The Secrets to a Perfectly Organized Shopping List

A professional grocery shopper shares her tips that’ll save you time and money at the supermarket.

Published Mar. 12, 2021.

Have you ever wandered the aisles of a grocery store a little lost, or maybe even a little bored? Or gotten home and realized that you’d forgotten half the things you needed and bought a bunch of stuff you didn’t? 

I grocery shop for a living—and with the help of my ultra-organized and efficient team members, I’ve figured out how to streamline my shopping trips.

It all comes down to organizing your shopping list properly. This won’t just save you time at the store; it will also save you money and minimize food waste. And if you’re feeling a little shopping malaise, it might just bring some joy back to this task. 

The same habits I formed as an America’s Test Kitchen’s shopper serve me well in my life outside of work. Here are some of my favorite tips.

Sign up for the Well-Equipped Cook newsletter

Shop smarter with our ATK Reviews team's expert guides and recommendations.

Do Your Research

A lot of stores have unpredictable delivery schedules and some products are only available for part of the year, so you can’t assume what a store has in stock. When putting together a shopping list of some harder-to-find ingredients, such as bone-in pork blade chops, give a few different stores a call. Bonus: If an item is available in small quantities, you can ask them to set some aside for you. 

Alternatively, most large chain grocery stores have websites and delivery services that are synced pretty accurately with their stock information. Check out the stores’ sites, along with their delivery services, to decide which grocery store best fits your shopping needs.

Shop Your Kitchen First

When it’s time to actually put pen to paper, start by taking an inventory of your pantry, fridge, and freezer. You might be inspired by what you discover! For example, a half bag of orzo hidden behind some snacks might make you remember that you have some sweet Italian sausage in the freezer, and you’re only one ingredient away from Orzo with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe.

As you inventory, sort your ingredients into groups. When my team makes shopping lists for the test kitchen—yes, we really do put together our company’s massive shopping lists!—we use the following categories.

  • Produce and Herbs
  • Deli 
  • Meat and Seafood
  • Bakery 
  • Dairy 
  • Nonperishables (aka dry goods)
  • Beer, Wine, and Liquor

Organize these categories in a way that matches how your store is laid out. That way, you’ll be able to walk through the store just once and cross off items on your list as you go. No more doubling back as you shop or running from the cash register to the produce aisle because you wrote down “eggs” next to bananas and lettuce instead of near other dairy products.

shopping list

Figure Out Your Store's "Thing"

Most grocery stores have things that set them apart from other stores. Some might have great produce or exceptional meat and seafood, while other stores carry fun, unique ingredients or simply that certain brand of OJ you love.

It’s not always obvious what a given store is best at doing, so pay attention the next time you shop. You might find that certain departments or brands of food are most important to you, and that it’s worth going a bit further to visit a special market, or even that some stores aren’t worth going to at all.

Write Down Exactly How Much You Need

When making a shopping list it’s easy to write the item—“pine nuts,” for example—and then get to the store, completely forget how much your recipe calls for, and buy a 16-ounce container when you only needed a few tablespoons. Then you’re stuck using up (or freezing) the rest of a pricey ingredient before it goes bad.

To avoid this situation, write down both the ingredient and the quantity needed. And don’t forget to combine totals! For example, if you need 2 cups of buttermilk for one recipe and 1 cup for another, write “3 cups buttermilk” on your list. If you’re doing a lot of baking, don’t forget to convert those cups to ounces and pounds before shopping! 

Leave Room For A Mystery Ingredient

Even though I am a regimented planner and shopper, I do stray from my list sometimes! I often challenge myself to buy one ingredient I don’t regularly cook with. I recently started buying more dried seaweeds and bonito flakes because I wanted to gain an understanding of how to use those ingredients and regularly incorporate them into my repertoire. (Those purchases paid off with Zaru Soba [Cold Soba Noodle Salad] and homemade ramen broth.)

Check Out ATK's Ingredient Winners

When you’re buying something expensive or essential to the success of a recipe, deciding between unfamiliar brands can be stressful. When making your shopping list, turn to our winning ingredients and write down the products we’ve recommended. You’ll take some of the guesswork out of shopping and know that you're buying an ingredient that’s been professionally tested and reviewed. 

Photos: SDI Productions, Getty Images

This is a members' feature.