The Best Thanksgiving Grocery Shopping Tips, According to Checkout Clerks

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I started working at the supermarket in my town when I was in high school, and continued to pick up shifts when I’d come home from college in the summer, for winter break, and (you guessed it!) Thanksgiving weekend.

Even though I’d be home for just a few days during Thanksgiving, there were two things I could count on: My jeans wouldn’t be as comfortable when I got back to school, and my boss would ask me to work a shift the day before Thanksgiving.

Just like football, turkey trots, and the Macy’s parade, the supermarket is crucial to a successful Thanksgiving. Without it, your festive feast wouldn’t be possible. Even if you buy your bird from a local butcher, or stock up on veggies at a nearby farmers market, you’ll inevitably have to make a trip (or three) to the supermarket for irreplaceable staples.

Understandably, the day before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest supermarket days of the year. It’s the only American holiday that truly centers around food — sure, people prepare big meals for Christmas and Easter (the only days that my supermarket would actually be closed), but nothing is quite like Turkey Day.

As a cashier, I got to see everyone’s purchases: the marshmallows that would inevitably be melted over sweet potatoes; plastic bottles of corn syrup (that nobody buys any other time of year) for pecan pies; bags of cranberries that would be mashed into sauce.

And every year, I was shocked by the last-minute frenzy in the store. My mother measured dry ingredients for her desserts days before, did her shopping in small batches the weeks leading up to the big event, and pre-ordered the turkey as soon as the farm started taking orders. I’d watch shoppers in awe. If you buy a 15-pound turkey on Wednesday afternoon, is there even enough time for it to defrost? How are you people going to bake all those pies overnight?

At the grocery store, the days leading up to Thanksgiving involve bracing yourself for ransacked shelves, long lines at the meat counter, and mobs of people in pursuit of everything from marshmallows to paper plates.

Not in the mood to elbow someone over the last can of cranberry sauce? First of all, ditch the can and make your own, and second, follow these insider tips to have as tranquil an experience as possible at your local supermarket. I chatted with industry experts (and a few of my former colleagues), and these are their tried-and-true Thanksgiving shopping recommendations.

1. Start shopping now.

Nancy, a customer service member at Fairway, recommends buying the big stuff as early as possible, so you just have to come in for odds and ends the days before (or day of, because this shop is open all day on Thanksgiving). Tashann, a cashier at ShopRite, echoed this advice, adding that popular items start to run low as the holiday gets closer.

Both cashiers pointed out that even though Wednesday is busy, most people have done their big haul and are coming in for the handful of things they forgot — so even though the lines may be long, customers are likely buying small orders and things should move fairly quickly.

2. Shop when it’s raining.

Check the weather forecast. Roxanne, a cashier at Trader Joe’s, recommends taking advantage of rainy days. “Gloomy weather seems to keep the crowds away. Most people just want to stay home,” she says. In the days building up to Thanksgiving, make a trip to the store if it’s a rainy day, and stock up on as much stuff as you can.

She also noted that the busiest (read: worst) times to shop in general are weekday evenings and weekend afternoons — if you’re chained to a desk from nine to five, going to the supermarket after work or post-weekend brunch is probably a bad idea. And in my experience, the best time to grocery shop is early in the morning. My store opened at 7 a.m., and it was like a ghost town — even during Thanksgiving week. If you’re not an early bird, Friday and Saturday nights are also a good bet, because most people would rather not spend their weekends in a fluorescent-lit supermarket.

3. Buy extra ingredients.

As a veteran cashier, I strongly suggest buying extra ingredients. I can’t tell you how many times people would come to my check-out line twice in one day to get another thing of butter, another dozen eggs, or another frozen pie crust.

Because these types of things aren’t exclusive to Thanksgiving, it won’t hurt to have extras in your fridge — they might even be useful for repurposing all those leftovers.

4. Schedule a grocery pick-up.

Some stores offer specialized Thanksgiving services. For example, Rick, a team leader at a Whole Foods, pointed out their Holiday Table promotion, which runs from November 1 through the end of December. Customers can reserve turkeys, desserts, and prepared meals online to pick up in the store — perfect if you’re in a time crunch, only know how to use your oven to reheat pizza, or just hate the grocery store.

To avoid long lines, the best time to schedule your grocery pick-up is late morning — duck out from work if you can, or take Tuesday or Wednesday morning off to tackle some Thanksgiving prep.

5. Skip the supermarket when you can.

Hector, one of my former co-workers, offered up this great tip: If you need ice or soft drinks, swing by a gas station or pharmacy — you won’t waste time wandering through a giant supermarket, and there probably won’t be a crowd.

Whether it’s your first time hosting Thanksgiving dinner or you’re an old pro, grocery shopping doesn’t have to be so horrendous. What are your tips for shopping for the holiday?

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