What not to do

A disorganized list will probably have you running all over the store! Photo: “red line,” Meg Stewart, CC BY 2.0.

Have you had any of these problems?

  • Coming home to find you don’t have ingredients to make a quick, decent meal
  • Running to the grocery store at inconvenient times, or more often than you’d like
  • Taking too long to find things at the store
  • Realizing halfway through cooking something that you don’t have an ingredient you thought you had
  • Forgetting that you were running low on a basic item, then running out at a bad time
  • Making grocery lists with similar items, over and over again
  • Miscommunications with people you live with about what you need from the store, which items need to be checked for vegan-friendliness, and what brand you prefer.

I have a pretty simple system for my home that helps me avoid all these problems. Once you set it up, there’s very little effort to keep it going, and you’ll be amazed by how smooth your home life becomes.

This isn’t my idea–maybe I found it on Lifehacker years ago?–but I’ve adapted it for vegans, who may need to shop at a couple different stores to find less common ingredients. For those of us living with non-vegans who sometimes do the shopping, I’ve adapted the system to help those housemates to find the right items and remember which to watch out for. For example, you won’t have to remind someone to check for lard on the refried bean label.

First, draw up a list of staples. These are the items you always want to have on hand. Here are some questions to help you figure out your staples:

  • What are the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that you make most often?  Write down the ingredients.
  • What are the quick meals you make when you’re in a rush or don’t feel like cooking? Write down those ingredients too.
  • What are the toiletries, health, and beauty items that will cause headaches if you run out?
  • If you bake, what do you need to make bread, cookies, cakes, or whatever you’d like to be able to make on a whim?
  • If you have pets or children, what specialty items do they need?
  • What items do you need to clean your clothes and home, and handle emergencies (e.g., stains, pet vomit, etc.)?
  • Think of the times you were most annoyed when you didn’t have something–what was it?
  • What do you run out of most often?

Write all these items down!

Now start organizing these items. Put them into groups based on where they are located in your grocery store. Next, imagine the easiest route through the store–is it from front to back, left to right, etc.? Put the groups in that order.

Are there some items that you can only find at a certain store (not your regular store)? Highlight them. This way, you can plan out when you want to go to the less convenient store, and you can really make those trips count by stocking up on everything you can only get there.

Vegans, if you live with someone who does some of the shopping, star each item that can be non-vegan (such as refried beans, cleaning supplies, sugar, etc.). Think about how you want to communicate this to the person looking at the list. For some of my items, I write “vegan” in front of each questionable item (example: “vegan refried beans”). For other items, I’m more specific by specifying the brand or type that I know is vegan-friendly. For example, instead of “vegan sugar,” you could write “Sugar in the Raw” or “organic sugar.” It depends on what your housemate already knows about veganism, or what you think will be foolproof.

If you selectively buy organic, you can also use your list as a way to help you or your housemates to remember which items you want to be organic. I always forget which fruits and vegetables are in the “dirty dozen,” “clean fifteen,” etc. (these are lists of produce items that have more versus less pesticide residue). There’s also items like carrots that are so cheap, I feel like I may as well upgrade. By specifying when to buy organic on the list, I don’t have to keep looking up information or thinking it through–I’m ready to go anytime.

You can write a list by hand and make photocopies of it, type this on the computer and make printouts, or keep a document on a mobile device–whatever will be easiest for you. Keep the list somewhere convenient for you and the people you live with. Whenever you or your housemates see an item that’s running low, circle it on the list. This will depend on how fast you use an item and how often you plan trips to the store. For example, let’s say your family goes through a roll of toilet paper a day. When you replace a roll of toilet paper, notice how many rolls are left. If you only want to go to the store once a week, circle toilet paper on the list when you’re down to seven back-up rolls.

If you need items that aren’t on the list (say you’re trying a new dish that week), just write them into the correct section and circle them too. All the circled items are your next grocery list, and you’ll be able to quickly make your way through the store to find everything. You’ll always be able to whip up a meal at home, and you’ll never run out of toilet paper again. The image below is my personal list. You can also follow this link to my personal list for a better view, so you can customize it to fit your needs.

Good luck! And if you have another system that works for you, please leave a comment and tell us about it!

Michelle's Staples List

My list of staples. When I start running low on something, I circle it. By the end of the week I know exactly what I need and where in the grocery store to find it!