How A Personal Chef Writes a Grocery List
I entered the culinary world as a personal chef when I was 23. I had recently graduated college with a degree in Anthropology and was working a sales job in biotech. But I loved cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. Throughout the 90s, I was in school and part of the early Food Network generation. I did much more watching than cooking along for years, until I was in college and cooking on my own. (I actually met Rachael Ray once, when she was so new to TV, I was the only person in the room who recognized her!! She called me “chickie” and was so nice. It totally made my day).
While searching for a career path in 2005, I came upon an article that said “Top 10 fastest growing small businesses” and there it was, listed: #3 Personal Chef Service. I had no clue what that meant but it had the word chef and didn’t say “restaurant” so I clicked. Most personal chefs own their own businesses, work on their own schedules and don’t have restaurant experience. That was it. I quit my job and enrolled in culinary school within 48 hours.
A little more than a year later, I had a few clients and was off to the races! Each morning on a “cook day” I would load up my car and head to the grocery store; or rather, about 3 different grocery stores typically. From there I’d arrive at my client’s house and start cooking meals for their whole family for the week and sometimes freezing soups and cookies too.
Because I was cooking so many meals I needed to be very organized. Chefs of all kinds have lists and systems of all kinds to keep themselves on track. Without your list, you feel sweaty, panicky, out of control and headed for certain disaster. Much later, when I had a sous chef and team of 5 other cooks, a “prep list” for the day’s tasks was essential. But in the beginning, there is the humble grocery list. I tell you about my time as a personal chef in order to explain my grocery list system that most directly aligns with cooking for your own household.
I remember walking through the grocery stores and strangers would actually comment on the list in my hand. Back then (and still today) I prefer a printed list, but I know many of you like apps for keeping your list. That’s fine, my system here isn’t actually about whether you have it on paper, typed, handwritten, or on an app. It’s about the organization of the things on it!
- Keep a running list at all times. The old school stuck to the fridge method is perfect, or on an out of the way desktop. If you use an app, make sure anyone who has say over what gets purchased can add to it. I like a notepad for this so anyone can write down when they use something up or make a request.
- When something runs out, write it down. Ground cumin, need apples, favorite granola bars, etc.
- 2 days before shopping – plan your meals for the upcoming week or amount of time until your next trip (might be 2 weeks, or maybe you’ll shop again in 3 days).
- *I like to plan one complete list, then break that down by store. If you go to a butcher shop, farmer’s market, or specialty store, it’s still helpful to put everything together at first then decide where you’ll buy each specific item later.
- Now organize. The main categories are: PRODUCE, DAIRY, MEAT, SEAFOOD, CANNED GOODS, OTHER DRY GOODS, FROZEN, BREAD/BAKERY, BEVERAGES
- Within these, it may be helpful to have sub categories, for example, if you’re getting “basic” cheese like mozzarella, or yogurt/sour cream/butter, it will be in a different section entirely than specialty cheeses like your Mt. Tam Triple Cream.
- When I add things to each category, I clump them together by these less official subcategories, so I’d put the specialty cheeses together at the bottom.
- The more you know your store layout, the better you can customize the categories! AND, Shopping-In-The-Time-Of-Corona-Bonus – the more organized your list is, the less time you will be exposed in the store, and there’s a smaller chance of forgetting things.
- 1 hour before shopping, check what you have vs. what’s on your list. Did anything run out? Anything on there you don’t actually need?
- Shop! If anything is left on your list after this trip but you don’t really need to get it now, you can move it over to a new list for next trip.
Repeat. Forever and ever and ever. That’s funny, because it’s true. On the Ends+Stems grocery list section, I added in boxes where you can write in your recurring list so you don’t actually have to do this from scratch every week. We always need milk, apples, bananas, bread, so they’re programmed in there.
Shopping without a list is a bad idea. You’ll overspend, forget things, and be in the store twice as long because you’re unfocussed. You’ll also buy things you already have or didn’t really need and that contributes to household food waste. So, whatever your method, do make a list. If you try my technique be prepared for other shoppers to think you’re a professional!