Grocery Shopping for the Cheap and Lazy
With all due respect to my fellow Wise Bread bloggers, I hate grocery shopping. I also hate making lists. I loathe budgets and I despise meal planning. Working out a menu for the week makes me want to stab a chopstick through my eye. In short, most tips for saving money on groceries either don't apply to me, or I don't want them to apply to me.
Nothing is more depressing than sauteeing up a bunch of veggies and chicken and then packing 3/4 of it into Tupperware for the next few days' lunches. I'm sure some people handle this with aplomb, but I don't. Since I don't have a partner or children, I'm just not inclined to make meals a very central part of my day. I've got other stuff to do — work, hobbies, exercising, travel...it's rare that I want to take time to plan meals. I'm busy, I'm single, and I'm incredibly lazy.
The result of my lack of enthusiasm for cooking alone is that I tend to eat out frequently. Why it would be any less depressing to eat directly from the Chinese take-out containers than from my own plates is anyone's guess. But the vast majority of my misspent money used to go to take-away food. I'd estimate that I could easily drop $250 a week on meals. I probably still spend more on meals than some other people, but I like to think that I save a bundle compared to what I would spend if I were still ordering in pizza every couple of nights.
Anyway, if you are like me, and you don't like cooking all by your lonesome, but recognize that dining out is hurting your budget, here are some grocery shopping tips for saving time and money (and eating well!) that don't involve list-making.
1. Shop for dinner every day, if that's what it takes
If the idea of going in a big grocery shop once a week makes you want to crawl under the table and hide, you're not alone. Sometime planning for a week's worth of meals is enough to make one's head explode. Some people like to decide what they are going to eat a few minutes before they eat it. In fact, going out and buying a bunch of food all at once is a uniquely North American experience (albeit one that is catching on elsewhere). When I lived abroad, I bought my groceries every day. A trip to a tiny market with a dirt floor would yield a couple of farm fresh eggs, fresh milk, some potatoes, and a bunch of garlic tops. I got so used to shopping that way, buying a few things every day and eating them within 24 hours, that I have trouble dealing with the American method of shopping in big batches.
Allow yourself to shop like a European, if need be. On your way home from work, stop by the store and purchase enough food for the next meal or two. Wear a beret if that helps. But make sure to buy simple, basic ingredients — nothing ridiculously fancy or processed — because even the French agree that simplicity is better. Also, keep stocked up on the basics: salt and pepper as well as some oils, vinegar, mustard, and maybe milk and eggs, if you eat them enough. That way, you can rotate the fresh ingredients in as you like and still have some basic foods to back it all up.
2. Redefine "meal"
The idea that a meal consists of a medium-sized hunk of meat, a bland starch, and some kind of green veggie is a very Anglo-American concept, and it really isn't the gospel of nutrition. The truth is that you don't have to eat meat at every meal. You don't even HAVE to eat veggies every day.
There are people who scoff that pasta is "college food," but I disagree. Pasta is how people all over the world survive on a day-to-day basis. Oh, sure, a lot of rice gets eaten in the warmer regions, but bread and pasta make up the bulk of calories throughout much of northern China, Mongolia, and the rest of Central Asia. I see absolutely no shame in eating pasta several nights in a row. Yeah, I like to change it up a bit (marinara one night, spinach and pesto the next), but pasta is a time-honored food item that's easy to dress up to suit your tastebuds.
On a similar note, there's nothing wrong with eating a sandwhich for dinner; peanut butter and jelly is nutritious, delicious, and cheap. Pancakes and eggs make an amazing dinner. There is absolutely no need to define your meal around what Tyson has taught us is the "ideal supper." It's not that I never have a more traditional American meal — it's just that I don't center my dining around the concept of it. THAT would involve planning, and I'm just too tired at the end of the day to create a perfectly plated meal.
My favorite dinner is usually a hunk of sesame baguette, a few slices of fresh cheese, a handful of herbs from my garden, and a glass of red wine. The dinner is simple to prepare, since all I have to do is slice the cheese and wash the herbs. The bread is good the next morning when made into French toast with cinnamon, and also good at lunch, when I make it into a baguette with some lunch meat or almond butter and honey. None of those meals totals more than $5 and all of them are simple.
