Organizing Your Shopping List


My English class freshman year of high school was a fun place to be.  My classmates were all new to me and loved books as much as I did. Our teacher pushed us but we could tell she enjoyed teaching and got a kick of watching us explore books like The Odyssey.  At the end of our first week together she asked me to write a few things on the board.  I was scribbling away when the giggling started.  I kept writing and the giggling got worse.  I stopped and turned around.  Everyone was cracking up.  I looked at my teacher, whose confused face mirrored mine—until she saw the blackboard behind me and gave in to the giggles herself.

See, I’m the kind of girl people assume has good penmanship.

So it is with chagrin that I share with you an example of my daily shopping list.  But as with those words chalked long ago on Ms. Lovell’s blackboard, I make myself vulnerable before you with an eye toward learning.

Before working as a private chef, I would make shopping lists by simply listing items as they occurred to me or popped up in the recipes I was planning to use.  The result was a list that often started with onions and garlic, continued with meat and finished with more produce— with pantry items listed willy-nilly throughout.  It took me from one end of the store to the other and back again more than once.

The key to an effective shopping list is simple: organize your list by category, not recipe, and get to know your store so you can list the categories in the correct order from front door to cash register.

In general, our categories include:


Bulk grains + nuts






Freezer items



Coffee/other beverages

The list in the photo above is organized in reference to the Whole Foods in Venice, CA where the flowers are arranged in big buckets right outside the front door.  I always stop and admire them but since I don’t buy them every day, I write flowers in large letters right at the top of my list, so that they’re the first thing I see on the page and at the store.  I then enter right into the produce section.  There, I know that the avocados are stacked in front, bell peppers a little farther down and sprouts all the way at the end of the section, stacked alongside the boxed lettuce just before vegetables give way to smoked then fresh fish.

But first, the wine and the nuts, both of which are interior to the produce section and easier for me grab if I do so before getting fish. Again, big letters and some underlining to remind me of a section I visit only on occasion.

On to fish, followed by the meat counter and the meat refrigerator, where I find turkey bacon, and the dairy refrigerator for Greek yogurt.

Interior here are pantry items.  When I’m done with those aisles (oyster sauce, siracha and soy) I’m back by the refrigerator aisle, just a few feet away from the dairy, where I grab my tofu and head directly to the deli counter and bakery.  Last but not least, I pick up a pound of decaf, a pound of regular and my own morning latté or veggie juice blend at the coffee counter up front, pay and leave.

My shorthand uses x times the unit I want, e.g. bell peppers x3 means 3 peppers.  If I write cilantro x2 I know that means two bunches of cilantro as bunches are the units in which my store sells fresh herbs.  For pounds I use the # sign, as in 3/4# roast turkey breast or 1 # coffee beans.

Like all enthusiastic shoppers, I find myself waylaid by specialty items like watermelon radishes, new chocolates and tasters.   But when you’re on the clock, it’s best to get in and get out without having to retrace steps or risk forgetting anything.  The same technique should work at the Farmer’s Market, once you have a feel for the layout, but I have a hard time being efficient when I’m out in the sun and there are rows and rows of beautiful produce to ooh and aah over.

A nice notebook can lift the spirit of a sloppy writer.  Moleskin Volant notebooks come in packs of two beautiful colors and are slim enough to slip into your purse or shopping bag.  I use the right side of the page for my list and the left for jotting down recipes notes or menu ideas.

Happy shopping!


6 Comments on Organizing Your Shopping List

  1. Halie
    March 2, 2011 at 9:53 am (11 years ago)

    The first time I ever gave my ex a hand written card, he pretty much ignored the sweet sentiment I had written and said, “Oh look honey, your write like a middle schooler.”

    PS- I think your classmates were mean. Writing on chalkboards is hard!

  2. Sarah
    March 2, 2011 at 10:31 am (11 years ago)

    I like how he prefaced it with “oh look” like it was something sweet you were discovering together. And no, they weren’t mean, it was actually really funny. I ended up laughing too (says the victim). xo

  3. Julie and Lauren
    March 2, 2011 at 11:21 am (11 years ago)

    Haha- you do have funny penmanship, but I guess it runs in the family :/ Like the photo!

  4. Beverly from RI (formerly Wash DC)
    March 2, 2011 at 4:54 pm (11 years ago)

    I think your handwriting is very cute, and in any event, much better than mine. We keep a thick pad on the counter and hubby and I add stuff to it as we run out. But nothing is in store order.
    AND if I just take the page with me, I am 99.9% sure to lose it in the apple bin or the cheese shelf. So NOW I take the whole big thick metal bound binder with me – I stand it up in the “baby seat” and walk around the store with it – and I haven’t lost my list since. Love your blog – sorry for writing so much 🙂 Bev (PS I also use the x for how many items I want)

  5. Sarah
    March 3, 2011 at 8:42 am (11 years ago)

    Thanks, Bev! I use the baby seat for my notebook as well. Taking only a page to the store is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Best,

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