kitchen basics: how to shop the market

i am back from my scandinavian adventure and ready to share the next installment of kitchen basics!  this is arguably the most important post in this series because knowing how to prepare for the market, what to get, and controlling how much you spend on groceries are key for most shoppers and chefs.  you need to get the right ingredients, but not break the bank doing it.  let me show you how!

first of all, there is a little prep involved.  i know this is not something young-adults like to do (myself included sometimes), but if you take the time to make a list and do an easy peek for coupons, it can make all the difference in the world.

tip number one:  make a list 
never go in to a market without one.  if you do, you’ll end up filling your basket with crap that you don’t need (that is generally way overpriced).  here are some simple steps:

1. find your favorite grocery store in town.  i do not recommend a place like ‘whole foods’ for your everyday grocery shopping needs because it is a specialty market, and you’ll pay specialty prices.  places like safeway, kroger, wegmans, or bloom have inexpensive basic ingredients and you can scout out the one with the best produce selection.  these stores also generally have customer rewards programs that give you great deals on the things you buy the most.

2.  go online (or to the newspaper circulars if you get those anymore!) and browse around the weekly ads on your store’s website.  see whats on sale.  you’d be surprised how many discounts are available for the store brand instead of the brand-name products.  they are often EXACTLY the same product, but with different labels!

3. check electronic coupons.  i know that a lot of stores are doing this nowadays– electronic coupons.  with your bonus card, go online and see what coupons you can just load up to your card.  no clipping required!  put these items on your list and you’ll get the discount right at the check out counter.

4. use the weekly ads and electronic coupons to help brainstorm things to get at the grocery.  i like to think in categories when i make my lists:
          -breakfast:  what do i usually eat?  oatmeal?  OJ?  eggs?  cereal?  milk?  
          -lunch:  sandwich items, bread, soup, frozen meals, salad, fruit, etc.
          -dinner:  –> we will revisit this soon :)
          -snacks:  pretzels, baby carrots, fruit, nuts, cheese, crackers, etc.
          -household items:  TP, paper towels, dish soap, shampoo, etc.

with categories in mind, you can look at what you have in your pantry and see what you need to get.  plan ahead and give yourself a few options, but don’t go overboard!  try to pick things that can be used for multiple meals.  for example, if you like english muffins for breakfast but are worried about eating all 6 before they go bad, think about using them for mini pizzas for dinner!

tip number two: give yourself options
the question i get asked the most is what the heck am i going to have for dinner?  and how do you shop for dinner things when you dont know what you want to make?

simple.  you don’t need to know exactly WHAT you want to eat, just have an idea of what kinds of things you usually eat and have them around.  let me clarify with a scenario:

“charlie” is a college student who needs to cook for himself.  he has a limited budget and is in desperate need of going grocery shopping.  ordering pizza and going out for chipotle is proving to be more expensive than he can handle, so making his own dinner is the cheapest option.  as he is a boy, he generally likes to eat meat and carbs for dinner (aka a hamburger, steak, chicken, potatoes, pasta, etc).  but, he doesnt know exactly what he wants to eat for dinner every night.  after a little bit of looking at weekly ads, charlie finds out that his local market has great deals on chicken and steak that week.  potatoes are always a cheap option and pasta is on sale for a dollar a box.  he know he should have some kind of fruit or vegetable and decides to get a few apples since he has an electronic coupon.  his “splurge” items are cheese and sour cream because they are not “on sale”, but he chooses the store brand and saves some money there.

charlie walks out of the store with a pound of chicken breasts, a few ounces of a cheaper cut of steak, two baking potatoes, a box of pasta, a jar of spaghetti sauce, four apples, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, english muffins, and some barbeque sauce.  by choosing the store brands, looking for the sale items, and applying his coupons, charlie spent about half of what he would have spent if he had gone in to the store without a plan.  with his ingredients, he can make at least four nights worth of dinner plus leftovers for lunches the next day!

(if you are wondering what he can make, here are just four possibilities: barbeque chicken with mashed potatoes, steak and loaded baked potatoes, italian chicken with pasta, mini steak and cheese pizzas.  plus leftover ingredients!)

tip number three: have a snack before you shop
another mistake people make is going to the store hungry.  when you’re hungry, everything looks good and you start to impluse-buy.  RESIST!  snack before you come to the store so that you stick to your list.  but its not the end of the world if one thing sneaks in your cart :)

tip number four: wait for things to go on sale, then stock up
this might be the most difficult tip, but if you’re on a budget, look for alternatives instead of buying exactly what you want if its not on sale.  if you are looking for fruit and the peaches look really good that week, but they are almost two bucks a piece, skip them and pick the grapes that are on special that week.  wait for the peaches to go on sale.  stores rotate sales frequently, so don’t worry if what you want isnt on sale at the moment.  it will be soon!

this rule does not apply absolutely all the time, however.  if you are planning on making grilled chicken kebobs with roasted vegetables, you might can certainly swap out red bell peppers for green ones, but you can’t really compromise on the chicken.  just look for the best deal, but don’t say “no” just because it isnt on sale.  work with your budget!

on that note:  when your desired item does go on sale, if it is something that you use frequently (meat, mostly), then stock up on it.  get twice as much as you normally would buy and when you bring it home, package it up in separate baggies and toss it in the freezer.  that way, you have chicken or steak or seafood whenever you need it– right at your fingertips.

tip number five: be creative!
you know what you like to eat.  be creative!  get a bunch of ingredients and start experimenting.  i like to buy all kinds of vegetables at the beginning of the week (usually things like zuchinni, mushrooms, kale, tomatoes, and bell peppers) and make stir fry, roasted vegetable side dishes, or pasta salads with fresh veg.  together with the staples in my pantry (which you should check out here), i can make countless meals with just a few ingredients!

don’t be afraid of the grocery.  just look at your wallet, think about what YOU like to eat, do a little prep, and you’re golden.  my favorite part of the whole shopping trip is scanning my bonus card after everything is scanned and watching that total drop down, down, down.

ahhh, isn’t shopping fun?  :D