We’ve made it folks! We have our list and money saving-strategies in place, we know what traps to avoid before we even walk in the door (watch out for those sample ladies!) and now we’re ready to get to the real “meat” of the grocery store: the departments. I’m going to break down the store department by department to help you navigate how to get the best deals and the best quality products.
You ready? You know you are.
As mentioned in Part I, as per most grocery store layouts, the first area you’ll walk into will be the Produce Department. Don’t let the alluring sights of shiny apples and ripe produce bowl you over, though. It’s a sad fact, but Americans waste as much as 20% of what they buy in this department. (That’s right, one out of five items you purchased will probably get thrown or go bad away before it is consumed)
Why is that?
A couple of reasons, actually. First and foremost, remember that this department is placed at the front of the store for a reason. It’s meant to draw you in, get your senses working, and get you spending. In fact, the fixtures that light this department have been selected with the intent purpose of making the food look more visually appealing.
Your kitchen counter fruit bowl just can’t compete with special effects, unfortunately.
Another reason that we waste so much produce is because many consumers aren’t sure how to select the freshest products, and many times we select something that toes the line of overripe, or, for fear of something going bad, we buy something not even close to ready, and then it sits forgotten in the back of the fridge until it spoils. Sad story both ways.
How do we avoid this?
Use this handy guide:
Look at it– Produce should be rich and deep in color. A banana should be fully yellow in color without any browning (unless you’re making baked good with it.) A tomato should be a nice deep red. Look for dark greens for leafy veggies, and dark purple, almost black for eggplant. Anything that looks too light in color (except for white veggies, like cauliflower, haha!) is probably not ready yet.
(Sorry, that cauliflower joke was super lame.)
Feel it – You want your produce to be firm and heavy, but don’t buy the biggest products you can find. This could mean either genetic engineering at play, or, that it’s super fibrous and watery. Yuck. For fruits like peaches, avocados, tomatoes, etc, you want the skin of the fruit to be firm, with just the slightest give. If the fruit feels rock hard it is not yet ripe. Too soft and it’s probably overripe. Avoid bruises and holes for food safety’s sake, but if the fruit is very ripe and otherwise hasn’t been punctured, it will work lovely for baked goods and purees (like applesauce.)
Juice content is important for produce such as melons and tomatoes. In general, the heavier the better (but do read my caveat on that above.)
When selecting veggies, you want them to be as firm as possible. Root veg can be misshapen but otherwise unbruised. Leafy green should be fresh-looking and have a nice crisp, snap. If it looks wilted, leave it.
Smell it – That’s right, smell your fruit! You want a light, sweet scent. If it smells too strong, or even sour, it’s no longer good. You’ll get your best results by picking up the product and smelling at the blossom, or stem, end. So pick it up and smell it!
So there you have it! Optimal fruit and vegetable selection using the senses.
A couple last pointers in terms of saving money in this department are as follows:
· For the most part, buy what your family will eat. You know your family best. If you aren’t going to go through a bag of apples in a week, only select a few.
· Avoid precut fruit salads and platters (except when you’re willing to pay more for convenience.) The markup on these products is high, and they generally don’t stay fresh very long.
· Shop frozen when you can. Sometimes these products are actually “fresher” (frozen at peak freshness) than the stuff you buy ready to eat. In addition to quality and savings, frozen produce can also be extremely convenient, as most products are precut and ready to thaw and use.
Befriend your bakery department staff. Ask them questions. They have (or should have) been trained to help you, and can also tell you what’s freshest.
You can sometimes buy fresh yeast for making bread at home, for very cheap, but also ask if they have any frozen parbaked loaves that you can buy. You stick the loaf in the oven at home for the requisite time and temperature, and presto! Freshly baked bread at home! An awesome hosting hack.
A lot of bakery departments also have a bread slicing machine, so don’t be afraid to have them slice that (baked) loaf of Italian bread for you.
Again, ask questions! Ask for a sample of something you’d like to try! Ask about ingredients. All prepared food departments and in-store kitchens absolutely should have a master ingredients list for all of the products they are selling. If they don’t you need to stop shopping there.
It is important to keep in mind how much you’re ordering, as these products have a short shelf-life, usually between 3-7 days.
For deli salads, like chicken or pasta, a good rule of thumb is ¼ lb per person per serving. For proteins like chicken or steak, ¼ -1/2 lb should do the trick.
To avoid waste, when purchasing sliced meats and cheeses, figure out how many sandwiches you will be making that week, and then how many slices of each product you will be using per sandwich.
Multiply the amount of slices per sandwich to figure out how much you need to order. (Ex: 2 slices of cheese per sandwich, times eight sandwiches = 16 slices.)
Another way to factor this out is to figure two ounces of cheese and four ounces of meat per sandwich.
Two ounces = 1/8 lb, four ounces = ¼ lb, so 8 sandwiches would require 1lb of cheese and 2lbs of lunch meat, approximately.
