questions answered, part five (grocery routines)

Continuing the question / answer series, Kristan asked me to talk about my grocery routine.

Some of you have been reading here for awhile, and might remember that I used to post my weekly menus on the blog. I’d include links to recipes occasionally, and include the photos I’d take and post on IG of the food. I got out of the habit after awhile – the process of creating them wasn’t all that exciting to me, and I found it hard to justify the time it took to do them. But they are fun to go back and look at occasionally – if only to remind me of what we were eating at any given time. Sometimes I forget about meals that were just so good they deserve another visit.

The sketches were cute though:

I was looking back at these posts to see if I had talked about grocery shopping before, and I had in little pieces. But my grocery routines have really changed over the years. I’ll try to keep this concise, but hit the high points.

In our early marriage years we didn’t cook a whole lot – we had a few basic things we made, but most things came out of a box or a jar.

Trader Joe’s opened, and we could still buy things in a box or a jar, but there were a lot more vegetarian choices, and choices in general. And the store was kind of fun and different from the typical grocery store. But after Ella had a serious allergic reaction to tree nuts at age four, we stopped shopping there for most things because they use vague CYA labeling on all their processed food. And almost everything there is processed.

2007-2009 Post-food allergy world – we stopped eating so much processed food and started being more careful about labels. Which meant cooking more at home, but it also affected our grocery routines. I was doing the bulk of our shopping at my favorite Schnuck’s branch (my first one!), but also picking up a couple of things that TJ’s carried, and now also shopping for a few items that only Whole Foods carried. It was ridiculous. It took forever to go to all those places, and I really dreaded it.

2009 – Foodie F was born, and we made all of her food, no commercial baby food. The more we cooked and baked our own food, the more enjoyable the process was. And the better we got at it. But the grocery situation still sucked, so I feel like I’ve been working since then – eight years! – to streamline it.

Here’s a general list of what I do and don’t do:

1. Menu planning is a must. I try to do it on Saturdays, while eating a late breakfast after yoga so I’m more relaxed, and also have the table and the kitchen to myself. This doesn’t always happen, but it does happen at some point over the weekend. Doing it on the sidelines of a soccer game can be an efficient use of time, but I aim to do it at home where I can access recipes, check for ingredients, and build a menu off of leftover items in the fridge and pantry.

2. I make a list from that menu. I include specific amounts, I write notes about what I don’t need, and it’s arranged in the order of my path through the store.

3. I never (like 99% of the time, I swear) impulse buy. I ONLY buy what is on my list, and those items all have a place in a meal sometime over the next seven days. The exception is fruit. I write specific fruits for recipes, but I circle the general category because we eat fruit as snacks and dessert, so we can always eat what we buy, and I buy what looks appetizing and take advantage of occasional sales – like my favorite $1 containers of blackberries that happen occasionally.

4. I don’t look at prices. I never use coupons. This sounds like I have an unlimited budget for food, but this is what I’ve found over my twenty+ years of grocery shopping as an adult. Shopping for deals and using coupons vs. only buying what we need for a given week NEVER SAVES US MONEY. I don’t have the time to produce fancy graphs to support this, but I still believe it. When we buy only what we need, we don’t waste it, and we’re eating much healthier.

5. Which sort of leads into bulk shopping – I don’t do it. I could maybe save money if I took a few of our regular staples and bought them in bulk somewhere. Let’s say… M’s granola that he eats everyday, or the olive oil we go through by the gallon. But I don’t have time to shop that way, and I don’t have the room to store it. A good week is a week where the fridge is empty by Saturday. That means we’re all alive, we ate well, and it’s time to think about the week ahead.

6. Summer/Fall grocery runs – I make a quick survey at the Farmer’s Market for things that look particularly delicious. I use it for inspiration for my menu planning later that morning. I don’t overbuy there, except for flowers! I still do the bulk of my grocery shopping at Schnuck’s – the big one in Richmond Heights. I like that store, and it has 95% of the things that I need. I like to go by myself. I’m the person racing through at breakneck speed. I don’t pause to contemplate choices – I’ve done that at the list level. I’m just a machine because I really want out of there. Sometimes we go after church on Sundays, and M and the girls sit in the car while I zoom through. I like the new smaller carts there, with all the bag hooks. I try and fit all the groceries in those carts – these are the weird little games that I play with myself. If I need a few specialty items at Whole Foods, we’ll swing by there. If we don’t, there’s now one a few blocks from my office, so I sometimes go at lunch on Monday or Tuesday.

