Grocery Shopping Hacks: How to Buy and Cook Meals Smarter
How to Buy Food
Many of us wander the grocery aisles aimlessly, overwhelmed by choice. Organic this and all-natural that? Extra-firm, reduced fat, no-salt, gluten free? Didn't it used to be simpler? Take the stress out of buying any and all foods by studying these simple guidelines to plan your food buying trip and make it easy on yourself. Learn to look for high quality ingredients, where to find them, and how to save money doing it.
Choosing Food Items
List what food you need to buy before you go to the store, market, shop or restaurant.Before you head out, it's usually smart to think through what it is you're going to buy and make up a list. When you're at home, you'll have easy access to cookbooks and other resources that will let you find out for sure what it is you need to make spaghetti carbonara, or chicken sandwiches, without wandering around the aisles aimlessly and trying to figure out what to make for dinner, buy for an eight week camping expedition, cater for guests, re-stock your pantry or whatever else.
- Write out each meal you want to cook for the period you are shopping food, if applicable. Separate your shopping lists by ingredients. Try to plan it out so might be able to re-use certain ingredients. If you need garlic and tomatoes for pasta on Monday, think of other tomato-based dishes you might be able to make later in the week.
- Making a list helps to keep food shopping a lot more manageable, especially if you're shopping for your family. If you've got a big group to buy for, go around and ask everyone if they have any requests so you can be sure you'll get everything.
- If you're not sure what to you will need, head to the market and see what looks good. Buy a variety of fresh ingredients and take them home and find out how to cook them later. This is the chef's way of doing things. Ensure you don't overstock on items that will perish before you can use them.
Buy a variety of foods.Don’t come home from the store, butcher, delicatessen, market or other food vendor with three packages of bacon, bread and a fennel bulb, unless those are the foods you need to buy. Aim for a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, starches, quick snacks and meal ingredients to make your food shopping trip the most efficient possible.
- Try to get in the habit of buying things you'll be able to use more than once where practicable. Buying pasta could make for a great hot dish one night and cold pasta salad when mixed with greens the next day. Hot Pockets don't have the same advantage, because they’re the same every time.
Check the ripeness of produce.You don't want to end up with a bunch of green rocks when you thought you were getting avocados unless you plan on using them in a couple of weeks time. Pick up produce and learn to identify fruits and vegetables that are at their peak of ripeness to make the right choices.
- Smell fruits and feel for the firmness of vegetables when shopping for these foods. Lots of people are intimidated by selecting produce, thinking there's some big secret. There isn't. It should look and smell like you want to eat it. If it smells like nothing, it'll probably be bland and need some time to ripen.
- Look for any signs of discoloration or spottiness. If vegetables look slightly spotty or feel very soft at the store, they'll probably turn before tomorrow rolls around. Unless you're going to eat something right away, buy slightly under-ripe produce.
- Pick up fruits and vegetables, and don't be afraid to feel them. Dig around the bin. You want most fruits like melons, lemons, and other produce to feel heavier than it looks, which is a sign of ripeness.
Buy fresh meat.If you're a meat eater, buying fresh meat can be surprisingly challenging. The wall of cuts at most meat store or butcher is enormous and looks complicated. Whether you're looking for poultry, beef, or pork, spend some time looking for the best value and the highest quality. Make the freshness your first consideration.
- Only buy meat that you can inspect yourself. If you can't see through the packaging, don't buy it. Look for any grayness or discoloration on poultry, beef, and pork. Check the use-by date, but use your own common sense and judgment more than the stamp that the store put on it.
- It's usually best to buy big, when it comes to meat, but only if you'll be able to use it. It's a lot more cost-effective, for example, to buy a roasting chicken and learn to break it down yourself, than to buy boneless and skinless breasts. Buy what you need, as basic as it comes.
- If you have questions, talk to someone. If you're shopping at a grocery store full of employees who don't know their products, consider going elsewhere. Smaller more independent and local butchers will know their meat intimately. They're the ones to buy from.
Learn the difference between certified-organic products and regular products if this matters to you.A common source of confusion at the grocery store or supermarkets comes from understanding what exactly organic produce and meat is and what it means. It's almost always more expensive, but learning the ways in which it differs from "normal" produce will help you to make informed decisions.
- To obtain an organic certification, food producers, farmers, and livestock must have a federal inspection performed, in which the soil is tested for the presence of pesticides. There can have been no pesticides used on land certified organic for seven years in the United States.Meat, eggs, and other animal products that are certified organic must have been fed feed certified organic.
- "Natural" is not the same thing as "organic." If food is labeled "pesticide free" or "hormone free," it means probably that the farm or the company hasn't received it's organic certification yet, because it's an expensive and time-intensive process. It doesn't mean the food is worse, it just means it hasn't been certified. Organic produce is usually more expensive because there is a lower yield of crops, because pesticides cannot be used.
