How To Shop at Costco Without Losing Your Mind

Something positive to think of along with the tips in the article:)

Why is it that shopping at Costco leaves me drained and depressed? Is it the overwhelming and insidious quest to consume? Marketing mayhem gone mad? Packaging overkill? I don't really know. Whatever it is, it gets me down. And what happens when I get down? I reflect. Reflection can be the antidote for anxiety. So that is just what I did after my last trip to the store. I turned things over in my mind and came up with some reasons for why a trip to this store is so bothersome and then some solutions for making those trips a little easier. 

Costco really can upset me. Part of my distress has to do with trying to live a "healthy" life and the way I feel grocery stores  undermine those efforts. There are whole aisles to avoid in a grocery store because the food there simply doesn't carry much nutritional weight. Those aisles contain "treats" (things that are for once in awhile) or foods that we know simply aren't great for us on a long term basis. 

Other reasons for being upset have to do with portion size. What's presented to us as consumers in the way of pre packaged items is a very large package indeed! And before you say anything, I know that large quantities of items are the point of Costco-you are supposed to save money by buying in bulk. The problem is that people are notoriously bad about portion sizes, myself included. When left to our own devices we will almost always eat more than we intend and part of that has to do with pre-portioned servings. We suck at cutting servings in half or saving some for later. 

In addition to larger portions of things, there is also the excessive packaging issue. Our recycler here where I live won't take a bunch of stuff, a lot of which I saw on my recent shopping trip. That over packaging and use of unrecyclable materials creates another problem with putting things into the ever growing landfill. It makes no sense to buy beautiful, frozen organic broccoli which is encased in miles of plastic packaging that will only end up somewhere and never decompose.

It seems like the list of badness is never ending but there must be a silver lining somewhere. There are some positive points. Costco (and other stores like it) do help in a sense. They are good for people who resell items in a retail setting. Large families can benefit from bigger quantities. Multiple households can also team up to buy together. There are foods there with stable shelf lives and so in theory, a family could stock up on essentials. People who give parties or who host family or work gatherings might also find the store helpful since it stocks prepackaged items meant for those occasions. And there are other services at the store such as an optical department and a photo center. 

The store isn't so great for individuals or smaller families, however. There isn't much there that you couldn't get for a comparable price, say at a store like Safeway or at Trader Joes. One person doesn't really need a whole lot of food all at once to eat healthfully. Seriously, are you going to eat 12 breakfast muffins? Is that huge bag of potatoes going to last? How about 4 cantaloupes? Can you do that? Probably not. 

I am certain that others have done the math and that most likely, there are charts detailing why a store like Costco may or may not be more economical in the long run. Statistics like that don't really interest me. I don't mean that I have money to burn. Far from it. What I am interested in, however, is how to continue shopping at this store and not losing my mind. I should explain too that my husband probably would not give up the idea of belonging to Costco so quitting isn't an option. If you know me at all, I have some ideas on how to cope. 

First, recognize that Costco is simply a giant grocery store. Take the Costco-generated marketing uniqueness out of the picture and it becomes way more manageable. Remember how regular grocery stores are set up. Healthy, perishable items are frequently found in the perimeter of the store. Things like fresh fruits and vegetables (also frozen), some meats, some breads and some dairy items are usually placed in a ring around the store.  At my local Costco, there is one long section of the store that contains rows and rows of foods that are a mixed bag. This section is akin to the center aisles of a regular grocery store. These aisles contain snack foods, foods meant to be eaten as treats or in limited quantities, and foods that in general, contain lots of ingredients, many of which might not be so great for you on a long term basis. The big catch here is that there are also some pretty good items mixed in with the not so good items. Staple items like beans and healthy grains, plain pastas, canned vegetables, and some reasonably healthy snacks such as hummus and pre cut veggies. The drawback is that you are exposed to all of the other items while looking for the good stuff. You could get derailed. 

How then do you keep from going astray in the process of shopping? There are some ways to work the store more effectively. Some of the tips have to do with simple psychology or with being practical and some have to do with the foods that you select to buy. Keep in mind that this is my personal list and that I am a vegan. Everyone has their own definition of what "staples" are, what is "healthy", and what foods are for snacks, treats, and everyday consumption. 

