You rush to the supermarket on the way home from work to grab milk and spaghetti sauce. It’s been a long day, and you’re impatient as you jockey for a parking space, dash through the crowded aisles, then wait in the cashier line. There must be a better way to get a decent meal on the table. Right? Yes, there is, if you plan ahead. Planning gets a bad rap – it’s boring; it takes too much time. But good food habits can quickly become routine, and in the end will pay you back in time saved from avoiding the last minute supermarket dash and in better, more economical meals. Here are Oldways’ Seven Habits of Highly Effective Food Shoppers.
Effective Habit 1: Stock your kitchen with staples
A “staple” is whatever you need to make the kind of food you like to cook. For many people, pasta is a staple, or canned tuna. For others, soy sauce or anchovy paste might be must-have foods. With a well-stocked pantry, you can make many of your favorite dishes any day of the week without stopping again at the market.
Habit 2: Space allowing, back up your staples
This boils down to buying and storing one more of each staple if you have space, keeping you from dashing to the market at the last minute for just a single essential ingredient. It's like having your own private store at your fingertips!
Habit 3: Keep a running grocery list
Tuck a long skinny pad into the front of your silverware drawer, or clip a sheet of paper to the fridge with a magnet, or keep a list in your mobile device / Blackberry / iPhone, and try to add things to your grocery list throughout the week. Be sure to check out your pantry and fridge before you go to the store—you'll likely find last minute omissions, or get ideas of what to buy to pair with other foods on hand.
Habit 4: Plan a week’s worth of meals
Here’s the step most people resist: planning the week’s meals. Write the days of the week on a piece of paper, and jot down your dinner plan for each day. At first it might take you a half hour, but you’ll pare that down to 10 minutes or so once you get in the habit. (Hot tip: there’s nothing wrong with making one plan, then using that same plan every week. Or make two plans and just alternate them, week by week. You’re the cook. If someone else wants more variety, let them volunteer to cook!) Most of the stress of cooking comes from arriving home late, with no clear idea of exactly what ingredients you have that you can use to cook. By creating a dinner plan for the week, you eliminate all that stress. You know what you’re planning to cook, and you know you’ll have all the ingredients on hand. But back to that list. Once you know what you’ll be eating for dinner each day, add any additional dinner ingredients to your existing running grocery list. Think about lunch, and breakfast, and add any routine ingredients for those meals. Now your list is complete and it’s time to go to the store.
Habit 5: Shop intentionally
Armed with your list, you should be able to shop fairly quickly. At the start of each aisle, glance down at your list and note which items you’ll find in that aisle. (Some people even like to circle or highlight each aisle’s items so it’s easier to make sure they get them all.) Try to buy only what’s on your list, and limit impulse items to a minimum. Resisting impulse items is easier if you don't shop with an empty stomach!
Habit 6: Store food thoughtfully
Before you put away your food, clean out anything in the fridge that’s on its last legs. Toss the leftover containers with three bites of moldy green beans, or the jug with an inch of sour milk. Make a pile of tired veggies you can turn into a zesty stir fry or our favorite “Clean The Fridge Chili” tonight. Rearrange what’s left, and only then put away your new purchases. Pantry snack Items such as crackers, cookies, pita chips, and cereal can go stale quickly after opening, increasing the risk of food waste. Try using small size binder clips from the office (much less expensive than "chip clips") to help seal the bag. You can also use gallon-size Ziploc-type bags, and reuse them for similar types of foods. If you have room, freeze your backups of foods that have oil content to avoid rancidity. These include whole wheat and whole grain flours, nuts, and butter. Store olive and other cooking oils in a dark place, and refrigerate cooking vinegars to ensure optimum freshness.
Habit 7: Prep food ahead of time
There’s one more step after you return home and unpack your food, and that’s prepping fruits and veggies, especially greens. Why? To extend their shelf life, and make it easy to grab healthy foods quickly.
- Cut up a large melon or a pineapple, and put it in a Tupperware container.
- Tear the leaves off your head of lettuce, rinse them in cold water, and spin them in a salad spinner. Layer the lettuce leaves in paper towels, and store in a large plastic container or plastic bag. Do the same with chard, kale, collards or any other dark leafy greens or herbs. Instead of rotting in three or four days, they’ll keep one to two weeks stored this way, and you can make a quick crispy salad in minutes.
- Chop up peppers, carrots, and celery and put slices in a small container, so it’s easy to grab a handful.
If you have more money than time, you can buy pre-cut produce, but it’s generally much more expensive than prepping your own. Now, let’s get cooking!