The best meals often revolve around one really good fresh ingredient (such as fresh carrots doused with lemon juice, crushed fresh mint, and sea salt) that are enjoyed with minimal adornment. The beauty of seasonal eating that is you get to really enjoy fresh flavors and make them the center of attention, rather than, say, steak or chicken breast. Also, when you are young and single and have no one to impress...THAT is the time to bake an apricot tart and eat it every night with ice cream for few days. The time for perfectly-roasted chicken and kid-friendly meals is later. Enjoy singlehood and the freedom that comes with it while you can.
People frequently complain that buying food at the farmer's market is expensive. This is true — if you go to the market with a traditional meal in mind, you're going to leave having spent at least $60 on a couple of grass-fed steaks, a head of kolrabi, and some squash flowers. The thing is, you don't have to buy "the perfect balanced meal" at the farmer's market — sometimes fresh beets roasted with olive oil on top of a salad of fresh greens is the best dinner you can ever have. Nevermind that it lacks protein. You can make it up later.
3. Don't buy large quantities if you aren't going to use them
I've tried, on a number of occasions, to get into the Costco Mindset. I'll renew my memberhip, and stock up on all kinds of stuff that I believe will feed me for a month. And after cooking for one or two days, I get extremely tired of it all, and start going out for Italian or ordering in pizza. Then, two years later, I'll have to haul out that bag of frozen jumbo scallops, or giant rib roast, and throw it all away due to extreme freezer burn.
The fact of the matter is, I hate Costco, and I avoid it with all my might. I despise having the checker at the door read over my list and highlight my receipt. I hate struggling with large boxes of olives and granola bars. I can't stand lugging it all inside and trying to find space in my townhouse for 40+ rolls of toilet paper and 20 cans of tuna. So, finally, after years of trying to force myself to like it, I've decided that I'm just not going to go to Costco anymore.
Down the street from my house is a small grocery store that is well-known for its wine collection. They have normal produce, average everyday items, and some local goodies, like freshly baked bread from a Seattle bakery and cheese from Beecher's. They also have the occasional wild deal on something fabulous, like a carton of fresh, shelled crab meat for $4. Yes, things are a bit more expensive than at Safeway, but the bonus is that I get to walk rather than drive, I know the employees, and I'm not exhausted by the sheer size of the place. Like many people, I get overwhelmed by choice. I really enjoy shopping somewhere with only, say, three brands of stewed tomatoes rather than ten.
I want the convenience of being able to walk in, grab a basket, and ten minutes later, walk out having spent $10 on enough food to feed me for two or three meals, but no more.
Forget the idea of "bulk" if it doesn't fit with your lifestyle. It honestly doesn't matter if, dollar for pound, Costco saves you money. If you're not going to use it, it's a waste of money AND food.
4. If you do make a shopping list, be flexible
The problem with lists is that you will occasionally find yourself buying something on your list simply because it is on your list, even though a suitable alternative might be cheaper. Stay away from recipes with ridiculously exotic ingredients unless you know if a great Middle Eastern/Indian/Mexican/Thai store in which you can buy galanga root and turmeric really cheap. There's no reason to shy away from trying new things, but if you can't find coconut milk for under $4 a can, ditch the recipe and do something simpler. If limes are cheaper than lemons, buy the limes instead. If the recipe calls for brandy, but you can buy sherry for $2 less, buy the sherry.
5. Don't let anyone tell you that your cooking sucks
If you like the way you cook, that's all that matters for now. I quit cooking for five years after one particularly nasty boyfriend told me that my cooking was not to his liking. What a waste of time and money! I like my cooking. Sure, maybe I use too much salt and vinegar, but hey, it's my palate, and if I want everything to taste like dill pickles, so be it. I'll worry about someone else's palate when the time comes.
6. If you do cook for several days, cook stuff that will taste good for several days
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are big on salmon. Now, I like salmon a great deal, but it's just not a logical thing for me to cook at home. For one thing, salmon only tastes good for a couple of days after you cook it. I might cook a fillet one night and make salmon salad the next day with the leftovers, but if there's anything left after that, it's for the dogs. I can't stand the smell of three-day-old fish.
When I do set aside time to cook my meals in advance on a Sunday night, I look to things that I know are going to taste great on Thursday morning. For instance, Indian food. Curry is one of the few things that tastes BETTER the day after you cook it. Cooking good Indian food is remarkably simple — the trick is to add more spice and salt than the recipe calls for, to cook dishes long enough, and to add garlic and ginger towards the end of the cooking process, rather than in the beginning (you also don't need to buy curry mixes — most Indian recipes can get by with cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, clove, bay leaf, and coriander, which can all be bought cheaply in the Hispanic food section of most big grocery stores).
