Friday, February 4, 2011

Grocery Shopping

I just got back from a grocery shopping trip, so I thought the topic would make a good post. (Note: I've been working on this post for almost a week now, so I've been to the store about five times since!)

I remember going grocery shopping with my parents often while I was growing up. We'd frequently go after church on Sunday (just like everyone else, it seemed), and always to the regional grocery chain in our area. Both of my parents would take my two younger siblings and me, but usually only one parent would go at a time. I'm sure we made them both miserable as the three of us would beg for every sugar-coated "non-food" that we came across, but my parents remained judicious and only gave in some of the time. Money for groceries never seemed to be an issue, so our cart was typically filled nearly full by the end of the trip. However, my mom used to clip coupons when I was very young, and there were a few things my parents would only buy when they were on sale (such as strawberries or yogurt), so food prices did affect our diet somewhat. We'd stroll down every aisle unless we were certain there was nothing in it we needed (i.e., the dog food aisle), and the whole trip probably took around an hour and a half.

We didn't buy organic, but I'm not even sure there was organic food available when I was a kid. We typically would buy some fresh fruit staples like bananas, apples, and oranges, but fresh vegetables were a little more uncommon. Sometimes we would get carrots or celery, and I think my mom would usually have a tomato on hand, but not much else. My mom was slightly more concerned about healthy eating (and subsequently enjoyed it more) than my dad, so I think she was usually the one buying the fresh produce.

Most of our meat was bought prepackaged, but our grocery store was (and still is) better than most about purchasing from reputable, local sources. It had a pretty good meat counter, and we would occasionally buy steaks or bacon wrapped chicken from them. We never bought fish though, or really any seafood. I don't think my parents really liked it (or perhaps didn't know much about cooking it), but my mom buys a lot more fish now.

We always bought white bread, so there is this special place in my heart that will always love it, even though I know I shouldn't eat it. We bought whole milk when I was younger, but switched to 2% once my siblings and I were older. I think at one point we tried to switch to 1%, but no one liked it so we went back to 2% (Though if my husband would drink it, I'd switch back to whole!). The rest of our cart was filled with "non-food" items like Cap'n Crunch, Pringles, and Pop-Tarts.

While we're on the subject of my grandmother this week, I went shopping with her a handful of times too. She shopped at the same chain as my parents for her big weekly trip, and bought much of the same things (except minus a lot of the kiddie food and in smaller amounts). When she needed to grab one or two things, however, she went to the family grocer about a block from her house.

I remember my grandmother would take my hand and we'd walk together down the street to the store. The clerks were all very friendly and knew my grandmother by name and chatted with her while she did her shopping. The store was about the size of the food section in a convenience store, and packed full of food.  They also did a lot of butchering and so my grandmother may have gotten her meat here, but I can't remember for sure. The butchering was what eventually caused them to close, because the state made some law that lumped their butchering in with the big commercial butcher businesses and required them to have a different refrigeration system that was too big and too costly for their store. Hundreds, if not thousands, of locals protested the law and begged for them to make an exception, but their pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears, so one of the last of the family grocers in the area was forced to close.

Once I started shopping for myself, I shopped much the same way my parents did. I'd go to the same grocery chain and go down every aisle until my cart was full. I don't have as much food money as my parents, so I've been more judicious about my food selection. I try to pay attention to sales and won't buy a lot of things when they're not on sale. I've also become more interested in local, humane, and organic food, so I try to buy it when I can. This is not always easy, because sometimes it is astronomically more expensive than the regular stuff. For example, the chicken breasts I like to buy are antibiotic and hormone free, but it can cost up to $7.99/lb. The regular chicken breasts are often $1.99/lb. when they're on sale. It's hard to justify spending four times the amount, and so my husband will usually win out and we'll get the cheaper, regular chicken. But when there's only a dollar or two difference, I'll usually get the better chicken instead.

More recently, I've begun shopping at the local co-operative. I paid a $60 one-time membership fee (that I can get back at any time), and I am now a share-holder of this grocery store. They buy lots of seasonal produce and meat from local, organic farmers, they bake most of the bread they sell, and offer a lot of other healthy and "healthy" foods. The share-holders get to vote on what gets put on the shelves, so since I live in a very liberal, mid-sized Midwestern college town, there are many dedicated individuals who ensure honest, wholesome food is available.

This past week, I did the majority of my shopping at the co-op. I didn't make a list, but I did have a goal: To stay on the perimeter of the store. Michael Pollan has said that in most grocery stores, "real food" is always on the perimeter of the store (p. 157, In Defense of Food), and all the other "food" is in the middle. The one striking error to this is that nearly always the baking supply aisle (with flour, sugar, spices, etc) is always a center aisle. Olive oil is also mixed in with the dressing and what not, but most of those things are not needed on every trip, so I will let this factual error slide. Anyway, I successfully accomplished this goal on my trip. Here is what I bought and where I bought it in the store:

I began in the produce section, which is right in front of the main entrance. I chose to use a basket instead of a cart because I'm much less likely to buy too much food (However, I am probably more likely to over stuff the basket beyond what is easy to carry). The co-op sometimes has Fair Trade bananas (my previous trip they were just organic, but most of the time they get fair trade), so I grabbed four bananas. My husband is not a huge banana eater, but we both like them in smoothies when we make them; I usually grab four so that we'll each eat two before they turn brown. Cilantro and avocados were both on sale and I've been wanting to try to make guacamole, so I bought two avocados and a cilantro bunch. Navel oranges were on sale, so I bought one, and I decided I wanted to try a tangelo, so I bought one of those as well. We went through the red potatoes I bought last week, so I bought a few more this week. Blueberries were still on sale, but we had a whole container at home, so I skipped them this week.

Next I walked past the juice along the edge because it is sooo expensive (about $7-8 for a smallish container of real fruit juice). I got to the eggs and dairy next. The grocery store I usually go to has free-range, antibiotic free chicken eggs available from a local Mennonite farm, and the co-op also has these available. This time, I realized, they also have an organic version. It was a dollar extra per dozen, but I decided to go for it. I bought a small container of Greek yogurt last week and enjoyed it in my smoothies, so I bought a larger container this week. I was out of 2% milk at home, so I bought a quart of organic, grass-fed 2% milk. Lately, I haven't been drinking as much milk, so I decided to get the quart instead of the half gallon because my milk was going bad before I'd finish it.

I turned the corner and walked past the wine selection (which I'll save for another day, I'm sure) and headed for the meat counter. The co-op offers 100% grass-fed beef, which is hard to find without going directly through a local farmer. I had to double check because the sign only said "grass fed" and all cows are grass fed...until they reach the feedlot. Michael Pollan says we need to look for signs that say 100% grass fed, but the meat counter guy assured me it meant 100%, so I bought 2 lbs. ground beef and a chuck roast (one of my husband's favorite meals to cook!). I also bought a whole chicken, raised cage-free without antibiotics an hormones, etc.

Then I turned the corner again and found the bread area. I bought a small loaf of 100% whole wheat and some 100% whole wheat rolls.

I then reached the front of the store and checked out. The whole trip took about 20 minutes and cost me $57.20, which is much less than I typically spend at the grocery store (although I've been going weekly to the co-op instead of every three weeks or so to the regular grocery store).

All in all a success, but the co-op does have a few things missing from it. I had to go to the regular grocery store, and unfortunately Wal-Mart, to buy supplies for the cake-off (more on that later), and to get a few things my husband insists he can't live without. But as of right now, I'm willing to break down my shopping into multiple trips, so I think this will work.

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