The second thing you’ll notice about this picture is that “Canned Pasta” earned its own place on the Aisle 11 signboard. The first is that this supermarket looks like a really unpleasant place to be.
It’s been surprising to me to learn how grocery shopping-phobic many people are. When I ask my friends why they don’t cook or why they don’t cook more often, fear/hatred of grocery shopping consistently ranks at the top of people’s lists. And I can definitely sympathize: Wandering around a crowded supermarket, waiting in an interminable line, and then interacting with a surly or brain-dead cashier is not my preferred method for unwinding after a day at the office.
So, after the jump, a few thoughts on how I try to shop, in the hopes that they’ll be of use to you shopping-phobes out there. This comes from the perspective of a city dweller, but aside from not going to Costco and not having my own car to transport groceries, I think my shopping techniques are pretty universally applicable.
I don’t have any amazing revelations for you; I just want to share what I do in the hope that you find it useful. If this is all seems stunningly obvious to you, my apologies, but when I’ve shared these tips in conversation, people seem interested. Maybe they’re just indulging me. Or maybe they just want me to shut up about shopping already. Either way, they at least feign interest.
So please, no hate mail.
The Supply Run – Once every two months or so, I spend $100-$150 to really stock my pantry. Things I buy include – in no particular order – dry pasta, canned beans, canned tuna, chicken stock, crackers, parmesan cheese, olive oil, vinegar, canned tomatoes, frozen peas and corn, olives, pickles, bulk grains, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, jelly, spices, canned soup, some frozen and/or shelf-stable prepared meals, and probably some other things that I’m not thinking of right now. (I do this at Trader Joe’s
Now, that’s a lot of money to spend on a grocery run for one person, but I assure you it’s a good investment. First off, it justifies the trip to the slightly further or slightly more frustrating, but less expensive market – or, if you’re in a city, justifies paying for delivery or catching a cab. (I do my shopping runs at Trader Joe’s, except for Bulk Grains, which they don’t sell.) Second, you’ll have a few meals ready to go just from those supplies. Third, and most importantly, one trip like this every two months will lay the groundwork for a much more pleasant shopping experience…
The Hit and Run – Once I’ve made my supply run, day-to-day shopping is much easier. If I want to cook a meal one night, I can go to the grocery store pretty much just to pick up produce and meat (which, you may have noticed, I don’t actually cook with very often), and maybe one or two perishable staples like milk, yogurt, or bread. This keeps you out of those unnavigable center aisles and lets you use the generally more expedient 10 items or less line (an absolute must at New York City Whole Foodses). Plus, for me at least, when I look at a recipe, I get discouraged pretty quickly if I have to buy more than about 8 ingredients. And I greatly prefer 5 or fewer.
The Hit and Run works best, if you…
Know Your Market – Crowded grocery stores are frustrating, but they are much, much less frustrating if you know where to find what you need and you are not constantly retracing your steps. As silly as it sounds, take a trip to the grocery store one day when you need some food and you’ve got time to kill, and just go up and down the aisles one at a time. Aside from the fact that the “real” food – meat, produce, and dairy – are all relegated to the outskirts of the store, no grocery store is like another. Knowing where the Asian foods are shelved can save you a lot of time when you just need that one little bottle of hoisin sauce.
You should also try different markets in your area and see if you like one better than others, or if some have a more limited selection – no problem if you’re well-stocked – but are less crowded during the week. Then pick a market or two, and stick with them.
But even if you only need to buy 5 or 6 ingredients for that sausage and mushroom lasagna you’ve been eying, you could still end up dropping $15, not counting your pantry ingredients, and couldn’t you just get takeout for less than that? Well first of all, you could be eating that lasagna for a week, but more importantly, I’d recommend you…
Split the Bill – I love cooking dinner for one; I find it very meditative, and I feel much more free to experiment and cook at my own pace. That said, it’s good for the soul to spend time with your friends after work, and cooking for them can be a good way to save money, provided everybody pays up. But isn’t it gauche to ask to your friends to pay for food you’ve cooked them?
Absolutely not, especially if it’s something you do regularly. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Now let me be clear: I don’t think you should charge everybody who ever eats your cooking. A dinner party is a wonderful and sacred rite, for which the accepted payment is a contribution of booze. But if you have a few friends with whom you eat regularly anyway, why not propose to do the cooking if they pay for their share of the ingredients? People, in my experience, are exuberant to get a home-cooked meal for $5-$8. This will offset your costs and encourage you to cook some of those more adventurous recipes you’ve been pondering.
So I’ve obviously admitted some things here – farmer’s markets, Fresh Direct, and stealing all come to mind – but this is already a long post, so I’ll save more ideas for another day.
Plus, I’ve got to go shopping.