- While an organic apple isn't technically "better for you" than a regular apple, nutritionally, sustainably-grown produce that's organically certified is better for the environment.Long term studies about the effect of pesticide residue on health are inconclusive.
Look at the ingredients in packaged foods.If you're going to buy any pre-prepared or packaged foods, it's a good idea to look at the list of ingredients on the back of the package. It's a good idea to get in the habit of checking out what it is you're actually eating, to learn more about nutrition and the food you buy.
- Keep an eye out for preservatives and other additives that you don't recognize if this matters to you. A good rule of thumb is that if there are more complicated chemistry words that end in "-ate" or "-ide" than there are recognizable foods, it's better to buy something a little simpler.
- The next time you're at the store, compare a jar of "natural" peanut butter and a jar of "reduced fat" peanut butter. Natural peanut butter usually includes a pair of ingredients: peanuts and salt. Reduced fat peanut butter has a whole host of added oils and additives, to replace the flavor leached out when the peanut oil was extracted. Which is "better?"
Pay attention to serving sizes.Learn to and you'll be able to make more informed choices about what you buy. Counting the calories and the calories from fat in each serving is important. When you look at the back of a candy bar, it might say "250 calories," which doesn't sound all that bad. When you notice, though, that the serving size is "half the bar," you've got to double all the numbers to find out what you're really getting.
- Some foods labeled “low fat” or “reduced fat” are the same basic products, but the manufacturers have toyed with the serving size and fiddled with the numbers to make the product look healthier. It’s not.
Create a food budget.If there's one thing other than rent that absolutely has to come out of your monthly paychecks, it's food. You have to eat, ergo, you have buy food, and buying affordably and responsibly at the grocery store, market, supermarket, green grocers, bakers or other food sellers, needs to be a priority in your budget, especially if you've got a sizable family.
- If you want to start a budget, but aren't sure how to estimate your food costs, start saving all your receipts now. Shop normally for a month, but keep track of your receipts, or keep your total bills tallied on your phone. Add it all up at the end of the month and figure out what percentage of the money you make every month that represents.
- Look over your receipts and identify two categories of items: essentials and extras. Essentials should be things like fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, milk, rice, pasta, eggs, and lean meats–ingredients used to make meals. Extras are things like snack crackers, chips, sweets, and other snacking goods. If you're spending too much money on food every month, tighten up on the extras.
Find out the "per unit" price of each item.Learn to look at the "per unit" price on each item before you buy it, to save as many pennies as possible. This is usually listed on the label on the rack at the store, just under the big price. This tells you how much each "unit" of the item is worth.
- For example, you might compare two jars of tomato sauce, which look to be basically the same shape. If one is .99 and the other is .25, it may seem obvious that you're getting the deal with the cheaper jar. But wait, the more expensive jar is 15 oz. and the less expensive is only 12. Which is the better deal? The price-per-ounce should be included on the label. That's the unit price. The lower number is the better deal.
- Don’t overbuy. It’s easy to waste a lot of money a few dollars at a time. A whole gallon of milk that goes sour before you can drink it all. A pound of bacon left out on the counter to spoil. Three kinds of bread all for one week when you’ll be home alone. Look for the best deal, but don't buy more than you'll be able to use before heading back to the store.
Buy non-perishable items in bulk.The place to go big and save money is in buying items that won't spoil or go bad in bulk. This means you won't have to go back to the store or re-buy these items in smaller portions for quite some time. It's a great way to save money.
- Rice and pasta are great bulk items. If you go through a lot of rice, buy 10 pounds at a time. you might have to spend what seems like a lot, but if the per-unit price is low, and you won't have to buy rice again for six months, it's worth it.
- Dried beans, oatmeal, and cheap canned goods are also excellent ways to buy in bulk and save food for rainy days. If you're running a little lean some month, a big batch of oatmeal, or beans and rice for dinner can be a great way of stretching a buck. Those are some of the cheapest meals you can make.
Avoid frozen meals unless this is a food you need.While it might seem like it makes more cost sense to buy a single frozen lasagna instead of buying noodles, sauce, cheese, and the other ingredients necessary to make one, the per-unit price and the actual cost of the food you’re getting is much higher with frozen meals. Learn to cook and make your own dinners rather than buying the packaged variety if you are able and this is practical for you.
- Health-wise, the sodium content and the preservatives added to frozen meals make them less healthy for your family than when you make it yourself. You can control the ingredients, making it tastier and healthier.
Look for specialty deals and discounts at the store.Whatever store you're visiting, check the bargain shelf. All stores have them, from Walmart to Target to the supplement store that smells like patchouli. Look for an area of the store with marked down or over-market stock that you can get on the cheap. This is an especially great place to get sauces, canned goods, and other foods.
- Lots of people are scared to buy "out of date" products. Dates are often placed arbitrarily, and getting people to think they need to use a product "before it goes bad" is a way of getting people to buy more stuff and spend more money. If an item says, "Best by" that means it won't go bad for a long time past that date, if at all.
