How to Buy Groceries (and Keep it Cheap)!

Writing about how to shop for and cook food is actually a little bit daunting! But I am glad to be able to write out some of my thoughts on cooking, because it is something that I have been practicing for years. And since this is something that everyone has to do, we may as well all get better at it!

HOW TO BUY GROCERIES (and keep it cheap)!

There’s a fair deal of subjectivity to cooking, and it’s really more of an art than a science, so I don’t think that it makes a lot of sense to say “here’s the right way to buy groceries.” However, at the very least I can tell you what has gotten me through several years of University on a tight budget.

There are two common nuggets of wisdom that get applied to grocery shopping, although they have more to do with shopping healthy than with shopping cheap.

I’m gonna say that there’s no reason we can’t do cheap and healthy.

I’m also gonna say that I disagree with the wisdom of both of the following statements.

The first: “Don’t shop on an empty stomach.” The second: “Don’t shop the inside aisles.”

If you avoid the inside aisles you’re going to miss the snacks and lots of important things that should be staples in your cupboards (but it’s better to have food in your cupboards than staples anyway, because man cannot live on staples alone, or something like that)!

If you don’t shop on an empty stomach then you’re not going to impulse-buy snacks or those donuts on the bakery discount rack. 

Though avoiding white powdered donuts might seem like a good idea now, you’re going to regret it when you decide to Netflix later, or when you come home famished after a long night of Pokemon Go-ing. It’s always good to buy donuts.

Now, for the actual shopping. It’s going to sound like common sense, but shop sales. Go through the produce, the bakery, the meat, etc. Get vegetables that are on sale, and skip out on the ones that are expensive, even if some trendy hipster-mom blog told you to only buy some weird organic exotic imported something or other. Listen to this trendy hipster-mom blog post instead; just pretend I’m a hipster-mom. Also, buy things like carrots, potatoes, and onions – but keep the potatoes and onions separate in the huge bags when you store them so they don’t fight (or go bad).

Share produce with your roommates or something. It’s almost always cheaper to do this than to buy a smaller amount by the pound. For fruits, though, you’re going to have to do the math.

Do the same for meat. Don’t spend 20 bucks on chicken breasts just because that’s all you know how to use, when you’ll probably come across the same thing for 5 bucks in a week or two if you’re patient. Again, seems like common sense, but a lot of people just buy the same things all the time without shopping sales, and they wonder why it costs them so much to eat well. Use ground pork instead of beef if it’s cheaper (it tastes better in a lot of things anyway!), buy pork chops instead of chicken breasts, or buy big roasts when they’re on sale, then section them off and freeze them when you get home! (Incidentally, the best cuts of beef for making both stir fries and beef jerky are the big ol’ cheap lean flank steaks. Sometimes you can get huge ones on sale for like 5 bucks. Freeze them, and when you want to use them, wait until they’re half-thawed, then you can cut them very thin across the grain! #beefgrain

If you shop sales, you’re probably going to end up with different combinations meats and veggies every time you shop, and honestly, all that’s going to do is to force you to get better at cooking with them. I remember when my roommate Mark, of blessed memory – may he enjoy his foray into the promised land: St John, NB – made a delicious chicken something or other with radishes, sweet onion, and cinnamon!

Buy extra meat and freeze it in reasonably sized portions.

Then go down the aisles!

Here are some ingredients that I strongly recommend purchasing, especially when on sale, if you want your kitchen stocked with cheap, healthy, and useful things:

  • Canned beans (like, kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, mixed beans, etc.) and canned chick peas! (Also, dried beans and chick peas! They’re even cheaper, but you have to prepare them in advance. Canned chick peas are better for hummus while dried ones are better for falafel, in my opinion.)
  • Dried lentils, any kind!
  • A huuuugeeee cheap bag of (white) rice! Yes, there are tastier kinds that are more expensive, but just go big and cheap; I will tell you how to inundate it with flavour later anyway! Brown rice is great, but it takes longer to cook, and we’re all too impatient for that if we’re being honest.
  • Pastas!
  • Oatmeal! The big bags when they’re on sale, not those little pouches. Those things are robbery and aren’t any easier to make.

You’re gonna need herbs and spices if you don’t already have some. Perhaps forego the spice aisle though, as you can get the whole spices far cheaper in bulk at the Bulk Barn.

Here’s a sampling of some really useful herbs and spices:

  • Cumin, coriander, mustard seed, paprika, cayenne pepper, bay leaves, cardamom, allspice, cloves, oregano, basil, sage, thyme, rosemary. I personally do a lot of cooking with cilantro as well, but it’s pretty frail and is only really flavourful if it’s fresh. (Herbs are also a great thing to grow yourself: they’re super low maintenance. Plant them in the summer to use them fresh; dry them for use later.)

Corn starch, baking powder, and flour are also useful things to be found in centre aisles, as are canned tomatoes (both crushed and diced), and tomato pastes! Coconut milk is important for curries. Fish sauce, teriyaki sauce, and balsamic vinegar can also be very useful! Also keep an eye out for tahini because it’s important for hummus.

The frozen foods aisle is the aisle of shame. The reason I’m writing this is so you aren’t inclined to resort to it anymore. 

I also forgot to include dairy products; do what you want, cause a pirate is free! Hooray!

Buying a huge load of groceries like this might run up a bigger bill than a few days’ worth of pizza pockets, but many of the items will last for a long time, and you’ll be able to make huge batches of food that will work out way cheaper in the end!

Soon I will write about what to actually do with the food (the good stuff!), hopefully before all the produce rots…