I hate the grocery store. My dear friend Kristen thinks I hate the grocery store because I have so many run-ins with weirdos at the Fred Meyer (cheap basic grocery store) in my neighborhood where I usually shop. She insists I would have a better experience if I were to shop at the New Seasons (organic, fancy grocery store) nearest me, and she just gave me a New Seasons gift certificate to thank me for something I had been willing to do for her, but didn’t actually end up doing because ultimately she didn’t need me to do it. How how is that for an amazing friend? I love that woman. It will definitely come in handy, and I’m looking forward to spending it. But while I will probably reduce the weirdo factor at New Seasons, I can pretty much guarantee I will still hate the process of grocery shopping, because I have ALWAYS hated grocery shopping.
Why do I hate it? I have a theory. When I was really little I used to carry around a washcloth with a cartoon lion and tiger on it like a security blanket – kind of like Linus in the Peanuts comics. I lost that washcloth while grocery shopping with my mom at The Prairie Market in Salem, Oregon – and I think I’ve subconsciously resented the grocery store ever since.
One of the main reasons I’ve hated it in recent years is because Ron and I have typically gone to the store when we were a) hungry, and b) without any kind of a list or plan of what to buy. Sometimes we’ve each gone to the store in the same day, separately, and came home with doubles of things that we’ve been unable to eat before they’ve gone bad, like milk, bananas, and bags of salad greens. Because our shopping is so off the cuff, we frequently will be at the store, decide what we’re having for dinner, and then buy every single ingredient we could possibly need to make it since we don’t know what we already have at home. As a result, our cupboards and freezer get crammed with multiple cans of soups and sauces, bottles of condiments, packages of seasonings, frozen vegetables, and about a billion boxes and bags of half used snacks and baking supplies.
It’s not like I didn’t grow up with a good example around meal planning and grocery lists – I DID. My Mom would sit down every Friday or Saturday with her little sprial notebook, write down the days of the week, and then start filling in menu options next to each day. She often would ask for our input, and then probably regretted it as she dealt with our anguished cries and dramatic tears if we saw she had planned something we didn’t like that week (meatloaf, hamburgers, pork chops, any kind of fish). Once the menu was planned, she’d check her cupboards for supplies, make a detailed shopping list, and drag us to the store with her. She even used coupons. As the stay at home mom of a single income family with a husband who didn’t cook, she was a master of planning and preparing all meals for our family, within a budget, and on a schedule every night. It was impressive. She still does it to this day, and I’m sure it’s a relief not to have to include two picky kids in the process anymore.
But I have never done that – I just never developed the habit. When I was single I usually got takeout or made pasta at 11pm after I finally got home from work and rehearsal. When Ron and I got married, things changed some because he is such a good cook, but we would frequently come home after a long day and look at each other warily, wondering who was going to be the sacrificial lamb to figure out dinner since there was no plan and both of us would rather kill and eat the other person than get back in the car and go to the store.
Recently though, as I have been trying to figure out how to save money wherever possible, I got to thinking about my mom and her meal planning, and it occurred to me that she probably did such a detailed meal plan because it ensured she didn’t end up buying stuff she didn’t need and couldn’t afford. She knew exactly what she was cooking ever week, and stocked her cupboards accordingly. As I looked despairingly at my own overflowing cupboards and refrigerator/freezer, I decided it couldn’t hurt to give Mom’s way a try.
For a few weeks now, Ron and I have been making a meal plan for the week every Sunday. We start by looking in the freezer and cupboards for recipes we can make with the food we already have on hand, and we mostly just make a shopping list that includes fresh produce and random items to fill out specific dishes. I’ve started clipping coupons from the flyers that come to our house instead of automatically tossing them. And I try to make sure 80% of what I put in my basket is on sale.
I admit it sounds dreary and penny pinching. It leaves no real room for spontaneity or cravings (not that we can afford to indulge our cravings right now, but still). But I have to say, both Ron and I love it. We love knowing what we’re having for dinner every night, long before we’re both tired and grouchy with hunger. We don’t find ourselves tediously trying to defrost a frozen hunk of meat in the microwave so we can start cooking it. We don’t have to run to the mobbed store at 5:30 for ingredients along with all the other tired and grouchy people. Our cupboards and freezer are no longer so stuffed with items that they’re hard to close. And I’ve even been able to keep the refrigerator cleaner because I can easily see all the shelves and wipe them down on a regular basis – by the end of the week, our fridge is almost completely empty and ready for the next shopping trip.
But perhaps my favorite benefit is that we are no longer wasting tons of food like we used to. We not only plan meals that use up the new ingredients we buy, but we strategically think of ways to use leftover ingredients in what we cook later in the week. I always felt bad throwing so much uneaten food away, not only because we had wasted our own resources, but because I couldn’t help but think of the people in my own community who were probably going to bed hungry that night, while we casually tossed out food we had overbought. Now, we are using exactly the amount we have, no more, no less. It is, in every sense, lagom.
Today I told Ron that even after we’re out of debt and can breathe a little financially, I wouldn’t mind keeping to this system of meal planning and shopping lists, and he readily agreed. It makes a ton of sense. I will probably buy nicer food than I can afford right now (Fancy cheeses! Fancy olives! Fancy bread from Little T’s American Baker! At fancy stores like New Seasons!), but we’ll really get our money’s worth out of it, since we won’t be throwing anything away uneaten. And I might, just might, start to like grocery shopping for the first time in my life.