To Market, To Market: List or Luck?


Living 500 yards from a fabulous whole foods style grocery story kind of puts a crimp in our grocery shopping habits.  We visit the store almost daily, usually having no planned purchases in mind. We sniff around and often grab foodstuffs on impulse.  Of course, we consciously go to get the staples (for my husband that would be beer, bagels, and bananas), and when we need milk.  But thoughtful lists of grocery items are rare in our household, and what we ultimately come home with is more often than not a crapshoot.  I’m not so sure this habit is in the best interest of home economics– or is it?

In the early years of our marriage when we lived more rurally, we made lengthy shopping lists and traveled to the big grocery together. We divided and conquered and discussed label choices. Each excursion was a satisfying venture in finding the right products, and then once home, we created the pre-planned menu over the following two weeks. We weren’t counting our pennies really, but we had the good sense to think ahead about what to keep in our cupboards and fridge for the sake of efficiency and avoiding wasted time and food.


The cute magnetic “Shopping List” pad I got in my Christmas stocking this year is stuck to the front of the fridge.  It is empty.  Ignored. I tell myself that shopping on the fly is just like living in Europe, where the little specialty food shops offer patrons something fresh each day. I rationalize that I am  like Parisians who live off the Rue Cler , or like the villagers in a small Italian town. How romantic.

Shopping in this manner, I say, keeps bought items to a minimum. Because I am walking to the store, I am loathe to lug home heavy bags.  I enter the food emporium as though I were at a museum.  Navigating the stormy sea of produce, I see other shoppers clinging to their carts, checking lists and crossing them out; they are distracted and on a serious military mission with their maps and marching orders.  They backtrack and desperately ask for help from the stock people, and then they take off on their wild goose chases for that one particular product.  Me?  I’m floating through the stacks of a great library of foodstuffs and browsing.  I’m shopping with the right side of my brain. This is a creative endeavor.

On the other hand, as a personal cook, I make highly organized shopping lists for my clients’ orders.  When I shop for them, I go all out. I get into conversations with the butcher and the cheese people and the cashiers.  I enter another realm, and I take such food shopping seriously, carefully avoiding waste or inferior goods. But when it comes to my own habits, I let the formality slip and go on a shopping adventure– destination unknown.

How do you shop? Are you a list-maker?  Do you go to different stores to hunt down particular products?  Or do you “dowse” when you enter the market?

 Is there an advantage to just grazing one’s way through the grocery, or do you think it is probably fraught with danger?  

4 thoughts on “To Market, To Market: List or Luck?

  1. Like you, I tend to be a browser (once weekly), however, I have a clear routine, which includes a stop at the deli, where they know I buy IMPORTED Bistro Ham (why it is called French, I always wonder, because it comes from Quebec), but beyond that I think about what I might LIKE to cook in the week ahead. But I do have the quirk of going to 3 grocery stores every week (two very different style COOPs) and an Asian store, expanded sometimes by a detour to a local green grocer if I need to buy bulk vegetables. Of course, if the Farmer’s market is on, that is the start of the trip and tends to add direction to the next steps.

  2. What a varied group of food stores you have at your disposal. The seasonal farmers and local bulk markets really are a great starting point for planning meals.

    Funny about the French imported Bistro Ham– I wonder if sales would be different if it were called imported “Canadian” ham, not to be confused with good old Canadian bacon!

  3. Like you, I often visit my local markets with the intention of seeing what looks good and going from there. I shop at three or four weekly; two or three others monthly, or whenever the mood strikes and I have the time. I live less than a mile from Stew Leonard’s, but I try to avoid the pre-holiday and pre-blizzard madness. It’s a luxury shopping without a list, especially since my husband is great about picking up the stuff I forget, which I text or email to him.

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