Smart Shopping 101: How to Make a Grocery List

We’ve all been there: You get home after surviving rush hour at the grocery store, only to realize you forgot at least three things. Not a good feeling! While creating a grocery list might feel like just another chore, it can actually end up saving you time (and gas money) not making trips back to the store. 

Having a grocery list keeps you focused and productive when shopping. Without one, it’s easy to forget essential items or overspend on things you forgot you already had. So when it comes to how to make a grocery list, what are the most effective strategies to get your least-favorite kind of shopping done quickly and efficiently?

Why you should create a shopping list

After shopping for groceries for most of our lives, many of us have a system down pat. But the range of brands and variety of choices is constantly evolving, and the sheer amount of options can easily throw us off. Sometimes these options are improvements to what we normally buy, like better quality eggs at a fair price. And sometimes, the many options present fun additions to spice up our lives. Maybe a starfruit isn’t necessary, but it’s fun and delicious!

Other times, the variety can be overwhelming and leave you feeling scattered. This often ends with you coming home either empty-handed or with the wrong items. Too many options can cause overthinking to the point of decision paralysis. Alternatively, it can have the opposite effect: all the options can be distracting, and you may end up overshopping (and over budget).

Enter the grocery list, the only way to ensure efficient shopping that doesn’t result in U-turns to go get tomatoes for the pasta sauce. Create a grocery list anytime you go to a store, or have a standard weekly list that you add to when you need specialty items. There’s nothing worse than getting home and realizing you bought the wrong milk, forgot the chicken, or bought bananas when you already have a ripe bunch.

Your grocery list doesn’t have to be restricted to food and beverages. Many grocery stores also have common household items, such as napkins, kitchen utensils, toiletries, and even greeting cards. Did you run out of shampoo this morning? Don’t risk forgetting and showing up at work with unwashed hair—add it to the list! 

Having the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer fully stocked means you’re always able to welcome and entertain guests (yep, we’re talking about those surprise visits from your in-laws). It also means you’ll never be halfway through a recipe, only to discover that you’re missing ingredients. So how can you get your grocery list in order? 

How to make a grocery list in 9 easy steps

These nine steps will show you not just how to make a shopping list, but how to make a list that’s so organized you’ll wonder how you ever did it any other way!   

Choose a note-taking system

Before you dive in, decide which medium you’ll use for your list. The two main options are digitally or with a pen and paper. Obviously, one is going to serve you better than the other. If you go digital and create a grocery list on your phone, you will always have access to it (because let’s be honest, when was the last time you went anywhere without your phone?). There will be no danger of forgetting your paper list at home, at work, or in the car. Not to mention that when we’re in a rush, handwriting tends to start looking like a doctor’s—messy and illegible! 

Power tip: Keeping your shopping list in Evernote means it will be in your pocket as soon as you hit the store. Evernote works on Android and iOS devices, and syncs across all your devices, so you can make updates on your desktop and any changes will instantly appear on your phone. 

Take stock of what you have

This one may seem obvious, but it’s important to know what you do have so you can determine what you need. Open your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, and take note of everything inside. This is your masterlist. If you have multiple food storage places in your home (like a mini-fridge in the basement) take stock there, too. Note the expiration date of each item as well. You may have a jug full of milk, but if it expires tomorrow, you’ll need to restock.

Create priority lists

From your masterlist, make a note of which items are running low and which you have plenty of. Then, create a list of things you don’t have at all. To organize them in order of replenishment priority, create three running lists labeled green, yellow, and red. Items labeled in red mean you need to restock immediately, yellow-labeled items are running low, and green-labeled items are all stocked up. Also note how many of each item are needed.

As you make these lists, decide how low you’re comfortable your stock of certain items getting. For example, as we learned in 2020, no one wants to be caught without toilet paper. For certain essentials, like vitamins, it’s a good idea to restock when you get to yellow. Other nonessentials, like those super salty potato chips you can’t put down, can get down to level red with no real consequences (other than unsatisfied cravings). Of course, everyone has different priorities, so make sure you order your priority list accordingly. 

Making three lists will keep you the most organized. Of course, if you prefer to only keep one list of things to buy as soon as possible, that works, too. But keeping three will ensure that you never find yourself in an emergency situation. Having access to all three—not just the red list—when you go to the store can also be useful in case you spot a great deal on a yellow- or green-labeled item.

Expert tip: I have created a master grocery list of all the things I typically purchase. They are arranged by the order they appear in the store and each item has a check box.

