6 tips for grocery shopping by bike

Design House's Stockholm Carrie Bicycle Basket

This post was written by Britt Brouse, Tucson Velo’s newest contributor.

When I tell people I don’t have a car and rely mostly on my bike to get around, one of the first things they ask me is: “How do you go food shopping?”

The answer is simple: with a little bit of restraint, planning and common sense! I don’t have an Xtracycle or even a basket or satchels on my bike (although a nice rear-mounted metal basket would be amazing!).

It also helps that I am accompanied by my boyfriend John and that we’re only shopping for the two of us. But going to the supermarket with two bikes and two backpacks usually nets us about 3-5 days worth of food.

If you want to try riding your bicycle more, but don’t know how to tackle trips to the grocery store, check out these tips for shopping on a bike.

1. Get a basket or panniers
Adding a rear-mounted metal basket or panniers (saddlebags) to your bike is a quick and inexpensive way to increase the amount of groceries you can manage. The word pannier actually derives from Old French and means “bread basket.” For toting frozen items in the hot weather there are even insulated panniers and bags that fit on the back rack. Add a regular old backpack to the mix and you can carry home a good amount of food.

2. Make healthier choices
When you food shop on a bike you have limited space for what you can carry home and this forces you to (hopefully) make healthier purchases. I think about the value of what I am going to consume and try to stick with whole foods that will give me the most energy and nutrients. Auxiliary items like potato chips, cookies, sweets, cans of soup, beer, wine and sugar-packed juice or soft drinks usually get cut from the list when compared to healthier items like bread, fruit, rice, vegetables and meat for entrees.

3. Plan recipes ahead of time
The groceries really start to pile up when you go to the store hungry and with no idea what meals you are going to prepare. With a little bit of preparation you can shop by recipe.  I find that when I food shop by bike, I have enough room in one trip to buy ingredients for three complex or between four and five simple meals. Although broths can be heavy to tote, soups are great meals to purchase by bicycle because they require mostly vegetables, seasoning and dried beans or lentils.

4. Beat the time crunch
Sometimes it feels like there’s not enough time in the day to get everything done. People tend to rely on their cars for local in-town errands like grocery shopping because the car makes these errands go faster. However, if you ride your bike to the grocery store you are in essence multi-tasking by combining a little exercise and a refreshing mental health break (riding is fun!) with the errand of food shopping. Yes it’s tough to bike one or two miles to the store and ride home with a full load of food, but it’s also very good exercise and when I get home I feel refreshed. You will also save money on gas by cutting down on driving.

5. Purchase items with less packaging
When I am shopping on a bicycle and have to decide between two items, I usually opt for the one with less packaging. A product with less packaging will fit more easily into a backpack or basket. Most of the time, products with less cardboard and plastic will also have a smaller carbon footprint as well. So saving on space in your bike basket or backpack forces you to look for more environmentally friendly packaging.

6. Stock up on heavier items by car
It would be extremely difficult to navigate a car-centric city by bike alone. Living a car-light lifestyle means driving less and biking more, but also using a car occasionally for tough chores. About once a month I will accept a kind offer for a ride from a friend or use a Hertz Connect Car to go on a larger shopping trip. During shopping trips by car, I will stock up on heavy staple items like broth, bulk yogurt, olive oil, milk, canned tomatoes and frozen foods. By knocking some of those heavier purchases out with a car trip every month or so, I find it much easier to make smaller weekly trips to the store by bike to get lighter items like fresh produce and meats for meals.

Grocery shopping by bike can be challenging but it is also a rewarding way to eat healthier, get exercise and make less of an impact on the environment.

Have you shopped by bike recently? What kind of bike or equipment do you use? What challenges have you faced? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below and I will be happy to respond.

22 comments
SirProudNoob
SirProudNoob

Well I have a meal plan at my college, so my grocery trips are *only* for the unhealthy stuff, like Arizona green tea and Izze fruit soda. Unfortunately, I can't fit the large Izze in my backpack and I don't have a basket yet, so I'm going to be drinking Arizona and water in my dorm for a while...