1. Make a list and stick to it: 
It doesn't matter if it is electronic or written, a list is key. I believe firmly that you are less likely to overbuy if you have a list. Make sure to stick to the list. Cross items off as they go in your cart. (That also gives a sense of accomplishment and validates your list making efforts.) If something looks interesting and it isn't on the list, don't do a mind trip on yourself (Libby) about how you could use that item, just write it on the list and mark it as "saved for later." The strategy works pretty well. I only bought 3 extra items on this last trip (which is better than what I normally do).

2. Get psychological:
Part of the problem with Costco is FOMO-fear of missing out. Absolutely everyone in the store is consuming...and likely getting a good deal...and might buy what you are looking at too...and they are in a hurry. Somehow, being in that store creates a frantic sense of urgency. Maybe Costco pipes in some chemical through the air ducts that makes you crazy, I don't know. Whatever it is, it's bad news for us anxious types. In order to combat the above issues, I do a little self talk. It sounds like this: "I, personally, am not in a hurry. I can always come back for whatever I see and don't buy." 

3. Do not shop when hungry!:
This sort of goes without saying but we all do it. The store opens at 10 and it usually takes me an hour to finish. My lunch time is between 11 and 11:30. I have to have my lunch with me or all Hell might break loose! I also eat a snack on the way there so as not to be hungry when I walk in the door. Whatever it is that you do, don't go into that store hungry to begin with and certainly don't end your trip with needing to eat lunch. Go after lunch if at all possible. Just don't go hungry.

4. Focus on staples: 
If you look carefully enough, Costco has some great staple items. Apples keep very nicely in the refrigerator. Bread can be frozen. The store does carry some basic, unadorned grains such as quinoa, rice, and oatmeal. There are also canned beans and vegetables-just rinse them prior to use to alleviate some of the sodium. (They are also good in a pinch when you are pressed for time.) I also buy canned tomatoes (organic and very low in sodium). There is a good selection of unsalted nuts (may not be organic) and lots of dried fruit (great in small amounts as a snack or on top of that oatmeal). Costco now carries almond milk and they of course have regular milk and if you are into it, some cheese and plain yogurt. I don't buy the meat (except for Rich) but you can get salmon (of different origins) and skinless chicken. They also used to sell organic frozen chicken which I haven't seen in awhile. Organic peanut butter is another staple along with chia seeds and some unsalted spices. Please note that I am a vegan so these are all staples of my diet. As I mentioned above, everyone has their own staples. Make sure you know what they are.

5. Make up your mind about prepackaged food:
Many, many people eat prepackaged foods and for a variety of different reasons. They are convenient and do take the guesswork out of cooking. That convenience does come at a price, however. Prepackaged foods often have lots of additives which helps them to be tasty and shelf stable. It helps to look at the nutrition label when deciding. Many foods can fit nicely into an otherwise balanced diet. Some foods are special treats and some should probably be avoided. Only you can decide. I will say that I pass up whole aisles of food items because they just won't give me the nutrition that I want. I have the time to cook from scratch and that is what I do. Do your own thing please.

6. Don't be fooled by healthy food that is over packaged:
I mentioned above about the frozen broccoli. It seemed like a total win until I saw that within that plastic bag each serving of broccoli came in a smaller, microwaveable plastic bag. That's a ton of plastic that my recycler won't take and that will go into the landfill. That stinks! Back it went. Look for other packaging gaffs like this and pass them up, even if they might be organic and good for you. Try to get them at the regular grocery store fresh and bring your own bags, for goodness sakes. 

7. Know the reason for your visit to Costco:
This is another psychological view on things. Are you headed to Costco to shop because you are bored or otherwise trying to fill some empty time? Nothing wrong with this of course but if you find yourself making multiple trips in a month, maybe more than you want to admit to or that are necessary, then perhaps it's time to reexamine your recreational habits. My point here is that you may end up overbuying (and overspending) because you don't need to and are shopping out of habit or boredom. There could be something else to fill your time that would be less costly and cause you less grief.

It's likely that come January, I will once again make a trip to Costco. My husband likes the coffee that we buy there and shopping at the store is a deeply ingrained habit in my household. I have my list though and will be girding my loins for the psychological fight to stay sane.  I hope the above ideas will be useful for some of you that belong to Big Box stores. And if you don't belong to one of these outfits, good for you! Hang on to your money, your time, and your sanity is what I say.

Thanks for reading,