Shopping Strategies

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One of the most frustrating parts about trying out new recipes is spending a fortune on the ingredients. How many times have you thought, "I could have eaten out for this much money". These shopping strategies will assure that you won't. Although cookbooks often quote "only 40¢ a serving!", the check you write at the supermaker often says $40. If you have a good supermarket and can use all of these strategies you can make any meal in this book for a few dollars. ($2-$5, even in the most expensive grocery area of the country, Washington, DC.)

The Too Easy Gourmet cookbook contains useful shopping strategies such as Forget Unit Pricing, Ask, Salad Bar, Bulk Foods, Break Packages, Stock Up - NOT!, Be Clever, and Shop "Off-Peak" .

Forget Unit Pricing

The fact that you are a smart consumer is probably costing you money. If you need milk for a recipe, a pint costs about $4 per gallon while a gallon cost about $2.75 per gallon, so generally shoppers opt for the larger sizes. However if you throw out the milk after only using a pint (which is often the case), you are paying up to $20 a gallon for milk! Always buy the smallest unit of product you will use. It will be fresh and cost less in the long run, especially if you don't cook often. For example, if you are making the Fettucine Alfredo, you may be better off buying a half pint of milk from the vending machine at work for 35¢ ( $5.60 per gallon) than making a trip to the market for a gallon of milk that will go bad in a week.

Ask

Grocery stores assume most people are cooking for 4-6 people (as inaccurate as that is). Therefore they package meats (chicken, lamb, etc.) for the convenience of those shoppers. That's why chicken breasts are packed in 4's and 6's. Grocers are more than happy to repackage meat in single packs if you ask. For example if you need one chicken breast, ring the bell, hand the butcher the four pack and ask, "Can I have just one of these?" 9 out of 10, will say "sure" with a smile. The the tenth will say, "You bought that book! We are going to have to start putting out more meat prepackaged for one." You can also ask for just a few slices of deli meat, cheese, or small amounts of ground beef or fish.

Salad Bar

This is a favorite among fans of Too Easy Gourmet. Many supermarkets now have Salad Bars. This is a great place to get precut, prewashed, ready to use ingredients. For example, if you need 1 cup of broccoli florets for the Sesame Broccoli recipe, get it from the salad bar. At about $2 per pound it will cost about 16¢, and be ready to use for the recipe. Other wise, you'll have to buy a whole broccoli at 80¢ per pound and spend $1. Additionally, you have to wash it, trim it and throw out the 50% of the broccoli (the heavy stem) that is unedible. And you'll have leftover.

Onions, mushrooms, tofu, orange slices, vegetable oil and a variety of other ingredients are usually available at good supermarket salad bars.

Bulk Foods

The author's favorite trick. Many large supermarkets now have an section that sells "bulk foods". These are top quality foods that are sold by the pound in barrels rather than packaged. Since the packaging is a large part of the price you pay for many products, consumers gain by buying out of barrels by weight with out the packaging. (You scoop the product into plastic bags and mark them. Savings can be up to 200%). The products range from cookies to flour and from spices to dog bones. This is great for single cooks, especially in the area of spices. A bottle of spice (e.g. - oregano) stays fresh only about 3 months in a cool dry place, (Yes, check your cabinet!) and costs about $2.50 per bottle. At bulk food you can buy 1 Tablespoon of fresh spice for about 4¢! Grocers keep the products fresh and clean. (Then they get to throw them out instead of you.) Now you understand why when you have bought four spices for a recipe your bill is usually so high. You are already paying $10 in spices. With this strategy you pay about 20¢ and everybody wins; you, the grocer, and the company that makes spices.

Break Packages

Most supermarkets permit you to break egg packages in half so you only buy six. A dozen eggs will stay fresh two weeks so why buy 12 if you will only use 4 in two weeks. Same goes for butter. Grocers usually allow you to buy 1 stick rather than four. We already discussed meats in the section called "Ask" above.

Stock up - NOT

Most cookbooks, tell you to plan your meals a week in advance (yea, right) and give you a list of things to stock up on. This is not practical for most people who work and have busy schedules. You are much better off keeping this book in a convenient place (in your office, car, or daytimer) and on the days when you do want to cook, shopping for what you need for that day, (and one or two other days if you are sure you will cook.) That way ingredients will be fresh and you'll have no waste. (Also, if it turns out you don't like a particular recipe your investment has been nil.) Stock only things that are very nonperishable, such as flour, dry pasta and liquors which are great for making sauces. Generally, avoid freezing. It kills flavors.

Be Clever

Think. If you have pasta, cheese and flour at home all you need for Fettucine Alfredo is milk. The vending machine at work will do it and you don't even have to stop at the market. Do you need 1 T of soy sauce? How many are stuffed in your top drawer from the take out Chinese meals you've had this week? There are many non-traditional places you can get ingredients for dinner. The left over white rice that you never eat that comes with the Chinese take out can be used the next day for Fried rice or California Rolls. At all costs, avoid running around to multiple markets to get ingredients. (Many cookbooks recommend you first go to the fish market, then the grocer, then the butcher...who has time?)

Shop "Off-Peak"

Finally, try to shop "off-peak". If you live in the suburbs and commute home from downtown everybody in your town will be at the supermarket at 5:30 pm. Is there a grocer who is reasonable near downtown where you can stop first while everybody else rushes for the home market? Can you shop at lunch, at break or in the morning when the supermarket is so empty you could bowl? I especially like the morning because you can pick up some fruit for your most important meal; breakfast at the same time.
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Ben Levitan, benlev@aol.com

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