Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to Shop for Groceries (the right way)

In approximately nine days, I will be releasing a book.  This is going to pretty much be an all-consuming obsession for a little while, and it's definitely going to fill up the blog.  So, before that happens, I thought it would be a good idea to release another cooking lesson, especially since I promised this one to a loyal reader/student. 

Grocery Shopping: A Surprisingly Daunting Task

Most people have gone shopping for groceries at one point or another.  It's not that difficult, in theory: you go to the store, you buy some stuff, you come home.  But it's not actually that easy in practice, and shoppers quickly realize that, without the proper strategies, they end up spending way too much money on food they won't eat.  Sound familiar? 

Here's the thing.  If you don't know how to cook, grocery shopping can seem like navigating a country whose language you don't speak.  Even if you have a list, you might spend way too much money on groceries or end up with the wrong food.  Luckily, you don't have to despair!  Here's how you save money, buy healthy food and cook cheap, easy meals even if you kind of suck at cooking. 

Planning Meals 

If you're not big on experimenting in the kitchen, you'll want the guidance of a meal plan.  Otherwise, how do you know what to buy for groceries?  There's plenty of ways to put together a meal plan.  You could ask the people who live with you, "Hey, what do you want to eat this week?" You can download a pre-made meal plan from one of many sites.  You can put something together from your selection of known recipes.  My mom had three months' worth of meal plans that she cycled through - write them up once, then just buy the same things every month. 

If you're really budget-conscious, your best bet is to plan your menu around what you have in the kitchen + what's on sale.  This is what I do, and it enables me to eat surprisingly gourmet food on a tight budget.  Here's my process:

  • Take stock of everything you have in the house.  Go through your cabinets, freezer and fridge and make note of every single item you have.  (this is a great opportunity to throw anything out that's gone bad and wipe down your fridge and cabinets, btw) 
  • Look at the list and brainstorm several meals that you could make using only the ingredients you have in the house.  Write all of those down.  
  • Next, look through the sales adverts for your local grocery stores.  Write down all of the sales for ingredients that you could use in conjunction with the foods in your house in order to cook meals.  
  • Figure out what meals you can cook with the foods in your house + the foods that are on sale, and make a list of them.  That's your meal plan.  
  • Determine what items you need to buy, both on sale and not on sale, to make everything on your list.  That's your grocery list.  
  • Add up the prices of every item from the sales flyer, then add $10 - $20 (depending on what additional items you need to buy).  That's your budget. 
Now you know what you can eat for the week, you know what you need to buy to make those meals, and you know how much money it's going to cost to buy it.  There should be no surprises at the grocery store if you do this.  If you want some help getting inspired, you can use the Supercook link on the right side of my blog to plug in ingredients and get ideas for food.

Once you get to the grocery store, pretend you're on a game show called "Find a better price."  Look at the item on your list, then see if you can get the same or comparable items for an even better price.  You'd be surprised at how often the advertised products aren't even the cheapest version in the store.  If you clip coupons, you can also cross-reference your grocery list with your coupons to get more savings.  (I don't do this, for reasons I've discussed in the past).

 Tips For Success

When you're planning meals, writing a grocery list and going shopping, there are a few things you can do to improve your odds of success:
  • Learn about your staples.  Staples are items that you need to always keep in your kitchen because they serve as the base for so many other foods.  Every household will have different staple items depending on what type of foods they eat frequently.  In my house, staples are pasta, canned tomatoes, rice and frozen vegetables.  Every time I run out of those items, I know I need to buy more because they make up the core of so many things I cook.  
  • Plan meals around your protein.  Proteins, especially meat and dairy, are going to be the most expensive items on your list.  Plan your menu accordingly.  If meat's on sale, pick whatever is the best deal and buy that one item.  Find ways to stretch that one item into several meals.  For example: If whole chickens are on sale, you might want to buy one and roast it one night, then shred the leftovers for tacos another night, then cook the bones for stock and make soup a third night.  
  • Don't buy more fresh foods than you can deal with.  If you don't eat them in time, fruits and vegetables will go bad very fast.  Plan to eat the most delicate of them early in the week.  If you find an excellent deal on them and buy in bulk, make a plan to preserve them.  It's super easy to make small batches of jam or refrigerator pickles, and pretty much anything can be frozen if you do it right.  
  • Learn what substitutions you can make.  If you get to the store and they're all out of zuchinni, it pays to know that you can cook crookneck squash or Mexican gray squash in pretty much exactly the same way.  Try to get as wide of an idea of what foods taste good together and what can be substituted in the dishes you like to cook, and be flexible with your list.  
So, there you go.  A few tips from me on grocery shopping.  Is this the only way you can buy groceries and save money?  Of course not.  But it's my method, and it works pretty well.

If you have any questions, I'll happily answer them!  

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