Meal Planning Without Shopping Lists

by | Feb 15, 2012

Photo by evelynishere

Photo by evelynishere

Food shopping can be intimidating, especially if cooking is new to you.

A common approach to this problem is to pick your recipes beforehand, make a list of what you need and then shop until everything from the list is in your basket. But being comfortable shopping without a list is a valuable skill worth adding to your healthstyle toolkit.

Lists can come in handy, especially when you’re planning a large meal or event where organization is essential. But at a farmers market, shopping lists aren’t nearly as useful.

You can never be 100% certain of what you’re going to find at the market each week. Sure there are things you can usually count on (I know I can find kale at my market year round), but having a long catalog of ingredients for a particular recipe is likely to be frustrating.

A shopping list you can’t fulfill will leave you scrambling, running around the market looking for absent ingredients or inferior substitutes. No fun. The last thing you want to do is turn the farmers market into a source of anxiety.

Still the best reason to avoid lists at the farmers market is that discovering new and interesting foods is what makes shopping there such a treat. It takes an open mind and curious eyes if you hope to find the next tree tomato.

So how do you free yourself from the shackles of shopping lists without ending up with a pile of random vegetables and no obvious meals?

When shopping at a farmers market, the best meal planning strategy combines both structure and flexibility. Start with an idea of what you want to accomplish, then let the season’s offerings nourish your spirit of adventure and round out your menus.

Meal Planning at the Farmers Market

Step 1. Quantify

Think about how many meals you want to get from your purchases (e.g. 4 dinners, 5 lunches), and be sure to have that many main course ideas (vegetables being the centerpiece) given that a few will probably repeat.

At this point it is okay to have one or two things in mind you know you want to make, but the rest of your meals should be inspired by wandering through the aisles and seeing what catches your eye.

Step 2. Visualize

As you discover which foods will be the focal points of your meals, start to think about how you might like them cooked (even if you don’t know how). Think about what other flavors usually taste good with what you’re buying–consider herbs (parsley, thyme, mint, cilantro, etc.), proteins (meats, fish, eggs, legumes) and side dishes.

If you can’t think of anything, try to remember how these foods have been served to you in a restaurant. If you still aren’t sure what other flavors would be a good choice, ask the vendor you are buying from. Farmers are usually pretty good at cooking the foods they grow.

Step 3. Consolidate

For all the different ideas you had for meals, think of those with common flavors. Look for similarities between the dishes and overlapping ingredients. For example, most dishes will need some kind of onion, garlic or both. The farmers market is also a great place to get herbs and spices.

Look around and see what is available, purchasing the ingredients that are the most versatile. Flavors that can be included in several different dishes also give you the flexibility to change up your meal plans in middle of the week if you are suddenly struck with inspiration.

Step 4. Collect

As your ideas solidify, be sure to collect all the elements you need. iPhone apps can be particularly helpful with this if you want to double check ingredient lists. Because most popular recipes are born from available seasonal ingredients, it is likely you will find everything you need while shopping at the farmers market. If not, you might need to pick up the rest of your ingredients at a regular grocery store–not the end of the world.

To make sure you don’t forget anything, think about each dish individually and deconstruct each of the elements in your mind. This will jog your memory if you forgot to grab a lemon or some garlic.

Step 5. Plan

It is good to have a rough idea of when you are going to eat each of the meals you visualized. Some vegetables hold up better than others over the course of a week in the refrigerator. Plan to eat the most delicate produce in the first day or two, and save the hearty kale and broccoli for later in the week. Here are some tips to keep produce fresh.


Creative shopping without lists takes some practice, but you don’t have to be a master chef or flavor expert to get it right. When cooking with delicious, seasonal ingredients you can’t go wrong with simplicity. Start with the basics and work your way up as you get more comfortable in the kitchen and at the market.

Do you use shopping lists?

Originally published January 20, 2010.

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11 Responses to “Meal Planning Without Shopping Lists”

  1. Kevin says:

    The one I have a hard time w/is #2, visualize. I tried this once w/some really exotic (in my mind) vegetables – without a recipe the dishes ended up, umm, not so good. I’m all for experimenting (

    ) but now limit myself to one or two new ‘unknown’ items per farmers market trip.

    ps. great tips of keeping produce fresh

    • Darya Pino says:

      That video is amazing. I wanted one of those eggs so bad when I saw them at Whole Foods, but totally wimped out.

