So, you’re in a stay-home order and you need food. Takeout is great to support local business, but you’re on a budget. What should you stock up on at the grocery store?
On the one hand, you know you want to avoid excessive social contact — so even though grocery store visits are allowed, you don’t want to be going every day. But you also don’t want to be that person who’s cleaning out the aisles to the point that there’s not enough left for your community.
What’s a young person on a budget to do during this pandemic? We gotta eat!
There’s no simple formula, no perfect “do” and “don’t” buy list for grocery shopping in normal times (and these are not normal times), so I can’t just give you my list and expect it to work for you. But I can share my simple tips for making the most of your grocery trips while still being a good steward.
It starts before you go to the store.
Maybe the most important thing you can do to have a good grocery shopping experience is plan ahead. If you just walk in and try to grab what you’ll need, you may find yourself with six unopened bottles of ketchup and no vegetables. You’ve got to think through your trip before you go. Here are some things to consider as you prepare.
Do a survey of your staples.
There are certain things I know I’m going to need in my house most of the time: eggs, milk, coffee creamer. Take five or ten minutes to look at how much of those basics you already have on hand, and make a note of which you’ll need for the next week or two.
Meal plan. Really.
It’s all the rage to be perfect at meal prep — but you don’t need to make beautiful, symmetrical, Instagram-worthy meal containers when you’re going to be eating it at home anyway. Knowing what you want to make before you go means you won’t be halfway through a recipe and realize you absolutely cannot go on without a tomato.
Make a list.
This one speaks for itself — trust me, you will not remember everything when you get to the store. And that may be fine under normal circumstances, but when you’re trying to limit your trips, you really want this stop to count.
I like to take this one step further and make my list based on the layout of the grocery store — it helps to group your list based on where things are positioned in the store.
Start with the fresh (and frozen).
A good rule of thumb under normal circumstances is to focus on the “outside” of the grocery store — that’s where you’ll find fresh produce, some frozen foods, and refrigerated items. The things in the middle of the store don’t require refrigeration and are usually dry or canned goods, which translates to more processing. So shopping from the outside-in is a great way to incorporate healthy items into your diet, but it also often means these fresh items can go bad quickly.
Stocking up for fewer trips doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your health, though — there are plenty of ways to get healthy foods that won’t go bad in a day.
Storage and preparation are key.
Knowing how to store your food can be half the battle. If you want to make a salad, there are some simple ways to make sure those crunchy carrots stay crunchy. Imperfect Foods (a great option if it’s available in your town for weekly fresh produce delivery) has a great storage chart to make sure you’re preparing your foods for success in the long run.
You can also take advantage of some tips and tricks to get your groceries ready for a longer lifespan. There are hundreds of articles on how to do this, but some of my favorites include:
- Store lettuce and other leafy greens or watery vegetables with a paper towel or another absorbent cloth to soak up excess moisture.
- Don’t pre-cut or wash fruits and vegetables if you can avoid it.
- Keep your bananas and tomatoes away from your other fruits and vegetables, unless you’re trying to get them to ripen quickly.
- Freeze extra fresh herbs in olive oil for later use in a pan-sautéed dish.
- Freeze (almost) everything. Seriously. This might be my favorite. While some foods will suffer in quality after freezing, especially those with a higher water content, most things can be reasonably frozen. Try this with raw meats (separate them out before you freeze for easy meals later), or when you make too much chili. Your own frozen meals are cheaper — and better for you — than that Lean Cuisine, anyway.
Pick the foods that keep the best.
Foods with a lower water content are going to keep from going bad in your fridge for longer. So if you’re craving a cucumber, plan to use that in the next few days. Foods like sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower, or bell peppers will last longer, so use those for meals later in the week.
Another great option is to purchase frozen vegetables and fruits. They’re picked at the peak of freshness and frozen quickly, so they’ll be perfect when you add them to whatever you’re cooking. They also avoid the sodium and preservatives of a canned vegetable.
Some of my favorite kinds of “fresh” food that stay fresh longer than a few days:
- Eggs (good for weeks after they’re sold)
- Most cheeses (avoid those with a high water content, like mozzarella, if you can’t eat it quickly)
- Nut milks (these last much longer than traditional dairy milk, so if you don’t drink it quickly this is a great option to reduce waste)
- Spaghetti squash and butternut squash
- Bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
- Citrus, especially clementines or mandarins
- Lean proteins, like chicken, salmon, ground turkey — all meats that freeze easily and go with most things
Then know your staples.
Once you’ve got a fresh foundation, you can fill it out with some healthy, shelf-stable supplies. I prefer to focus on whole grains and simple ingredients that I can make into whatever tasty foods I want. Some of the things I like to always keep on hand:
- Whole-wheat spaghetti, rotini, or penne noodles
- Olive oil or butter
- Jasmine or basmati rice
- Arborio (risotto) rice or orzo
- Popcorn kernels (use a brown paper bag to pop them in the microwave for a great snack!)
- Flour (I prefer white whole-wheat)
- Pretzels (always a simple snack)
- Bread (store it in the fridge or freeze it for longer life)
- Canned or dry beans
These are the practices that work for me. What works for you might be something completely different. It’s not a great burden to invest a little time and effort to shopping efficiently and well. When we need to limit our exposure to one another, being careful with our shopping is a good way to care for the health of your community.