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Lost in the Supermarket
October 6th, 2010 by Chris
Photo by Flickr user Lyzadanger.

Photo by Flickr user Lyzadanger.

The line of glaring shoppers gathering behind me has nearly snaked its way back to the meat department.  “No, I’m going to be late,” one of them relays via her cell-phone, “I got behind some idiot at the grocery store again.”  My items are beginning to form a small mound near the cashier because I can’t keep the conveyor moving fast enough as I struggle to bag the haul.  I realize I left an envelope of carefully clipped coupons somewhere behind me, probably near the paper products or maybe in the cereal aisle.  The beads of sweat forming on my scalp and streaking down my face are starting to fall on my groceries in audible “plops.”  The total is coming and I don’t have my bank-card ready.  I’m shuffling through the multi-colored plastic plates when I discover—I’m missing one—the one with the money—“$163.85, please”—and I’m without a single cash cent.  I look to my children for a sympathetic smile, or some indication of a greater good, and I notice only one of them is in visible range and he is choking down an unauthorized grab from the candy rack.

Grocery shopping sure ain’t for sissies, and until recently it was a task handled mainly by the super-moms of the world.  I don’t mean to suggest that men can’t buy groceries.  I realize there are millions of single guys out there, and at least half of them have moved out of their parents’ houses and now have places of their own.  But, generally speaking, outside of a few professional cooks I know, grocery shopping isn’t very highly regarded (or appreciated) among the dudes.  To underestimate the effectiveness of a well-honed shopper’s acumen is a fatal mistake however, that can lead to vein-popping stress-tests like the one described above.  As the traditional roles of “husbands” and “wives” become less defined by gender, more men are being pushed into unfamiliar territories (like “produce”), and it is advisable to get your game-face on.  Don’t be alarmed.  I’ve been there, and in my ongoing effort to discover my inner “House-Husband,” I’ve found some essential practices that are sure to ease the strain.

