To Market, To Market

Cooking and preparing my own meals is a huge part of my life. It’s economical, it’s healthy, it’s political, it’s empowering! But the fact is, you can’t cook without a well-stocked kitchen.

While grocery shopping and meal planning may seem overwhelming, I’ve finally come to understand the meaning of the word “staples.” Most recipes and dishes contain the same basic ingredients. I’m to the point now where, yes, I plan meals for the week, and I keep track of the few special ingredients I may need on my Blackberry, but 99 percent of the time, I can head to the grocery store without a list. And almost all the meals and recipes I post on my blog use these basics.

I absolutely love grocery shopping; I love to wander the aisles, taking my time, reading labels…I always walk out renewed and stress-free. It’s my church.

So here is my list! I noted brand names for when I am particularly loyal to a certain brand; otherwise, I buy what’s on sale or experiment with new brands. Also this is my list whether I’m cooking for one or for four; the only major difference when I’m cooking for one is that I buy less of everything — particularly less meat. Meat is pricey, and it takes a single girl much longer to eat a pound of it.

Weekly Items

  • Fresh vegetables: romaine lettuce, cucumbers, baby carrots, broccoli, celery, green peppers, red/yellow/orange peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, lemons, limes. I’m also obsessed with fresh green beans so I tend to stock up on them! These are all the cheap raw veggies that I just always need handy for salads, wraps, bowls, or for a crunchy lunch side. They tend to change with the seasons.
  • Fresh fruits: apples, bananas, peaches. Again, these are usually not too expensive, so I can buy a lot — I generally eat one of each every day!
  • Canned goods: no-salt-added canned diced tomatoes are indispensable!! Ahhh! I usually buy two or three cans a week; they can turn almost anything into a legit meal. Also in this aisle: canned pumpkin, a few cans of low-sodium black beans and chickpeas, and a can of light tuna. I love canned stuff because it’s not expensive and it keeps for a while.
  • Dairy: quart of of whole milk or cream for coffee, a 16-ounce container of 2 percent Greek yogurt, and one type of good cheese. The yogurt is a great snack and can be used in dips, sauces, and as a sour cream substitute. And whichever cheese I go with, I’ll try to plan meals that are in that flavor family that week.
  • Organic grain-fed omega-pimped eggs. I eat a lot of eggs so I want the best. And even the best are cheap compared to other proteins.
  • Bread: I love Pepperidge Farm Dark German bread, Nature’s Path whole wheat, and Brownberry whole wheat. I really only buy one loaf per week though.
  • Protein: organic chicken thighs (cheapest), grass-fed lean ground beef, grass-fed steak, nitrate-free bacon, lean pork chops.
  • Fresh herbs: parsley, cilantro, basil. Herbs aren’t expensive, but they often get wasted because the bunches are rather big. I usually just choose one per week.
  • Salsa.

Bi-Monthly

  • Garlic, red skin potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, eggplant, red and white onions (these keep long enough to buy every couple weeks).
  • A head of cauliflower, jicama, mushrooms, bagged fresh spinach, kale, green onions, avocado (I like these items, but I can go without them for longer).
  • Grains: brown rice, couscous, Ronzoni Smart Taste pasta (again, these last a while, so I just want to refill anything that’s getting low).
  • An additional variety of fruit, based on what looks good, sounds good, or is just on sale.
  • Dried fruit (mostly more in winter months when I’m eating more oatmeal).
  • Protein: frozen salmon patties.
  • Butter. I usually alternate between Kerry Gold and whatever organic, unsalted pasture-fed brand I can find at my local store.

Once-a-Month (or Less) Items

  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • A few cans of coconut milk
  • Old-fashioned oats
  • Balsamic vinegar and apple cider vinegar
  • All-natural BBQ sauce
  • Honey
  • A bottle of Newman’s Own Lighten Up! Dressing
  • Bulk almonds or other nuts
  • Spicy brown mustard
  • Two bags of frozen fruit; I mix up the varieties, depending on how the fresh fruit looks, but I like frozen peaches, cherries, bluebs, and strawbs for smoothies.
  • Frozen broccoli
  • Jarred pasta sauce (usually Newman’s Own)
  • Light firm tofu
  • No sodium chicken and veggie broth
  • Pre-ground spices: cinnamon, garlic, nutmeg, thyme, cumin, curry powder, basil, rosemary, lemon pepper, sea salt. If you don’t have a lot of spices yet, buy them a few at a time. The good thing is they keep for a year!
  • Almond butter or another nut butter variation
  • Frozen shrimp
  • Cocoa powder
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Coffee and tea

So-You-Worked-Some Overtime Items

  • A second type of nut butter and more nuts
  • More fresh fruit
  • More exotic/recipe-specific veggies
  • Frozen shelled edamame
  • Fresh fish
  • A block of really good cheese
  • A bag of Food Should Taste Good tortilla chips
  • Sabra hummus

After a few years of experimenting, this is what I stick with to be as healthy and budget-conscious as possible. I’ve learned that I waste bread if I buy too many varieties of it. From the dairy to the deli, I really only buy enough to use. I can count how many days are in a week. If I’m buying tofu, then I’m not buying beef. I know how many lunches I can get out of a pound of chicken breasts. That extra-few-minutes thought process has really helped me save money. I’ve also learned that it’s cheaper to make snacks out of whole foods (like fruits, cottage cheese, and nuts) than it is to buy the packaged stuff for convenience. I’ve stopped relying so much on frozen meals, but it’s good to have on hand, and when I’m broke, my frozen-to-fresh ratio for fruits and veggies definitely shifts heavily to the cold stuff. I also don’t buy ice cream or frozen bars; I think it’s overpriced and I prefer treats made from scratch and just plain fruit. Obviously this reflects my personal tastes to a degree, but you know how I eat — now you can see how I shop. When you have a well-stocked kitchen, cookbooks and recipes will be way less intimidating. It’s truly amazing how healthy your diet can be (and how much money you can save) by just sticking with the staples.

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