School Year’s Resolution 2: Master the Weekly Shop

Now that we are three weeks into the school year, I am assuming you have all mastered School Year’s Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and we are free to move on to a very popular cry for help among the DALS readership: I don’t know how to shop efficiently for dinner. This is a little tricky because how and what you pick up at the grocery store is inextricably linked to how you eat, so no two shopping lists for the Piggly Wiggly or Wegman’s or your local Farmer’s Market or Trader Joe’s (where we go) are ever going to look the same. So what I’ve tried to do here is outline a few rules and strategies that we shop by that can hopefully be universally applied. This list also assumes we all want to at least try to have a sit-down dinner at least four times between Sunday and Friday.

Rule 1: Put it in Writing Those of you who have read my book, know that I began this whole dinner ritual by sitting down on Sunday with my dinner diary, writing down the meals I wanted to make in the upcoming week, then shopping for everything we needed to make that happen. This strategy helped kickstart the ritual in a few ways: It got the momentum going; it eliminated those odious late-afternoon back-and-forths (What do you want to eat tonight? I don’t know, what do you want? I don’t know what do you?); and later, when we had school-aged kids, it helped lessen, if only a little bit, the existential dread of lunch-packing. (It’s so much easier to do the first pack of the week with a full fridge than with a fridge that’s been run dry.) Ultimately, the goal here is to take the daily thinkwork out of dinner. If you come up with a plan for the week, you just freed up all that psychic energy to direct towards more exciting pursuits, like watching, dissecting, and ruminating over all four seasons of Breaking Bad.

Rule 2: Squeeze in a Sexy Shop Another reason we hit Trader Joe’s on Sunday is because our farmer’s market is open on Saturdays. Unlike the dutiful, checklisty supermarket shop, this is where we can let the food (as opposed to the list) inform the shop. So we pick up what looks good — almost always fish that was swimming off Hampton Bays just hours earlier and a bundle of Tuscan kale, sorrel, summer spinach, or any other beautiful greens that last us the week and allow us to skip their mediocre bagged counterparts at Trader Joe’s. And there we have Meal 1: Grilled Fish with some kind of greens.  I’m not saying your Meal One has to be this. It might be a bolognese made from some good grass-fed beef, or pasta with fresh butternut squash or a kale and feta quiche made with the eggs from your favorite farmstand. The point is: We almost always earmark our Sunday dinners to be market-inspired. (And please don’t tell anyone I just called kale-shopping sexy.)

Rule 3: Make a Realistic Line-up Now, for that dutiful, checklisty shop. It’s crucial to keep it simple — save the Nathan Myrhvold Foamy Broth Number for Saturday night. The loose formula that I sometimes use when dreaming up my line-up is the following:

-1 brand new dinner (so I am constantly expanding the repertoire; this week it will be one of these)
-1 old stand-by (this can be your Aunt’s chili, your signature chicken, whatever you can make without a recipe)
– 1 that just barely qualifies as home-cooked (our example of this is either sausages and baked beans or pre-made organic beef burgers with a tomato and mozzarella salad)

There, we’ve just figured out Meals 2 through 4. Go queue up Bryan Cranston on the DVR!

Rule 4: Make the Right List.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the all-time classic, hall-of-famer Real Simple tip: Write your shopping list organized by aisle. I have no hard evidence to show that this makes shopping easier or more efficient, I just know it’s deeply satisfying to cross things off as I go. (As I write this, I am reminded of a reviewer who that said “learning from [me] to relax already about family dinner is sort of like having a crazy psychiatrist.”)

Rule 5: Involve the family. I know these words might strike fear into the hearts of parents with toddlers or babies and of course, you guys can ignore this for a few years. But as soon as your kids are old enough to push their own miniature shopping carts (another reason why TJoes should win a Nobel Peace Prize), I highly recommend bringing them along. As well as your spouse. This way, it sends a message that it’s not on any one person’s shoulders to do the shopping — and by extension the cooking, because all shoppers inevitably get tangled up in dreaming up dinner ideas. And beyond the more wonky benefits (kids learn how to make healthy choices, they learn marketable skills packing reusable bags!) it cuts off so much tableside trauma at the pass. When my kids add something to the cart, they are much more invested in its consumption than they would be had it just been airdropped onto their plates.

