Want to hone your grocery shopping skills? If you’re a non-coupon clipper with an interest in healthy foods and saving money, this post is for you. It includes my favorite grocery shopping tips which I shared on a grocery store tour with CTV Morning Live.
These tips are ideal for people who:
- prefer healthy, whole foods over ultra-processed foods
- like saving money and getting good deals
- are concerned about reducing food waste
- do not want to clip coupons
If that sounds like your kind of grocery shopping, read on, you may find some useful grocery shopping tips. And, please, if you have additional tips, which I’m sure you do, add them to the comments below. The more information we share, the more efficient we’ll become!
1. Make a meal plan and grocery list
I know planning menus and making lists is not the most fun thing in the world – but it does lead to healthier eating and reduced spending. According to University of Pennsylvania, a shopping list can reduce grocery bills by 23%.
Meal plans & grocery lists help you save money and eat healthy.
Grab a piece of paper and jot down five to seven dinners you want to make for the upcoming week. Then make a shopping list based on those ideas and what you already have on hand.
I use this Meal Planner (PDF) with built in grocery list to plan our dinners. I don’t bother planning breakfast and lunches since we typically eat the same things all the time – I know milk, oats, cereal, crackers, cheese, bread, fruit, yogurt and veggies always need to be replenished.
If you like browsing flyers, this would be a good time to look at them so you can base your plans based on what’s on sale.
2. Make your grocery store work for you.
Do you do your grocery shopping online, in drugstores, warehouse clubs, supercenters, farmers’ markets, discount stores, gourmet grocers, traditional supermarkets or all of the above? Don’t worry, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. The best grocery store is the one you feel most comfortable in and where you get the level of service, the quality of food and the prices you want.
The key is that whatever store or couple of stores you choose you get to know them really well and make them work for you. For example, since most of us, 83% according to Markettrack, prefer traditional supermarkets here are some ways to make them work for you.
- Get to know your produce, deli and meat counter manager and staff. Ask them for their recommendations about what’s fresh and tasty, their favorite brands and their tips for saving money in their department. I’m often surprised by how willing they are to share information. Not only will you get great advice, you may even get a few taste tests!
- Ask for recipes and tips on storing any food you’re unfamiliar with.
- Ask if the deli will package, slice or wrap in-store packaged items into special sizes for you. For example, if a chunk of in-store wrapped cheese is too big, ask them for smaller portion.
- Ask for bigger cuts of meat to be cut into strips or cubes. For example, rather than buying pre-cut stir fry meat at $19/kg, ask them to cut a $14/kg steak into stir fry strips for you. There’s no cost and you save $5/kg.
- Ask the meat counter to make special cuts for you. For example, ask them to butterfly a chicken breast or to spatchcock a whole chicken so you can roast it flat.
- Ask the meat counter to tenderize meat or grind a particular cut for you.
Overall, become familiar with your favorite store and how they operate. You should know…
- where the clearance items are
- how buying in multiples works, i.e. do they extend the offer if you buy just one item (some stores do and some don’t)
- the difference between their Everyday Awesome Deal tag compared to their Special Sale Price tag (if you’re new to a store tags can be misleading)
- what day and time of day they reduce prices on meats, produce, breads
- how frequently certain items come on sale eg. canned tomatoes
- what day of the week flyer and in-store specials come into effect
- if they have special sale days eg. 10% off the first Tuesday of the month
- if they offer a loyalty program, how it works and if it’s worthwhile for you
- when they restock shelves
3. Don’t shop every aisle.
The less time you spend in the grocery store, the lower your risk of impulse buying. Stick to your grocery list and just visit the aisles you need to. Because you’ve planned healthy meals, most of your shopping will focus on the perimeter of the store. Dash in and out of centre aisles just for essentials – don’t browse! And skip the pop, chip, candy and ultra-processed food aisles all together. Don’t buy food you don’t want anyone in your house eating.
4. Calculate price per unit.
To compare brands or to figure out which package size offers the best value, calculate the price per unit. For example, knowing your family eats a lot of Cheerios, which of the following should you buy? Prices are $4.00 for 400g $5.99 for 525g and $8.60 for 1kg.
