If you answered great ingredients, you are technically correct, and I'll admit I asked that as a bit of a trick question. The answer I'm going for today is a great shopping list. And since a great list will get you great ingredients, it's easy to see how the two go hand in hand.
When I talk to people about cooking, whether informally or in cooking classes or other events I lead, I overwhelmingly find that a good majority of people I encounter hate grocery shopping. Hate might even be putting it mildly...for many, the thought of shopping inspires full-on dread. When I press people to look at their feelings toward grocery shopping, I commonly hear that people find themselves ending up in the store with no idea what to buy, walking in circles, and then getting home to find they are a few items short of a good meal. Hence, where the list comes in.
Anyone can make a shopping list. Whether scrawled on a post-it note or the back of a junk mail envelope, or typed into a new-fangled shopping list app, many of us have trained ourselves to compose lists and stick to them. But if you really want to make your shopping experience as smooth and breezy as possible, it's essential to make a great list.
And what make a great list? A great shopping list is not only complete but it is also organized. I am a queen of good lists, thanks to a smattering of Virgo in my astrological chart. I perpetually get stopped by strangers in our local food co-op who stop to admire my lists. Sometimes they engage me to ask about them and remark about my penmanship, but more often, I catch them sneaking furtive glances as they pass by my unattended cart while I'm off grabbing something down the aisle.
When you make a great list, you separate out the page into different sections, by type of item (this system works best on paper I've found, although you could do it digitally if you're so inspired). Doing this saves you minutes, maybe even hours of your life over time, by preventing you from having to traipse clear across the store after completing your produce gathering, when you find you've forgotten to get carrots because they were buried in the middle of a list of spices and dry goods.
To keep things simple and instill a routine, it helps to put the same categories of items in the same place each time. For example, in my own lists, I divide the page into two columns, and the left hand side of the page is always for produce. In the right-hand column, I put bulk food items in the upper quadrant, followed by dry packaged goods, with bulk spices occupying a tiny bit of real estate at the very bottom.
To make your list work for you, include sections that are relevant to you - this might include frozen foods, health/beauty aisle items, dairy, meat/fish, etc.
If you shop at multiple stores, say a farmers market or Costco as well as a conventional grocery store, make a list for each place to avoid overlooking anything. Keep your list in the kitchen and add to it between shopping trips. It can be tempting to just "remember" items and not actually write them down, but trust me - put them on your list. There is nothing like that moment when you walk through the door after a shopping trip and remember that you're forgotten that one key ingredient you have sworn to "remember."
Be diligent about keeping a list, and rhen you arrive at the store, you'll breeze through the sections. People who've adopted this system have reported spending significantly less time at the store than previously.
Best of all, if you stick to your list, you'll avoid coming home with excess snack foods, or more food than you actually need. A great list requires a bit of foresight, but if you take the time to plan out a couple meals, you'll save yourself from those moments of paralysis later in the week when dinnertime approaches and you have no idea what to make.
Have a try at making a great list, and let me know how it goes. I'd also love to hear your own list-making tips!