Rule 6: Know your basic template. We’ve been polishing and honing our Ideal Grocery List for fifteen years now so unless there’s a big-occasion meal on the line-up, the List is in fact all in our heads by now. That means we would not dream of leaving the premises without the products that have proven themselves to be the kitchen workhorses. The only way to come up with your own template is by shopping for the week regularly. If there is a shortcut to this, I’m all ears. PS: If the budget allows, always pick up the random ingredient a recipe calls for even if it just calls for just a little bit of it. Once you have that ingredient in your pantry, you’ll start noticing it more (it’s like the SAT vocabulary word effect, remember?) then your overall dinner options expand next time.

Rule 7: Remember the Things You Always Forget. As mentioned several times before, if grocery shopping were a degree, by now Andy would have graduated summa cum laude and been touring the globe giving standing-room-only lectures on the topic. To the untrained ear, this probably sounds like a pretty great deal for me, but the reality is that it can be torturous — particularly when he somehow misses the shopping but manages to be present for the unpacking. Did you mean to get brown rice pasta instead of whole wheat? (No.) Hmmm, did we leave a bag in the car? Where are the snacks for lunches? (Woops.) Huh, so we’re going with whole yogurt for smoothies now instead of lowfat? I’m telling you , it’s brutal! Because of the deep scars of post-TJoe-stress, at the register, I now go through a mental list of four or five things that I always always forget (drinks, snacks, toilet paper, turkey for Phoebe’s lunch). I recommend you do the same — whether you live with a drill sergeant or not.

We are big fans of the reusable bags, not only because we enjoy doing our part to save the planet, but because bringing our own enables us to enter the weekly raffle. The prize? A full bag of free stuff from Trader Joe’s, naturally! In the two years we’ve been playing, we’ve never won, but the girls fight to fill out the little ticket every week anyway.

Abby has become quite adept at identifying the products the family  prefers. This includes whipped cream and frozen buttermilk biscuits.

If this blog thing doesn’t work out, you know where to find me.

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I’m so thrilled – we’re getting a Trader Joe’s here in southern Oregon… it’s sharing the parking lot with the ballet studio where I work. I have never been to one, but I hear such great things. I’m looking forward to grocery shopping there the same way I’m looking forward to Christmas! Can. Not. Wait.


Oh, if only my local TJ’s was ever that empty! It’s hard for me to be inspired there (or find any of their new cool products) when I have to fight my way through every aisle.


I like rule #5 a LOT. This school year we have been doing the weekly grocery shop as a family. That way everyone is invested and everyone has responsibility for remembering the particular things that they need.

Also, we have started carrying a big cooler in the back of the van so that when we are off on the weekend doing the million things that we have to do we can stop at new farmers markets, grocery stores and just pick stuff up.

Barbie // Little Skyline

Love this post! I’ve been trying to master my shopping list since my son was born (he’s 4!). I just picked up your book; I’m looking forward to giving the dinner diary a try. I come home from Trader Joe’s each week with 4 to 5 bags full of food, and only find myself cooking maybe twice a week. Yikes! I need some serious help!!


Ooo, Barbie, good tip. And for those of you out there feeling left out, remember these rules apply to any supermarket, not just Trader Joe’s.


I too have fantasies of working at Trader Joe’s…

I put some “money in the bank” dinners in the freezer this past weekend. That’s my favorite of your tips, you know. 🙂


OMG. Tip #7 is our household, to a T. Me forgetting the important itmes like usual. Drill Sergeant grilling me as he paws through the spoils. Thanks for this post! Maybe it will help bring sanity to an insane chore.


Hi, new reader here. I’m Queen of the weekly shop – simply because I’m a high school Home Ec/Foods teacher so I often have school and home grocery shopping to do. I’m up in the wilds of Alberta so no Trader Joes for me, but I do go to the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. I’m hoping to have 2 dinners per week from the freezer, which tells me I’ll be doing some more cooking on the weekend. At my house I write on the big fridge/family calendar what we are having for dinner each night. I use that to make up the grocery list. We’re not particularly committed to “spaghetti on Thursday” but at least I know I have all the stuff. The first person in the door (after homework for the boy) starts and if they pick a different night’s meal, so what. While I HATE with a passion going out after dinner on Friday night to go grocery shopping, I REALLY love having that chore out of the way for the weekend. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes I can’t.
Really enjoy your blog – good luck with dinner everyone!


Love the post. I write down my meals by day of the week but also write in two other columns my schedule and the kids school schedule. This way I never attempt a new recipe on a day when my schedule is packed or when the kids have sports til late.
I think it is really important to see the whole picture of your week so you can plan your dinners accordingly.


i know Molly already said this, but i cannot believe how airy and open your TJ’s is. I guess they really do have branches where the Greeter and the Line Ends Here sign holder are not the same person!