Nancy Duggan
Nancy Duggan

Impressive! My local wine store's having a sale on cases and I've been wonder if I could handle the weight & bulk; you'd obviously have no problem at all! :)

Nancy Duggan
Nancy Duggan

I grocery shop exclusively by bike using panniers and my backpack, keeping in mind bulk and weight. One day it's an 8-pack of toilet paper which fits perfectly and painlessly into the backpack, and milk, bread and cat food go nicely into the panniers. The next trip might include heavy stuff like soda, beer and kitty litter. Totally doable with a little foresight; no car involved.

Valerie Aurora
Valerie Aurora

I never thought of it that way, but you're totally right about shopping by bike helping you buy better food. When I'm shopping by bike, I don't buy soda. I shouldn't buy soda ever, but when I have to use up a third of one pannier to cart home what is essentially water with a little sugar and carbonation added, I think, "Gosh, they pipe this stuff to my house, maybe I should just drink plain water." One more reason to shop by bike! Thanks! BTW, I use two Basil D'azur panniers. They are basically shopping bags in and of themselves. Bring them inside and bag your groceries directly, no trying to shove a grocery bag inside your pannier later.

Red Star
Red Star

Why not do your bike shopping at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. when the ambient temperature is not 105 and there's no traffic, no bike thieves and no huge shortage of stores open at those times?

Britt
Britt

Thanks for those really practical and environmentally friendly tips. I am pretty sure there is no plastic bag recycling in Pima County, so it's a shame to see so much plastic at the grocery store... because it's all going to the landfill. Does anyone know of any local plastic bag recycling programs that we take advantage of?

Britt
Britt

I've was arguing with my friends about the best way to bike home with a case of beer! (We say handle bars or one-handed) - now I know I can get 2 cases in a crate!

first last
first last

Burley Nomad, I haven't used a car to shop for groceries for over 2 years now. I like the process product aspect of it. Your food purchases tend to be more considered if you're having to haul 100 pounds of groceries up a hill in 105 degree heat. What cars do is allow us to be in a hurry, people use cars to buy time. Riding a bicycle to shop disengages me from that cycle. It's amazing what you can manage to fit into a bicycle trailer. I eyed the bob trailers but their hitch doesn't work with Phil wood track hubs because of the way the Phil bolts work. If you watch Craig's list Burleys and Bobs show up fairly regularly. If you just want to try it out and see if it works cheap child carriers are abundant. That's how I started. I used a sun rotted kid carrier for 3 months and decided I was hooked and bought the Nomad.

Ginastarke
Ginastarke

Another Xtracyle fan checking in - love it. The one piece of advice I have is watch how much liquid you buy. I used to buy groceries for a lady that couldn't get out to do it herself , who always asked for a lot of bottled water. Anything more than a couple bottles and you can definitely feel it- not pleasant. I almost offered to buy her a Brita filter to save me the hassle! ;-)

Red Star
Red Star

We use our SUV (it's a Ford, fold the back seats down) a few times each year to load up on bundles of paper towels, tp, laundry detergent, non perishables). Did you know one could probably fit a lifetime supply of toothpaste in the back of a SUV? The freezer is in the pantry now and the pantry is now in the garage (where the BMW used to be). Bikes are used to get fresh vegetables and fruit, dairy and meat. We are learning to grow our own vegetables but lack the patience, need, space and frenzy to deal with livestock/dairy.

Siouxgeonz
Siouxgeonz

What I love about my Xtracycle is the freedom from having to do all of that. I really, really struggle with planning -- so I need to prioritize. If I'm gonig to remember the stuff I need to do... then I need to be able to say "Oh, crap! I need detergent and juice concentrate and beer and mulch." Yes, I already minimize the packaging, but the Xtracycle means that I can seize that twenty minute window and stop in and whatever.

SDS
SDS

My grocery store is just a short detour on the way home from work so I often make small, frequent trips by bike for groceries rather than trying to haul everything at once. If it's on your route, why not? I have 2 saddle bags which makes bulky items like toilet paper and laundry detergent easier to handle. I also get a CSA share or go to a farmers market so veggies get bought all at once, freeing up the frequency that I need to get other items.

