide variety of manufacturers that can easily replace the taste of soda, or quite simply, taste better. After all, what tastes better than citrus punch? Nothing. When shopping for items such as milk, I recommend buying chocolate syrup or mix separately instead of buying chocolate milk out of the bottle. Many times, milk is converted to chocolate during the manufacturing process when there is a slightly higher blood content in it than standard batches. The chocolate flavoring is there to cover up the differences in color as well as taste—gross! Another challenge of milk is storing it—generally, milk has a two-week life cycle which means that it is usually an item that has to be purchased every couple of weeks if it is a part of your diet. To mitigate this, we recommend picking up a few bottles of horizon milk—it's organic, and has a much longer life cycle than the standard options provided by the grocery store.
Tip #7: If you’re like me, and enjoy a flavorful drink now and again, juice is an ideal replacement to soda. While it can sometimes have higher sugar content, the base nutritional properties inherent to drinking juices give them a leg up on soda—which has no nutritional properties at all.
Approach: Juices, Milk Avoid: Sodas, Sweet Tea, Chocolate Milk
Based on my remarks about premade goods in the frozen section, you may be convinced to believe that I do not recommend pre-made goods at all. While it is clear that most premade foods are not the best to eat as regular options, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid all of them. While many premade items are made with processed foods, thereby rendering them off-limits, there are still premade options at the grocery store that are made with whole foods as well. If we return to both the deli and the butcher, we will see that both stations sell pre-made items that are prepared with whole foods ingredients sourced from within the store. These can be great options for times when you need a quick lunch that can be heated up, or when you are pressed for prepping time and need some well-assembled kabobs or seasoned meats for a special occasion.
Tip #8: Rotisserie Chicken is pretty much dinner in a box. It is a delicious, flavorful, lean-meat whole food that is regularly available, and won’t break the bank at any point during your week. If you’re feeling extra lazy, add in a side of rice and seasoned black beans for a nice, simple dish. Feel free to dress this up with another side of broccoli, or leafy greens.
Approach: Rotisserie Chicken, Chicken Wings, Stuffed Pasta such as Tortellini & Ravioli, Kabobs, Seasoned Meats Avoid: All pre-made frozen options.
Finally, we have come to the extras. These are the things you want to purchase for discretionary eating or as simple pleasures. Whether this is a bag of your favorite crackers, breakfast bars, or items like beer and wine, your extras are things that should be seen as non-essential acquisitions: while they are nice to have, these are not things that you need to have. I never go too heavy on my extras: I tend to have a difficult time justifying the purchases. Usually, I will buy a six-pack of beer for the week and if I am feeling fancy, I’ll get a pint of ice cream, but that about covers it.
Tip #9: While your extras are avowedly snacks and non-essential items, try to keep these things within a healthier sphere. This may be purchasing breakfast bars instead of brownies, or purchasing whole wheat crackers instead of potato chips. Finally, you can always buy fruit. Treat snacking as a moment to stock up on additional energy and increase your daily consumption of nutrients.
Depending on your purchasing inclinations, preferences, and shopping habits, there are many different types of stores out there to obtain quality groceries in the United States. Additionally, this variety of grocers also portends to the variety of product options, and pricing points. Finally, every grocery store has its own “schtick.” Whole Foods and Local Co-Ops will specialize in health food products and organic options. Places like Food Lion will be affordable, Dagastino’s will be upscale, and finally, Wegmans will have everything (no, seriously, they have everything). This leads us to our final tip.
Tip #10: Always be sure to shop around. This is not only the case for prices, but also for finding the specific product that you are looking for. Just as much as each store has its schtick, they also have their strengths and weaknesses, each of which, will appeal to you in different ways. Finally, consider the internet as a potential source. While it is not necessarily the best place to buy everything, it can get you far. Furthermore, it is a great way to access canned goods, dry goods, and household needs such as paper products.
And that’s it! Grocery shopping, if planned correctly, can be a great way to save time, money, and eat the foods that you want. Let’s be honest: eating out gets old. Plus, it takes too much effort! I thought baby boomers said we were lazy? Shouldn’t that mean spending a couple of hours a week cooking meals, while Netflix and chilling the rest of the time over a plate of hearty leftovers? Let's not disappoint! But more importantly, for as long as eating out is unavailable, now you have the means to take care of yourself and have the culinary options that can get you excited for every meal of the day. Mind you, reading a list is only part of the process: you have to commit to buying quality foods if you want quality results. Now that I have said all I need to say, get out there and be less of a monster with the junk food!