I love that Kale excites you. I had no idea how much kale would would be part of my dreams and longing until I moved to Norway last year. I had to wait 9 months until the local stuff was available. Right now it’s kale chips every night. woo hoo! TJs is a distant memory.


Another new reader here. What a great post! People always think I’m super-organized when I mention that my I have my grocery list on my computer, but it makes it so much easier when all I have to do is inventory the items I know we need, rather than thinking it up new everytime. My kids are all grown, now, but when they were still at home, helping with the grocery shopping earned them a raise in their allowance. Also, I pretty much hate grocery shopping (despite the fact that I love to cook), so I would shop for two weeks at a time. That also corresponded with pay week. Love your blog! The humor is great!

Robin Parke

Has anyone EVER won that TJ raffle? In the 8 years Trader Joes has been in center city Philly, I’ve never known anyone who has won it.


I echo Donna about the benefits of using a computerized list. It is totally worth the 20-30 minutes of writing down what you routinely buy aisle by aisle once then just print and circle needed items each week. I put it in a table format and then leave space alongside for writing anything extra I’m shopping for in the same area. I also leave it in my Dropbox so that if I ever go without a list (!), I’m much more apt to do the mental rundown and NOT forget things that our house couldn’t live without – like TJ’s Unburied Treasure (a.k.a. “cheesy stuff”)!!


Totally off topic, but DALS introduced me to the writing of John Jeremiah Sullivan. Just read his piece on Cuba in the NYT Magazine and it is brilliant in so many ways.


I love reusable bags too – and as virtuous as it seems, I must admit I really use them because I can make less trips between the car and the kitchen … they hold more and don’t break!


hey guys – i’m making pork ragu a la pg. 180-181 for my mother’s birthday dinner tonight. the house smells unbelievable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Great post! That looks like the TJ’s on Central Ave. in Hartsdale. For some reason I’m not a fan of that one but am of the one in Eastchester.

Boston mama

I love your blog and this post is great! Although I live close to TJ is not my favorite place to shop. At least in my area the TJ store is very small, the produce seems old, everything is frozen, or canned, (don’t do too much cooking with either) and the place seems always so crowded… My weekly strategy is to hit a low-budget grocery store for name-brand organic produce (e.g., diary items, box cereals, etc.) and THEN hit Whole Foods for specialty items, meats, etc. When I have time I shop at the local fish market or farm stand. This saves a lot of money (doing the bulk of cooking essentials at a budget store). I organize my list by aisle so I can be done quickly.

Eden Blanchard

I love this post! As my son grows and homework gets more and more intense we definitely struggle with those weekly errands. I despise those weekend crowds however, and I have recently found respite in the weekly organic delivery services. It forces me to be creative by varying the produce we use each week and it greatly reduces the amount of trips I have to make to the store. I can get milk from a local dairy as well as a lot of those other items that would require extra trips to specialty stores. The service is flexible enough that I can cancel deliveries on weeks where I want to make those extra trips.

Lucy Mitchell

The existential angst of filling the lunchboxes. So, so true. I live in Dublin, Ireland and suffer from that too. A universal feeling, I suppose! Great post.


one of my problems is going to too many places for food: the produce market, TJ, and occasionally either WF or Safeway for randoms things like corn chex. if only i could condense this to one place….


My husband and I are mixing business and pleasure and heading to Portland this weekend (which is a 7 hour drive). Crazy enough, one of the things I’m most excited about is packing my cooler for a trip to Trader Joe’s. LOVE that place!


Yes!! I won the Trader Joe’s raffle last year. It was so exciting to get the phone call after soooo many years of entering. I got a $25 gift card and a new, reusable bag. Pretty cool… I love TJ’s!!


I wish I could get my hubby to do more of the shopping with us. He drops in on occasion, but I do most of the shopping. Oddly enough – HE does most of the COOKING.

Karen D.

“(And please don’t tell anyone I just called kale-shopping sexy.)”

I just bought a book on Amazon called “50 Shades of Kale”. Not even kidding!


Mealfire: the program that has changed my life and eating since I discovered it. it’s free, you upload or type in your recipes (very very easy, especially if you find recipes you like on the internet), then you schedule your recipes, click the calendar days you wish to shop for, and poof! A shopping list by aisle is created. It’s amazing. Also, you can search for ingredients (ie have too much cilantro left over from one recipe? Search ‘cilantro’ and any recipe with that ingredient pops up.) Less waste, more cooking, more organizing, all free. Amazing. And I didnt even mention the ‘tags’ you can organize with.


Would you be willing to share your TJ’s master list with us? It would be so helpful to me to see how someone else tackles it!