  • Treat it like a job.  Become the House Manager for your family and attack the assignment as if you were getting paid for it.  Make it a challenge.  See how much money you can save the family by kicking butt on aisle nine.  If you manage to save just $25 a month, you’ll have $300 by the end of the year, and then you can dust off your golf spikes and stroll confidently to the first tee knowing you’ve actually earned it.
  • Before you start your list, make a plan.  Every shopping expert says the same thing—“start with a list.”  This is a no-brainer, but men often forget to consider the end-product (a meal) when they shop.  A list comprised solely of individual items is a recipe for waste, money consuming return-trips and numerous pizza bail-outs.  If you want to shop like a real pro, you’ve got to start with a menu plan.  I know.  It sounds so Martha Stewart, but a menu plan is essential to any effective grocery list.  You don’t have to become a chef or anything.  I only plan dinners, and I try to have between six and eight before I write my list.  Think entre, veggie, and a side.  Maybe a couple of casserole dishes.  The internet is a limitless resource for recipes, and I’d recommend investing in a cook-book or two (with color photos) for inspiration.
  • Clean out your fridge.   Most guys tend to enter the ice-box with blinders on.  Their determination to quickly locate and acquire the one item they need (“cold beer”), conveniently permits them to disregard everything else.  Without a loving wife/mom, or conscientious House Manager on hand, a guy’s fridge can get out of hand in a hurry.  You should always clean your refrigerator before you go to the store.  It’ll help determine what you need, you’ll discover what’s not getting eaten, and it should clear some space for the new arrivals.
  • Consider cash only.  If you only take cash, you’re more likely to stay within your budget, and you get the immediate satisfaction of actually holding any excess loot you save.  Just don’t forget to bank it.
  • Timing is everything.  Don’t underestimate proper timing when planning a grocery run.  Avoid shopping on weekends, if at all possible, or during rush-hour, after work.  Crowds are stress-breeders that can undermine the savviest of shoppers.  It is never a good idea to “squeeze in” a shopping trip.  Only go when you have enough time and are focused on doing a thorough job.  Return-trips wreak havoc on budgets.  Don’t go when you’re tired (or hungry, duh), and shop by yourself, if you can.  On top of eliminating possible distractions, research suggests we spend less when shopping alone.
  • Choose your store(s) carefully.  Guys often go for the fancy ones with the free samples, awesome beer/wine selection and a café attached.  I like to hit one of these occasionally too, for the excellent deli meats, fine butcher and appealing selection of organically grown produce; but a can of beans is a can of beans.  You will save hundreds on all the basics like toilet paper, condiments, frozen foods, cereal, canned goods, etc., if you make use of a warehouse-style, bag-your-own store.  You can still explore specialty options like farmer’s or fisherman’s markets, but don’t overpay for a tube of toothpaste.
  • Learn how to read (a label).  Listen up gents—you may not care if your own waist-size has decided to race your age to 50, but if you are the primary food buyer for your family, you really need to give health and nutrition some consideration.  This can get tricky.  Food Inc. isn’t going to help you here.  They don’t want you to know exactly what you’re eating, because if you did, you might not buy it.  They will try to divert your attention from important nutritional info like “calories per serving” or sugar content with flashy terms like “low fat.”  The truth is—you could get fat eating “low fat” foods.  “Calories per serving” is a much better gauge when dieting.  Look for “whole” foods or grains for the highest nutritional content, and try to avoid things that are “processed,” or “prepared.”  Deciphering the terminology of modern food labels is the key to making intelligent, health-conscious choices.
  • Find the “real” price.  When comparison shopping, between stores or particularly between brands, always note the per item/serving cost.  Sometimes food companies get slippery with sizes or items per container and what initially looks like a good deal is actually a rip-off.
  • Be practical with produce.  Yes, you want to stock up on a colorful range of fresh fruit and veggies; but remember—it can spoil, if left unused.  Rely on your menu plan and only purchase fresh items you’re going to use.  Learn which items spoil quickest, so you’re sure to use them first.  Hearts of romaine, for instance, generally stay fresh longer than other leafy greens, so this is a good staple.  Pay attention to ripeness when making your selections.  Don’t overlook frozen fruit and vegetables.  The taste and texture isn’t that much different than fresh, and they work great in casseroles (veggies) and smoothies (fruit).
  • Organize your cart.  If you use a bag-your-own store, don’t just haphazardly toss your items into your shopping cart.  You will benefit later by situating most cans and boxes (bottom of the bag items) so they can be placed on the conveyor first when you check out.
  • Double check the checker.  Try to keep an eye on the register’s display as items are being totaled.   Sometimes scanners hiccup or incorrect codes are entered and you end up paying caviar prices for a can of chicken noodle.  This can be challenging while bagging your own, so give your receipt a quick perusal before you leave the store, paying particular attention to any high-cost items.

More and more men are starting to shoulder their way up and down the aisles of our supermarkets, and their inexperience causes them to underestimate the complexity of the job.  This often leads to a mismanaged household and worse still, reinforces a guy’s apprehension about doing it.  Do yourself a favor, get serious and get good.  Successful grocery shopping is an exercise in proper planning and refined technique.  Everyone develops their own routine and there are countless effective strategies.  I’ve only included basic practices aimed at assisting the novice shopper.  With a little preparation, anyone can determine a personalized approach that meets their family’s needs.  Most guys will puff-up at the slightest sign of an accomplishment, so roll-up those sleeves, unleash the “guns,” and show June Cleaver who’s the boss of the bulk bins.

Lunchsense always appreciates your comments and suggestions.  Don’t be shy.


One Response  
Pam writes:
October 7th, 2010 at 8:19 am

I don’t know why; but my husband avoids the grocery store and I avoid the hardware store. We are locked into gender specific shopping chores. I’m going to ask my husband to study this blog. Now who will help me in the lunar landscape that is HomeDepot?

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