Cooking 101: How to Navigate a Grocery Store

This is an article from NF Rebel Chef Noel.

For some of us Rebels, a grocery store is a lot like a video game dungeon. It’s dark, wet, oozy, and full of giant spiders…Okay, well maybe not the spiders part. But sometimes it feels that way.

It reminds me of a level from Legend of Zelda! Whenever you, Link, entered a new dungeon, whether it was the Deku Tree or the Water Temple, after wandering around for some short amount of time, inevitably, you found a map and a compass. The map and compass helped you find your other necessities to complete the dungeon: Hidden doors, boss keys, and hook shots. Today, games just have this stuff built right in from the start.

You walk into the store, and you’re overwhelmed. You know not to shop in the middle aisles, but you’re trying to eat healthy and cook for yourself for the first time in your life. You walk around the perimeter a few times and find things like butter, eggs, meat, and vegetables, but there are some things on your list that are missing (coconut oil? bag of almonds?).

Not only that, but every time you find something and move on to seeking out the next item on your list, it seems like you have to walk back across the freaking store to find it, or up and down 2-3 aisles until you by some miracle stumble across whatever you’re looking for. (Or if you’re like me, you walk around until you’ve completely forgotten what you were looking for in the first place!) I know, guys, it’s freaking hard!

If you’re one of those people who gets a mild panic attack when the bright florescent lights of your local supermarket hit you, if you get attacked by a horde of skulltula immediately upon entering, or if you just need a little help figuring out how to wheel your cart around the place without walking the length of The Shire to Mordor, this article is for you.

Once you’ve got the sections of your store down, it’s a breeze. So don’t feel intimidated just yet. We’re going to help you dominate the supermarket sweep and shop like a boss.

A quick note: Nerd Fitness Yoga is available at a reduced rate until tomorrow night (Tuesday)! See the PS in this article for details.

You found a map!


First, we’re going to talk about the general layout of the store. In this article, you read about how the store is set up with healthy things around the perimeter, while unhealthy junk food awaits in the middle aisles.

Let’s take a walk through an average store just to survey our surroundings. Every store is different, but generally, your fruits and veggies will usually be on one side of the store. Keep walking around the perimeter and you’ll come to either meat or dairy. Keep walking and you’ll likely stumble across things like lunch meats, cheeses, or a frozen section. Stores that carry alcohol often keep these items on the perimeter as well. As you walk through your store, you might notice that these things are out of order, but don’t fret. The important part is that these things are around the perimeter.

Check out this amazingly well drawn map to get an idea of my local grocery store’s perimeter layout, likely similar to yours:

Noel Map Scan 1

Now, let’s talk about those middle aisles: the lower levels of the dungeon if you will. You might be more familiar with these aisles if this is the kind of food you’ve shopped for before.

Entering the Dungeon

You know where the frozen pizzas and pudding cups are, and you might be pretty comfortable with the layout of the candy aisle. You might know where to look for Goldfish crackers and Mountain Dew. Hey, no judgement – even “health food” stores like Whole Foods stock their shelves with cookies and gummy bears. It’s good to know where the dangers lie.

How do you deal with these mobs? First of all, if your willpower points are running low, just stay away from these places. Just like you wouldn’t charge into a boss battle on low HP, if you don’t know whether you can get out of the aisle without stocking up on garbage, don’t even set foot in there. This is doubly true if you are shopping on an empty stomach. Stick with the basics (veggies and protein), and get out alive. Come back when your willpower points are full and live to fight another day! Remember, 60% to 70% of purchases in grocery stores are UNPLANNED! So, do NOT underestimate these mobs!

However, for some of the items on your list, you’re very likely going to have to walk through some of the middle aisles. Especially if you’re stocking your paleo pantry.

Again, every store is different, but the middle aisles are often organized by type of food or product: canned meats/vegetables, cereals and other “breakfast foods,” baking items, food storage (Ziploc bags and Tupperware), medicine… you get the idea.

