Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shop Smart

I always have Wednesdays off right now, so that is when I do my big grocery shopping trips. I do plan these out in order to be as efficient and economical as possible. Getting good meals on the table during the rest of the week begins with a well-planned grocery trip. The ingredients you need for recipes do not just magically appear in the pantry (though I wish they would! Actually, right now, I just wish I had a pantry).

Right now, I have three kinds of grocery shopping events: the weekly trip to the farmer's market for produce, quick runs to the grocery store for things that need frequent refilling (milk, eggs, yogurt, that occasional last-minute ingredient, things on sale at Reasor's), and major multi-store expeditions. Let me break down the latter according to last week's grand tour:

At Sam's Club I stock up on things we use a lot of (you'd be surprised how fast two people can go through 36 eggs) and that last a long time (canned and frozen food and paper goods).This trip I got a case of IBC root beer, some chicken bouillon, a big thing of garlic powder (really this is for the dogs, actually), a case of hot dogs (for dog treats), frozen mango chunks, and frozen green beans. I also gave in and got the Fall Entertaining issue of Cook's Illustrated. Altogehter: $40.22. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mention he had used all the sugar, so I had to run back for some ($5.90), which brings the total up to $46.12.

The WalMart grocery store is where I go for most items I need in smaller amounts or that aren't available at Sam's Club. For instance, I have nowhere to put fifty pounds of flour even if I could use it in a reasonable amount of time, so that comes from WalMart, where it's cheapest. Sometimes I'll also go to Reasor's, one of the area grocery chains. They have a bigger selection than WalMart, and some items (namely popcorn for my air popper and my favorite tea) are cheaper. I'll also get stuff on sale here when I find a good deal. If I'm just picking up some things I need, there's a Reasor's right by my gym, so I go there to be quicker.

This time I just hit WalMart, where I snagged some pork chops on clearance (use of freeze by the next day), beef liver for dog treats, ginger snaps for a recipe I'm planning on making soon, three pounds of yellow onions, and some ginger root for a total of $16.34.

Whole Foods is a dangerous stop, because I tend to end up buying more fancy cheese, sweet potato chips, and random bulk items than I need. I can get things here I can't find elsewhere, though, and some items are actually cheaper here than at the other grocery stores. Greek yogurt is about 20 cents cheaper than at Reasor's (WalMart doesn't carry it), and the bulk spices are a super great deal, especially if you're looking for something more exotic, like cardamom pods, and/or only want a small amount. This time I got some Greek yogurts, pumpkin seeds for the Darling Devoted Husband, cardamom pods, garam masala, thick cut oats, sweet potato tortilla chips, and a block of chocolate for a grand total of $20.41.

The final store in my repertoire is Braum's, because they have Chocolate Malt Ball ice cream. Two of these and a carton of vanilla set me back $9.77.

The trick is to limit things that are just snacks and resist impulse buys. The DDH and I have agreed to keeping root beer and ice cream around as regular treats; then, on a big grocery run, I'll get maybe one other treat for each of us--this time, sweet potato chips and pumpkin seeds. The pork was an impulse buy, but I tend to buy meat that way--when I see it on sale or otherwise really cheap (some chicken and hamburger were snagged at Reasor's yesterday for the same reasons). We ate some of the chops that evening and I froze the rest for later use. Other than that, only the magazine wasn't on my list, so I was pretty successful this time.

The other shopping rule I use is only buying things (as much as possible) that I can get multiple uses for. This doesn't work for everything (one cup of yogurt can either be eaten or used in a smoothie, but either way it's just one serving), but is true of most things on the list. Oatmeal, for instance, I use for eating and baking; I have several recipes that call for the spices I bought. This rule requires direct coordination with the quantity vs. longevity rule. I will eventually use the ginormous bag of frozen green beans--and, frozen, they'll last long enough for me to use them. I bought the cardamom pods and garam masala in bulk so that I could only take a little, since I'm unlikely to use an entire large bottle before it goes stale (also, they were cheaper per ounce that way). I could have bought ten pounds of onions at Sam's Club instead of three pounds at WalMart, but I don't use enough onion for two people to be sure some wouldn't go bad.

It can be a lot of work at first to juggle all these considerations, but it's worth it. Otherwise, you end up with shopping trips like those of the DDH. Sent to the store for eggs, he comes home with: eggs, as requested, a twelve-pack of giant muffins, a big summer sausage stick, and five books of stamps. The eggs were $2.85 plus tax. He spent $62.30. I'm not saying I didn't eat the muffins, and admittedly we won't need to buy stamps for a year, but obviously one can't do this every time. Managing a kitchen on a budget first means shopping smart.

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