Look for coupons if practical.Many stores will have coupon inserts available in local papers and at the front door of the store when you head inside. These are good ways of checking out the deals and the discounts on produce and other items, and can be a great way to save money.
- Coupons can also be used to get people hooked on stuff. Don't buy two boxes of chocolate peanut butter cups just because it was on sale. Buy food you're already shopping for.
Consider applying for food assistance.If you're struggling to pay for food regularly there may help. Applying for Federal food assistance and getting financial aid for purchasing food is an important step to take, as long as you meet the criteria. Look for a charity food bank near you.
- Commonly called "food stamps" or "EBT," different regions in different countries handle food assistance in different ways, most often with an electronic debit card that includes a certain amount of money per month that can go toward food. Learn more about assistance in your area by clicking .
Find a food vendor close to you where practical.If you need to stock up on food, food vendors are the places to go. There are lots of different styles and specialty stores, and some may be more appropriate for you, given what it is you're looking for. You probably shouldn't go looking for sushi-grade salmon at Walmart, and you probably shouldn't expect to find super-cheap saltines at the Natural Food Co-Op. Learn what different places specialize in and shop for different foods at the right place.
- Chain groceries and box stores like Safeway, Kroger, Sainsbury's, and Woolworth's, Tesco, New World, etc specialize in affordable perishable and nonperishable food. Box stores like Walmart, Meijer, Target, and other chains also have grocery sections that are expansive and usually cheap. These are good places to visit for name-brand goods and find deals.
- Natural groceries and specialty vendors may be the best place to visit for local produce, fresh vegetables, and raw ingredients, but they tend to be more expensive than chain stores. You're paying for quality. Food cooperatives are common in some places, allowing you to buy in to a partial ownership of the store and decide what should be stocked. If required, check out bulk suppliers - these used to be called Cash and Carry. You may need to buy a membership card, but you could save money if you need to buy food in bulk.
- Corner stores, convenience stores, dairies and local shops are good places for prepared food, snacks, and alcohol, but not great places to find fresh vegetables or fruits unless you have no other option.
Look for grocery outlets in your area.Grocery outlets supply overstocked off-brand food that can be purchased for much cheaper than at regular grocery stores. Amelia's and ALDI are common examples of this, offering a somewhat limited variety of fresh and non-perishable foods for much cheaper than at the bigger stores.
- You don't have the same variety, so it's not the place to go looking for super-specific ingredients, but it's a good place to find staples, like cooking oil, sugar, or vinegar. It's also a good place for things like snack crackers, bread, and other off-brand goods.
Look for local farmers’ markets.By far where practical, the best place to find quality produce where you live is to find out about local farmers' markets. Typically held on weekends, farmers' markets combine a festival-like atmosphere with outdoor stalls and extremely fresh produce. Depending on the climate, this might only happen during the harvest season, but some markets go year-round in certain climates. These are excellent places to get fresh fruits, organic vegetables, and local meat raised in a humane way.
- Markets also give you a chance to see and interact with the people who grow, prepare, and sell your food. It's a lot more personal than buying cookies at the corner store.
- Markets are also a good place to find out about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in your area, if applicable. Many booths may offer CSA packages, which allow you to buy into the farm, essentially paying an up-front or a monthly price for a package of fresh vegetables that you can pick up or have delivered.
Buy specialty food items online.Like anything, it's also possible to buy certain specialty ingredients online and have it delivered. This can be an excellent choice if you live somewhere very remote and struggle to find access to certain ingredients or fresh supplies in your area. Everything from organic gummy bears to bulk bags of caraway seeds and jasmine rice can be had for decent prices online.
- Coffee co-ops are very popular online options, letting you buy in and "subscribe" to a coffee club that will deliver high-quality whole beans directly to your door. If you're a coffee-food eater, it's a no-brainer.
- Citrus delivery doesn't have to be reserved for Christmas-time. Since citrus can only grow in limited climates, having high-quality oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes delivered straight to your door is another great option if this happens where you live.
Take bags with you to the store, market or shop.Increasingly, stores are charging for the use of plastic or paper bags, making it much more cost-effective to buy one and take it with you when food shopping. It's also cutting down a lot on waste to get rid of those 20 useless plastic bags that come home with you every time you head to the store. Invest in five or six good quality tote-bags and keep them in your car, or near the front door so you'll remember them when you head to the store.
Go to a restaurant.Sometimes, you just don't feel like cooking. While it's usually more cost-effective to cook meals at home and get more bang for your buck, if you're solo it can be a whole lot easier buy food buy going out for a sandwich than to buy a bunch of ingredients to cook at home. One always-easy way of buying food is to buy it already made at the restaurant.
- Using coupons are good when low on cash.
- Gift cards also work for buying food.
Sources and Citations
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