How to stretch your groceries and make fewer trips to the store

Hate grocery shopping? Make the most of your grocery store trips and cut your shopping to once or twice per month with these food-saving and meal-planning tips.

If you are not new to my blog, you’ll notice this post is a bit different. I usually write strictly about science. But my obsession with food science has morphed out of the lab and into the kitchen.

If you are new to my blog, welcome. I’m a food-obsessed ex-scientist mixing my penchant for science writing with a hearty helping of opinion, which today centers on a deep hatred for grocery shopping.

Let’s face it, grocery shopping sucks. It takes forever, you have to navigate a bulky cart around narrow, poorly-organized, crowded aisles. The stuff you really need is purposely placed at the back of the store, so you have to walk through a tundra of frozen dinners. And if you’re like most people, you probably feel like you have to do it multiple times per week.

I’m here to tell you that you do not have to grocery shop even once per week. You can eat many, many meals at home and feed hefty appetites healthy food, all while only visiting the store once or twice per month. Here’s how…

Don’t use store pick-up

I know, I know, you might be thinking – If I hate grocery shopping, I can just shop online. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Grocery pick-up seems like a great idea…until you end up with 5 pounds of bananas instead of 5 bananas. Also, they’re allegedly out of bell peppers. Would you like to substitute a habanero? Probably not.

And that 17 year-old doing your shopping? He’s never cooked a meal for himself, so he has no idea how to pick a tomato that will last until you make a salad next week versus one that’s going to turn into ketchup in your crisper drawer.

Want something weird like Velveeta? Forget about it. It’s never in the cheese section, which means your minimum wage helper is going to give up before they find the random end cap where it actually lives. But, you promised to bring queso to the potluck, so now you have to stop anyway.

You may think pick-up is the holy grail of groceries, until you realize you’re spending just as long online as you would in the store, and you’re having to make more trips, because food is spoiling and you’re not getting what you actually need.

Plan complimentary meals

A little planning before you head to the store can save you a lot of time making repeat trips.

You’ve probably got a list of go-to meals you make regularly, right? Pick a starter meal that sounds good and make note of which of the ingredients you won’t use in full. Then, plan additional meals around those ingredients.

First meal calls for tomato paste? Pick two other meals with tomato paste. Chances are there will be other shared ingredients between the three like onions or hamburger.

If you’re new to cooking and don’t have go-to meals, use pinterest or google. Find one new recipe you’d like to try, then search “recipes with tomato paste” or “meals using shredded chicken”.

Continue the process for 6-10 complimentary meals. That way, you have a plan for every ingredient.

Leverage canned, frozen, and dried produce

We should all probably eat more fruits and vegetables, but that’s tough if you can’t or don’t want to visit a grocery store regularly. If you’re lucky, there might be a CSA (community supported agriculture) program in your area that will deliver produce at desired intervals. Otherwise, you’re stuck skipping fruits and veggies or picking them up weekly, right?

Wrong. While fresh produce lasts days or weeks, canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables can last MONTHS. By mixing produce with a shelf-life into your meal routine, you can eat more healthy foods and stretch your budget without additional trips to the store.

Produce from the pantry or freezer aisles has a bad rep, but not for good reasons. There’s a ton of evidence that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh produce. Just make sure to pick versions without salt or sugar added.

Less-perishable produce can also be equally delicious if you use short cook times at high temps. This works especially well for veggies mixed into more complex dishes like soups with dehydrated peas, pasta with canned asparagus, and burritos with frozen corn.

Pick produce that lasts longer

When it comes to the shelf-life of fresh produce, not all fruits, vegetables, and greens are created equal. Some items may already be rotting on the shelves, while others can last several weeks.

This is another reason not to let someone else do your grocery shopping for you. Your “personal shopper” is unlikely to realize that you really need one cluster of green bananas and one cluster of ripe bananas, so you can have some this week and some next.  

Imagine you have a recipe that calls for onions. You go to the section with the sweet red onions and notice they’re all a bit spotty. This might not be a big deal now, but in a week, those small spots can turn into big problems. Pick a white or yellow one instead. If there’s no luck there, you can always fall back on frozen onions.

Certain categories of produce also last better than others. For instance, roma tomatoes are bred to withstand mechanical harvesting, so they’ll also be hardier in your fridge. Get some nice juicy hot houses for your first few meals and save the romas for week two. For salads, kale and cabbage are tougher than lettuce. If you’re picking fruit, apples outlast berries two to one.

At the end of the day, if the produce you pick still isn’t lasting, cook it. Mushy produce makes for poor salads, but it can work great in stir fry and casseroles.

Store food strategically

There are a million and one blog posts out there about storing food so it lasts longer, so I won’t belabor the point, but here are a few go-to techniques that I guarantee will keep you out of the grocery store longer.

Store bread in the fridge

This includes sliced bread, buns, roles, tortillas, etc. It will last 2-3 times longer and you can simply throw it in the toaster for a few seconds before eating, so it’s nice and warm.

Portion out snacks

Cut cheese into cubes, portion baby carrots into baggies, divide berries and grape tomatoes into small Tupperware. That way, a small mold breakout doesn’t become a larger one. Additionally, you’ll be more likely to eat these snacks if they’re pre-portioned as opposed to reaching for chips and cookies.

Divide and freeze meat

Buy meat in bulk, and then freeze what you won’t use in the first week in ziplocks or food saver bags. For best results, remove all air from the bag and transfer a small amount from the fridge to the freezer at a time.

Use lime/lemon juice to stop browning

If you place a paper towel dampened with lime or lemon juice against the open face of a halved avocado, and then wrap tightly in aluminum foil or cling wrap, the avocado will barely brown in a week. Just imagine how well this works for other produce less prone to fast browning.

Get creative

When all else fails, grocery store avoidance can be an act of willpower. If you refuse to go and force yourself to think up meals out of what you have on hand, you may be surprised how far your pantry can go. The photo at the top of this post is my fridge before my last trip to the store. We could have made it a few more days, but it happened to be a lazy Saturday. I often joke that I don’t go until there is nothing left but pickles and beer.

Here are a few trips to drum up meals when you don’t have much to work with:

  • Throw random straggler veggies into a food processor to add healthy, flavorful bulk to soups or Mexican food.
  • Sandwich slices and buns make great garlic bread or croutons.
  • Leftover meatloaf or chicken breasts can be chopped and added to rice dishes or pasta. There are even several tools online to help you find recipes for random ingredients (just search “find a recipe from ingredients”).

A note on meal kit deliveries

The bottom line is, food has way more potential than we give it credit for. And so do you! You may have noticed I didn’t mention meal kit delivery services like hello fresh. These are great for some people, but they’re not very affordable, and the waste involved in their packaging makes many cringe. Give them a try if you’re not one of those people, maybe you’ll learn some new recipes, but they’re not for everyone, and they’re far from the only way to cook great meals without being tied to the grocery store

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