How to Stop Making Impulse Buys at the Grocery Store

Sometimes I go to the grocery store and get derailed by impulse buys. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s real bad.

One recent Sunday, for example, I went to the store with a list of ingredients to make chili. I was not to stray from the list. The plan worked until I saw donuts in the bakery section. I told Mrs. SkinnyPants: “I won’t get them here, but if we happen to see a box of donuts near checkout I might grab them.” She didn’t object.

I was faking restraint and she was enabling. Because we both knew: there’s ALWAYS donuts at checkout on Sundays.

So there I was, Sunday afternoon, at home making chili while stuffing my face with donuts. I stirred the chili with one hand and ate six glazed donuts with the other, all the while hiding each donut in a paper towel so my toddler son wouldn’t realize what “Da-da” was up to and request his own donut. Mean Daddy!

After the donuts, I helped myself to some chili and a side of sauteed broccoli for good measure. Because when you eat unhealthy, you have to pile on the healthy food to offset it :).

If this sounds like the diary of a morbidly obese man, it very well could be. Except I’m 5’9” and 158 pounds with a body mass index of 23 (BMI) . That puts me squarely in the “Normal” BMI range for dudes. One friend of mine says I have a “European” figure. I think he means that I’m skinny, and he’s spot on.

I’m not skinny because of will power though. I’m skinny because I’ve put habits & life hacks in place that govern my life and protect me from the temptations of my lizard brain.

Let’s be honest, if I left the store with donuts all the time, I’d be fat.

But my Sunday slip up is the exception rather than the rule. Here are the habits I use to keep it that way.

Hermione makes lists…so should you

As you may have learned from my donut binge story, making a list alone isn’t enough. But it’s a good start for magic spells and health hacks. List making is the mama bird habit that makes all the rest of these baby bird habits possible.

Our grocery list gets made on Saturdays. We plan to buy food for 1 week and then scale back accordingly if there are plans to eat out or go out of town.

With a pen and blank sheet of paper laid on the kitchen table, we challenge ourselves to come up with meal ideas. Most of the time we’re sourcing from a vague mental catalogue of meals we’ve had before. Occasionally we go online and search for something new. The expectation is that we each contribute 1-2 ideas for healthy meal options. That way the brainstorming process is shared and we can take equal blame if the meals suck :).

For a recent shopping list we ended up with:

Meals

  • Tuna casserole (spaghetti squash, canned tuna, canned peas, canned coconut milk)
  • Cauliflower crust pizza (cauliflower, cheese, tomato sauce, sausage, peppers, eggs)
  • Pulled pork tacos (pulled pork, lettuce for wraps, shredded cabbage)

I try to check our fridge and pantry to see what items we already have on hand. I’ll also add our normal staples and snacks to the list such as:

Snacks etc

  • Breakfast sausage patties (frozen, uncured, organic, no nitrites)
  • Sliced pepperonis (for random snacking, not pizza)
  • String cheese (organic, pastured raised)
  • Hot dogs (pasture raised, grass-fed)
  • Pickles (jarred, dill)
  • Frozen broccoli (steam in bag)
  • Frozen cauliflower (steam in bag)
  • Asparagus (fresh, I can’t stomach the canned ones)
  • Sliced deli meat (turkey, all natural)
  • Eggs

The above foods cover about 4-5 days as we plan to eat about 2-3 nights a week per our normal routine (we like to visit friends & walk to nearby restaurants).

Once the list is made, we have other habits in place to help us to stick to it.

Shop the same damn store over and over again

When I asked Mrs. SkinnyPants about these grocery shopping tips, she mentioned that the key for her was to the avoid the aisles with tempting foods (our next recommendation). I agreed. But, in order to consistently avoid those tempting aisles, you need to know where they are.

So that’s why I recommend picking a “home” grocery store and shopping there over and over and over again. Our home grocery store is the HEB at Congress and Oltorf. Fellow Austinites know it well. It’s crowded and hectic, but we know the aisles, so that’s where we do most of our big grocery shopping trips.

By picking a home store, you’ll learn the layout faster, which helps you complete the trip faster and avoid the trigger aisles with lots of temptations.

