grocery shopping

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 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 source based on my own preferences, but in general I love the idea of just keeping track 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. Kind of like on the show Chopped when you have random ingredients and just have to make them work together.

Here's how I approach this one:

  • 4 proteins (meat or plant-based)

  • 4 whole grains and/or starchy vegetables (I usually have most of these on hand)

  • 4 non-starchy veg (in different colors if possible)

  • 3 fruits

  • 1 cheese (or other flavor enhancer)

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 favorite staples, you probably already have what you need to cook, amp up the flavor, and make any sauces/dressings. 

Curious what ingredients you should always keep stocked in the pantry? If you sign up for my free 3-day email course, I share a checklist in day two!

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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 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 plan. Some things you might include: breakfast for dinner, sheet pan chicken & vegetables, or even grilled cheese sandwiches with a side salad.

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!

Eating Well Without Breaking the Bank

Eating well is expensive, right?

That might depend on what "eating well" means to you. In response to this question I often hear a myriad of responses including the following: 

More produce.

The light frozen meals/snacks or other healthified version of convenience foods.

"Primal" or paleo style staples (grass-fed meats, wild fish, ghee)



Less processed food.

Kombucha, cold-pressed juice, chia seeds.

Though any of those can be healthful ways to eat, I like to bring people back to the basics for the purpose of keeping things simple, practical and sustainable. If you were to say that it's challenging to eat satisfying and nutritious food on a budget, I would definitely agree that it does take some extra time and planning to make it happen but it is not impossible. In this post I'll be sharing six ways to save some cash on your grocery bill without resorting to boring or nutritionally lacking meals. 

Eating well does not have to be fancy, but it does have to taste great.

meal plan and grocery list

Make a Plan

First and foremost, if your goal is to save money on groceries, you absolutely must make a plan. It can be simple (write down what you need on scratch paper) or super structured (by using a meal planning app) but it's absolutely necessary to prevent aimless wandering and grabbing things that don't work together. I dedicated an entire post to this so if you're interested in learning how to get more organized with meal planning be sure to check that one out.

I also like to plan some overlap of ingredients so if, for example, I won't use an entire bunch of greens in one meal, I have an idea of where I can use the rest to minimize waste. Remember to plan for breakfasts, lunches and snacks too. This will help limit the need to grab something expensive from a coffee shop, convenience store or vending machine because you need something in a pinch.

Need to plan in a hurry? Subscribe to my 'Healthy Dish' list and I'll send you a meal planning shortcut printable for free!

Shop Store Brands and/or Sales

Grocery stores sell store brands that are basically the same as their more high-end counterparts, just with no-frills packaging. In fact, most store brand items are actually manufactured by those higher end names. I typically do a quick scan of the ingredients to make sure there aren't any unnecessary additives but most of the time I find them to be identical, with a much more reasonable price tag. 

My favorite store brand is the Whole Foods Market 365 brand but every store has a generic option (and if you prefer organic, most grocery stores are responding to an increase in demand for these products and carry an organic version as well). 

When products you buy often are on sale, stock up! Consider purchasing more than one if the item isn't perishable. Think nut butter or canned items like beans and tomatoes. This will also make improvising in the kitchen a total breeze. If you keep some key pantry staples on hand, you should always be able to throw together something simple and healthy. 


Go More Plant-Based

Meat and poultry are usually the most expensive items on your grocery list. On the other hand, plant-based staples like beans, lentils, tofu, and whole grains are a total steal and can be just as delicious if you take the time to learn new and interesting ways to prepare them. 

I'm not suggesting that you should go full-on vegan tomorrow, but you might consider making meat more of an accompaniment on your plate as opposed to the main entree. For example, you could flavor an entire pot of soup with a couple of slices of quality bacon, or make burgers 3-4 oz instead of 8. You could also use half the meat in spaghetti sauce and bulk it up with some diced mushrooms or lentils. The result will still be full of flavor at a more reasonable price (the environmental benefits are a nice bonus too!). 

In addition to plant proteins, several lesser known items in the produce section are magical when it comes to flavor. Who said you need to buy expensive condiments to make a dish pop? Fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley usually cost less than a dollar per bunch and add freshness to just about anything. Other examples: citrus (such as lemons, limes and grapefruit) and aromatics like onion, garlic, ginger, chiles and chives. All of these can add an extra wow factor that makes people say "what is that flavor?" and are all really inexpensive. 

While going veg even just some of the time can be an economical lifestyle change, be cautious of imitation products like frozen veggie burgers and meat alternatives, nut-based cheeses, yogurts and milks, and any other processed plant-based foods. These can actually end up costing you more than the traditional versions - sometimes a lot more. Just something to keep in mind as you peruse the grocery store aisles!

Want to start cooking more plant-based meals but not sure where to start? Check out my cooking challenges!

aromatics cilantro, onion, limes, cauliflower

Scope Out the Bulk Bins - Compare Prices

The bulk bins are your friend. 95% of the time when in need of nuts, seeds or dried fruit I find that they are less expensive in the bulk bins than if I were to buy a whole package (just be sure to compare the price per pound to make sure because this isn't always the case).

Bulk bins also allow you to purchase the amount you need rather than a large amount of something expensive that might not be used as often. Example: I once needed almond meal for a baked good and a 1 lb bag was nearly $16.00! Since I knew this wasn't going to be a staple in my kitchen, I found it in the bulk bins for significantly less and bought just the one cup that I needed for a few bucks. 

These also come in handy for expensive dried herbs and spices. If you need a teaspoon of a more obscure spice, keep in mind that that flavor tends to fade at about the one year mark so buying an entire canister might not be the best idea. If your grocery store carries these in bulk, you can save a lot of money by taking advantage of these. 

Homemade Snacks

Years ago I relied heavily on store-bought bars (either boxed or individual ones) almost every week for an on-the-go snack option. One day I actually thought about how expensive they are compared to homemade versions and realized that I have all of the ingredients at home anyway (and it takes less than an hour to make them). Now I usually try to throw together muffins, snack bars, oatmeal balls or something similar on Sundays so I have a high-fiber snack to grab all week without spending extra cash on a packaged option.

Here are a few favorite snack recipes that I make often and modify based on my mood or what I have on hand:

Peanut Butter Snack Squares

Oatmeal Energy Balls 

Peanut Butter Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

cooked muffins.JPG

Use a Rebate App 

I have been using a smart phone app called Ibotta for over a year and find it to be a great way to get cash back on items I would be buying anyway. I find Ibotta to be extremely user-friendly and I love that they are local to Denver. 

So what is it? Ibotta is an app that you can use to "unlock" rebates on certain products (unlocking might entail watching a 30 second video, or answering a product-related question but sometimes you don't have to do anything). You purchase said items and once home, scan the barcodes and take a picture of your receipt. Money is then automatically added to your Ibotta account!

When you earn at least $20, you can either deposit the money to PayPal or Venmo, or use it to buy gift cards. I typically let it build up for a while before transferring to PayPal and then my bank. It's kind of like an extra little savings account that's out of sight and out of mind.

It does take some extra effort to browse rebates, select the ones that look good, unlock them and then remember to scan the barcodes when you get home. But if you seek out the bonus opportunities (where you can earn extra cash for redeeming certain combinations) I think it's totally worth the time. I actually think it's kind of fun and can gameify grocery shopping in a way. 

Just a note: if you sign up for Ibotta using the link above, I'll get a little bit of cash. 

What are your favorite tips for eating well on a budget or alternately, do you set a food budget?