If you are venturing down the aisles, here are the ones you’ll likely need to stock up your paleo pantry:

  • Baking goods – nuts are often kept in these aisles.
  • Canned meat – for canned tuna.
  • Canned vegetables – if you’re into eating canned veggies or need tomatoes or tomato paste for Paleo Spaghetti, this is where you’ll find them.
  • Frozen vegetables – if you prefer this over fresh or you want to keep these on hand for emergencies.
  • A bulk section – if your grocery store has it, nuts are often kept here and, because you can buy items in this section in the quantity you desire, they can be cheaper  than buying a brand-name bag of almonds from the baking aisle.
  • Jams/jellies – this is where the almond butter is kept – stay focused!
  • The spice aisle – spices and sauces for cooking are often in this aisle, as are cooking oils and vinegar.

If you’re looking for items like coconut milk or soy sauce, check to see if your grocery store has an “ethnic foods” or “Asian foods” section. These items are often located here.

Watch this video to get an idea of what your grocery store run is going to look like. Consider it a shopping speed run.

Now get ready, here’s the full strategy guide: We’re going to walk you through the entire dungeon, from meal plan to recipe, to grocery list, to grocery store.

Acquire these Items, Beat the Dungeon

nintnedo_link between worlds

Now that you know the layout of the store, it’s time to do the at-home prep work, starting with the question we all ask ourselves…”WTH am I going to eat tonight?!” Next we’ll check out the recipe, make the grocery list, and wheel your cart through the aisles.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to eat tonight, you’re going to look up the recipe. I’ve chosen Paleo Shepherd’s Pie. Now we’re going to make a shopping list out of that sucker. Grab 2 pieces of paper and a #2 pencil. (Okay, not exactly a #2 pencil. Any writing implement will do. But bonus points for #2).

First write down the ingredients from the recipe in the same order as the recipe. If your recipe has two sections like the Shepherd’s Pie does, you can eliminate any re-occurring ingredients (you only need to buy these once) or any stuff you already have (you don’t need to re-stock this item until you’re out.) Here’s what mine looks like:

Noel Grocery List BeforeNote* (My list has foods color coded by section to make it easy for you to visualize the section each food belongs in. You don’t have to do this when you make your list.)

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to want to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. In order to have the most efficient shopping experience of your life, you’re going to re-organize that shopping list. You have a general idea of where things are in different sections of the store now. Take your list and reorganize it into different sections so you can just walk through that aisle/section, grab what you need off the shelf and move on to the next section. Here’s my reorganized list:

Noel Grocery List After

You can see how I re-organized the list by section. Veggies are together, spices are together, canned goods are together, and meat and dairy are on their own. (Also, after cooking this just once, you’ll have spices and leftovers. Your list will be cut in half for next time!)

Now with grocery list in hand, you can buzz through the aisles and get in and out as quickly as possible!

Help! i can’t find ___!

Clement127_angry hulk

You’ve been in the grocery store for 30 minutes. You’ve dominated most of your list, but there’s that ONE ITEM that you cannot freaking find. You’re frustrated and you just want to get out of there. What do you do?

  • You can just leave without it. (womp womp)
  • Or you can talk to an NPC.

Grocery store employees are often super helpful, and I’ve found that when I ask them for something, they’re more than happy to take a break from whatever they’re doing to help you look (if it’s not in the section they work in, they might end up joining your search party too).

Gather up your 20 seconds of courage, find an NPC, and politely ask them for help. You might be afraid they’ll be rude. You might think they’ll think you’re stupid for getting lost. Or there’s always the possibility they just don’t carry what you’re looking for in the store at all. If any of that happens, remember, THAT’S OKAY. The quickest way to be sure is to JUST ASK. If you need some pointers, check out this article on confidence and this article on approaching people before you hit the store.

And what happens if the grocery store just doesn’t have what you’re looking for? You can either focus on the big wins and leave without that ingredient if it’s optional (coconut milk in the Shepherd’s Pie recipe) or conjure a spell and substitute a different one (for example use ground pork, turkey or chicken if they don’t have ground beef).