Skip the Oreo aisle entirely

Per Mrs SkinnyPants’ sage advice, you gotta totally avoid the aisles with high carb, sugary foods. Take mental note of the aisles with chips, cookies, sodas, bread, tortillas, pasta, rice, etc and try to skip them.

For me, it’s important that I don’t stroll through the bakery section — though it’s really hard to avoid in my home store. I might start going through w/ a blindfold and nose pincher because the smells alone can get me sometimes.

The chip section also gives me a problems, so I try not to walk through there either. Damn you, Fritos!

At your home store, re-routing your path gets easier and easier as you learn the layout. Aisle-skipping gets wired into your motor memory.

At new stores, you’ll have to be much more intentional and read the signs above the aisles.

Eat or yoga before you go

I think it’s better to eat before you go because you’ll arrive full and satisfied. This is also the oldest grocery store shopping “hack” in the book. It’s not always something I do, but it’s helpful never the less.

Mrs. SkinnyPants likes to do yoga or workout before going to the grocery store because that gets her motivated to make healthy choices.

If you have all the other routines in place that I’ve mentioned, you probably don’t need to eat or workout before going to the store. If you’re at a new store without a list, you might want to do both.

Order your groceries online

The best possible defense against making bad decisions in the grocery store is not to go. This is something I’ve started experimenting with recently by ordering my groceries from an online delivery service.

We make our list then order everything on Instacart. In fact, that’s what I did before writing this post.

Online ordering has some cool benefits:

  • Fewer impulses buys. It’s easier to stick to your list when you can’t see or smell the tempting foods.
  • Saves you time and stress. No traffic & no bumper cars with mean soccer moms in aisle 12.
  • No walk of shame through checkout when you pick up a copy of USWeekly and InStyle. Circle of trust here…don’t judge me.
  • Convenient. Re-orders are fast because they save old orders for you and you can sort through foods based on unit price to make sure you’re getting the best possible deal.

There are also some tradeoffs:

  • Inevitably you’ll forget something every once and awhile and have to make a supplementary trip to the grocery store to get it. This happens to me whether I order online or not so it’s not a huge tradeoff.
  • Cost is higher. Groceries are marked up vs in-store and there’s another $20+ in optional service charges and tips for your groceries (assuming a $100 cart).
  • It’s not the norm, but during super busy times, you may not be able to get your groceries the same day you order. You may have to wait a day. I’ve had this happen once.
  • Your Instacart shopper can’t always find the weird stuff you want, so you get the nearest possible substitute.
  • Similarly, you need to be home to receive your groceries and your availability needs to match with the available Instacart delivery windows. I haven’t found this to be a problem yet, but I could see it presenting issues for people who don’t work from home.
  • Free samples – Usually free is good, but not when it’s a new flavor of Coca Cola. One of my recent deliveries included a free can of coke which I had to throw away.

Wanna try it? You can get $10 off your first Instacart order here. Can’t fathom outsourcing your grocery shopping to a hipster startup? Here’s a few more options.

Send the most disciplined person to the store

Couples shopping exacerbates impulse buying. We tend to cheerlead each other’s bad choices to be supportive.

“Oh, you want some Ben & Jerry’s? You get it baby. You work hard and you workout. You deserve it.”

So it’s best to send the one person most likely to stick to the list. In our family, that’s me.

In fact, the grocery store is about the only place I’m able to have just a little bit of discipline when I’m shopping by myself (donut story not withstanding of course). Once bad food enters my home, my fridge, my pantry, I have no will power. IT ALL GETS EATEN.

Stick to the perimeter

Another time-tested principle. Most of the healthy stuff is on the perimeter of the store — that’s where you find the fresh produce & meats typically. Just make a big circle around the outside of the store and leave, and you’ll be good. Shop the exterior walls. Start bisecting those aisles and the trouble starts.

Closing Thoughts

Grocery shopping is one of those weird things that I’m kind of fanatical about. If you have routines & habits in place that MAKE you a disciplined grocery shopper, then you’ll have less bad food entering your house.

Less bad food in the house means fewer bad eating decisions and a happier, healthier, and more prosperous you.

I hope you find my tips useful.

What other grocery shopping hacks have you heard of or put into practice? Would love to hear them in the comments. I’ll update this post with the best ones.

Cheers,

Mr. SkinnyPants

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