I put these two together because oftentimes they are the same department. Even if your store separates them, like at Whole Foods, the same tips and tricks can be applied to either department.
Just like at the bakery and deli, you do yourself no favors by not taking advantage of the knowledge of the staff. Another perk of befriending your meat or seafood personnel is that they are probably able to do special cuts (like a butterfly, for stuffing) or tie up a roast for you for no extra charge.
A good rule of thumb for saving money is to buy in bulk, or frozen, especially when it comes to seafood. Chances are good that, depending upon where you live in the country, your fish might have been previously frozen and thawed. Skip that step and just purchase it frozen, so you can thaw out when you’re ready to use it. It’s oftentimes much cheaper.
Another tip is to ALWAYS ask where you seafood came from. Be wary of advertising that vaguely indicates a sea. More often than not, that “Atlantic” salmon was farm raised. Always support and buy from wild and sustainable fisheries when possible.
Buy meats in bulk when the price is right, portion them out into 2-4 piece portions and freeze them in a freezer safe bag labeled and dated. That way you can take advantage of big savings, but not get stuck cooking a 10 pack of chicken breast for your family of four.
When shopping the specialty cheeses, ask the staff for help. In general, items displayed on the centerpiece showcase are on special. Buy block cheeses to shred and slice for the best value and freshness.
Another practical tip is to check the “Sell By” date (see Part II for more info.) This is the date by which the item needs to be sold, so older product might be in front on the shelf. In many cases, this isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to be mindful of when selecting milk or yogurt.
Also, from a health-perspective, stay away from Low Fat or Low Sugar yogurts. What Low Fat lacks in fat it makes up for in sugar. Low Sugar products are chock full of sugar substitutes which are just as bad, if not worse, than the real thing.
Another fun tip is to buy plain yogurt to substitute for sour cream or mayonnaise. Often lower in fat and higher in protein, naturally, but with that same tangy flavor, plain yogurt makes a great swap in dressings and dips, as well as a topper for tacos.
Oh the frozen department. So much potential to save andwaste money, depending on what you buy. Many nutritionists agree that frozen produce is oftentimes just as good, if not better, than fresh.
Frozen is generally much cheaper than fresh, especially if you shop organic.
They are also such a time saver, too. There are so many varieties of prepared frozen fruits and veggies, it’s incredibly convenient to stock up and use as needed. Hide frozen spinach in pasta sauce and meatballs. Skip the fresh kale in lieu of frozen for green smoothies, buy frozen fruit for your smoothies! But skip the “smoothie” blend packs. Huge money waste.
Speaking of which, while there is certainly potential to save in the frozen food section, there is an equal opportunity to waste. From ready to heat dinners to meatballs, individual ice creams, and more, just about anything you can dream up can be found in the frozen section, and often accompanied by a steep price tag.
What’s the takeaway here? Take advantage of fresh frozen produce, meats, and seafood. Just be mindful when browsing the convenience frozen options. They are oftentimes overpriced and chock full of sodium and preservatives. And ice cream is good for you (sometimes.)
Canned and Dry Goods (AKA: the Aisles)
Like the frozen section, there is many a deal to be had in these aisles, if you know how to shop. Pick up dry pasta, canned veggies (be careful to choose cans with a BPA-free liner,) fruits, and beans. Rice and other grains are also great pantry stock up options. And here the store or generic brands can often be a great deal, especially when you can get organic.
You obviously want to avoid dented or damaged cans or packages, and keep an eye out for the best by/use by date. Another thing to keep an eye out for is sodium and other preservatives. In my opinion, the fewer ingredients, the better. And just say no to those over-priced sugar cereals and snacks.
Another tip is to try to stock up on these products once a month and keep an eye out for coupons for the stuff you regularly buy. Only buy what your family will eat. There’s no point on stocking up on cream of asparagus soup if it’s just going to take up space in your pantry. (And be aware of the sodium content, if cream of asparagus soup happens to be your thing.)
Canned and dry goods can be a great deal if you know how to shop for them. Just like anything else!
Last but not least, the Checkout Lane
This is where the grocery store has its highest markup on products. From magazines to candy, lip balm to quarter machine toys, the checkout area of the grocery store has purpose beyond just getting your groceries bagged and sending you on your way.
And that is? To get you to spend more money.
Do yourself a favor. Just say no to the junk at the registers. Subscribe to your favorite magazine for under $10 a year versus $5.00 a pop at the checkout stand. Focus on getting your groceries loaded up, your coupons out and payment method ready. Double check your list to be sure you didn’t forget anything.
…and don’t forget to double check your receipt on the way out!
Whew! There you have it, an in-depth, comprehensive guide to shopping the grocery store. In Part I we discussed pitfalls and setups that are in place with the intent to get you spending unplanned dollars. Part II covered my own list-making strategies, as well as some of my favorite tips and tricks for savings and time management when shopping. And Part III, we covered how to get the most out of your grocery shopping experience.
Want more? Check out this free printable guide to navigating the grocery store, and getting the most for your money.
Thanks for your time, friend J