Don’t let these TINY bumps in the road distract you from the big wins – figure out a way to make the meal!

It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this!

its dangerous cat

Now it’s time to hit the store! If your hands are still feeling cold and clammy at the thought of walking into the market alone, take a friend with you. You can shop together or split the list in two. Each person takes half and you dominate the store in half the time.

If shopping sounds too much like a chore to you, try gamifying it!

Ways to gamify grocery shopping:

  • Supermarket sweep – get through the store in the least amount of time possible. Use the rules from this post.
  • Race a friend – split your list in half with a spouse or roommate and each of you tries to complete your list and get through the checkout line before the other person. Be careful! Don’t run over any old ladies or wild children! You’ve been warned!
  • Spend the least amount of money possible – buy whatever’s on sale or cheap. If your recipe calls for chicken breast, but the store is having a great sale on thighs (and you feel confident enough in your cooking), buy the thighs and alter the recipe a little for the sake of saving some dough.

Now that you have your map, your compass, and a plan, it’s time to get out there and use them in the real world. Let us know how it went!

  • Did you get your shopping done in record time?
  • Was the virtual grocery store tour helpful?
  • How do you get your grocery shopping done in the most efficient way?

Let us know in the comments!


PS from Steve – Nerd Fitness Yoga is available for a reduced price until tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 11:59pm EST! Join thousands of Rebels who are getting more flexible, building a healthy habit, and leveling up their lives! See you inside the course!


Photos: zelda wikia: windwaker map, clement127: angry hulk, Nintendo news: a link between worlds screenshot

Video music: Eric Skiff: 8-bit Music – Chibi Ninja

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  • SamB

    I consider myself a supermarket master, but I never thought to organize my list by region of the store, and I always find myself running back to the fancy cheese section for the goat cheese I just realized I needed… What a fool I’ve been!

  • billthegalactichero

    I use tech. Since I can walk to Safeway, that’s where I usually shop (extra walking exercise plus grocery bag curls on the way back.) They have an app for smartphones that will even tell you which aisle the items are in. Sort by aisles, zoom from one end of the store to the other then loop around the outside.

    You can enter all the items from a web browser and they sync with the phone app. You can store all your coupons electronically so your discounts are automatic. Other major chains also have apps, just using Safeway as an example.

  • Donna N

    I use a grocery list app on my phone. I like that I always have my list with me and I can tag my items so the list organizes itself into store sections. Currently I’m using Out of Milk. This particular app can be accessed online or shared if you want, so you can make a list and send it to the spouse or whoever is doing the shopping.

  • JGalt texas

    Don’t know about all stores but at the HEB stores in Texas you can get a map of the store from the service desk. I also use the GroceryIQ app and have arranged the aisles so I can go across the store from left to right ending in the produce section.

  • Jennifer Nelson

    I have a few comments on this one!

    Where to go: If you consistently find that one store is lame and boring, and going there aggravates you, go to a different store. When I really, REALLY don’t want to go shopping, I go to Super Target. I can get a drink from Starbucks, look at interesting things, and cruise the makeup clearance aisle for a (tiny, inexpensive) reward.

    Game: My favorite is “Price Slash Percentage.” Using a store discount card and coupons, attempt to save the highest percentage of money. Most stores print the percentage saved right on the receipt. My high score is 33% from Safeway.

    Player 2: My #1 roadblock to grocery shopping for the last few years has been my little girl. Either I try to shop with her and it ends in drama and tears, or she talks me into getting a treat, or I decide it’s too much trouble altogether so screw it, we’re ordering pizza. 🙁 I’ve learned to circumvent this by planning my weekend meals (my time with the kid) and doing my grocery shopping when she’s not around. Her dad does the same thing. If you have kids, especially young ones, figure out a way to go shopping without them. It saves time, money, and sanity.

  • isah maazing

    Oh my gosh, I love this article so much. The map is just genuis, this is how I look at the grocery store too. The video is just icing on the cake. I usually take a list with me and only grab the items on the list, whenever I go grocery shopping unannounced I end up buying too many of the wrong things.