To find the best price for mixed sizes, calculate the price per unit using this formula.
Price ÷ # of units x 100 = price per 100 units
Multiplying by 100 at the end, gives us a more meaningful measurement. In our Cheerios example, here are the calculations.
$4.00/400g x 100 = $1.00/100g
$5.99/525g x 100 = $1.14/100g
$8.60/1,000g x 100 = $.86/100g
Now that we have an equal comparison between the three box sizes it’s easy to see the best value is the largest box, even though the smallest box is on sale.
Let’s compare sour cream sizes.
$1.99/250ml x 100 = $.79/100ml
$2.99/500ml x 100 = $.59/100ml
$4.99/750ml x 100 = $.66/100ml
In this case the medium sized container is the best value, which shows bigger is not always best.
Be careful, the biggest size is not always the cheapest.
4. Consider quantity needed over price per unit.
Price per unit is great for getting the best bang for your buck, but it’s not the only consideration. In fact, sometimes, it’s better to pay more per unit, especially when shopping for one or two people.
Let’s consider our sour cream example above. We know that the 500 ml container is the best value per 100 ml of sour cream. But equally important is asking whether you’re family will actually eat all of that sour cream before it goes bad (yes, sour cream goes sour!). If not, buying the smaller container is the smart thing to do.
Price per unit is important, but buying a reasonable quantity of food is more important. The cost of food waste is simply too high.
5. Know that convenience costs more.
Convenience food costs more. The more prep you do yourself, the more money you will save. You’ll also save on packaging and the use of preservatives. The trade off of course, is that more prep equals more time in the kitchen.
For example peeled baby carrots costs $1.50/454g, full size carrots cost half that at $.75/454g. A block of mozzarella cheese costs $1.14/100g, shredded mozza costs $1.87/100g. Precut squash costs $6.99/500g, whole uncut butternut squash costs $1.62/500g.
That said, if you’re shopping for 1 or 2 there are times when choosing convenience foods may be the best choice.
For example, if you’re a household of two and would like Caesar salad as a side dish, it might make sense to spend $4.95 on a packaged Caesar salad rather than a head of romaine, a bottle of dressing, a block of Parmesan cheese, croutons and a lemon that you might not use before they go bad.
6. Buy generic brands and imperfect produce.
Sometimes, brand names and looks don’t matter. Sure your family might notice if you switch cereal or catsup brands, but would they notice no name coconut flakes in their cookies or imperfect peppers in their spaghetti sauce? Stats Canada, as reported by the Credit Counselling Society estimates that buying generic brands can save up to 25% on annual grocery costs.
7. Know your prices.
Do you know the cost of common foods you buy regularly (eggs, milk, bread, cereal, beans, yogurt, apples, carrots, frozen vegetables)?
Knowing prices of your typical foods will give you the confidence you need to make quick judgments about what’s a good deal and what isn’t. That’s a good skill to have because store signage and flyers are not a reliable tool for identifying true bargains.
8. Buy seasonally.
You’ll get the best price and best flavor from food that’s in season.
9. Use your pantry and freeze like a pro.
Fresh food is delicious, but when it’s not in season it can be expensive and lack flavor. To help with the pocket book, shop for frozen and canned fruits and veggies instead. The nutritional content of frozen or canned fruits and vegetables is pretty much equal to and sometimes even better than fresh produce that’s been sitting too long in coolers, transport trucks and warehouses.
Another idea is to stock up on sales to fill your pantry or freezer. A large tray of meat can quickly and easily be split and repackaged into convenient serving sizes. Fresh, seasonal fruit on sale can be washed and frozen while veggies can be easily blanched and frozen for months.
10. Use best before dates to your advantage.
The time to look at Best Before Dates (BBD) is when you’re shopping. If you want the freshest product that will last the longest, look for the item with the furthest BBD, (Hint: check the back of the display). If you want a bargain, consider buying items marked down because the BBD is very close. If you can use or freeze the product right away, you can often score great deals on great quality food. Just remember to use or freeze it right away.