I've never been a fan of frozen veggies like beans and carrots, but throw those puppies in a pot of curry, and you have a winner. Eaten with rice or bread of any kind, with a side of yogurt? Heavenly. I like to make three dishes and then eat two of them per meal, changing my starch (rice versus bread) and throwing in a small salad every now and then for some change. Curry is also ridiculously good with eggs in the morning.
Casseroles, if done well, are also a good way to eat one dish over the course of a week. Mashed potatoes are awesome reheated with a little extra milk, or cooked into potato pancakes with the addition of some eggs and chopped onions. Hardboiled eggs can be made into egg salad, deviled eggs, or thrown on top of an impromptu nicoise salad. Remember that a salad is really just a bunch of veggies that you throw in a bowl with some dressing — be inventive. You'd be surpised how good some fresh tomatoes taste with some balsamic vinegar, salt, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. Fried rice is a perfect way to use up old rice. Do not fear butter. It makes everything better.
6. Beware the perfect shopping experience
I love Whole Foods, and I avoid it like the plague. They make shopping so perfect, so fragrant, so easy and fun. Before I know it, I've spent $10 on an organic melon from Chile and over $40 in the natural haircare section. No more. Trader Joe's is the only "specialty foods" place that I can leave having spent less than I intended to. Those other lovely high-end grocery chains are wonderful, but they are death to my pocketbook, and I know it. That said...
7. Allow yourself that one indulgent item
My favorite little fancy food item is a small jar of mushroom relish that has been soaked with black truffle oil. It packs an earthy punch, and only truffle lovers really enjoy it. I adore it. A teeny weeny jar costs $5 and lasts me two weeks. I consider it a worthwhile investment because every time I open the fridge and see the jar sitting there, I find excuses to eat at home rather than to go out.
If you have a favorite food item that you feel deprived without, buy it every now and then. What's life without caviar?
8. Soups are your friend
Bisque is sophisticated and wonderful, and you will eat less when you start every meal with a soup course. Trust me on this. If it's a hot summer night, a cold cucumber and yogurt soup with dill is just the thing. Saveur magazine recently ran an article about a sour cherry and yogurt soup — how awesome is that? And you could pretty much make that with any slightly tart fruit, like pineapple or nectarines, just by blending in some fresh yogurt and maybe a little salt.
9. Booze is pricey
Carrie said it, and I'll say it again. Wine is pricey. If you indulge regularly, indulge in the cheap stuff. Learn to love wine spritzers (that's where you cut your wine with a sparkling beverage like soda water and lemon juice, or Sprite, if you are feeling lazy). Buying it and drinking it at home is, of course, cheaper than dining out and having a glass of wine, so if you like to drink, that's just another excuse to stay home and make your own meals.
My dad is a master of weird-ingredient sandwiches. If you handed my dad some form of barbequed flesh and some kind of bread/cracker, within minutes, he will have made the most perfect sandwich in the entire world. Be it open-faced or sub-style, toasted or raw, fish or fowl, my dad has a unique ability to create amazing sandwiches that have the rest of the family drooling. The truth is, sandwiches are very easy to make.
Very few things can go wrong between meat and bread. Whatever else you add to the mix is just gravy — cheese, onions, pickles, sprouts, tomatoes, mustard, herbs, mayo, steamed vegetables, sliced apples, miso, freshly ground black pepper, and I suppose you could technically add gravy. The key is to choose two or three awesome flavors and see where they take you. Sometimes, leftover meat and whatever you can scrape out of the jars in your fridge door can create the most amazing meal.
11. Be ethnic!
Get over your white-ass self and check out a store that specializes in Persian food, or head to that Cambodian store that looks so oddly intriguing from the entrance. It has been noted time and time again here on WB that the cheapest food can be found near immigrant communities, because immigrants work their fingers to the bone and are not about to spend more than $3 on a gallon jar of kimchee, thankyouverymuch.
You don't have to be endlessly adventurous — good tripe isn't that cheap, after all, but consider buying green vegetables and fruit from these stands and markets. You'll be surprised at how much cheaper everything is. Besides, now is the time to figure out whether or not you like tofu skin — trying to feed it to kids ten years from now might not go over so well.