      I agree it’s better to limit experiments to 1 or 2 new ingredients per week in case of catastrophe. But if you don’t know how to cook something it is definitely a good idea to find some recipes on how to use them. I only meant that you should let ingredients inspire your recipe hunting, not the other way around.

      Here’s an example:

      • nolan says:

        that egg is:

        1. almost as impressive as that sweet tile countertop
        2. as big as my face
        3. franny’s new best friend

        let’s get one! let’s get one!

  2. Matt Shook says:

    I only use a “grocery list” if I need to remind myself to pick up random non-food items like laundry detergent or paper towels. I’m usually so focused on food that I forget about those other things.

    When shopping for food I go with a basic idea of what I’d like to get, but I really allow myself to grab whatever interests me at the moment. I try to pickup a few items each visit that I don’t regularly purchase…like parsnips, beets, and artichoke.

  3. Leslie says:

    Belonging to a CSA gives you the same ‘problem’. I never know what I will get from them until the morning I pick it up when they send me an email. During the 20 weeks of my CSA, I get it during the week and then go to the farmer’s market on Saturday to pick up whatever I can find that I didn’t get, but still want. Cooking up food and having it ready to re-heat in the fridge helps us a lot! This requires that you admit to leftovers being a good thing and a time-saver! Having a standby list of good recipes for each veggie also helps. For example if I get leeks, I know that at the end of the week I can make my favorite potato leek soup if I haven’t used them up making something ‘new’. Eggplant? I can roast it and turn it into baba ganouj.

    I only make a grocery list for the things I want to make sure I won’t forget at the grocery store, like kalamata olives, or dijon mustard. My pantry (the inside one and the shelf in the garage) are pretty well stocked, so I don’t often run out of things! LOL.

  4. Agnieszka says:

    I think shopping lists are necessary, they keep the costs low, diners more varied and less waste. While I can make a lot of meals from my head, they are all meals that we already ate. Making something new involves some kind of recipe (unless you are very creative). I can buy some random things (and do quite often), but then when I search online for good recipe for them, it turns out I don’t have half the things I need. Your advice is only good for really good and experience cooks. When you try new vegetable without recipe, there is a good chance you will make it not taste good and forever be repulsed by something that in realty is delicious. Its better to go with a plan or an idea what you can make with certain types of vegetables and then go with what you find.

  5. Amy says:

    I shop with a combination list. There are the have to haves like eggs and carrots then there is the section that says: Fruit $10, other veg $8.00. We are on a really tight budget so totally free wheeling at the farmer’s market is a financial disaster. I completely bypass any farmer that doesn’t bother to put up price signs(this is an epidemic at the SF civic center market). I like to try new things but only if there is money left over.

  6. Samantha says:

    Amy, I found that a CSA subscription was really helpful for me, because I went crazy at the market as well. Having a CSA also helped me learn how to cook every single vegetable I’ve ever encountered in a way that I love, which addresses the other complaint above. I just had to practice, when I started my CSA I hated beets, turnips, and broccoli – now I love them all. CSAs in the Bay Area are quite reasonable in my opinion; I got mine from Riverdog Farms and it had enough veggies for two people for a week if I bought staples like grains and oils on a monthly basis.

    • Amy says:

      I have a CSA for meat but I have a garden so I am only looking for things I can’t grow. I also live in East Oakland and I would have to travel rather far for a pickup which once a month for meat is ok but weekly would be problematic.

  7. Jennifer says:

    First off, I stumbled across your blog and love it!! The recipes are so wonderful. For the past few years my family and I have been transforming our lives, to include raising our own meats, growing our own foods, and living a simple life on less.

    So our grocery lists have changed a good deal. When we moved to the farm, most of our groceries etc. were typical of a bad diet. Slowly but surely we have changed, not because I thought things were bad, until I began to study how to’s to live on less. I learned how to make my own and realized how many bad things are in our food as well as in our toiletries etc.

    So now my grocery list are far more fresh items, as much as possible organic, and the rest from the farm.

    I have a long way to go, but each step of the way I see changes and wonder how I ever lived with the quick and go attitude.

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