The reverse grocery list saves time & energy when shopping

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How do most people create a shopping list? They think about what they want to eat, find recipes, then create a shopping list. If you’ve never given it much thought, I assure you this isn’t efficient. Learn a better system with the Reverse Grocery List! 

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One of the fun things about hanging out at FI meetups is learning how others live. At one of my monthly meetups, we discussed our food budget. 

A couple mentioned their strategy is to shop at low-cost grocery store like Grocery Outlet where they go inside and buy what’s on sale. They prepare their week’s food based on the deals and bargains they picked up.

I used to shop like this too. 

Specials illustration of different boxes with prices and discount prices.Pin

Buying odds and ends without a plan. There was no strategy.

I cooked using intuition and experience. Dishes usually turned out edible, albeit, uninspired (the food tasted all the same). 

Some nights—not often—were a cooking disaster with missing ingredients and poor substitutions.

Once I switching to my Meal Planning System, with food inventorying and creating a meal plan, these problems disappeared. The reverse shopping list is a critical pillar of the meal plan system. Let’s learn how it works in this article.

Meal Planning System 4 pillars Reverse Shopping List tree branch illustrationPin

What’s a reverse shopping list? 

Whether you call it a reverse grocery list, a pantry list, or even a negative grocery list, the idea is the same. You have a running list of items to buy at all times and note which ones need replenishing that week. 

Let’s compare.

Conventional grocery list: You add items to a blank list in preparation for your trip to the supermarket. 

  • You spend mental energy coming up with items you need. 
  • The shopping list is often made at one point in time, and you’re not sure if the list is missing ingredients. 
  • When you shop, you cross the items off the list.
  • You start a fresh list for every time you go to the store.
  • You’re not sure if you’re buying duplicates. 

Reverse grocery list: You mark an existing list with items you need that week in prep for your shopping trip.

  • You mark items to buy every time you use up an ingredient or when you’re meal planning.
  • The shopping list is made weeks in advance with a quick scan before leaving for the store.
  • When you shop, you cross items off the list. You might be reminded of an item nearby because of your complete list.
  • You always have an existing list to work from.
  • If you’re unexpectedly at the grocery store, you can pick up missing items with confidence that you’re not buying duplicates. 

The main downside of the reverse grocery list is spending time one afternoon assembling your first-time reverse grocery list. 

I find this one-time tradeoff worth it for all the time-saving benefits. I notice a significant reduction in how much mental energy I use every week to prepare for grocery shopping. 

Once you have a reverse grocery set up, you simply maintain this existing list. 

What do you put on a reverse shopping list?

The list contains freezer, fridge, and pantry items you need to keep your kitchen fully stocked. 

My reverse shopping list mostly contains permanent everyday items, such as milk, eggs, tofuonions, green onions, and apples. 

If I’m preparing a special meal like Thanksgiving dinner or a one-off recipe, I will add the items to my reverse shopping list. 

For example, last week, I added Breakfast Burrito to my meal plan to give Alex an unexpected treat. Items like chorizo and a block of Monterey Jack cheese made a guest appearance on my list. 

NOTE: This week, I’ll remove these specialty items when I do my quick scan before heading to the store. 

Example of my reverse shopping list

Here’s an example of my primary reverse shopping list. 

A screenshot of my reverse grocery list with most items checked offPin
A screenshot of my reverse grocery list with most items checked off. I will uncheck the items as they run out of my pantry to prepare for the next time I go shopping.

TIP: To keep things simple, I recommend starting with 1 reverse shopping list to test whether this system works for you. 

Since I’ve kept reverse grocery lists for years now, supplemental reverse shopping lists organically sprung up. 

For example, I have a reverse grocery list for Costco, for the Asian grocery store, for Trader Joe’s, and for Whole Foods. Because I visit these stores less than once per month, the reverse shopping list saves me from having to memorize which items I ran out of months ago. They’re already marked as empty on my list. 

NOTE: The reason I keep these supplemental lists is that it doesn’t make sense for me to “pollute” my primary list with specialty items like Shaoxing wine and five-spice tofu. Better to keep them on a special Asian grocery store list to keep my routine list streamlined. 

How to sort the reverse grocery list

I like to organize my list by categories based on how the items are stocked in the grocery store. That means the produce section lists all the fresh produce. Then comes dairy because the dairy aisle is right next to the fresh produce. Then comes the frozen foods because they’re next to the dairy aisle. 

Simplify illustration with scribbles from A to B compared to a straight line from A to B.Pin

This sorting allows me to pick up all the items in the same aisle at once rather than zipping back and forth. There’s nothing slower than forgetting to get a few lemons when I was picking up the apples.

NOTE: This means specialty items like chorizo or smoked salmon slip in next to the meat or fish section. A quick audit of my list before the next time I go shopping allows me to remove these items if they’re no longer on my meal plan.

I also like to layout my grocery sections in the order that they appear in the supermarket. Because I like to shop at the same grocery stores to save time, I know where everything is and can sort my list accordingly. 

How to make the reverse grocery list more efficient

The reverse grocery list is already optimized for efficiency. After all, you’re creating the list weeks in advance. Only one person needs to go to the grocery store. My list frees up my time to focus on prepping food at home, doing chores, or enjoying hobbies.

But if you’re a maximizer, I’ve one final tip to make your list more efficient. 

The Fear Test

Does the list look too short? Are you scared you’ll run out of food? If you don’t feel any fear, you’ve got too many items on the list. If you feel a tinge of “what if this list is too short?” then your list is right on target. 

The fear test illustration of a shopping cart with shapes inside.Pin

What’s the best shopping list app? 

Use what works best for you. 

I started with paper. Because I reuse the same list, I got tired of writing out the same reverse list every week (you can only cross off and circle the items so many times before you can no longer read what the item was).

An electronic checklist is the best format for me.

I used to use AnyList and now I use Evernote. OneNote, iPhone notes app, or any other shareable, editable, and checkboxy list should work just as well. 

TIP: I like any notes application that allows you to use checkboxes. That way you can check the item off your list when you purchase it at the store. You can uncheck the item when you run out and need to note it as an item to buy the next time you go shopping.

READ NEXT: How the Recipe Template System Banishes Horrible Ingredient Substitutions

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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