I haven’t been able to look at kombucha the same way again after reading Kelly Maclean’s hilarious article about shopping at Whole Foods: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-maclean/surviving-whole-foods_b_3895583.html. Many of her descriptions ring true, especially after my experience working at a food co-op – in Seattle, no less (prime territory for passive aggressive shoppers having nervous breakdowns about the way you packed their avocado in their bike bag).
Maclean definitely has a point; stores like Whole Foods can have a paralyzing effect on your bank statement, with all their promises of salvation in the guise of exorbitantly priced kale chips. But just because you’re in a natural foods store doesn’t mean you have to spend $313 on groceries. Avoid buying the $10 bag of hand-pressed artisanal crackers positioned strategically near the cash registers – eating the whole thing in attempt to cope with the trauma of having just navigated the supplements aisle will make you feel equally as miserable as downing a bag of Lay’s from Safeway.
Instead, go into grocery shopping with a game plan. Take advantage of the bulk section, and try to plan your meals as much as you can, stretching ingredients accordingly (if you know you want to roast chicken one day, make soup with the bones the next). I wrote an article for this month’s issue of the co-op’s newspaper, The Sound Consumer, about budget-friendly strategies for grocery shopping. Though some tips are specific to the co-op itself, most are applicable to any natural foods store: www.pccnaturalmarkets.com/sc/1401/pcc-budget.html
Regardless of the type of budget I’m on, my priority is always buying quality produce. Here are more tips on cost-effective ways to buy and use produce, building off some of the points raised in the article:
1. Go with what’s in season.
Fruit and vegetables that are in season generally cost less. Here’s a useful state-by-state guide to growing seasons in North America: http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?id=Seasonalfoodguides. Consider buying large quantities at a discount, if possible. During the winter, root vegetables like potatoes, squash, and onions will keep for relatively long periods of time. And in the summer, you can freeze extra fresh berries and sliced fruit for later months – when frozen at their peak, they’ll taste better than the anemic-looking versions sold during wintertime.
2. Prioritize what to buy organic.
If you can’t afford to buy all organic produce, decide where you can get by with conventional alternatives. The Environmental Working Group has identified the fruits and vegetables that are most and least contaminated by pesticides, the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php. You can use these lists as a guide to help you determine where to splurge on organic items. It makes sense to spring for organic berries and other fruits with edible skins, rather than onions. Of course, this reasoning doesn’t address the environmental rationale behind buying organic, but if you’re a student on a strict budget it’s a good way to start.
3. Reduce food waste.
Once you’ve spent money on produce, make sure you store it properly. No matter how cheap something may be, it’s money lost if it goes bad before you get the chance to cook it.
Store produce in the crisper, and only wash before eating or cooking. Avoid storing fruits and vegetables together, since fruits often emit high amounts of ethylene, a gas which speeds up the ripening process, making nearby vegetables spoil faster. Keep onions, potatoes, and squash in cool, dark containers outside of the fridge, but take care to separate onions and potatoes – onions encourage potatoes to ripen more quickly. Tomatoes shouldn’t be refrigerated either. Fresh herbs like cilantro can be stored in a glass half full of water in the fridge, with an optional plastic bag on top. Or, if not used regularly, they can be divided in smaller portions and frozen in ice cube trays for later use. For a comprehensive list of how to store a variety of fruit and vegetables, visit: http://www.thekitchn.com/a-guide-to-storing-fruits-vegetables-tip-roundup-176308.
Also ensure that you’re using all the edible parts of your vegetables. Tara Duggan’s book Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable is a great resource: http://www.food52.com/blog/8140-tara-duggan-on-root-to-stalk-cooking. Use beet greens in a frittata, or sauté with sausage. Stir fry broccoli stems, or incorporate them into salads. Save the potato skins discarded from a recipe to make crispy chips with bacon. And, most importantly, make your own stocks with bits of discarded produce, like corn cobs, leek greens, fennel ends, and onion skins. Look towards Louisiana for inspiration in stretching your ingredients as far as possible: one of the essential foundations of Cajun & Creole cuisine is fish stock, made with shrimp and crawfish shells. Once you get the hang of it, scraping by with scraps will become gastronomic genius.
Share any other tips below!