11. Be aware of grocery store & food manufacturer tactics.
Grocery stores and food manufacturers want you to spend your money and will go to great lengths to do so. The look, sound, smell, color and location of every item in the store has been strategically planned. On top of that every package has been carefully researched and planned to get you to buy.
Savvy shoppers are aware of techniques used by grocery stores, such as:
End of Aisle Displays (End Caps)– The end of each aisle is prime real estate. According to the National Retail Hardware Association this location sells products eight times faster than anywhere else. No wonder food manufacturers pay big bucks to display their wares in these spots. But consumers need to be aware that a fancy end cap with bright signage doesn’t mean what’s offered is the best deal.
For example, here’s an end cap display for Knorr soup broth.
An unsuspecting shopper might assume that the giant display and large In-store Special sign means this is a great sale. They succumb to the power of suggestion and buy two boxes. They may never know they were duped into buying the most expensive broth in the store.
A savvy shopper looks a little closer and sees the saving per box is a mere $.09 and suspects that there may be better prices down the aisle.
Sure enough, the savvy shopper finds the store brand is even cheaper at 2 for $4.00 for 960 ml ($.20/100ml) while Campbell’s soup broth (not pictured) is 2 for $4.89. Both cheaper than the broth featured on the end cap display.
End of aisle displays aren’t always the best buy.
Tasting Stations – Costco is the undisputed king of food samples and according to them it’s their most effective technique at boosting sales. Shoppers love free snacks, but apparently they also feel obligated to buy what they’re sampling – whether or not it’s on their grocery list. Do you have the strength to walk by or to sample without buying?
Buying Multiples – Stores are taking advantage of the power of suggestion when they offer specials based on buying multiples. They know that when they suggest we buy multiples of something and make it look like a good deal, we often do it! Sometimes, it’s not even anything special at all.
To make it even more frustrating, buying rules change – sometimes you have to buy in multiples and sometimes you don’t. For example, the Knorr soup broth above didn’t require you to buy two boxes to get the discount, but with the canned chickpeas below, you have to.
Shelf Placement – Grocery stores know that whatever is at eye level on the shelves sells better than items on shelves above and below. That’s why you’ll often find the highest priced items, or items that make the most money for the store at eye level. If you’re looking for deals, look on the highest and lowest shelves too. But be aware that this tactic is different in the cereal and candy aisle where high priced items are placed so kids can see them!
Misleading Package Sizes – Double check package sizes when comparing prices. Looks can be deceiving – something food manufactures count on! For example, at first glance these yogurt containers appear to be the same size. But look closely and you’ll see one of these containers is 50 grams lighter than the others, making price comparisons more challenging. Other places where you might see this is in the cheese, chip, cracker and cereal aisle.
Checkout Lanes – Checkout lanes are crammed with high profit items packaged to entice us to buy on impulse. Stay strong! Lanes are also built so we don’t have a convenient place to return any items we’ve decided we no longer want. Don’t be intimidated. If you’ve reconsidered a purchase, kindly give it to the cashier saying you’ve changed your mind. It’s totally okay to do so, although hiding a perishable item in the National Inquirer is not cool!
These are just a few of the techniques you can use to save money on grocery shopping. I’m sure you have a few tried and true tips yourself; I’d love to see them in the comment section below.
As for coupons and flyers, here’s a little explanation why I don’t use them.
Why I don’t Use Coupons or Compare Flyers
There are three reasons why I don’t use coupons or flyers:
- I don’t enjoy it and would rather spend my time doing other things.
- I rarely find coupons for the type of foods on my grocery list. There are very few coupons for fresh, whole foods.
- Browsing coupons and flyers leads me astray – I get lured into buying things I don’t want.
That’s just me. I know that couponing and flyer shopping can be effective ways to save money, but I don’t think it’s the best strategy for everyone. If you enjoy it and are diligent about using coupons only on products you were going to buy anyway, then by all means go for it!
Getty Stewart is an engaging speaker and writer providing tasty recipes, time-saving tips, and helpful kitchen ideas to make home cooking easy and enjoyable. She is a Professional Home Economist, author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, mom and veggie gardener.