7. Speaking of bags, we bought these collapsible coolers and they are amazing for grocery runs. All the cold stuff fits in it – including milk jugs, and I get comments on it every time I go. It’s a little thing, but it makes me happy. And it stores flat in the trunk. We carry in groceries from the street, so I’d much rather carry in three or four super heavy things than make a half dozen trips back and forth.

8. I love to use Blue Apron – I’m still not tired of their vegetarian meals. It’s so nice to have three meals of seven already decided and shopped for. I haven’t tried grocery delivery services yet. I’m not opposed to them, but I have this system down pretty well, and I have the freedom to go shopping on my own, or even if I have the girls with me, they aren’t toddlers that need to be corralled and entertained while shopping. And since we do eat so much fruit, I really like to pick that on my own. At least at this point in my life, it’s easier to just run to the store than to set aside a chunk of time to be home to receive the food.

I feel like this isn’t that interesting, but it’s what works for us. If we had a larger family, it would probably look a lot different. We make 6-7 dinners at home during a typical week. I only eat leftovers for lunch, typically over dressed greens. F only requires lunch on Fridays. E’s self-sufficient, and can pull together lunches with what’s on hand. We’re pretty simple for breakfast too. We don’t snack a lot, we’re a three squares a day sort of family. When I bake food or sweets, it’s to share with others. For now, that feels healthy and sustainable, and it simplifies a lot of things – including the dreaded weekly grocery run.

Slight tangent: I’ve never been really comfortable about the practice of prayer. But I believe in the power of expressing gratitude in that form as a regular practice. So I do that in several ways, each day. I treat my runs as a time of prayer – working things out in my head, and expressing gratitude for a body that can move forward. I whisper one for safety each morning as I watch M walk to his truck for the day. I give thanks for my girls in the garden – even when they aren’t there with me, I still see them there, and probably always will. And when we unload the car and put away the food for the coming week, I say thank you for the gift that it is. It’s a little thing, but it makes the chore a little better. How lucky we are that we have access to such a wealth of healthy and delicious choices. And when I use some of that food to cook for others, it’s an extension of that gratitude to the larger world. 

But even with all that, I’d still rank grocery shopping near the bottom of the chores lists. I really dislike it, and it hangs over my head all weekend until one of us knocks it out. You just can’t put it off. Eventually everybody’s gotta eat.

3 Responses to questions answered, part five (grocery routines)

  1. My Mom, who was a writer and not a cook, managed to feed our family of five with amazing regularity. It makes me weep that she cooked so much for us — eating out was for Sundays only after my grandmother moved to our village, but this was later in my childhood (my brothers were 7 and 10 years older). Her one nod to convenience, however, was a grocery story that delivered every Friday. She had a list, she stuck to it and Hank delivered at 4 pm. No impulse buys (unless the list-recorder observed that there was something that looked quite nice that week, so it might be added to the list). I see what Mariano’s offers in the ready-to-go department and I think, Mom would have been over the moon.

    • That’s an amazing story. I could get into that kind of grocery delivery. The Amazon model is not the same, and makes my stomach turn a bit.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Your meal plans have that gorgeous architect-y handwriting. Very nice! Richmond was also my first “grown up” Schnucks when we lived in the CWE and Lafayette Square. You and I are grocery shopping opposites. I shop everywhere, all the time, always with coupons and stocking up on stuff on sale. I have a deep chest freezer full of stuff, a spare fridge and a shelving unit in the basement. I shop Schnucks, Ruler, Aldi, Vincent’s, Sams, Jay’s, Target and the farmers market. I have three cooking goals: 1. “eat down” more frequently and really use what I have on hand before I shop again, 2. bake more and 3. do more “mini cooking” so there’s interesting stuff in the fridge for snacks and lunches.

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