Friday, 23 April 2010

The Art of Grocery Shopping: tips for thrifty food shopping

Two things I know for sure about myself are that I am compulsively cheap, and I love food more than life itself. These two facts have resulted in me being well-versed in eating well very cheaply.

There are many different tricks to know when it comes to cheap, healthy food, but this post will just focus on the place you actually plunk your money down, the art of grocery shopping. I spend less than £15 per person weekly, and have been known to eat well on less than £10 per person weekly. Here’s how it happens.

My own weekly shop usually starts out with a trip to the farmer’s market, wherein there are slightly different rules (on which I will elaborate on in a later post); however, in the interest of making this post a little more ubiquitous and useful for people without access to a market, this advice is mostly geared towards shopping in a standard grocery store.

Plan your week. Plan, plan, plan. It doesn’t have to be exact, but putting in a little extra effort before and during shopping will save you a lot of money (and stress). I cannot shop without a list. If I ever fail to make one, I wander around the store aimlessly , throwing random items into the cart, none of which will make a meal. So every week I faithfully make a list and I actually stick to it.

Before you go out to the grocery store, sit down and plan out what you are going to eat that week. Doing so takes about 20 minutes. If you know you will be going as soon as you get home from work, do your planning the night before. Do it when you are relaxed and happy. I love this part of my shopping routine because it means I get to immerse myself in my cookbooks! Make a list of all of the ingredients you need, and take an inventory of your kitchen to see what you already have. Don’t forget to plan for your breakfast, snacks, and lunches; people end up spending silly amounts of money at lunchtime when they fail to plan for these things. Write down EVERY SINGLE THING you will need. At the risk of sounding bossy, I’m going say, don’t put things like “large bag of chips, 2L bottles of Coke, tub of chocolate” on your list. Writing down that you’re going to buy junk doesn’t make it cheaper. Don’t plan to buy it and don’t buy it.

I will admit that I take a long time to shop, especially when I’ve shopping in a new store. Why? Because grocery stores are actively trying to trick you into spending more money. Maybe yours is an honest, independently owned store with a conscience, and would never dream of trying to trick you, but mine definitely aims to deceive. However, I evade their trickery with a little time and care.

When you are shopping for produce, you will notice that prices are listed by weight. Pay attention to this pricing. I often enough see packaged produce right next to the same product sold loose, and if you pay attention to the price by weight, you will notice how often you are being charged extra money just to buy the produce pre-packaged. Keep in mind that pre-packaged produce often contains chemicals that are applied to packaging as a pesticide or preservative. These chemicals obviously get onto the food, but regulators do not require that they be listed in the ingredients, as they are not classed as food. Does that sound like something you want to pay more for?

We all know that local, seasonal produce is cheaper, although I think a much smaller percentage of the population could actually tell you what is local or seasonal. I’ll do another post at another time on farmer’s markets, and how great they are for finding out what is in season, but if you don’t have a market nearby you, you might want to go online and print off a chart of seasonal fruits and veggies, and stick it on your fridge. Even in the more ubiquitous environment of the supermarket, seasonal produce will be cheaper.

In most grocery stores there will be a bin or two of discounted produce. I always check through it, but only occasionally find anything worth buying. Obviously if something already on your list happens to be in the discount bin, it’s a good purchase. You may also find a substitute for something on your list; something like discounted kale for spinach is a pretty obvious switch. Sometimes I see a bunch of fresh herbs for .10p or so, and I can generally find a use for them. However, keep in mind that a small bag of chopped carrots at .50p marked down from a pound is still a rip-off.

When you’re looking through aisles, keep in mind that the most expensive items are stacked at eye level, cheaper items may be along the top or the bottom. In the same vein, try the budget line. There are many staples such as rice, tinned tomatoes, beans, etc, with which you will not notice a difference in taste, but are drastically cheaper.

Take a moment to carefully check the price of staple items by weight as well. You’d be surprised at the difference in prices in some items when you use a little detective work.

You’ve heard this one before, but don’t be fooled by 2 for 1 offers unless it’s something already on your list, and something you use/eat a lot of. Similarly, something being on sale is only beneficial if it’s on your list. Buying in bulk is often a money saver, but use your discretion. Sometimes you simply don’t have room for bulk items, and sometimes buying more just means you will eat more. Unlike the produce bin, I’ve never once seen anything worth buying in the general discount bin.

The store that we shop in for our staple items is huge, and often has the same item in several different locations. I make a note of the price I see an item at first, and compare it to the item in other locations in the store. For example, the nuts in the baking aisle are the same damn nuts in the wholefoods aisle, but at half the price.

STICK TO YOUR LIST. If you didn’t need it when you were making the list, you don’t need it in the store. On a similar note, never ever EVER go shopping hungry. Hunger makes sticking to your list almost impossible.

Finally, check your receipt and change before you leave the store, just to make sure you weren’t overcharged. It doesn’t happen very often, but you’d hate to miss it.

I hope you find this collection of tips and tricks helpful. I really believe that how you shop makes as big a difference to your bill as what you buy, and ultimately helps you to stick to your health plan. You can’t eat a package of cookie dough that you never bought.


Red Lentil Comfort Food

This is one very cheap way to prepare lentils, a recipe I modified from Moosewood Celebrates. The zest of the ginger and lemon perk up the warm, comforting flavours. I call this comfort food because it is the perfect thing to curl up with on a cold day.

Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp ginger, minced or grated
3 carrots, sliced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp cinnamon
11/2 cups red lentils
2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté until soft. Add the ginger, cumin and cinnamon, and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the carrots, and sauté for a few minutes. Add the red lentils, and stir until mixed with the other ingredients. Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes or until the lentils are tender. The mixture should have a dahl-like consistency. Stir in the lemon zest, and season.

Serve by itself, or over brown rice.