When I am getting ready to go to the store, I check the box for the items I need. When I am in the store and I put an item in my cart, I uncheck the box. At the end of my trip, I have everything I need!” – Evernote Expert, Stan Skrabut

Create additional lists as needed

Additional lists, including items for special occasions, can go on your red list or be created separately. An additional list can be made for this week’s meal prep—which requires some planning as well (try Evernote’s Weekly Meal Planner template for help getting started). If you’re planning on following a new recipe, check to see if you need to buy any new ingredients and add them to your list.  

Treating your significant other to a fancy date night? Make another list for gourmet shopping, or when you really go all-out making special meals from scratch. These lists will naturally be quite different from the everyday essentials you purchase on a weekly basis. Bakers, grillers, and other specialty chefs will have different lists based on their priorities. For example, you may find you need one solely for types of cooking oils!

Choose a food categorization system

Want to take your system a step further? Any list can further be categorized based on food groups, store layout, or any criteria you choose. Organizing by food group is a great way to track nutrition; it will make you more aware of how much of each food group you are ingesting, and perhaps encourage you to adopt a more balanced diet. This is also helpful for allergies and dietary restrictions. Your groups might include grains, fruits, vegetables, snack foods, dairy, beverages, meats or protein, frozen goods, bread, herbs and seasonings, canned goods, pre-packaged foods, and desserts.

For the efficient shopper whose top priority is saving time in the store, it’s best to categorize your list according to store layout. However, keep in mind that this works best if you only shop at one store, so make sure you have your go-to spot in mind when laying out your list. 

For the visually-minded shopper, categorizing your list by refrigerator, freezer, or pantry layout may make the most sense to you. When you open your refrigerator, for example, picture where the food goes: the crispers, the door shelves, the meat and dairy drawer, the butter shelf, and the main top, middle, and bottom shelves. Categorizing items based on location at home is a great way to make sure nothing gets left off the list. 

Leave some wiggle room

Now that you’ve got your lists, leave some wiggle room for coupons and sales. Got some yellow items that will be on sale next week? Consider whether you can leave it off the list this week. For example, if you’ve got a children’s birthday party coming up in November, why not wait till after Halloween to get your hands on those sweet discounted candy deals? 

Bring coupons (either cut-outs or digital coupons on your phone) and keep your eyes peeled for in-store deals, but don’t let them dictate your shopping trip (especially not those red items). Stick to your list and don’t get too distracted, otherwise you’ll defeat the purpose of the lists.

Power tip: Found a great coupon online for a product you actually need? Use Web Clipper to save it to your Evernote account, then add a link to your shopping list so you can open it with a single tap. Easier than fumbling for a paper coupon while you’re standing at the checkout!

Check off items as you shop

What feels better than crossing items off a list? Not only does it feel great, but checking off items as you shop helps you stay on track. Make sure to mark off items as you put them in your cart so you don’t double up by mistake. Use check marks, strike throughs, or a color coding system to mark items off. 

Get nonperishables first, like canned foods and chips. Then move on to produce, refrigerated items, and then frozen items. The last thing you want is that tub of Rocky Road to melt before you even get to the register!

Power tipChecklists in Evernote are a great visual reminder of which items you have in your cart and which you still need to find. When you cross off a checklist entry, it is automatically grayed out and struck through, so you can see your progress at a glance.   

Check in weekly

Once the lists are made and the week’s groceries purchased, take stock weekly and move items from green to yellow to red. Remove or add items to your list as you see fit. If you’re expecting company, make a new list to accommodate their needs and preferences. If you’re planning to go out of town, stock up on snacks to take with you and create a quick list of items you can quickly whip up the night you return (think frozen pizzas and canned foods). The last thing you want to do after getting home from vacation is go to the grocery store.  

Weekly grocery trips are generally a good idea. If your diet relies heavily on produce, it needs to be replenished more often. If you’re expecting supply chain issues or inclement weather that will cause power outages or road closures, you’ll want to get more essentials and nonperishables. And of course, holidays call for special items. Either way, it’s best to be prepared so make sure you keep that list up-to-date. 

Power tip: Set aside time in your calendar each week to review your shopping list and make any necessary changes. Once you connect your Google Calendar with Evernote, you can link your digital list to the calendar event and open it with a single click.

Troubleshoot and be flexible

The beauty of your grocery list is that it’s your list. For example, if you try the red, yellow, green method and it doesn’t work for you, try something else. Remember, you can choose how to organize grocery list formats, whether it be adding more organization or simplifying an overly complicated list. With so many other things in life to worry about, your grocery list shouldn’t be one of them. Do whatever is most efficient and effective for you. 