Britt
Britt

I agree that the backpack is not the best option. After writing this post and reading all of these comments I think I am going to invest in a back-rack basket and eventually a trailer too.

zz
zz

The bike frame (or trailer) seems to be the preferred method for carrying the weight and for good reason....that is what it was built to do. Backpacks on bikes have drawbacks (oops) not the least being how it affects handling. Your visual mobility is limited; the center of gravity is raised affecting balance; it does bad things to your personal 'frame' and is really uncomfortable and HOT in the summer. A general purpose bike without a rack is only half a bike.

Curious E
Curious E

Great article, Britt. I've shopped by bicycle for years, and it's one of those activities that really makes you appreciate the splendor of the bike. I remember my long walk back to my Brooklyn apartment with two ridiculously heavy bags of food from my Co-op and feeling like my arms were going to fall off. But put those same two heavy bags on either side of the back wheel base, and you can just bike it home in minutes. Two things. One, you are absolutely dead-on about having to carry your food means you make much better choices. Are you going to get a lot of bulky packaging, frozen dinners, sodas and ice cream?? No! Not only are such "foods" inconsistent with the cycling lifestyle, they will crowd out, literally, foods that your day is built around. Two, you want genuine ease in transporting food via bicycle, along with the ability to carry enough food for the WEEK? Get that Xtracycle that Britt mentioned. I have one, and you can't beat the damn thing. It'll carry up to 250 pounds of stuff, and you can put 4 loaded grocery bags in the saddlebags. www.xtracycle.com

Tabot
Tabot

I use a trailer to shop for a family of 4. The trailer allows me to get cat food & litter as well as other big items. My best tip, buy an insulated bag for cold & frozen food. Ice cream & other frozen food will melt during Tucson summers if you don't. My biggest challenge is shopping during the summer. The heat wears my out. I get up early or go late at night but it is still too much. I am thinking of following Matt Zoll's advice & getting an electric bike just for the summer.

Mike McC.
Mike McC.

I've been getting groceries exclusively by bike for about 3-4 months now and sporadically before that. My weapon is a BOB trailer. Between the trailer and the two folding baskets on my commuter bike, I can haul a very full shopping cart (often around $150 of groceries). As an example, here's a full cart. 7 cereal boxes, huge bags of chips, 2 gals of OJ, a 24-can case of soda, canned goods, fresh fruits and veges, etc. etc.: http://tibaal89.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/0317112205.jpg And here it is on the bike: http://tibaal89.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/0317112247.jpg That was probably a little too much and it was hard to muscle around, but it shows what's possible with a basic equipment investment. The trailer was a few hundred dollars, but it will easily make that up in saved gas and/or car rentals. Shopping by bike is awesome - it makes a chore into a fun outing. :D

Martha Retallick
Martha Retallick

From the original story: During shopping trips by car, I will stock up on heavy staple items like broth, bulk yogurt, olive oil, milk, canned tomatoes and frozen foods. To which I say: If you towed a trailer behind your bike, you could carry all of the above and more. And, if you're feeling really adventurous, you can make your own yogurt at home. Ditto for broth.

first last
first last

Most of the time I shop Sunday mornings. Some days I'll dawdle at the Farmers Market and I'll be headed back up the hill in the heat but it's usually not 105 degrees. Hyperbole, the point being considered consumption is not a bad thing. If you go out on a bike to buy something when it's 105 you must really want it. There is a shortage of stores that are open at 5 0r 6 am. Supermarkets are really all there is and I only buy a couple of items in a supermarket.

Britt
Britt

Thank you Martha for the inspiration. Adventures in yogurt making and soup stock preparation do sound fun and would make the shopping trip lighter.

Martha Retallick
Martha Retallick

Appreciate the compliment, Britt. And, to keep things local, here's a Tucson friend's cooking blog: http://pwoodford.net/cookblog/ What's cool about it? Well, the emphasis on ingredients you have already. And the ease of recipe preparation. So, bon appetit to all of those grocery-shopping bicyclists who are improving their cooking skills.