  • Tony Langdon

    I use a combination of memory and a strategy like a military exercise, when shopping by myself. Memory to recall exactly where the items I want are, and then I go in, get what I want, pay, then leave, like a raiding party. I do prefer shopping alone, only because I’m more mobile that way, and can move around the store faster.

    However, I tend not to buy fruit and veg or meat at the supermarket, unless it’s a quick trip to the local supermarket, which is within walking distance. I prefer greengrocers and butchers for those essentials. I find you get better quality. Price may be higher or lower, depending on the store you visit (the greengrocer I use is cheaper and better quality).

  • Tony Langdon

    I love the idea of “gamifying” the shopping too. I do tend towards getting out in the fastest time, and if I need a shopping cart, that’s just a training prop for the (much heavier) one I use in real competitions! And no, no people have been harmed in any of those “games”. 😀

  • Laura Murphy

    I have been writing my lists in “store order” for some time now. It cuts down on wandering time, and makes it easier to skip certain sections. Why walk down an aisle if you don’t need anything down there?

    Also I am finding coconut oil, almond milk, chia seeds, things that seemed kind of exotic a few years ago, mixed right in with traditional products these days.

    One other tip – in the Hispanic food section of my local stores, they sell spices in hanging plastic bags. A package of chili powder is .66 cents compared with a McCormick shaker of the same thing, for $3. My grocery store also has spices, flours, nut butters, seeds, all sorts of items, in bulk, so I can buy it a lot cheaper and only in amounts I need.

  • Amy Austin

    I don’t walk into a store without a list, even if it’s just a couple of things after work. My brainy no worky after work is done and I will forget the two things I needed and walk out with five things I didn’t.

    I make a grocery list every week, with my planned meals written at the top. Yes, I sometimes buy a bunch of stuff and then can’t remember what amazing thing I was going to make. It’s hell getting old, fellow Nerds. I also have mPerks through Meijers (coupon and rewards app) and save a TON of money through that, which always makes me happy.

  • Mdjahurul Islam

    The post is splendid.We have learned about How to Navigate a Grocery Store from this website.Some important information is here on navigate.Thanks a lot for sharing this with us.

  • Amy Tipton Johnson

    I’ve been shopping like this for years – making and dividing a list not only helps with WHAT you buy it also helps you to stay on budget. However, for those nerds who might be in other parts of the world, the store map may not look like a typical North American store, and in fact, where I live in France, each store is actually a little bit different. When I first moved here it would sometimes take me an hour to locate and buy 10 items! And, on those occasions when I would go to pick up just a couple of things and had no list, I would invariably get home and realize that I had forgotten something because I spent so long looking for the 2 things I did buy. Anyway, if you are one of the overseas nerds, I totally sympathize with you, and I think gamifying your quest for healthy food would probably help a lot.

  • Jason

    My biggest hack for grocery shopping has been this: “I will not shop while BOTH hungry AND unprepared.” If I have a prepared list, my natural aversion to grocery shopping will prevent straying. If I don’t have a list, I consider it a good idea to eat anything, even dreaded fast food, before doing the week’s shopping. That small sin can save a lot of willpower points.

  • Michael Leonard

    My mom got super nerdy with her grocery list when I was a kid. She made an excel spreadsheet laid out by section with our staple foods on it. It was also sorted by the order in which she shopped: Dry goods, meats, lunchmeats, produce, seafood, dairy, frozen

    That way the dairy didn’t get hot and the ice cream didn’t melt. Not that we’d be shopping for ice cream regularly… *innocent whistling*

  • Noel

    Glad to help! 🙂

  • Noel

    Holy cow! That’s amazing. What a cool tool. We’re living in the future!

  • Noel

    Nice. Gotta love technology!

  • Noel

    I’ve never head of a grocery store that offers a map. Is it so big that you earnestly need one? Everything really is bigger in Texas….

  • Noel

    These are awesome suggestions! Especially the one about shopping with kids. I don’t have them, so that challenge is beyond my expertise. Thanks!

