Food Forethought: How to Make a Grocery List

Apr 7, 2009 by

Grocery basket woman

I once asked my French mother-in-law, Lucienne, how she managed to cook for the crowds when large numbers of her five children’s families descend on the old farmhouse for days or even weeks at a time. Her answer applies equally to managing daily dinners for one’s own little family: “Il suffit de prévoir”: it just takes some planning ahead.

Traditionally, French women, unlike my mother-in-law, are said to make almost-daily trips, on foot, a little basket on her arm, to the corner grocery store, or better yet, to an outdoor farmer’s market where local growers are displaying their just-picked produce, sparkling with dew. This ideal woman is supposed to know how to choose what’s freshest and most appealing, and visualize then and there how she will prepare it that evening. I figure she must have innumerable recipes memorized, along with the current contents of her pantry and fridge.

While this scenario is neither realistic nor necessary or even desirable for the typical American mom (or probably most French ones) today, we Americans are, in contrast, building a justifiable reputation for a very different sort of daily sortie for provisions.

A friend recently admitted that she is at the grocery store pretty much everyday, “trying to figure out what’s for dinner.” This friend clearly was not bragging about her ability to whip up fresh delicacies nightly, but rather confessing to a breakdown in planning ahead, in managing the task as she felt she should be managing it. For the same reason, working moms, especially, may find themselves resorting to carry-out or fastfood.

Il suffit de prévoir. Going to the store every day is a waste of time unless you just enjoy it that much. Even in that case, I’m sure there must be better uses of your time. Even buying for two days at a time is an improvement over daily trips by default, following a lack of planning ahead. Twice a week is enough to provide a diet of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s a nice frequency to keep things neither boring nor burdensome.

Let’s say we go to the grocery store on Monday mornings after seeing the kids off to school, or after work that day. Before shopping, sometime over the weekend, we must make our shopping list.

The store is not the place to figure out what’s for dinner. We have to start at home, where we have our recipes and where we can take stock of what’s already in the fridge or the pantry. Unless we want to find ourselves back at the grocery store before we planned, that is.

In tranquility, start with a cookbook to see what sounds good.  The more you try out recipes and take note of the winners and losers, the easier (and more enjoyable) this task becomes. Recipes abound on the internet. I have put some of my very favorite finds (easy, quick, delicious, nutritious) on this blog.

List what you will fix each day. You can be flexible in what you actually end up doing, but at least there is a plan. The idea is to have enough food to get through the three or four days ahead. I list my menus at the bottom of the page, with the cookbook reference (see my grocery list, below).

Before proceeding to the next recipe, list what you will need to buy for that recipe.

To make it easier not to forget anything, I list all the produce items in the middle of my list page. All the dairy aisle items go together, as do any frozen. Everything from the center aisles (packaged or processed foods, etc.) I list along the right side.

I’ll be the first to admit that making home-cooked, healthy meals for the family does take some effort. But it is absolutely feasible, actually enjoyable, and thoroughly worthwhile in its benefits to the whole family. It’s also so much easier than being under pressure and feeling inadequate. Mainly, il suffit de prévoir: it just takes a little planning ahead.


Also see “How to Plan Menus” © Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 7 April 2009 / All rights reserved