My mom is a brilliant woman. She told me when I was in middle school – well before social media was a thing and it was easy to read articles in blogs like this – she told me to shop the outer edge of a grocery store. Of course, I had no idea what that meant at the time since we were doing monthly shopping trips to Food-4-Less and the layout of the store forced us to go around the outside of the store.
But, as it turns out, Mom was right. A Raley’s came into town when i was in high school (Raley’s is a West Coast middle-high end grocery chain). These days I go to the grocery store, and I hit the produce department, the bulk foods section, the dairy section and eggs, the meat, the bakery and the deli. By the time I hit the coffee shop, I’ve got nothing but fresh food I have to check out or else all my perishables will warm up.
“But fresh food is so expensive!” you may say.
“Um… no,” I will respond.
Just going to warn you: I’m living in California. These prices aren’t accurate anywhere else, and they’re going to change as the summer comes and certain foods come into season and others go out of season.
A pound of apples is $1.09. That’s about 4 apples, rough guess. A bunch of spinach – not a package – requires a little washing and costs $0.99. Roma tomatoes – the least expensive ones which are good for stewing and eating – are $0.99 per pound. That’s enough to make salsa, guacamole, and chop up some tomato for tacos. Milk, also, has a price ceiling, so it will never rise above the government-determined price. If you buy smaller ammounts more frequently, and you’ll never run out of fresh things!
My sweetie-pie loves the bulk section. You can get just about any kind of nut or grain for about 2/3 the price of a package. I like keeping walnuts, almonds, oatmeal, and coffee beans in stock. Part of it is because nuts go awesome on salads (spinach, strawberry slices, walnuts, and feta with a home-made strawberry vinnegarette… Now I’m hungry!) and in smoothies (a banana, raspberries, peach slices, a leaf of kale to make it a pukey color, almonds, and orange juice, honey, and unsweetened almond milk… not nearly as gross as it sounds), but the joyous man I’m going to marry likes to pour old French Press coffee from the morning into uncooked oatmeal with maybe a drizzle of honey, if I can talk him into it, when he gets home from work.
Meat is a little bit expensive, I’ll give you that. This week, though, I received ads in the weekly circular that featured tri-tip, ribs, and roasts for under $3.00 per pound! Sales are remarkable things, and keeping an eye out for sales, coupons, and price reductions is how a cost-conscious person such as yourself can get better quality at a happy price! However, purchasing chicken thighs instead of breasts, the cheapest possible cuts of meat for roasts, and catching shrimp when its on sale for under $10.00 per pound go a long way in helping you get the protein you need in a day. Just remember that a serving of meat is only about 4 ounces – that is 1/4 pound and about the size of a deck of cards. It doesn’t take much meat to get what you need.
After my first solo shopping trip, I realized that fresh food really isn’t enough. Sure, I can stew my own tomatoes for true Italian-style spaghetti sauce (I am well on my way to becoming a big fat Italian woman and proud of it!) but with two jobs and my own business, I really don’t have the time to do that. Cans of stewed or fire-roasted tomatoes make awesome sauces and cut the time considerably, even if it does increase your sodium intake to ridiculous levels. I’m not going to cook, cool, and shuck a piece of tuna so that I can make a tuna melt when I can buy a can of it for a dollar. The trick is to only go down the isles you need and not the ones that tempt you. Go down the baking isle, for it has the spices that make cooking delicious, and go down the canned food isles for the canned chicken noodle soup is good in a pinch. Even go down the ethnic food isle, for Sriracha is delicious! Just stay away from the snack and soda isles. It may seem like it’s only $3.50, but that’s only about three snacks worth before it’s gone.
Just remember when you’re in the “danger zone” that most things that say they are health foods really aren’t. Sugar Free isn’t really free of sugar because our bodies get confused by the sweet taste and cause us to crave more sweets. Lean Cuisines are tiny, salt-laden pieces of cardboard dotted with steamed broccoli that masquerades as food. Sure, you can eat a whole meal for 250 calories, but if you have to eat two of them to feel satisfied, you may as well have made that gross-looking smoothie I mentioned above and fried up two eggs to the hardness you prefer. It would have still been about 500 calories, but it would have tasted better, had more protein, less salt, and lots of micro-nutrients (an don’t forget the mother load of vitamin C!). You probably wouldn’t even be hungry again until lunch!
But, where can you get all this fine food for such amazing prices? Well, that really depends on where you live. Meijer is a store that just started popping up over here, but it’s been a big deal in the Midwest for most of my memory. Raley’s and Safeway are awesome stores around here with wonderful deals through their free club cards. They tend to be expensive, but the quality of their produce is unbeatable! Sprouts is a neat place because it’s like a store bought out a farmer’s market. You really can’t get lower prices on good quality produce like you can at Sprouts unless you go to a farmer’s market. For a store that’s got a little lower quality of produce, but a bit more of a bulk-type warehouse setting without being a full on Costco, there are FoodMaxx, Smart & Final, Food Source. Target has a surprisingly good baking isle, even if it’s lacking in variety. Many dollar stores also carry food, but that’s more of a “Let the Buyer Beware” situation.
And Coupons! Coupons, coupons, coupons! I don’t get the stigma behind coupon clipping, because coupons can help you save money on items you’re already going to buy. You can find coupons online at specific store and brand websites, at coupons.com, and through those annoying ads that come in the mail. It’s a little extra effort, but not as much effort as stewing your own tomatoes to make true Italian spaghetti sauce!
But the real trick is to buy what you need and only what you need. Go in after you’ve eaten a meal with a list and stick to the list. Then, pick your store. It isn’t a bad idea to go to different stores to find what you need, but ideally you’ll only go to one place to save gas and time. Also, pick the place that has the right level of bulk for your family needs. Right now I purchase food for myself and sometimes my Fiance, so Costco isn’t a good idea for me because 1) we won’t eat it, and 2) I don’t have a place to store it. My best friend, though, goes to Costco because her family tends to split bulk items and share them. Different strokes for different folks, but sometimes more is just more.
So, that’s it – my Super Secret Guide to Buying Food. Post some of the cheapest prices you’ve seen for food you love in the comments so that I can find it if I ever get stranded there, and Happy Hunting!