  • Noel

    Hahaha. Glad you liked it Isah! So true! You’ve gotta stay focused. Never go grocery shopping hungry! It’s a recipe for disaster!

  • Noel

    Your memory and strategy exercise sounds like a level of shopping I am not ready for yet. If I go in without a list, I totally forget why I went to the store in the first place, and I usually end up forgetting something. So frustrating. >_<

    Greengrocers and butchers sound like awesome places to get those items. We have a couple scattered in the city where I live, but they're far from my house, so they're not viable options for me. Plus, they're detrimentally expensive. It's great that this is an option for you though! High quality food for the win!

  • Noel

    As long as no one gets hurt and it’s fun for you, this sounds great. Carry on!

  • PositiveBlue

    I love shopping with my kids. My oldest is 8 and always asks to help – so I let him get the items that are within his reach. Then he hands it to the my youngest, 2, and she throws whatever it is into the carriage. Some times it can be challenge if one of them is being moody but most of the time, we use it as a bonding time.
    Of course, for me growing up, grocery shopping was my time with my mom. So I love going grocery shopping.

  • Noel

    Awesome tip on the spices! I’ll have to pay more attention next time I’m in that aisle. And YES! to shopping for items in bulk! Totally changed my shopping experience for the better. (Except for when the bags break/tear. that’s a major bummer.)

  • Noel

    Don’t worry, Amy! It happens to the best of us! Writing down my list is the only way I can get through a shopping experience successfully.

    People are loving these coupon apps. I’ll have to investigate…

  • Noel

    Great points Amy! I think a good strategy no matter where you live is to go to the store and scope out the “enemy territory” to get a feel for where things are in general.

    Do you have one grocery store where you can buy all the things you need, or do you find that you have to visit multiple stores to collect your different categories of items?

  • Noel

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Never shop hungry. Ever.

  • Noel

    Hahaha. Wow. That is epically nerdy. I love the idea of shopping for things in a specific order so that frozen things don’t melt. Your mom is a smart lady!

  • Amy Tipton Johnson

    I have 3 stores that I have become familiar with and will go to any of them depending on the situation – day of the week, schedule, particular needs. I have also recently found a service to buy direct from local producers – I place my order online and then pick it up at a location in the technology park where I work. Pick-up is only every other Tuesday, and produce depends on what is available, but in summer there was quite a good selection of fruit and vegetables, and often eggs and meat products are available too. It’s a nice alternative and I like to support local people.

    Sometimes I’ll go to one of the local markets as well – one of the nice things about France is the number of markets you can find selling fresh food. If I didn’t have to work, I’d go to the markets more often.

  • Jennifer Nelson

    I love that! ^_^ I have never enjoyed grocery shopping, and I think my daughter picks up on that. Our bonding time is cutting out coupons and planning meals.

  • Tony Langdon

    Yeah, the greengrocer, in particular is both cheaper and better quality than any of the supermarkets. The price difference is quiet significant.

    The butcher we use is a little more expensive than the supermarket, but the quality and service make up for any price difference.

    And yes, both are in convenient spots. Being in a smaller city, everything is close.

    As you imply, each of us has to weigh up our options and choose what works best.

  • Karsten Aichholz

    My go-to solution for this problem is to order groceries online. Not only does it save a lot of time, but you also avoid all the checkout-isle temptations. Looking at my orders, there’s 98 items I seem to order on a semi-regular basis (it would be less, but sometimes they’re out of stock of one brand…). My weekly shopping spree mostly consists of ‘reordering’ items from last week or anything I ran out. As a little bonus, it helps avoid the ‘while-shopping-purchases’ at coffee shops and other not-that-healthy places you may pass on the way there or back.

  • vinay

    Corn, wheat and soy are being genetically modified and are causing health problems with so many children now, why in the world are we allowing this to happen?

  • Ellis Tackett

    Another great post by NF. NF Health leads are always broke down into pretty simple tips on subjects that may seem intimidating. This article is no different. I always find myself navigating the outer edges with ease and going into the dugeon wondering around and making bad choices.
    I’ve never thought to break your supermarket in regions. An excellent idea and tips for navigating the dugeon area.
    The editors at sparkPeople further enhance the idea of parimitier shopping and reinforce to go directly to check to beat temptation.