The benefits of making a grocery list

Still not sold on taking the extra time out of your day to make grocery lists? Here are seven benefits you’ll enjoy once you decide to make shopping list preparation part of your weekly routine:

Save time

You will save time when you make grocery list preparation a priority because you won’t be wandering around the store, making second trips to pick up forgotten items, or standing in the dairy aisle trying to remember whether it was yogurt or cheese that you needed. It keeps you focused on the purpose of the shopping trip so that you can be in and out in minutes. 

Save money

When you keep track of what you need and what you buy, you will be less likely to overspend. When you have a set list of items, you’re much less vulnerable to fall victim to the eye-catching packaging of foods you don’t really need. Once you lock in on an item, compare prices to get the best bang for your buck. Plus, no more wasteful impulse buys.

Reduce stress

Zigzagging around the store, trying to remember what you need, creates unnecessary stress (especially during that crowded 5:30 rush hour). Not to mention, realizing that you’re wasting time and money leads to even more stress. Shopping-related stress is even more common for those sensitive to crowds, fluorescent lighting, and the general overstimulation a grocery store can bring. Sticking to a trusty list is a guiding light through the whole experience.

Help out roommates or family

You might live alone and be creating a grocery list just for yourself, but often you’ll be shopping for others as well. Your grocery list can be shared with others so that multiple trips to the grocery store aren’t necessary, making sure everyone’s needs are met. Whether you and your roommate are splitting a value-sized laundry detergent for those late-night trips to the laundromat, or your significant other made the grocery run last week and it’s now your turn, having a list makes everyone’s lives easier. 

Power tip: Create a shopping list in Evernote and share it with friends and family—even if they don’t use the app. That way, there’s no confusion over what they need to find at the store.

Stay healthy and food-safe

Having a grocery list is a great way to stay on top of your nutrition and make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. After all, awareness is the first step to healthier decisions. Plus, an organized grocery list also means no food mix-ups (especially if you’re sharing grocery shopping duties with someone else). With a detailed list, you’ll avoid getting something someone in your household is allergic to or is trying to cut out of their diet (because it’s way easier to stop binging on potato chips when they’re not in the house). 

A well-organized list also means that you can easily outsource your shopping to someone else when you are unable to do it yourself. For example, if you’ve come down with the flu and your favorite neighbor offers to get groceries for your gluten-free family, a comprehensive list will make it easy for them to get the right stuff. 

Reduce waste

Approximately 108 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. every single year. That’s a startling number for all kinds of reasons, not to mention the money being wasted everyday by consumers. No one likes to throw away food if they can help it. Taking stock, staying on top of expiration dates, being proactive with listmaking, and sticking to a shopping schedule can help reduce food waste. Making shopping lists also eliminates unnecessary trips to the grocery store, which reduces air pollution from the commute as well.

Become more organized in other parts of life

Becoming a grocery list pro can help you organize your life in other ways as well. This is the easiest and fastest way to start learning what kinds of lists work for you, how to manage them, and how to improve them. Soon you’ll be making donation lists, to-do lists, and even bucket lists! Written organization in list format helps with meeting life goals and living an overall balanced life. 

Just remember, you control the lists, the lists don’t control you. Find the balance between organization and spontaneity, and leave room for a little fun. After all, sometimes you just have to splurge on those fancy cookies! 

How an organized grocery list can help save money

We touched on this earlier, but it’s such a huge perk of learning how to make a grocery list that we wanted to say it again: Making a grocery list will help you save money because when you stick to your list, you’ll only buy what you need. 

Oftentimes, looking for deals seems like it’ll save money, but sales can actually leave you with more items in your cart that you don’t really need. Did you really need to get an 8-pack of birthday candles on sale when in fact, you really only need one box? When you buy according to the sale and not the list, you might end up spending money on something you didn’t even come in the store for in the first place. 

Impulse buys can feel small in the aisle, but start to feel very real at the register. Coupons are easier to plan around than spontaneous in-store deals because they can be paired with lists to help save money on items you were planning on buying anyway. However, just remember that committing to coupons when you no longer want nor need the item is not always a cost-effective strategy—no matter how good the deal. 

Power tip: Use Evernote’s Budget Planner template to help you stay within your weekly spending amount. A well-organized budget reduces impulse purchases and helps you stay focused and on-budget, despite the enticing displays, discounts, and other sneaky marketing tactics. 

Create the ultimate shopping list with Evernote 

Evernote allows you to build and customize lists of any kind, including shopping lists. You can add tags, search by keyword, and scan documents (like that handwritten grocery list you were making before you read this article), so capturing and finding information is a breeze. Intuitive and easy to navigate, Evernote is the best place to make a list, and your first step to getting organized.

Now, let’s go shopping!