Something very strange happens when people walk into the grocery store. They get out of their car, clearheaded and prepared, and step through the automatic doors and… why was I here again?
The number one thing I hear from customers is “I just came in here for one thing.” These are people with overflowing baskets, with $300 orders. These are folks who place their hand baskets in their shopping carts because they are too full. These are people without enough bags, and sometimes, not enough cash. Don’t make that mistake.
So, here are some things to figure out: If you have a budget, make a list. Once you’ve made your list, read it carefully and see if it all adds up. Let’s make an example list here with some annotations to clarify exactly what we’re going for at the market.
Now, of course this list is an example, and you want to create a list that meets your needs. Maybe you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you would make a drastically different list. But, what you should do at the market is carefully analyze how you’re going to use each ingredient you buy.
1. Buy a whole chicken even if you’re not planning on roasting it. It’s far more economical to learn how to cut up a chicken than to buy chicken parts. Furthermore, spare chicken parts like spines and wingtips can be saved for stock. Stock is the ultimate in economy, so keep some heavy freezer bags around.
2. Onions are cheap, plentiful and keep really well in a cool, dark place. They’re also great for developing knife skills. Onions are in just about everything, so it’s always safe to keep an onion or two in the house.
3. Sweet Potatoes are economical, good for you, and versatile.
So, let’s look at my list so far: Chicken, onions and sweet potatoes. What can I make with these three items? Well, I like roasting sweet potatoes, and I can roast the chicken legs along side. Add a salad and that’s Monday’s dinner taken care of. And Tuesday’s lunch if I make a little extra.
Two meals done for the week. Moving on…
4. Green Onions. Gosh, the green onions are cheap and they sure look good. What can I make with green onions though? Well, they’re nice grilled, so I’ll get a cheap and thin piece of meat to go with them. That should use up this bundle nicely. That’s Tuesday night taken care of.
5. Pork Shoulder. Holy moly, that pork shoulder is on sale and nice looking too. It’s got the skin on it, so I will remove the skin and render out all the fat. Then I can freeze the fat into cubes and use it later for frying up things. And the pork can be cut into smaller portions and frozen for later.
6. Rice makes a cheap meal alongside just about anything. Good for lunches and dinners.
7. Cilantro. If you’re one of those folks who eat cilantro, this is a fantastic herb. It’s used in Central American and Asian cooking and can be used for a bunch of other things. At ethnic markets it’s usually laughably cheap, so you can get a lot of bang for your buck with cilantro. I’m already getting green onions, so I’ll use this bundle of Cilantro to make chimichurri for my cheap grilled meat. If I wanted to, I could get a few bundles and then trim the ends off of what I don’t use and store it in a glass of water to keep it fresh.
8. Lettuce to make salads for the week. And BLTs sound good. We’ll have BLTs on Wednesday.
9. Tomatos are essential for the T in BLT. Also good for salads. If I want to do sandwiches, I’ll get slicing tomatoes, and if I want to do anything else, I’ll buy cherry tomatoes.
10. Bread for sandwiches. I specified sandwich bread here in order to keep me on track. If I want hamburger buns, I’ll write that down instead. If I want a baguette, that’s what I will put. If I just put bread, I end up with moldy bread by the end of the week.
As a side note: if you buy a baguette and you know full well you’re not going to eat the whole thing, leave your leftovers on the counter overnight and then pulverize the bread into crumbs. Use the crumbs later for casseroles or pasta sauces. Economical.
11. Cheddar cheese. Since I’m buying a loaf of bread, so I will get some cheese for grilled cheese later in the week. Oh, look, Thursday’s dinner done with.
12. Thin, cheap steaks. They will go nicely with the grilled green onions.
It’s okay to deviate from the list a little if you know what you’re going to do with your deviations. If you find a vegetable that looks especially good, buy it, but MAKE A PLAN. Figuring it out later is a sure way to watch your food spoil. If you pick up a squash and think, “Oh, I have that cut up pork in the freezer, so I’ll thaw that out and braise it in a little chicken stock, then I can roast this squash alongside it…” then you have a plan. You have Friday night’s dinner done with.
One thing you want to avoid doing when you’re starting out learning how to cook, is building an enormous pantry of staples. Yes, it’s way more economical to buy a 10 pound bag of flour, but if you never bake, it’s a waste of your money. Some staples are okay to buy in large amounts. Sea salt or Kosher Salt is great because it’s tasty and never goes bad. Go ahead and buy a few pounds. If you eat butter, buy a few pounds when it’s on sale and keep in your freezer. Some recipes call for sugar, so I keep a one pound box of superfine sugar at home.
Lastly, be aware of what’s in your fridge that you need to use before you leave for the store. If the eggplant in your crisper drawer is starting to look a little weak, maybe it’s a good idea to pick up the stuff to make ratatouille that night.
So remember: Make plans with everything you buy, and execute those plans throughout the week. If you do find yourself at the store for half and half, and you look down into your hands and you see all these groceries that just appeared in your hands, evaluate how important they are. Are you getting that box of cookies so you can pack them in your lunch? Or are you getting them because, gosh, they look good? If it’s the latter, put them back. Analyze everything in your basket. Don’t make the dual mistakes of buying way more than you planned to, and letting all that food go to waste.