  • Frank Tanner

    Great Stuff! The Shepards pie sounds amazing. Ready for dinner tonight!

  • Michael Leonard

    Thanks. I think that’s what happens when an anal retentive accounting person becomes a housewife for a few years.

  • sche

    I feel like this missed one very simple and obvious* tip for when you’re learning the layout of a store: LOOK UP. Chains or larger grocers should have overhead signing that tells you roughly what is on each aisle. This may not always work if you shop small, specialty, or independent places, but I haven’t ever been in a general grocery store in my area that didn’t use aisle signing.

    *This is clearly only obvious to some of us. Having worked in retail for several years, I am constantly amazed at how many people have to ask where something is because they just didn’t look up at the clearly labeled signs, then sheepishly laugh at themselves when you point it out.

  • Ben Stark

    This is might be over simplifying but one thing I found to be helpful is to shop at the same store all the time. I know the layout down better than most of the employees and can dart in out pretty fast avoiding areas I don’t need to go or where unwanted temptations may lie. I walk in the grocery store with a battle plan that I know and follow to the letter.

  • Katie Learned

    This is so helpful. Oh my word.
    Was that run supplies for an entire week? I keep having to go back the same week when I run out of stuff. Does anyone have this ‘shop for the week’ deal all hammered out, (and have pictures they want share with the noob who keeps winding up with too little food, even though it feels like I’ve got a huge amount?)

  • ally7288

    This was extremely helpful because how hard it is to navigate through the grocery store….especially if you are hungry! It is nice to listen to other people give advice as well as offer helpful tips such as your grocery lists that will help cook certain dishes that are healthy. If I could print off all of the lists and tips when I go to the grocery store, I know I would be better prepared because I am one of the people who find myself walking around for way too long and usually end up with items in my cart that are not particularly healthy!

  • mspeoakes

    My store of choice is Publix. I make my grocery list based off what’s on sale (BOGO), what I already have in my kitchen, and what coupons I may have. I generally make the same trip every time… Produce>meat>cereal aisle (for oatmeal)>dry goods aisle (for beans/rice/pasta)>dairy (almond milk and eggs)>frozen food (for frozen veggies/fruits)… If I don’t go with a plan, I always over spend or end up getting sweets.

  • mspeoakes

    I am not an expert by any means; however, when I shop I go with a plan. I love Publix (because of customer service, BOGO deals, and doubling/acknowledging competitors’ coupons). My first suggestion would be to see what you have in your own kitchen, plan out meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, 2 snacks) for 5-7 days, and write a list to fill in the blanks.

    For example, this past week I had beans, peanut butter, pasta, frozen blueberries, garlic, onions, sweet potatoes, honey, and pecans (picked them from my aunts house) at home. Publix had shrimp BOGO, bags of kale and spinach for 2 for $4, and a sale on jelly. So I got me a box of store brand brown rice, kale, shrimp, jelly, fruit and carrots for snacks, loaf of bread (also bogo), oatmeal (in the canister not the packets), yogurt, green beans, veggie stock, veggies for a salad, steam bags of veggies. Under $35 total plus I had a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $20.

    Breakfast: oatmeal w/ honey, pecans, and blueberries

    Snack 1: banana or apple

    Snack 2: carrots and pb

    Lunch/dinner options: sweet potatoes and steamed veggies (3 meals), beans, kale, and rice bowl (it was enough for 4 meals), Shrimp scampi (enough for 3 meals), large garden salad (4-5 meals)
    I have no problem eating leftovers or the same thing every day. My son (3 yo) for the most part eats what I eat (smaller portion of course) except he loves pb&j sandwiches and yogurt.

  • Kseniya

    This is one of the funniest posts I’ve read. I usually present the grocery store in a similar way at my nutrition seminars. Thanks for an awesome and entertaining article.

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