Grocery Shopping Shortcuts When You Don't Have a Plan

It's Sunday afternoon, you know you don't have much fresh food in the house and you are contemplating heading to the grocery store. 

You have that all too familiar mental discourse in your head as you stare into the pantry, "I could make it for a few more days". 

The only thing holding you back is the idea of having to actually think about some semblance of a plan. The thought of opening up your computer and going on Pinterest does not excite you and nothing sounds particularly appetizing at the moment. 


Have you ever been in this situation? I know I can relate, which is why I wanted to share some grocery shopping shortcuts that can be used specifically on these occasions. Whether you just aren't in the mood or you don't have time for your normal meal planning routine, it's no reason to get flustered and deem it the week of take-out. You have options!

 grocery shopping shortcuts when you don't have a plan

Work Through the Pantry

One of my favorite quick, tried and true methods when feeling uninspired or lacking on time is to open up the pantry and freezer, figure out what I already have on hand, then build around those ingredients. This is a also a great money-saving strategy!

For example, maybe you have leftover rice paper from the last time you made these. Let that be one of your meals for the week and pick up all of the fresh ingredients you need. If you are someone who freezes soups and other leftovers, you might find something tucked away that you can use for meal #2. Have a can of black beans? Turn it into quesadillas - you won't need a recipe for that one which makes things super simple. 

The 5/4/3/2/1 Method 

This next idea is one I use when I'm out running errands, decide to stop at the store on the way home but have no idea what to buy. I've adapted it from the original based on my own preferences but in general I love the idea of just keeping of how many items to grab from each section of the store. This also helps improve your improv cooking skills too because it makes for a little bit more unpredictability for the week. Kind of like on the show Chopped when you are given random ingredients and just have to make them work together.

Here's how I usually approach this one:

  • 4 proteins (meat or plant-based)
  • 4 whole grains and/or starchy vegetables
  • 4 non-starchy veg (in different colors if possible)
  • 3 fruit options
  • 1 cheese 

This makes for a ton of options. I still grab all of my weekly stuff, but of course I have those memorized and I'm sure you do too. If you keep your pantry stocked with all of your cooking staples, you probably already have what you need to cook, amp up the flavor, and make any sauces/dressings. 

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Find a Few Star Ingredients

This is another favorite time-saving strategy and I especially like to use it when I go to Trader Joe's. They have a lot of fun packaged stuff that works well when complemented with a few fresh things. All this entails is finding a few interesting items around the store, then figuring out a way to to make them into a balanced meal with a few other add-ins. Examples:

  • TJ's has a super delicious frozen street corn that has spices and cotija cheese already mixed in. Top it with grilled salmon and add some simple mixed greens on the side to make it a meal.

  • Find a fun simmering sauce and use it on beans and vegetables; serve with brown rice

  • Try a specialty ravioli (like wild mushroom) and add roasted vegetables and goat cheese

  • Use a boxed falafel mix, then complement with all of the fixings like fresh diced cucumbers, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, olives, feta cheese, hummus and pita. 

  • Grab a quick-cooking grain and doctor it up with a vegetable, cheese, nut, and sauce or dressing (like this farro, pictured below). 

 farro and blueberry salad with creamy herb dressing

Refer to Your Standby Meals

As a last resort, always have a mental list of your "standby meals" to make in a pinch. For me these are things like burrito bowls, chop salads, and turkey burgers. I know all of the ingredients needed and can run to the store and grab everything without a structured plan. If you can't think of them off the top of your head, grab a piece of paper and make a list now!

Some things you might include: breakfast for dinner, grilled protein with vegetables, or even grilled cheese sandwiches with a side salad.

Now leave me a comment with 1) the standby meals you came up with and 2) any other tips you have for grocery shopping when you don't have a plan. Happy shopping!